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29.06.2009

June 18, 2009 (the date of publication in Russian)

Alexander Sotnichenko

RUSSIA: THE SPECTRUM OF CRISIS SCENARIOS. Part 4

The temptation of the "nation state" idea

Part 1: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=14324

Part 2: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=14410

Part 3: http://www.rpmonitor.ru/en/en/detail.php?ID=14411

The reaction of the Russian population to the crisis is fairly predictable. In fact, we already witness its manifestation in multiplying protest actions in regions. By today, the demands of demonstrators are socio-economical. However, aggravation of negative trends is likely to spark political demands as well, as well as expansion of these protests from depressive regions to major metropolises. The prospects of these developments largely depend on the ability of regional authorities to discern the most sensitive issues and guarantee fulfillment of the protesters' demands. In case of failure, the initiative may be overtaken by the opposition, especially in a number of national republics like Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Adygeya, Ingushetia, where socio-economic problems amalgamate with conflicts between local clans. However, mass protests may undermine regional authorities also in the regions of the Russian Far East.

Dissenting groups in various regions are not unified with any alternative ideology. This fact has ambiguous implications. On the one hand, absence of an ideological alternative, acceptable for the population of major regions, excludes a political change in the federal dimension. At the same time, massive protests in regions may spark riots developing into chaos and anarchy, and revive a strong separatist mood in the Caucasus and in the Far East.

Secessionist ideas that were popular in early 1990s are likely to revive and gain public support in those republics and regions where social stratification coincides with ethnic and religious tensions.

Ethnic tensions are likely to emerge also in those metropolises where unemployment among immigrant workers is most numerous. The naturally ensuing rise of street crime is likely to provoke outbursts of xenophobia among the native population, the already existing semi-legal nationalist organizations ascending to the political surface.

In a multiethnic state, the nationalist sentiment in regions, dominated by the titular population, will echo with multiple repercussions in regions where the object of this hate constitutes a majority. Regional oppositionist intellectuals are likely to elaborate national myths that would swiftly irradiate among unemployed young population. On the federal level, this revival of separatism will be interpreted mostly with religious influence from outside, while deeper social roots will be most probably overlooked.

In the first phase of the crisis, the relatively high level of confidence of the population's majority to federal authorities prevents dissemination of a new nationalist-populist agenda. Moderate oppositionists address their anti-crisis initiatives to Kremlin, yet being unable to shape a strong counterelite. In case federal authorities react to the emerging unrest wisely and adequately, reaching out to the poorest population through public institutions, including the Orthodox Church and loyal Islamic associations, and correcting the agenda of social policy (e.g. postponing the planned increase of property tax and restructurizing debts of households), political stability may be prolonged for a while of a year or two.

According to latest estimates, the decline of GDP has reached 10.2%, indicating that the recession has not reached the expected "bottom line". This negative statistics predetermine self-discredit of the presently dominating United Russia Party which was respected or at least tolerated by the public majority in the period when living standards were increasing. The "ruling party" will be now considered responsible for the failure to foresee the crisis and prevent its social implications.

In fact, the social base of United Russia Party has been relatively broad partly due to the vagueness of its political platform, and patriotic phraseology of federal MPs and regional authorities, representing the party, compensated the dissatisfaction of the electorate with unpopular legislation (like the infamous Bill No.122, introducing monetization of social privileges for pensioners and disabled persons, or the Government's initiative to raise import duties for foreign-produced cars that sparked protests especially in the Far East). The dominating party had a possibility of maneuver due to its ideological flexibility. But in case of further socio-economic deterioration, the supreme leadership will require a better articulated ideology.

Most probably, ethnic outbursts in Russian regions will be followed with negative coverage in Western media that will provide additional pretexts for the federal authorities to introduce a strong anti-Western and therefore anti-liberal agenda. Russian leaders have already emphasized in public that the responsibility for the current crisis should be laid upon the United States. Interpretation of terrorism in the Caucasus primarily as a result of provocations, organized by the West in order to punish Russia for the crackdown of Georgia, is similarly workable. For a certain period of time, anti-Western rhetoric, possibly combined with monarchist ideas, may serve as one more instrument of retaining power.

The ruling elite, significantly dependent on oligarchic interests, is uninterested in revival of socialist ideas. The present weakness of the Communist Party, along with fragmentation of alternative leftist movements, enables federal authorities to canalize massive dissent into an imperialist or – in case things go worse – into a nationalist direction. The latter option could be used for justification of pullout from Northern Caucasus in case the situation in this region completely gets out of control.

However, secession of North Caucasus republics is likely to beef up further disintegration, as well as disruption of inter-regional trade connections, accelerating socio-economic turbulence, increasing migration and sparking stronger dissent. Being unable to use the United Russia Party and the Communist Party is efficient instruments, federal authorities may entrust a similar mission to the security services of major corporations which control major deposits of natural resources, along with infrastructure of exports. In this way, Kremlin will try to conserve at least the geoeconomic dimension of its influence.

In case the territory of Russia shrinks due to separation of Islamic- and Buddhist-dominated territories, federal authorities will definitely choose the option of building up an ethnically and religiously homogenous nation state, with reference to foreign (European or Mideast) experience.

Absence of a consolidated political and ideological alternative to the current system may inspire a part of the ruling elite for various experiments of artificial construction of this alternative. These experiments, motivated with group interests, are likely to contribute to deterioration of Russia's integrity, the population's living standards, and demography.

At the same time, a real menace of a full-scale clan war will eventually convince the dominating faction of the Russia elite to undertake measures of home policy emergency. In fact, Russia's federal authorities constitute the only subject possessing a potential of consolidation. However, this potential will work only in case of a serious internal transformation of the establishment, as a necessary precondition for introducing a kind of ideological line acceptable for a broad majority. The costs for the population and economy during the new transitional period may be immense.


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