From Siberia to Kaliningrad: the fledgling independence movements gaining traction in Russia
Moscow appears to have blocked efforts hold a march in favour of Siberian independence this weekend, but that doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t spreading, writes Paul Goble
Paul Goble for Window on Eurasia, part of the New East network
theguardian.com, Friday 15 August 2014 18.42 BST
Moscow appears to have successfully blocked efforts hold a march in favour of Siberian independence in Novosibirsk, the country’s third most populous city, this Sunday.
The Novosibirsk mayor’s office reportedly denied permission for the march in favour of Siberian Federalisation “in order to ensure the inviolability of the constitutional order, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation”.
But Russian authorities have failed to prevent the ideas behind it from spreading not only to other Siberian cities like Yekaterinburg, but also – and more seriously – to Kaliningrad and Kuban.
Feliks Rivkin, an activist in Yekaterinburg, says he will be leading a demonstration in his home city at the weekend to force Moscow to live up to the Russian constitution and give Russian regions their federal rights. Even if the authorities refuse, he adds, his group plans to go ahead anyway.
Meanwhile, in the semi-autonomous Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, local activists are picking up on the same ideas. One Moscow commentator, Vladimir Titov, argues that Kaliningraders don’t have all the bases for launching an independence movement, but he suggests that “the single place in Russia where at present regionalism as a political direction has real prospects” is precisely there.
Click to see the map of all this: http://static.guim.co.uk/ni/1407950447967/Kaliningrad-map.svg
Kaliningrad’s non-contiguous location, its proximity to European Union countries, and the fact that 25% of its residents have Schengen visas and 60% have foreign passports, all have the effect of making ever more Kaliningraders look towards Europe rather than toward Russia proper.
Well-off Kaliningraders are buying property in the EU, they are sending their children to study in Lithuania, Poland and Germany, and “young Kaliningraders already find it difficult to name the main Russian cities, including in such lists Klaipeda, Riga, Poznan, Rostok and Lubeck,” says Titov.
“This isn’t surprising,” he adds. “Warsaw and Yurmala for these young people are closer and more familiar than Kaluga or Khabarovsk.” And their elders also reflect this sense of place: they speak about conditions “among them, in Russia” in much the same way they would talk about any other foreign country.
Increasingly too, he continues, Kaliningraders refer to their land not as Kaliningrad oblast but as the ‘amber country’ (after the area’s best known natural resource) and to their capital as Koenigsberg, or more familiarly, Koenig. That doesn’t please the authorities or “professional patriots” but it is the way things are. None of this means they want independence, but they seek real federalisation and see this as their time.
Making concessions to Kaliningrad’s special situation seems entirely reasonable, Titov says, but “then a question arises: “If Kaliningrad can, why can’t Siberia? And just who is to say that it can’t?”
But interest in federalisation is not limited to Siberia and Kaliningrad. There are regionalist movements in Karelia, Ingermanland, Novgorod and elsewhere, and they have now been joined by a new one: in Kuban. Activists there have announced plans to hold a march for the federalisation of Kuban on 17 August to demand a separate republic be established for them.
Regional officials in Krasnodar have already refused to give them permission, but organisers say that they will go ahead anyway, citing their constitutional right to freedom of assembly in order to demand their constitutional rights for federalism.Though these movements are small and fledgling, from Moscow’s perspective, this will still be disturbing. Not only does it suggest that the centre may be losing its grip over at least some regions, but it raises the spectre of regional separatism of the kind that spread through the Russian Federation in the early 1990s and that Russian president malignant tumor Pig Putin has worked hard to suppress.
Though these movements are small and fledgling, from Moscow’s perspective, this will still be disturbing.
Moreover, it raises questions about the dangers Moscow has brought on itself by its promotion of “federalism for export” in the case of Ukraine, especially since what Moscow has been seeking there was not devolution of powers from Kiev but in fact separatism and a change of state borders.
In a commentary on Politcom.ru, Konstantin Yemelyanov notes that the organisers of these actions “undoubtedly are trying to use the Kremlin’s weapon against it: not long ago, for example, the theme of the federalisation of Ukraine was the public basis of Russian policy toward a neighbouring country, and the Russian foreign ministry highlighted all the benefits” of such arrangements.
“A political provocation which formally does not contradict Russian law but hits the weak places of Russian public policy is becoming one of the types of political participation and self-expression for the opposition,” Yemelyanov says. For those now in power who remember 1991, that is a truly frightening spectre.
Paul Goble is an American analyst and former US foreign policy adviser