Ever since President Vladimir Putin began his regional amalgamation campaign in 2003, and especially since he launched his attack on non-Russian languages last summer (see EDM, September 19), many non-Russians have regularly declared that the Kremlin leader is plotting to destroy the non-Russian republics and submerge them into regional entities in which Moscow and the ethnic Russians will be predominant (Business-Gazeta, December 2, 3; Apn-spb.ru, November 28).
Most Moscow commentators and any government officials who have chosen to weigh in on this issue, however, have suggested that such charges are overheated nonsense and that the Kremlin has no plans to move so far with its language policy. But such statements, in turn, have angered some Russian nationalists who want to see the non-Russian ethnic republics destroyed and who believe that their existence represents a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. At the same time, those assurances have further infuriated many non-Russians who see Moscow’s statements as yet another effort to conceal the Kremlin’s real intentions.
Now, however, there can be little doubt that the Kremlin has decided to do away with the non-Russian republics and is simply in the process of deciding when, where and how to do it. Mikhail Babich, the presidential plenipotentiary for the Volga Federal District, admitted as much in remarkably frank public comments that were reported by Kazan’s Business-Gazeta (Business-Gazeta, December 5). The Kremlin’s man said bluntly that the new language policy Putin announced last summer, which makes the study of non-Russian languages voluntary while the study of Russian remains compulsory, was under discussion for two years before it was announced. Moreover, he added that “the amalgamation of regions”—the Kremlin’s preferred term for doing away with non-Russian republics—has “always been under discussion.”
Babich alleged that both the language policy and moves to amalgamate regions reflect the desires of the population and the imperatives of defending the rights of all citizens of the Russian Federation, wherever they live. These issues represent “a problem of our post-Soviet history,” one that has only grown in size and become ever more threatening, he claimed, leading many Russians to file protests with the center, which Moscow is now responding to.
While some may think that “the main achievement” of the 1993 Russian Constitution was its declaration that the subjects of the country have the right to “establish state languages,” the plenipotentiary said, Russians need to remember that “in no other country in the world is there such a notion as ‘the state language of a region.’ ” That has existed only in Russia, and it has created real violations of real rights. “Of the 22 republics,” he continues, in 21, this right has been implemented with state languages established.” In 17, it is the language of the titular nationality; in 3, two [regional state languages were established]; and in others, like Dagestan, more than that. In many, these languages have been taught as is appropriate, he declared, on a voluntary basis; but in others, they have been imposed on an unwilling population. That is wrong, and Putin has now ended that practice, Babich stated.
Asked about discussions regarding the amalgamation of regions and republics, Babich gave the clearest indication yet that Moscow has already gone a long way in in the planning process and that its decisions will be based on economic and national security concerns rather than the views of the population. To ensure that, he said, Moscow is even now changing how it measures the economic strengths of republics so that it can change the balance between the weak and the strong—a fundamental premise that Putin has stressed in the past—as it moves forward (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 5).
Responding to former Russian finance minister Aleksey Kudrin’s proposal to combine Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in a regional agglomeration including Kazan, Samara and Ulyanovsk, Babich argued that such an idea violates all the principles of amalgamation. According to the Kremlin plenipotentiary, what Moscow must do is combine weak regions with strong ones, regardless of ethnicity and the interests of the population; it should not seek to combine the strong with the strong and leave the weak to fend for themselves or remain dependent on subsidies from the center.
“Many regions have passed through the procedure of amalgamation,” Babich claimed, an exaggeration given that fewer than a dozen in fact have and many of those are currently trying to reverse those decisions (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, August 17). Nonetheless, he contended that this program has had only positive consequences and not been as dangerous or risky as many in the republics have suggested.
President Putin’s plenipotentiary to the Volga Federal District clearly supports further amalgamations, which would require not the folding of autonomous regions into surrounding Russian regions, as the program has so far, but also the combination of entire non-Russian republics with predominantly Russian oblasts and krais. Yet, most importantly, he stated that Moscow will now insist that the republics not be able to count the wealth produced on their territory by companies with headquarters in Moscow as part of their economy, a change that will shift the balance between places like Tatarstan and surrounding ethnic Russian regions. In practice, the hyper-centralization of Russian corporations means that the non-Russian republics will be treated far worse in future amalgamations than they would if the old measures were retained.
Babich has clearly fired an opening shot at the republics, and many Russian nationalists and centralizers will be delighted. But his words are likely to provoke a sharp reaction in all the non-Russian republics whose elites will see their fiefdoms at risk and whose populations will face being submerged in a largely undifferentiated Russian cultural milieu. That reaction has the potential to create a serious threat to the Russian Federation. As Putin and Moscow tend to forget, the Soviet Union did not fall apart because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization, but rather because the Communist leader tried to take everything back after his liberalizing steps—and the union republics refused to acquiesce.