Russian History


The Separatism Question

In the first half of the 1990s, observers speculated about the possibility that some of the jurisdictions in the federation might emulate the former Soviet republics and demand full independence (see Minority Peoples and Their Territories, ch. 4). Several factors militate against such an outcome, however. Russia is more than 80 percent ethnic Russian, and most of the thirty-two ethnically based jurisdictions are demographically dominated by ethnic Russians, as are all of the territories and oblasts. Many of the subnational jurisdictions are in the interior of Russia, meaning that they could not break away without joining a bloc of seceding border areas, and the economies of all such jurisdictions were thoroughly integrated with the national economy in the Soviet system. The 1993 constitution strengthens the official status of the central government in relation to the various regions, although Moscow has made significant concessions in bilateral treaties. Finally, most of the differences at the base of separatist movements are economic and geographic rather than ethnic.

Advocates of secession, who are numerous in several regions, generally appear to be in the minority and are unevenly dispersed. Some regions have even advocated greater centralization on some matters. By 1996 most experts believed that the federation would hold together, although probably at the expense of additional concessions of power by the central government. The trend is not toward separatism so much as the devolution of central powers to the localities on trade, taxes, and other matters.

Some experts observe that the Russian republics pressing claims for greater subunit rights fall into three groups. The first is composed of those jurisdictions most vociferous in pressing ethnic separatism, including Chechnya and perhaps other republics of the North Caucasus, and the Republic of Tyva. The second group consists of large, resource-rich republics, including Karelia, Komi, and Sakha (Yakutia). Their differences with Moscow center on resource control and taxes rather than demands for outright independence. A third, mixed group consists of republics along the Volga River, which straddle strategic water, rail, and pipeline routes, possess resources such as oil, and include large numbers of Russia's Muslim and Buddhist populations. These republics include Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Mari El, Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Udmurtia.

In addition to the republics, several other jurisdictions have lobbied for greater rights, mainly on questions of resource control and taxation. These include Sverdlovsk Oblast, which in 1993 proclaimed itself an autonomous republic as a protest against receiving fewer privileges in taxation and resource control than the republics, and strategically vital Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory on the Pacific coast, whose governor in the mid-1990s, Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, defied central economic and political policies on a number of well-publicized issues.

Some limited cooperation has occurred among Russia's regional jurisdictions, and experts believe there is potential for even greater coordination. Eight regional cooperation organizations have been established, covering all subnational jurisdictions except Chechnya: the Siberian Accord Association; the Central Russia Association; the Northwest Association; the Black Earth Association; the Cooperation Association of North Caucasus Republics, Territories, and Oblasts; the Greater Volga Association; the Ural Regional Association; and the Far East and Baikal Association. The Federation Council formally recognized these interjurisdictional organizations in 1994. Expansion of the organizations' activities is hampered by economic inequalities among their members and by inadequate interregional transportation infrastructure, but in 1996 they began increasing their influence in Moscow.

Regional and ethnic conflicts have encouraged proposals to abolish the existing subunits and resurrect the tsarist-era guberniya , or large province, which would incorporate several smaller subunits on the basis of geography and population rather than ethnic considerations. Russian ultranationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovskiy have been joined in supporting this proposal by some officials of the national Government and oblast and territory leaders who resent the privileges of the republics. Some have called for these new subunits to be based on the eight interregional economic associations.