In May 2022, the first Forum of the Free Nations of Russia was held in Warsaw, Poland, and the second was held in Prague, Czech Republic, at the end of July. The latter gathering saw the adoption of the Declaration on the Decolonization of Russia (Freenationsrf.org, accessed August 9). Representatives of more than 30 Russian regions (national republics and oblasts), mainly living in exile, took part in these events, in person and virtually. The forum was originally organized by Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian nongovernmental organizations.
This is an extremely significant event that takes Russian protests against the re-invasion of Ukraine to a whole new level. It is known that Russian political opposition leaders in exile (Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and supporters of Alexei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned) actively oppose the war. They believe that it would be enough to change the “Kremlin tsar.” But participants at the forum went even further: They argued that the Ukraine conflict itself and the Kremlin’s policy of imperial revanchism in general only became possible due to Moscow’s strict centralization, when federalism—political, economic and cultural—was abolished in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This predetermined the country’s return to the “imperial track.” Forum participants were strongly in favor of the decolonization of Russia and even introduced the term “post-Russian,” analogous to “post-Soviet,” which appeared frequently in 1991.
The forum’s press release stated: “We stand for the transition from an authoritarian imperial state to a voluntary agreement of free, independent and democratic countries that can provide a decent standard of living for their own citizens, as well as sustainable peace in Eurasia. The forum participants intend to discuss specific technologies for the political transformation of the post-Russian space—including its demilitarization with the complete rejection of the nuclear arsenal, which in no way contributes to economic development but only awakens the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin authorities. But the peoples and regions of Russia, on the contrary, are interested in modern development, which the imperial power deprives from us. The new states will need peaceful and good neighborly relations with European countries and international recognition” (Region.expert, July 9).
Such wording decisively breaks the common stereotypes that, in the event of the Russian state’s collapse, a “war of all against all” will begin on its territory and nuclear weapons will become uncontrolled. In fact, forum participants from different regions favored international control of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. And the various groups do not hold feelings of mutual hostility. On the contrary, they are united by a sharply critical position toward the Kremlin, which has turned the regions of Russia into impoverished colonies of raw materials, does not allow for the free election of regional governments and has recently used regional inhabitants as cannon fodder for the imperial war in Ukraine (Ruski.radio.cz, July 25; see EDM, July 26).
Jamestown Foundation analyst Janusz Bugajski, who participated online at the forum with the presentation of his recent book, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, pointed out a crucial paradox: “Western fear of ‘Russia’s collapse’ is remarkably in tune with the Kremlin’s own narratives—its propagandists also keep saying that, if the Moscow empire collapses, then global chaos will ensue. But geopolitical revolutions happen regardless of the Kremlin’s desires or the Western belief in a ‘permanent’ status quo” (Region.expert, July 29). Paul Goble, another Jamestown expert, addressed the forum, reminiscing on the annual Captive Nations Week. Unfortunately, this problematic viewpoint did not disappear with the collapse of communism and, in some cases, even worsened, as is the case with the Kremlin’s imperial revanchism (Region.expert, July 21).
Russian politicians and propaganda reacted to the forum with expected indignation. But apart from emotions and conspiracy theories, the counterarguments that were put forward are quite telling. According to the anonymous authors of RT, Russians’ mission is to act as “state-forming glue” (News-front.info, July 23). This is a classic imperial doctrine, in which the state does not serve citizens, but rather citizens serve the state. As such, Russia’s regional inhabitants must not have any interests of their own, except to keep Moscow in power. According to Andrey Medvedev, deputy speaker of the Moscow City Duma, demands for regional self-government in Siberia, as Moscow’s main colony, and in Kaliningrad pose a particular danger (EADaily.com, July 24).
Here, the classic double standard should be presented. While the Kremlin insists for “multipolarity” on the world stage, inside its enormous, diverse country, the government immediately eschews that doctrine, depriving all regions of their federal structures, instead subordinating them to the “single pole” in Moscow (Svoboda.org, July 27). Overall, it is understandable why the forum’s ideas are unacceptable to Putin. Direct, “horizontal” connections among different regions would not need the Kremlin’s “vertical of power,” which could precipitate “the collapse of the country.”
The Forum of Free Nations has set bold and ambitious goals for the post-Russia future. But difficulties in their implementation abound. Here, we are referencing semantic differences between the international and Russian understanding of some terms. For example, if the word “nation” refers to “citizenship” in the international sense, then, in Russia, the meaning is often reduced to “ethnicity”—a legacy of the Soviet era when passports had a “nationality” column, which really meant ethnic origin. Despite the fact that about 80 percent of the Russian population considers themselves Russians in the census, ethnic issues remain extremely important. Residents of many Russian republics are dissatisfied with the intensified processes of imperial Russification and the suppression of their republican languages under Putin. Such a policy is carried out, not in the interests of ethnic Russians, but for the purpose of general imperial unitarization.
Yet, if the Kremlin speaks on behalf of the “Russian world,” that deliberately contributes to ethnic conflicts. Therefore, at the Prague Forum, a proposal was made to rename the grouping from the “Forum of the Free Nations of Russia” to the “Forum of Post-Russia States,” which moves away from the ambiguous interpretation of “nation” and instead focuses on the post-imperial reconstruction of northern Eurasia.
It is especially hopeful that forum participants expressed a common mood toward solving emerging problems in international law. The next forum is scheduled for September 2022 and will focus on a more local topic: Russian regions along the Baltic Sea and relations with their European neighbors. Indeed, the Kremlin has done its best to drive a wedge between these regions and Europe, despite the wishes of local residents.