In spring 2019, two large protest actions broke out in the Russian regions and attracted unusually close attention from the national media. Even as opposition activity in Moscow (see Commentaries, March 21) had finally been declining, loud demonstrations erupted in cities such as Arkhangelsk and Yekaterinburg. The local rallies did not engage in traditional “left” or “right” political topics, focusing instead on the preservation of the natural habitat. However, this “non-political” issue attracted thousands of participants. Residents of Yekaterinburg protested against plans to build a new cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church over the site of a park in the city center. In Arkhangelsk Oblast, the demonstrations are still ongoing. Locals oppose the construction of a giant landfill that is supposed to handle waste shipped from Moscow (see EDM, May 28).
These protests are both been notable for their explicit references to regionalist identities. For instance, at one of the recent rallies in Yekaterinburg, demonstrators raised the flag of the Ural Republic (an unrealized political project dating back to 1993). Whereas, environmental protests in Arkhangelsk Oblast and the neighboring Komi Republic encouraged local deputies to make anti-colonial statements against Moscow’s policies—something that would have been unheard of even a year ago. Indeed, the fact that different regions have shown a willingness to support each other in these protests is also worth noting (Region.Expert, May 19).
President Vladimir Putin has, somewhat lackadaisically (see EDM, May 28), tried to calm the situation in Arkhangelsk and Yekaterinburg, urging the governors there to engage in dialogue with the local population. Yet, in so doing, he inadvertently undermined his own “vertical of power,” a system of rule that specifically provides no room for authorities’ dialogue with citizens. As St. Petersburg journalist Mikhail Shevchuk notes, “The governors in Yekaterinburg and Arkhangelsk thought that they were implementing the will of the Kremlin, but the Kremlin left them out in the cold” (Metagazeta.ru, May 17).
According to some Russian experts (see below), the Yekaterinburg and Arkhangelsk protests are conspicuously manifesting the phenomenon of “regional patriotism,” which political analysts had previously largely ignored. Understandable preoccupation with Putin’s attempts to turn the Russian Federation into a unitary state over the last 20 years (see EDM, December 3, 2012; June 14, 2016; November 17, 2016; July 19, 2017) has led many to underestimate the potential for residents of various Russian regions to successfully advocate for the interests and specifics of their “small homelands.”
Political analyst Abbas Gallyamov claims that the Russian Federation’s national republics have a particularly strong potential for developing regional patriotism, where the territorial factor is complemented by the an (at least nominal) ethnic identity (Vedomosti, May 20). However, the majority ethnically Russian Arkhangelsk and Yekaterinburg regions refute this assertion. Many analysts continue to think in the categories of the Soviet Union, when the ethnic factor in various Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) played a decisive role. But today, only about 16 percent of the country’s population lives in Russia’s national republics, and therefore it is incorrect to exaggerate ethnicity as a centrifugal factor. Indeed, almost three years ago, Eurasian nationalities expert Paul Goble predicted that majority ethnically Russian regions will present the main challenge to the Kremlin’s centralism (Region.Expert, December 28, 2016).
Mikhail Vinogradov, the president of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, believes that regional patriotism is built on local perceptions of their territory as itself holding value. In contrast, many “federal” politicians regard all regions as purely utilitarian. Regional patriotism, in Vinogradov’s opinion, may well become an oppositional phenomenon, since many governors appointed from the Kremlin continue to think in “federal” categories and avoid the topic of regional identity, fearing accusations of separatism (Davydov.in, May 20, 2019).
But regional patriotism can also be used by the central authorities. Kremlin-linked political analyst Konstantin Kostin even calls this strategy “the key to winning the election” (Politonline.ru, May 19). For instance, in the December 2018 elections for governor of Primorsky Krai, Kremlin-backed candidate Oleg Kozhemyako actively used the image of a local patriot and was even allowed, to some degree, to criticize Moscow during the campaign. In short, the Kremlin is trying to ride this regional patriotic wave. Some analysts believe that Putin may even attempt to change those governors who fail to find a common regionalist language with the local population and allow mass protests to develop (Svpressa.ru, May 23).
However, there are doubts that the Kremlin will be able to successfully tap into this local regionalist-driven energy considering the central government’s former strategy of shifting all blame for local problems onto the appointed governors. A recent survey conducted by independent sociologists in seven Russian cities showed rather unexpected results. The head of this research group, Anastasia Nikolskaya, asserted, in a recent interview with Znak, that a revolution is taking place in the mass consciousness of Russians. “People in Magadan, Vladivostok and Yakutsk say almost the same thing: Moscow takes our money while we literally survive here. They do not want to help Syria, do not want to forgive Cuba’s debts… From here, they come to the idea that their regions need to be given autonomy, the same rights that the states have in the United States… The point of no return has already been passed,” she argued (Znak, May 20). While the slogan “Putin, help!” was popular at protest actions of past years, at the latest rallies in Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Komi Republic, a commonly heard refrain was “Putin, resign!”
In recent years, Kremlin propaganda has abundantly been feeding the people a diet of “geopolitics,” focusing on Russia’s “great victories” abroad. However, the standard of living within Russia itself has steadily declined (see EDM, January 14, March 18). And now, citizens are starting to respond to this propaganda by more actively fighting for their local interests—within the scope of their municipal or regional identities.
The Kremlin likely did not expect such “blowback”; though, based on historical precedent, it was quite predictable. When Putin replaced Russian federalism with the unitary “vertical of power,” he justified it as motivated by a need to create “stability.” But in reality, by depriving the regions of political and economic self-government, the Kremlin planted the seeds of formidable protest potential. He is now reaping the consequences. A new “parade of sovereignties,” similar to what happened in the early 1990s, is again becoming possible—only this time, involving not only the national republics, but also regions beyond Moscow predominantly populated by ethnic Russians.