The behavior of the Russian authorities can routinely be described as “mirroring.” If the United States accuses Russia of intervening in last year’s presidential election, the Kremlin responds that Moscow had nothing to do with it and, on the contrary, other countries are interfering in Russian politics. So perhaps not surprisingly, this past June, the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) created a temporary commission to protect state sovereignty and prevent interference in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation (TASS, June 14). The commission intends to tackle not only the “hostile activity” of foreign states, but also deal with the “escalation of protest moods” inside Russia itself—activities the authorities regularly blame on the non-state media and non-governmental organizations (NGO).
Within weeks of being formed, the Federation Council commission’s members discussed a proposal to block foreign Russian-language media (TASS, June 28). And in July, a number of pro-Kremlin media outlets began publishing articles attacking various Russian regional movements for their demands for more self-government. Notably, one of the prevalent examples brought up repeatedly was that of the Ural Republic (a regional autonomy that existed briefly in 1993), which the recent articles accused of being “anti-Russian” and “pro-Western.”
For example, Ruslan Karmanov, a columnist with RIA Novosti, directly describes modern-day supporters of the Ural Republic as “separatists.” And he regrets that its proponents are “not criminalized.” Finally, he lauds the Chinese government for severely punishing every instance of struggle for regional self-government in that country (RIA Novosti, July 4). It is quite illustrative that the Russian Federation’s official news agency presents the unitary Chinese regime as an example for imitation.
The following day, another Russian news agency, REX, published an article on the same topic, and with the same harsh criticism (Iarex.ru, July 5). The author of the second article, Dmitry Egorchenkov, is the director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Forecasts of the Russian University of Peoples’ Friendship. If Karmanov only criticizes “separatist bloggers” and wishes for them the fate of Chinese prisoners, Yegorchenkov sees a deeper world conspiracy. In his view, the West is always dreaming of new strategies to “break up” Russia, and all Russian regionalists are thus foreign “agents of influence.” The head of the Ural Republic in 1993, Eduard Rossel, who was a typical Russian bureaucrat, would most certainly be surprised by such a description.
Obviously, for the authors of these publications, the Ural Republic is not a half-forgotten experience of the first years of post-Soviet Russia, but an actual and frightening prospect for the present. Pavel Luzin, a professor at Perm University, pushes back against such criticism in his historical look at the Ural Republic, which existed from July to November 1993: “There was no question of separatism [at the time]. Elites and citizens of the rich region wanted for themselves the same opportunities that citizens of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan had” (Afrerempire.info, July 7). Nonetheless, for pro-Kremlin Russian commentators and experts close to the authorities, the idealization of a unitary state has become ubiquitous; and in general, unitarism is now equated in Russia with state sovereignty. In such political conditions, anyone speaking up in defense of the country’s federal system becomes called a “foreign agent.”
Why has the 1993 Ural Republic raised such ire in recent months among pro-Kremlin writers worried about Russian sovereignty? Perhaps it is because the head of the above-cited Federation Council commission, Andrei Klimov, hails from Perm, one of the largest Ural-region cities. On a related note, it bears pointing out that a recent investigation by Novaya Gazeta shows a rather characteristic feature shared by many of the fiercest fighters for “Russian sovereignty,” which they see as being under threat from domestic “foreign agents.” Many of these “patriotically minded” Russians conduct their business via offshore accounts. For example, the same Klimov—a prominent leader of the ruling United Russia party—has founded companies in Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands (Novaya Gazeta, July 13).
In July, it also became known that the Kremlin does not intend to prolong the bilateral agreement with Tatarstan on the delineation of powers (RBC, July 11). This document was in fact the last vestige of the Russian political order from the early 1990s. Although during the years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, it has become pretty much strictly symbolic—the republic has long lacked any real political or economic self-government.
Why are the Russian authorities and their supporters so afraid of real federalism? Perhaps they believe that a return to federalism will free the historical pendulum in Russia to swing from one extreme to the other. After the Putinist “vertical of power” regime brought about an absolute unitary state, they fear that a new era of decentralization—if it is allowed to proceed without repression—could perhaps lead to a final breakup of the country. In the meantime, it is appropriate to recall a sad joke, currently popular with Russian bloggers, that vividly characterizes the current leadership’s “mirror policy”: How will the Russian authorities fight America? They will bomb Voronezh!