An idea so silly even Mark Adomanis has to reject it
This article originally appeared at Russia! magazine
In my wanderings on the internet I recently stumbled across a truly bizarre article that postulated the growing threat of something about which I had never previously heard: “Siberian separatism.” And, sure enough, only a week or two later, strikingly similar claims were advanced by The Economist in its latest entry in an ongoing series on Russia’s imminent collapse.
The idea that Siberia is going to go its own separate way is the type of seemingly plausible theory that could only be advanced by someone who lacks any grounding in, or specific knowledge about, the Russian Federation. Why do I say that? Well because for a piece ostensibly about “separatism” the piece doesn’t seem to understand what that term actually means in the context of real-world Russian politics.
So, first, some definitions. What do we usually mean when we talk about “separatism” in the Russian Federation? Well in literally every book and article that I have read the traditional fear is that the non-Russian ethnic minorities will rebel against what they see as a vehicle of Russian ethnic chauvinism and national repression, i.e. the central government. In other words, minority groups will follow a well-established playbook and attempt to establish states in which they are the majority. So Chechens would fight to create an independent, sovereign Chechnya, Tatars would do the same in Tatarstan, etc.
These fears are of varying degrees of plausibility: not all “national minorities” are created equal. Some groups, particularly in the North Caucasus, have essentially never reconciled themselves to Russian domination. Other ethnic groups have a long history of loyal service to the Russian state and seem to present no significant challenge to Moscow. It would take a pretty active imagination, for example, to imagine a relatively wealthy, well-educated area like Tatarstan falling in thrall to separatism.
But the idea that non-Russian groups might, at some point, rebel against “foreign” imposition is all too reasonable: history has not been overly kind to multi-ethnic federations and it’s entirely possible, if still rather unlikely, that Russia could one day follow the path of Yugoslavia.
In recent years I have also heard increasingly plausible theories in which Russian ethnic nationalists force Moscow to abandon control of non-ethnically-Russian territories. Alexey Navalny’s famous slogan “stop feeding the Caucasus” is one example of a growing trend of anti-minority sentiment. If left unchecked, it is also easy to imagine how these political forces could force the Russian Federation to shrink, to become something more akin to a European nation state than a land empire.
But what no one ever had in mind when talking about “separatism” was the idea that areas dominated by ethnic Russians would rebel against Moscow to carve out their own independent territories. Until I read that Newsweek article I had literally never heard anyone make that argument because….well, because it just doesn’t make any sense.
What is the idea, that Russian nationalists are going to rebel against themselves? I’ve heard of “Russia for the Russians.” It’s a scary slogan, but an intelligible one. Ethnic nationalism is a potent force.
But what on earth would the slogan in Siberia be: “we need another Russia for the Russians who happen to live in this particular area and who are different from the ethnic Russians in other regions?” What historical parallel is there for that, for a part of the country that is overwhelmingly inhabited by the dominant ethnicity to rebel against the national government?
On a demographic basis Siberia is the most Russian of any part of the country! National minorities and “guest workers” from Central Asia make up a smaller percentage of the population there than virtually anywhere else. If there is any region that is unlikely to secede from the Russian Federation it would have to be Siberia because the ethnic bases for separatism are not present.
This is not to diminish the very real and very serious threat of separatism in today’s Russian Federation. There are very substantial parts of Russia where the emergence of full-fledged separatist movements isn’t some kind of abstract hypothetical but an already lived reality: Russian troops have died fighting separatists in the North Caucasus on-and-off for the past twenty odd years. Baring divine intervention, the low-level conflict in the Caucasus between separatists and Federal forces seems likely to continue for as long as anyone can forecast.
But when talking about separatism you need to have an awareness of the particulars of the Russian Federation in 2015, and particularly the ethnic makeup of the population. Areas where Russians are a small and dwindling minority are likely hotspots of separatist sentiment. Areas where Russians constitute an overwhelming majority of the population are not.