The long-running demonstrations in Khabarovsk last year captured the imagination of Russians not only east of the Urals but west of it. At the same time, Moscow’s mishandling of Chinese involvement in the Russian economy has infuriated Siberians and Far Easterners as much at Moscow as at Beijing. Amidst these sharp social tensions, the inability of Moscow officials to fight fires and natural disasters within the Russian interior sparked both concern and anger, whereas the center’s push for Arctic development raised fears that those policies will mean less support for the Far East given that both regions are administered under a single federal ministry. Combined, those developments and trends made 2020 the year of Siberia in Russia, and they set the stage for the region’s further rise to prominence in 2021.
All too often, both Russians in Moscow as well as Western observers have treated Siberia as an afterthought, at least politically, paying attention to this vast swathe of the country only as a source of raw materials. They have ignored the special role the region has in the Russian imagination as the pristine reserve of the country, and they have discounted its unique history: unlike Russians west of the Ural Mountains, the residents of Siberia and the Far East never knew serfdom, and even today eastern Russians are more given to independent-mindedness on religious and other issues. But in the last 12 months, Siberia (understood here as Russia east of the Urals), has taken center stage in Russian politics. It is now becoming impossible to ignore that change or its impact on the Russian Federation as a whole as well as Russia’s relations with the rest of the world (see EDM, August 4, 2020).
The protests in Khabarovsk, which have taken place every day in that Far Eastern city since July 9, not surprisingly have attracted the most attention. They have done so not only because they directly call into question Moscow’s sacking of a popular and popularly elected governor, Dmitry Furgal, but also because they have lasted so long, taken up other and increasingly radical regionalist and systemic issues, as well as (not unimportantly) attracted support from across Siberia. Notably, the Khabarovsk rallies have even won sympathy in Moscow and St. Petersburg among those who hope those ongoing demonstrations represent a Belarus-type rising that may lead to the overthrow of President Vladimir Putin (see EDM, August 3, 2020; Nazaccent.ru, June 13, 2017; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 28, 2018; Znak.com, Klub Regionov, December 7, 2020; Region.expert, November 17, 2020).
The demonstrations have continued even after the authorities in Khabarovsk have used force, largely because those protests are no longer about Furgal as much as about the restoration of democracy. Khabarovsk residents, like Russians in other regional cities, want to be partners with the state. Thus, what they are doing should be seen not as a protest about a dismissed governor but rather as the continuing articulation of the need for free and honest elections—a demand Muscovites made in 2011–2012 but did not stick with as long as the people of this Far Eastern city have (Sibreal.org, January 2, 2021). Another reason that the Khabarovsk actions are so important is that they are occurring in a predominantly ethnic-Russian region. No one finds it surprising when non-Russians take to the streets in anger and carry their own national flags. But now that is happening in a Russian region. And what the people of Khabarovsk have done in that regard is being picked up in other Russian regions as well (Region.expert, accessed January 7, 2021).
The spread of the Khabarovsk protests to other Russian cities is striking because, as St. Petersburg politics head Mikhail Vinogradov says, “as a rule, residents of one region do not follow the agenda in other subjects of the Federation and do not understand the nature of protests elsewhere.” They focus on their own problems and on Moscow. That allows the Kremlin to isolate protests and even play one region against another. But now, with the Khabarovsk events, the center’s ability to insulate, divide and conquer appears to be on the decline, and some in Moscow are worried (Ura.news, July 28, 2020).
But if Khabarovsk symbolizes the rise of Siberia, it is not the only factor that became important in 2020. Three other developments are likely to play a growing role in the year ahead as well: First, Moscow has lost much of its ability to use China as a scarecrow to keep the Siberians and Far Easterners in line. Until recently, the center could play up the potential Chinese threat to ensure that Russians east of the Urals obey it as the lesser threat. But two aspects have changed. On the one hand, Moscow has been promoting closer ties with Beijing and so can hardly cast it as an enemy; and on the other hand, the central government has allowed Chinese firms to operate in Siberia and the Far East in ways that have turned people in these regions against Moscow just as much as against Beijing. Chinese firms may be despoiling the area by overcutting forests, for example, but they are able to do so only because Moscow is permitting them access and profiting from it rather than allowing regional authorities to intervene and the Russian people to benefit (see EDM, June 26, 2018 and October 6, 2020).
The second development has been the increasing spread of devastating forest fires and floods—the result of overcutting, and the authorities’ inability to combat them because of Putin’s “optimization” campaign, which has left Siberia and the Far East (and other regions as well) without the resources they used to have to fight such natural calamities. This has left both regional officials and ordinary Russians furious with the center, who see the federal government spend money on military campaigns abroad but not help them in times of need. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated such feelings (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 20, 2020; Sobkorr.org, August 7, 2020; Region.expert, August 12, 2019; The Siberian Times, May 2, 2020; Rosbalt, August 1, 2019; Izvestia, June 8, 2019).
Third, while Moscow talks about providing more assistance to the region, it has not satisfied local demands. As a result, people from the Far East and Siberia continue to flee west of the Urals to find jobs. And now, many in the region believe that the Kremlin will soon further cut aid to the region, covering its retreat with a few giant projects, because it has given more authority to the single ministry that oversees the Far East and the Arctic simultaneously. As a result, some are demanding that that ministry be split in two—it was amalgamated in 2012—so that the center will have to focus more on their region (The Caucasus Post, January 22, 2020).
None of these trends and developments are going to disappear in 2021. Many will intensify. It is entirely possible that Russia is entering a period where Siberia and the Far East, and Russian regions in general, will be playing an ever-larger role in Moscow’s politics. Indeed, the lands beyond the Russian capital could become increasingly important in relations with other countries, such as China, potentially cultivating the nationalism of the next Russian revolutionary upsurge (Region.expert, December 28, 2016).