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To dissolve, or not to dissolve: what makes Russia’s indigenous movements suspicious of re-federalisation proposals?

There has been a great amount of talk recently about the potential “re-federalisation” of Russia. Seen as a safer option compared to a potential collapse, reform has drawn support from people both inside and outside the country. Despite this, such an approach ultimately overlooks the concerns of ethnic minority activists, who fear that re-federalisation would only support the status quo.

October 9, 2023 - Dor Shabashewitz - Articles and Commentary

Re-federalisation of Russia

Residents of the Republic of Bashkortostan demonstrate to protect Kushtau mountain. Photo: Evgeni Romanov / Shutterstock

In their recent article for New Eastern Europe, Ukrainian analysts Dmytro Zolotukhin and Valerii Pekar proposed a “re-federalisation” of Russia as a way to avoid its collapse, a prospect they find worrisome. This approach is not new – in fact, it dominates the discourse among the supporters of Russia’s mainstream opposition. While many foreign scholars and journalists discuss a potential dissolution of the Russian Federation, Russia’s own opposition leaders consider it extremely unlikely. At the same time, they keep saying how bad the idea is, as if they fear it. Such opinions have been voiced by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Maxim Katz and Alexei Navalny’s team members.

Western researchers and policymakers are not the only ones talking about the dissolution of Russia as a realistic and possibly positive outcome of the ongoing war and instability. Activists speaking on behalf of Russia’s indigenous minorities rightfully claim their ethnic groups are unfairly overrepresented among those sent to fight in Ukraine. Combined with the decades-long dissent against Russia’s over-centralisation, unfair budget redistribution, assimilationist policies and socially normalised racism, this led to a surge in secessionist demands. My earlier article focused on the Lower Volga region provides a detailed overview of several emerging pro-independence movements.

“The rhetoric about a future disintegration of Russia is almost never based on facts or thorough analysis,” claims Vladimir Milov of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in his analytical note for the German think tank LibMod. While Milov himself is not the most well-known opposition figure, my experience shows that the views expressed in his article are shared by many others and perceived as common sense by a majority of Slavic Russian anti-war speakers. This is why I choose to focus on Milov’s arguments, addressing not just his personal opinions but also similar talking points I have heard from numerous other members of the self-proclaimed “mainstream liberal opposition”.

According to Milov, most people engaged in discussions about Russia’s potential breakup compare the current situation to the years preceding the USSR’s collapse. In his opinion, the two should not be compared at all because of what he calls the “drastically reduced role of ethnic minorities” in today’s Russia. Milov proceeds to explain that “most of Russia’s 21 ethnic republics and four autonomous districts are such in name only, and are, in fact, dominated by ethnic Russians.” In his eyes, only those republics where the indigenous populations make up a substantial majority have a viable chance of forming new sovereign states. Milov does not explain the basis for this claim.

According to the 1989 Soviet census, only 39.7 per cent of the Kazakh SSR’s residents were ethnic Kazakhs. This did not prevent Kazakhstan from becoming independent just two years later and quickly transforming into a nation-state, with over 70 per cent of its citizens identifying as ethnically Kazakh as of 2021. It is not clear from Milov’s article what makes a similar scenario impossible for the Russian republics of Altai, Bashkortostan, Buryatia or Mari El, where the share of their respective “titular ethnicities” also lies between 30 and 40 per cent.

What really is “forced Russification”?

One of the pro-dissolution arguments addressed by Milov is what he calls “Russia’s hidden ethnic diversity”. Ultimately, he considers this idea a myth. There is little evidence, he writes, that the large share of ethnic Russians is the result of the “forced Russification” of other peoples. Milov insists that there has been no “forced Russification” since the 1990s. He claims that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, ethnic minorities are, in fact, overrepresented among the autonomous republics’ elites at the expense of ethnic Russians.

“Bashkortostan has effectively been ruled by ethnic Bashkirs since 1957, despite them being only the third largest local ethnicity up until the 2002 census, when they overtook ethnic Russians and landed on second place,” writes Milov. While technically true, this claim ignores the fact that most of these Bashkir leaders were fiercely loyal to the Kremlin and helped it implement policies designed in Moscow. These policies are viewed as anti-Bashkir by many local activists. Milov seems to suggest that the ethnic identity of a politician correlates intrinsically with their views and decisions. Besides being a borderline racist oversimplification, this assumption is simply wrong.

The idea that members of ethnic minority groups are unfairly overrepresented among those in charge is a common talking point among Russian ethno-nationalists. Right-wing ideologues such as Dmitry Galkovsky and Yegor Prosvirnin have developed a complex conspiracy theory, which implies that Russia is ruled by noviops – an alleged ethnically mixed and innately Russophobic elite class supposedly created by the early Soviets. They claim that noviops use minority rights rhetoric to exploit and suppress the Slavic Russian population. Prosvirnin has described the ethnic Russians of Russia as an “oppressed majority”, comparing them to the Black population of apartheid-era South Africa.

Milov may not be an actual supporter of this conspiracy – but some of his arguments are very much in line with it, and this is enough for many anti-colonial activists to perceive him as a Russian nationalist and, thus, an enemy of their cause. Unsurprisingly, the head of the pro-independence Oirat-Kalmyk People’s Congress, Batyr Boromangnayev, talked of “imperialist-minded quasi-liberals” when commenting on Milov’s article.

Perhaps most importantly, Milov’s argument about the alleged lack of “forced Russification” under Putin is easily contradicted by the social reality of life in Russia’s autonomous republics. For Milov, Russification is just one thing – an ethnic Russian person being in charge of an indigenous area. For pro-independence groups such as the Free Nations League, Russification is a much more pervasive concept. For example, it includes regional language lessons being downgraded to non-compulsory, once-a-week classes as a part of the Kremlin’s “unity through uniformity” language policy.

More generally, the term “Russification” refers to non-Russians giving up their culture, language and identity and eventually becoming Russians, voluntarily or not. Although seemingly unknown to Milov and other members of the “mainstream liberal opposition”, this process is very much a thing in many of Russia’s regions.

This is evident from looking at census results from different years. In 2002, there were 451,000 speakers of Meadow Mari, a Finno-Ugric language of the Middle Volga. In 2010, they numbered about 356,000. By 2021, their number had dropped to 259,000. Neither migration nor low birth rates could explain drops that significant. What is happening is that more and more Mari people are choosing to declare Russian as their mother tongue.

Why is this happening? Lack of adequate language instruction and career prospects for minority language speakers, as well as widespread negative stereotypes that portray Mari speakers as “uneducated village bumpkins”, are among the main reasons. Moscow-centric opposition members may consider this a non-problem, but Mari activists have a different opinion. For them, Russification is not just real; it is a question of life and death.

In certain other republics such as Karelia and Udmurtia, it is not just the share of indigenous language speakers that is dropping so sharply. The number of people simply identifying with their ancestral ethnicities, even if they do not speak their respective languages, is falling just as quickly. Between 2010 and 2021, the numbers of people identifying as ethnically Karelian and Udmurt have dropped by 47 and 30 per cent, respectively.

A Tatar activist still remaining in Russia and not disclosing his real name for safety reasons explains that he views sovereignty as the only way to keep the Tatar language and culture alive. In his words, the Russian state has shown that it has no interest in helping preserve them, no matter who is in charge. As the “mainstream liberal opposition” either ignores the issue of Russification or even approves of it, he sees no reason to support its members over Putin’s current government.

This sentiment is fairly common among regional anti-colonial activists: “Authoritarian or self-proclaimed democrat, they are all the same to us. They are ethnic Russians who benefit from their privilege as the majority population. They are unable or unwilling to comprehend the problems faced by us, the minorities.”

This is why most ethnic movements that emerged after the war in Ukraine broke out are highly suspicious of the “mainstream Russian opposition” and unwilling to cooperate with it. They fear that a regime change in Moscow will not change anything for their cultures and languages as long as their regions remain parts of Russia.

Are referendums viable?

Two months ago, Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky addressed the growing secessionist movements in an interview with Holod. He said he considered any demands for independence foolish and counterproductive. He explained that a post-Putin, democratic Russia should resolve such issues through referendums. Only if a Russian government-controlled referendum showed that a majority of a republic’s population supported secession would Khodorkovsky consider accepting their choice – while still calling such a choice irrational and pointless. In any other scenario, Khodorkovsky said he would advocate for the use of military force to stop secession.

Ethnic minority activists such as Ruslan Gabbasov of the Bashkir National Political Center see numerous problems in Khodorkovsky’s approach. Threatening secessionists with military aggression only reminds them of the way Moscow handled the Chechen case in the 1990s and 2000s, which certainly does not help build ties between the Slavic and non-Slavic opposition groups.

As for referendums, Gabbasov claims they may not be a viable option in the current situation because of the extreme imbalance in access to information and campaigning between the “stay” and “leave” parties. Between the “eternal unity” of Russians and Bashkirs being taught together as a part of the Russocentric school curriculum and pro-independence speakers being silenced, jailed or forced to emigrate, it is clear that the “stay” party enjoys disproportionate influence when it comes to potential voters’ minds, making the whole idea of a referendum unfair.

One more issue with the referendum proposition is that Khodorkovsky insists that every resident of a republic should have the right to vote on secession. While seemingly fair, this approach has been criticised by numerous minority rights groups. They claim that recent Slavic Russian settlers from elsewhere in the country should not get to decide on the future of indigenous, historically non-Russian lands they happen to reside in.

This brief analysis shows that members of Russia’s mainstream opposition groups and increasingly popular ethnic minority movements are largely suspicious of each other and unwilling to cooperate. Foreign scholars, reporters and policymakers should treat them as separate actors despite anti-Putin and anti-war stances being equally prevalent among both parties.

For now, the animosity between culturally Russian and non-Russian opposition groups is largely confined to internet debates and conferences in exile, but it may have long-reaching real-life consequences in the event of greater instability in Russia. Those advocating for a re-federalisation of Russia instead of its dissolution should note that this proposal goes against the interests of multiple ethnic minority movements. The Soviet Union was technically a federation. Today’s Russia, too, is one – it is even in its official name. For Tatar, Mari, Kalmyk, Bashkir and other activists, it is clear that the formal designation of a federation has not helped them preserve their languages and cultures and enjoy actual autonomy in the past. They have little reason to believe that yet another rebranding of Russia as a federation would change this.

After this article was finished, Vladimir Milov talked to Holod, just like Khodorkovsky did two months earlier. The talk show host asked Milov what he thought about the right of Russia’s ethnic minorities to self-determination. It is only fair to mention that Milov said nothing against it per se. He called secession a “complicated process” but a reasonable one if supported by a majority. Just like in his article addressed above, Milov claimed that even a hypothetical secession of all of Russia’s autonomous republics would not be enough to talk of a total dissolution. Most of Russia would still stay part of the same country, he said, and he would be satisfied with that. While many of Milov’s previous arguments were questionable, he does not seem to consider the territorial integrity of Russia an intrinsic value worth fighting for. Nevertheless, he remains reluctant to get in touch with ethnic minority movements, viewing them as relatively unimportant and their demands as unrealistic.

Dor Shabashewitz is a Russia-born Israeli journalist with a background in anthropology. He covers ethnic minority rights and regional politics in the Lower Volga and Central Asia for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. He worked as a researcher at the RAS Institute for Linguistic Studies and conducted extensive fieldwork in Astrakhan’s Kazakh and Nogai rural communities before he was forced to leave the country by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2021.

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