The Land of Make Believe: Federalism in Russia

“Let’s meet at the cafe on the right,” read the note in my hand. “It’s the one where they don’t sell cigarettes.” I stood on the corner of Rue La Bruyère and Rue Jean-Baptiste-Pigalle in the Saint-Georges district of Paris. The byzantine domes of Sacré Coeur could be glimpsed at a distance, their impressive alabaster gently piercing the ultramarine sky, and a soft scent of icing sugar perfumed the air as it emanated from a nearby patisserie.

Le Boeuf à la Mode was a quiet café with a burgundy awning, on the ground floor of what is now an unremarkable residential building. Decades earlier, however, 32 Rue La Bruyère was home to French painter Thomas Couture, teacher to Impressionist Édouard Manet and stained glass window maker John La Farge. That afternoon, the café, just as its immediate vicinity, was devoid of people, safe for its proprietor, who sat a small table not far from the bar perusing what resembled order forms and hastily scribbling notes into a cahier. It was there that I awaited Cécile Vaissié – professor of Russian and Soviet studies at l’Université Rennes 2 – with whom I was eager to discuss a topic that had been intriguing me for quite some time.

The Inner Circle

“Because there are very few people here,” said Vaissié, as we installed ourselves at a table upon her arrival, “we can discuss such subjects openly.”

‘Such subjects’ was not the term I would have used just slightly over a year ago, in late August 2015, when I set out to write a brief analysis on Russian federalism for The CambridgeGlobalist in response to an article published in the Economist two months previously. I contacted several journalists and academics for interviews. Their responses – all favourable – came in swiftly, Skype calls were arranged, and lists of questions submitted in advance so as to facilitate the interview process. And then … silence. All subsequent e-mails and telephone calls went unanswered. Upon consultation, I was reminded that western academics were disinclined to comment on political issues at a time of increasing tension between Russia and the West. This was not a time to be acting insensibly. After all, in the preceding months, some of my acquaintances in academia had, for the first time in their careers, been denied research visas to former Soviet countries. But why, I wondered, had specialists within Russia suddenly become so taciturn, especially after having initially expressed such enthusiasm?

I set the subject aside in favour of more pressing assignments, but it remained in the back of my mind. In informal conversation with Russians, some would insist that the topic was no longer relevant; others would call it dull. Recently, however, an analyst surmised that my investigation had come to a stalemate for one simple reason: I had made the mistake of referring to separatism in two of my questions. And separatism is a topic that few Russians would dare touch with a bargepole. Why? Because Russia prosecutes citizens whose discourse is in any way suggestive of separatism, and, sometimes, when imprisonment is deemed insufficient, imposes alternative forms of punishment, as was the case with Chelyabinsk resident Alexei Moroshkin, who, in 2015, having mentioned the hypothetical creation of an independent state in the Urals, was forced to undergo psychiatric treatment as per the old Soviet tradition.

“Something that we do not take into account in the West [is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has] a very sincere fear that the whole country could disappear,” said Vaissié. “Why do you think Moscow is so afraid of demonstrations? Why are they so interested in surveillance? Because they know that they have people who are not satisfied.”

The Kremlin’s alleged fear that Russia could fall apart, elaborated Vaissié, partially stems from the knowledge that Russia, as Putin is quick to remind his people, is a multicultural country with a wide range of ethnicities and religious beliefs. “You have all of these different populations that have different relationships with the centre,” said Vaissié, for whom the challenges of Russian federalism can be summed up in two questions: firstly, what unites people living in Vladivostok, Moscow, Grozny, etc., (i.e. is there a common project)? And, secondly, how do you govern a country which is that big (i.e. how can Moscow control what goes on in Vladivostok)?

Contrary to what some of my earlier interlocutors insisted, federalism in Russia is far from a dead topic, and the subjects of separatism and secession are as relevant now as they were in the early 1990s. My recent interviews with Vaissié, American University of Paris international politics professor Oleg Kobtzeff, and Moscow’s Higher School of Economics political science professor Nikolai Petrov have established this firmly in my mind.

A Fear of Separatism

“I had not thought of the idea of the Russian Federation [falling apart] since the beginning of the 1990s, but, maybe five years ago, some Russian political scientists [from think tanks] started telling me that they thought that [the country] would explode into four or five parts within twenty years … Openly, they supported Putin, but [in private] they showed themselves to be much more sceptical of the system than even Westerners. This was happening after conferences, at dinner parties, etc.,” said Vaissié during our meeting.

Initially, the political scientist found such discourse surprising and dismissed it as little more than provocation, but her opinion slowly changed. “If you pass a law to prevent people from talking about something, it means that you are very scared that it could happen,” said Vaissié, who, amongst other things, studies how Putin’s inner circle interprets social unrest in neighbouring countries, examples of which include Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003) and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and Euromaidan (2013-2014).

In December 2013, Putin ratified a law forbidding the public incitement of “actions aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”. Article 280.1, as it is known, was introduced as a direct consequence of the musings of prominent Russian journalist and Harvard graduate Yevgeniya Albats, editor-in-chief of magazine The New Times and former classmate of killed Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

On 15 October 2013, Albats appeared on Osoboe mnenie, a joint project of radio station Echo of Moscow and Russian-language international television station RTVi. During her discussion with Echo of Moscow’s Editor-in-Chief Aleksei Venediktov, Albats declared: “… Colossal purchases of gas and oil fields, investment into businesses, etc. … slowly but surely, China is achieving all of this without making a fuss, without reminding anyone that it is a great empire … [China] has quietly entered [Russia] … I think, ‘to hell with it’, let them have it. I do not see any problems here. I honestly [would] not see any particular problems if Russia were to split itself along the Ural Mountains. I think that this is inevitable.”

Her comments caused an uproar and, soon enough, Communist Duma member Gennady Zuganov was pushing a bill through parliament to punish anyone who ‘threatened’ Russia’s territorial integrity. Over the course of 2015 and 2016, fifteen cases were prosecuted under the article; five people were convicted. In practice, courts do not require actual evidence of violence or public agitation when deciding the fate of ‘separatists’. “Nothing but words are necessary for both prosecution and conviction,” as Meduza reported on 21 September.

The pro-Kremlin media is especially fierce in identifying ‘violators’ of Article 280.1, but this was the case even before the law was ratified. In September 2013, for instance, Sergei Medvedev, a political science professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, left the following comment on Facebook: “In my opinion, Russia – as an unsuccessful and irresponsible owner of the Arctic – should have the [region] taken away from it and [made into an international biosphere reserve, like Antarctica] with a complete ban on economic and military activity … The Arctic is a unique and fragile natural and cultural international heritage. The USSR transformed the fragile ecosystem … into a [desert].” In Medvedev’s case, the media, too reacted violently. Then, in October 2013, whilst addressing members of pro-Kremlin political party United Russia, Putin openly called Medvedev “a halfwit”, described the political scientist’s comments as “nonsensical” and “unpatriotic”, and encouraged Russia to expand its presence in the Arctic.

Today, though any Russian implicated in ‘spreading separatist propaganda’ can be fined or imprisoned, punishment for public figures, including members of the press, is especially harsh. By the looks of it, the current maximum sentence of five years for journalists may even change, as Russia’s Supreme Court, it became known in mid-September 2016, intends to revise the law in the near future.

When I contacted them, Albats and Medvedev declined to comment on their respective incidents. Medvedev did, however, clarify that his comments “had nothing to do with federalism or disintegration, as the mass media contorted it, and everything to do with the environment and global responsibility.”

Federalism from Yeltsin to Putin

“How do you rule a huge country? Either you use the model of the United States (separation of powers and a strict system of checks and balances), or you feel that there are people who are not honest and have too much power, so you control everything,” said Vaissié. “In Russia, you have all of the institutions of a democracy: a [bicameral] parliament, a president, elections. But nothing works as it should, because everything is decided at the top. It is false federalism, because if you had real federalism, you would have real power in the regions.”

On 6 August 1990, whilst speaking in Kazan, Tatarstan – today one of Russia’s federal districts – Soviet Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave his country’s regions an enticing offer. “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” he declared, having astutely realised that Russia was standing at the edge of a precipice and that its territorial integrity could be preserved only in guaranteeing the rights of its most ethnically-diverse components.

“Yelstin wanted territories to have as much independence as they could. He did not mind when the Baltic states went away [in 1990] or when Ukraine went away [in 1991]. But then, suddenly, Chechnya said that it wanted to be independent, Tatarstan wanted to be independent, Siberia wanted to be independent … Maybe Russia could see itself without Ukraine, but not without Siberia … that is where the resources are,” said Vaissié.

The 1993 constitution divided Russia into 89 federal subjects, 21 of which, largely the republics, were ethnic enclaves. After several mergers and territorial disputes, the country now consists of 85 subjects; two of which – Sevastopol and Crimea – are internationally recognised as part of Ukraine. These subjects can be further divided into oblasts (46; analogous to provinces), republics (22), krais (9; peripheral provinces), autonomous okrugs (4; analogous to districts), cities of federal importance (3; Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Sevastopol), and one autonomous oblast. Republics enjoy the greatest autonomy, as they have their own constitutions and legislative bodies. Each subject, depending in its status, is headed by either a president or a governor.

Under Yeltsin, governors were elected by the local people. But, even then, some of these leaders acted like feudal lords. “They had a lot of power and would not always send taxes back to Moscow. [Some] pocketed their money, [but others did] invest in their regions,” said Vaissié.

Though Kobtzeff believes that Yeltsin’s Russia was nothing short of anarchy, Vaissié maintains that Yeltsin’s model may have worked had it been in place for at least two decades. This is a question that will forever remain shrouded in mystery, for, during a televised New Year’s address on 31 December 1999, Yeltsin pronounced words that resonate to this day in internet memes and the national consciousness alike: “I’m tired. I’m leaving,” he said, and handed the reigns to Putin.

“Putin was never a democrat; he was educated by the KGB. He wanted to establish the ‘power vertical’ – an almost feudalistic, centralisation of power in Russia,” said Vaissié. The ‘power vertical’, expectedly, came at the expense of freedom and political diversity as Putin began to give power to those people who agreed to play by his rules, said the political scientist.

Putin’s talent, said Kobtzeff, was to assemble the incorruptible elements of the police, army, and secret service; people who were humble and able to resist being bribed. “He made friends with the liberals, then all of the people who came out of the school of [St. Petersburg’s first mayor Anatoly] Sobchak, including [Russia’s current Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev. Then he went to ‘Mafioso’ groups [and] people like [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky or [Boris] Berezovsky. Putin approached them and said: ‘let’s make a deal’.”

The two Chechen Wars (1994-1996 and late 1999-2000) had clearly established that Russia had powerful internal enemies. There was also fear of separatist movements in Siberia. Putin, therefore, wanted to stifle separatist tendencies by centralising power. An important tactic, said Kobtzeff, was crushing uncooperative local bosses.

Moscow’s Higher School of Economics professor Nikolai Petrov emphasised that ordinary citizens have never played a significant role in determining relations between Moscow and the regions, which is why grassroots, populist movements are unlikely to gain enough momentum to pose any threats to Russia’s territorial integrity. It is influential individuals who have historically posed problems, he said. “In almost all cases, [all tension] was an attempt by regional political elites to protect themselves from changes coming from the centre.”

Accordingly, by July 2000, Putin had won the right to dismiss the heads of subjects and, in 2004, democratic local elections were replaced with a system in which the President himself nominates regional heads whom local parliaments subsequently vote on. This latest revision occurred in the aftermath of the Beslan school siege, in which over 1,100 people – 777 of them children – were held hostage from 1-3 September 20o4 by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups in a school in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia. At least 330 hostages were killed.

“This was cynicism, because it did not have anything nothing to do with the fact that there had been a terrorist attack. [The Kremlin used] this trauma and this shock in Russian society to take freedom away from the people,” said Vaissié. “And it was exactly at that time that all of the political elites understood that they needed to get into [pro-Kremlin political party] United Russia. After this point, the Duma no longer had an independent role; it simply registered laws that were useful to the centre,” said Vaissié.

According to Petrov, those regions that are most fiscally dependent on Moscow are especially prone to having cooperative heads. “Those leaders who can keep good relations are able to get additional benefits for their regions: investments, national celebrations, etc.” Good relations, said the political scientist, can come in a number of forms. “Leaders can demonstrate their loyalty by coming up with different initiatives that they think the centre would like. For example, they might [forgo] using the term president [to designate] the head of the region or get high results in elections [for the ruling party]. There can be a 98% percent turnout [for federal elections] with 98% of the vote in favour of Putin.”

Cooperative leaders also seem to benefit from loopholes in the democratic process. “Yeltsin said that people could not be governors for more than two terms. Under Putin, you have people [in power] for over twenty years. They do everything that Moscow wants, so they can stay. There are good ones and bad ones. Some do a lot for the people. [But even then, they implement] Putin’s policies,” said Vaissié. Past precedent has also shown that cooperative leaders are able to get away with activities that would otherwise land them in prison, as evidenced by the “‘Criminal Russia’ Party” report published by prominent oppositionist Ilya Yashin in late August 2016.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about great economic and social upheaval in Russia, and Putin, along with his power vertical, proved remarkably efficient at pulling the country up by its bootstraps. Not only did he prevent the federation from falling apart, but he salvaged the country from the grip of corruption and poverty, something that many Russians are conscious of and grateful for. His efforts, however, inarguably came at a price.

Incentives to stay or lack thereof

Russia’s regions can be divided into those that are datatsionnie (subsidised) and those that are nedatatsionnie (unsubsidised). Currently, only 11 subjects are ‘donor regions’, i.e. unsubsidised. Furthermore, whilst some of Russia’s regions are rich in diamonds, oil, or other natural resources, others consist mainly of yet-to-be developed agricultural land. The latter are unlikely to exist autonomously, emphasised Vaissié.

Meanwhile, about 77% of Russia’s population lives in its European part, i.e. west of the Ural Mountains. The eastern part of Russia – the greater part of which consists of Siberia – is largely burdened by lower standards of living and an ever-dwindling population, despite its natural resources.

There are notable exceptions, such as the town of Kogalym – the birthplace of Lukoil –whose citizens enjoys a high standard of living, as its economy is based on oil extraction. “[In some Russian regions, however], you have this sentiment that we are giving all of this money to the centre, but not becoming anything,” said Vaissié, which contributes to feelings of embitterment, especially in light of the fact that Moscow’s exploitation of these territories may often seem both temerarious and insensitive, noted the political scientist.

“The way it works,” said Vaissié, is that “people close to Putin say ‘there is money to be made in a particular region’ and then go and develop businesses [in said region]. No one touches them there, because they are close to [those in] power, but they themselves would not live there or move their children there.

One of the most problematic aspects of this exploitation is the ecological footprint that is left behind, one which has paved the way for various environmental movements in recent years. Though not openly political, such demonstrations are often tinged with unspoken frustration with Moscow. One such initiative was the Khavit kormit’ Moskvu! movement of 2014 (Russian: ‘Хватит кормить Москву!’; translation: ‘Stop feeding Moscow!’), which encouraged people all over the country to partake in marches. Though the movement’s organisers insisted that their goal was not separatism, but greater regional autonomy and a more equitable distribution of financial resources, Russia’s federal Internet surveillance watchdog Roskomnadzor still made an effort to stifle the initiative.

What incentives, then, do more prosperous or resourceful territories have for staying in the federation? According to Vaissié, the answer is none or very few. “They simply know that they have no right to get out.

Petrov said that even those that are rich in natural resources might face difficulties if they were to become independent. “The idea that natural resources belong not to the nation, but to the region where they are located [does exist]; it was developing even in the late 1980s, where parts of regions claimed that the oil or the air were theirs and applied for property rights. This happened not only on the regional level, but on the local level, as well. The problem with this, however, is that none of the regions are actually technically capable of developing their natural resources [independently],” Petrov said, as Moscow has always regulated industrialisation and industry.

Ethnic republics like Chechnya, should be assessed through a slightly different lens, not only because some of these areas, due to fewer natural resources, are unlikely to become fully self-sufficient, but also because Moscow has, historically, been more careful with ethnic enclaves. “Ethnic regions have always been favoured for subsidies … The degree of this subsidisation can be different; in the cause of Caucasus [and now Crimea] it is something around 70-80 percent,” said Petrov. “Also, if people from the outside [could be brought in to head Slavic Regions], the Kremlin always sought candidates with ethnic backgrounds [to head ethnic enclaves] in order to minimise tension in the regions.”

Nevertheless, subsidies can only go so far, Kobtzeff maintained, pointing to cultural and religious differences. “Repression in unstable regions [such as Chechnya and Dagestan] has been extremely harsh. In the short-term, repression has crushed separatist sentiment, but in the long-term, it has created extremely bottled-up anger against Moscow.”

These regions should remain stable as long as Moscow has a friend in the regional head. “[In] Chechnya, people are scared to death of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been put at the head of his country,” said Vaissié. This fear is enough to quell any separatist sentiment for the time being.

A Chinese takeover?

There are vast expanses of virgin agricultural land in Siberia that few Russians desire to work. The territory is being drained of its population as young people move away to more cosmopolitan locations (namely Moscow and Saint Petersburg) in search of a better life. Alcoholism and the deterioration of Russia’s peasant culture, said Vaissié, are also to blame. “The collectivisation of the 1930s destroyed the peasant class; and, working in the kholkhoz, [peasants] were deprived of the knowledge that their grandparents had.”

Faced with the need to cultivate Russia’s untouched territory, Putin’s administration recently began allowing Russia citizens to lease land in the country’s Far East for free. Its primary solution, however, has been Chinese labour. “There are millions of Chinese who are willing to go there and develop the area as pioneers, but [they would do so] as Chinese citizens,” said Kobtzeff.

The Chinese have had an agricultural presence in Russia since at least as early as the 1990s. In a December 2013 interview with Reuters, Chinese businessman Li Demin said: “When the Soviet Union collapsed, the local people did not really know what to do, so they started encouraging us to take over the land at very cheap prices … They would pay us to clear the forests – they gave us a lot of support.”

In July 2015, it became known that Russia’s Trans-Baikal region had signed a preliminary agreement with Chinese agricultural firm Hua’e Xingbang, granting the latter control of over 1,150 square kilometres of idle Siberian land for 49 years. The land—leased for approximately 24 billion roubles (US $440 million or £282 million at the time)—would be worked by about 1,000 people and used to cultivate crops and rear livestock.

This development was not welcome. “This deal poses huge political risks, particularly to Russia’s territorial integrity,” said former deputy Duma speaker Igor Lebedev at the time, the Financial Times reported. “They will bring in scores of Chinese. Then 20 or 30 years from now, the Chinese government will demand those lands be given to China, because all those Chinese people live there.”

Fear of a Chinese ‘invasion’, though perhaps not as prevalent as it was in the 1990s, indeed does exist, especially in the minds of nationalists in Western cities. This feeling is worsened by a noticeable trickling in of Asian culture. “My colleagues from Siberian universities tell me that they feel not just the Chinese, but the Asiatic presence very strongly … Six or seven years ago, a colleague from the University of Irkutsk told me that all of the major Siberian universities were closing their departments of German and French studies and opening departments in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese studies,” said Vaissié.

There is a sentiment that “Beijing will say: ‘go and explore, be fruitful, reproduce. Eventually, we will come back to you and tell your children and grandchildren how they can be useful to us’,” said Kobtzeff.

Why then, in the midst of such fear, is Putin so willing to lease Russian land? Is he truly that naïve? According to Kobtzeff, the rapprochement between Russia and China is actually part of Putin’s long-term strategy. “It is not a question of naïveté, but of realism. He understands that he needs people to sustain Siberia. Personally, he is focusing on regions where he can do something, regions that he needs most, i.e. those that have diamonds and oil. He would only give China agriculturally-rich regions in the hopes that he will rebuild a powerful Russia sometime in the future and the country will be much stronger to resist Chinese encroachment. Right now he just cannot afford it financially.”

In any event, popular concerns about a Chinese invasion seem to be more rooted in xenophobia than in reality, as our experts largely agree that China is unlikely to be directly responsible for any separatism in Russia. “I do not think that the Chinese are that interested in moving to Russia,” said Petrov. “They are interested in using Russia’s resources. In most cases, this can be of mutual benefit.”


Though our experts are largely in contention as to whether Russia’s territorial integrity is in danger to begin with, they do agree that if anything is likely to bring about the country’s disintegration, it would be an internal force (such as an influential local leader), as opposed to an external force (such as a neighbouring country such as China confiscating Russian territory), or a rival country (such as the United States clandestinely stirring up a spirit of separatism).

At a time of Western sanctions and low global oil prices, it is possible to see greater federalism in Russia, said Petrov, for the less capable the centre becomes of providing for its regions, the more freedom the regions will acquire. Whether this freedom will contribute to separatism all comes down to local authorities. Even today, there are local authorities who are prone to exploiting existing dissatisfaction to stir negative feelings towards Moscow. Just one example was a situation in the Primorsky Krai several years back, when regional authorities tried to take advantage of the fact that Moscow had leased land to the Chinese.

Kobtzeff agreed, saying: “local thugs or bosses of the underworld would be responsible for any breakaway situation, as was the case in Yugoslovia and any area of the former Soviet Union.” He did, however, stress that it is “unthinkable” that Russia could fall apart in the near future, despite the fact that the Caucasus are “a powder keg”.

If local authorities were to succeed in breaking Russia apart, I wondered, would this development bring about the formation of numerous corrupt dictatorships or, on the contrary, enlightened, democratic societies? The answer to this question, our experts agreed, is unclear.

“It is hard to see them as developing as democracies. Look at the early 1990s, when [democracy] was coming from the centre and areas started to break apart because they were trying to avoid the democratic process,” said Petrov. “[But then, you have] other areas like Perm and Sverlovsk, perhaps even Moscow and Saint Petersburg, that are more democratic now than the country overall, so they would likely continue moving in this direction.”

If secession is not an option, but people remain dissatisfied, why do they not challenge the existing system or make a more ardent effort to effect change, not necessarily by looking to dismantle their country, but by seeking to reform it? The answer lies, said Vaissié, in the Russian national mentality. “Some of my intellectual friends say that the Russian people will ‘terpet i terpet’ (endure and endure). They will not go out into the streets, [because they belong to] a passive society. And this is not a judgement … They have been treated so badly that they do not have the desire to fight.”

Vaissié argument echoes the thoughts of some Russian writers of the early 20th century who were inclined to see the state’s despotism as a psychological need of the people. “The Russian nation does not want to be [composed of] courageous builder[s], [because] it is feminine in nature, passive and submissive to affairs of state, constantly awaiting the groom, the husband and the lord,” wrote Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev in his 1918 essay Sud’ba Rossii.

Kobtzeff, however, gives a slightly more optimistic explanation, saying that the populace is willing to endure suffering in pursuit of a common goal. “The promise of Communism is what held together the Soviet Union for some time despite all of its problems. People were not blind to the fact that they were poor and sure they were under propaganda, but half of Soviet citizens suspected that people lived better in the West, otherwise he would not have been selling blue jeans on the black market. [But the Kremlin] was selling a utopia,” he said.

Today, however, there is no utopia to be promised, said Kobtzeff, who agreed with Vaissié that the fundamental reason for popular complaisance is fear, both of protest and of failure. “[The motto is:] ‘shut up if you do not want trouble. If you want to survive and live an honest life, you will not get anywhere. If you want to improve your life materially, become corrupt and start playing the game of thrones of local economics. Your degree of corruption depends on what your ambitions are.”

The Kremlin has also relied on propaganda to render the populace more enthusiastic. An important selling point is what Kobtzeff called an “impoverished ideology of the Orthodox Church and a nostalgia for Stalinism.” In terms of stifling opposition, including that which could contribute to separatism, “the Kremlin has no other economic and political model to offer at present than presenting the world as something hostile and full of Europeans and Islamic terrorists who want to destroy Russia.”

At this point in time, the only thing that is likely to stir reformation in Russia is the start of a national healing process, said Vaissié. “Just as [Viktor] Yushchenko recognising the Holodomor (the Ukrainian Terror-Famine; 1932-1933) was a step towards national healing for Ukrainians, Russians needs public recognition of their suffering.”