Staunton, January 8 – “Separatism was structured into the foundation of post-Soviet Russian statehood,” Sergey Markedonov argues, and consequently, it is “premature” to speak about “the completion” of the process that led to the destruction of the USSR and still shapes developments in the Russian Federation.
In a 4,000-word article in the current issue of “Russia in Global Affairs,” Markedonov, a Russian researcher who is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that it is thus far too soon to speak about an end to “disintegration” in Eurasia (www.globalaffairs.ru/number/Belovezhskoe-nasledie-15788
The “dramatic events” of the last two decades, he points out, underscore the reality that the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the real disappearance of Soviet statehood are not synonymous. Instead, over that period, there have been eight armed conflicts, the appearance of de facto states, border disputes and even border changes, ethnic conflicts, and regional tensions.
Given the unpredictability of ethno-political conflicts, Markedonov suggests, “it is difficult to predict” what will happen next in any region of the former Soviet space and where “the process of self-determination unleashed already at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika will stop.”
These problems are especially significant for Russia, he says, because it “considers itself the legal successor and in certain cases he continuation of the Soviet Union. It is the largest and most powerful, has politically unstable regions, underpopulated areas, and “a soft form of apartheid in which certan regions are considered ‘an internal abroad.’”
Markedonov notes that “the current federal system (and particularly its asymmetry) is viewed by many as a temporary phenomenon and not completely adequate for social and government tasks.” And such feelings, which show that “the Belovezhskaya trauma has not been completely cured,” contribute to fears of a repetition of 1991 but now within Russia itself.
Five factors condition the current situation. First, “post-Soviet Russia itself to a large extent arose as a separatist project, although that rhetoric has not been used for its legitimacy,” and consequently, this trend was built into the foundation of post-Soviet Russian statehood.”
Second, separatism has become much more widespread internationally over the last two decades. Not only did 15 states emerge in place of the USSR, eight in place of Yugoslavia, and two in place of Czechoslovakia, but both the West and Russia have “initiated the process of legitimating” breakaway states, the former in Kosovo and the latter in Abkhazia and South Osetia.
Third, Markedonov continues, “Russia itself created the precedent for the review of inter-republic borders on the space of the former Soviet Union,” a process that may have worked to Moscow’s benefit up to now but that carries with it significant “political risk” if it proceeds in the other direction.
Fourth, international markets, especially for raw materials like oil and gas, can change and put pressure on existing states because those who benefit from such natural resources and those on whose territory they are located are not the same. And fifth, it cannot be excluded that foreign powers will seek to weaken if not dismember Russia by promoting separatism.
Given these underlying problems and especially the challenge Chechnya presented in the 1990s, it is not surprising that Vladimir Putin was able to power his rise by his suppression of the Chechens and then to gain internationally by linking Moscow’s opposition to Chechen independence to the West’s concerns about international terrorism.
Because of the current Russian president’s efforts, Markedonov argues, “there are no powerful political trends which are insisting on secession for this or that region” in Russia today. But at the same time, there is “growing instability in the North Caucasus and the Volga region and the growth of Russian ethnic nationalism.”
The current instability in the North Caucasus “cannot be identified as a manifestation of separatism,” the researcher says. “Those who stand behind terrorist acts do not speak about the need for establishing independent national states,” and thus, it is possible to conclude that “ethnic nationalism in the North Caucasus has retreated” in the face of the rise of Islamism.
Nonetheless, Markedonov says, ethno-nationalism continues to play a role in the region in the case of the Circassians who are using Moscow’s plans for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to politicize their national aspirations by calling into question what Putin has declared will be a demonstration of Russia’s success in the North Caucasus.
Speaking of the Middle Volga, a region of vastly greater “strategic importance” to Moscow, the researcher says that Islamism has also spread calling into question the assumption of many that social and political developments there are fundamentally different than those in the North Caucasus.
(In his article, Markedonov focuses on Islamist influence in the Middle Volga and makes reference to but does not discuss in any detail the ethno-nationalist movements in the population and political leaderships of Tatarstan as well as in the five other non-Russian republics of that region.)
Markedonov devotes far more attention to the rise of what he called “the new Russian nationalism” or “Russian separatism,” the emergence of which he suggests represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation not from minorities from from “the ethnic majority,” all the more so because its ideas are promoted in the national media.
Like the non-Russians, however, this movement remains relatively poorly organized and without outstanding leaders. That makes it easier for the state to counter, Markedonov notes, but it also means that the authorities are not tracking developments in areas where new threats may grow and then burst out on the sccene.
Moreover, Markedonov argues, each of these trends has “its own specific history,” thus confronting Moscow with the kind of daunting diversity that it finds hard to confront. And that is all the more so when “the social relations [involved] are based not on institutions but on informal principles.”
“Consequently,” he concludes, “it is premature to speak about having overcome ‘the Belovezhskaya syndrom’ and the final formation [even] of a post-Soviet Russian state project.”