Russia’s regions: federalism and its discontents


Creating the appearance of stability is the Russian political elite’s primary goal. Yet colonial-like rule over the country’s regions, combined with a lack of civic activity, harms the Kremlin’s legitimacy on the ground. RU

Badma Biurchiev
21 April 2016

Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 1999, the Russian authorities have responded to any threat, whether real or imagined, with repressive legislation.

The history of the power vertical is thus one of the methodical restriction of citizen’s rights and freedoms.

Meanwhile, Russia’s over-centralised state is increasingly isolating itself from the “multinational people of the Russian Federation”, which is, as the Constitution states, the sole source of authority in the country.

Thus, Russia’s political elites are not only losing their so-called “connection with the land”, but eroding popular faith in the elite’s legitimacy as rulers.

That’s because in Russia today, relations between the centre and the regions are reminiscent more of an imperial metropolis and its colonies. The authorities see Russia as a never-ending source of natural and human resources.

The elites usurp the income derived from these resources as colonisers: the majority of the population are paid enough just to survive. And if you’re dissatisfied, there’s always an appropriate charge to be found in the Criminal Code.

Self-determination and desecration

The end of 2015 saw Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, host a congress of the Kalmykian people. For a republic of this size, the congress was large. But neither national media, nor the local official press covered this event in any way.

Perhaps the lack of coverage was a mistake.

The forum’s 200 delegates ended up voting for a resolution that led with the demand for a new constitution for the republic, one that would reflect the “inviolable right of the Oirat-Kalmyk people to decide their own fate.” This is important, because when Kalmykia first became a subject of the Russian Federation, its legislature did not mention self-determination – unlike the legislatures of other national republics that joined Russia after the fall of the USSR.

Kalmykia returned to national news at the start of April 2016 when an athlete from neighbouring Dagestan was forced to apologise publicly for desecrating a statue of the Buddha.

These stories reveal the Russian media’s priorities. Russian viewers find interethnic conflicts far more interesting than people’s attempts to self-organise and defend their rights.

The events themselves are also revealing.


The Kalmyk people’s congress may have been representative, but it was the second incident — when an offending “outsider” had to be punished — that turned out to be more powerful in bringing people together. Statue of a lama at Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume, the largest Buddhist Khurul (temple) in Elista, Kalmykia. Photo CC: Oleg Akamatsu / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. “People only react to strong, direct sources of displeasure. However, when it’s a case of other important matters, no one comes out to protest,” a Kalmyk blogger complained, speaking of the local population’s preference “to not react to the authorities at all”. “After all, you can boil a frog alive if you raise the temperature in a pan slowly — it won’t jump out.”

The blogger’s metaphor might be a bit heavy-handed, but it reflects the relationship between Russia’s authorities and the public all too well. There is one thing missing from this metaphor, though: the ability to very gradually raise the temperature is a good one to have if you’re a cook – but not when you’re running a country.

Beneath the surface

A week before the incident in Kalmykia’s capital Elista, Igor Barinov, the head of Russia’s Federal Nationalities Agency (FADN), declared that ethnic and religious tensions in the country were likely to flare up.

At the State Duma’s Question Time on 23 March, Barinov stated that, “National conflicts are directly connected to economic problems and the ineffectiveness of the authorities.” 

According to Barinov, certain regions of Russia are seeing “radicalised religious structures join with the non-systemic opposition to criticise the state”. 

“For the mean time,” Barinov said, “this criticism is mainly connected to social welfare issues, housing, utilities and ecology”. By the time the parliamentary election campaign starts, though, this criticism will take on a “political, national and religious overtone”, he warned. 

Barinov thus called on Russia’s regions to “be ready to react accordingly” and proposed legislation for extrajudicial blocking of websites that “do not formally come under the definition of ‘calls to mass disorder’, but that further escalate interethnic and interfaith conflicts.”
In Russia today, relations between the centre and regions are reminiscent more of an imperial metropolis and its colonies 

 Thus, a top public official confirmed that potential mobilisations on ethnic or religious grounds will be directly connected to economic problems and the state’s lack of response – but chose to amp up Russia’s anti-extremism legislation instead of tackling the roots of the problem. 

Barinov’s action plan is not surprising. The state is not involved in solving the problems of hundreds of different ethnic groups in Russia. Instead, the Kremlin is busy creating the appearance of stability. In particular, it is creating the right conditions for local authorities to deploy the “administrative resources” at this year’s elections, and thus forestall any unexpected (read: unpleasant) results for Moscow. 

Barinov doesn’t hide the fact that one of his ministry’s main tasks is to “build a power vertical in the regions”. Indeed, the FADN believes that “unifying the approach to nationality issues in all regions” is an important step in this direction.

A colonising political mentality

It goes without saying that, in these conditions, a genuine federal political structure cannot exist. 

As a recent court decision from Khanty-Mansiisk shows, the word “federalisation” is now being used synonymously with “stirring up interfaith antagonism”, “changing the system of administrative-territorial management”, “separatism” and “subverting the constitutional order”. 

The federal authorities’ colonising mentality is thus heavily regulating and even criminalising any small attempts at self-determination.

In March, the Ministry of Justice declared the Batani Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting indigenous peoples in Russia’s north, Siberia and the Far East, a “foreign agent”. 


According to Pavel Sulyandziga, Batani’s chairman, the root of the conflict with the bureaucracy comes down to indigenous peoples’ rights to traditional hunting grounds, fishing areas and territory for grazing their animals.   Vladimir Putin and Pavel Sulyandziga during a meeting with representatives of Russia’s communal and religious organisations. Moscow, 2011. Photo (c): Aleksey Druzhinin / visual RIAN. All rights reserved. Such conflicts have led to a rise in the number of criminal cases opened against indigenous people in the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region. Rights activists state that most resource companies prefer not to negotiate with indigenous representatives any more, but act via the most powerful state ministries. 

News along this theme regularly appears in the Russian press.

For example – a village leader from Primorsky krai reported on the terrible situation in Russia’s Far East at the Moscow Economic Forum in March of this year. 

A day after the report, news broke of how Kursk’s regional council publicly obstructed Olga Li, a local councilwoman and newspaper editor. Li’s sharply critical video address to Putin, which was dedicated by and large to regional politics, has now resulted in a criminal case for slander. 

No mass protests in sight

But what is really happening in Russia’s regions? Can we talk about any signs of anti-colonial resistance? 

Well, while Duma deputies have begun to talk about the possibility of a “revolutionary situation” in response to the growing gap between Russia’s rich and poor, experts such as Denis Volkov and Natalia Zubarevich agree that we’re unlikely to see an outbreak of mass protest activity any time soon. 
The risks associated with protest are so high, it’s simpler to adapt to falling living standards than fight for a better future 

With national television networks firmly under control, the Russian government is managing to maintain order. The opposition is yet to offer an alternative agenda on political or social issues that would attract a significant section of the population. And the risks associated with protest are so high, it’s simpler just adapt to the falling living standards than fight for a better future. 

That said, Zubarevich, the author of the “Four Russias” concept, believes that Russia’s regions are, by and large, conservative, and a bulwark of support for the current regime. 


For Zubarevich, the only exceptions are the “underdeveloped” regions with a more volatile political atmosphere, such as the North Caucasus and southern Siberia, where possible future scenarios even include state violence unleashed against the populace.  Krasnoslobodsky region, Republic of Mordovia, Russia, 2008. Photo CC: Marina Flickam / Flickr. Some rights reserved. The North Caucasus, in particular, is witnessing a growing ideological divide between state and society, though regional experts vary in their estimations of the threat it may pose.

According to Nikolai Silaev of the Center of the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security, the threat of nationalism doesn’t really work as a tool of public politics in Russia. 

“The single ideological base for movements that threaten an open fragmentation of the state could become political Islam,” writes Silaev. However, he continues to say that “political Islam has no realistic model of the state or clear spatial boundaries.” This kind of political community will come to form a networked “parallel world”, one that will both fight the state and try to find forms of integration.

Denis Sokolov is less optimistic. As he sees it, “the ideology of the secular state has completely lost to Islam in the east of the North Caucasus due to its problems with the courts and social mobility”. 

Sokolov believes that 2016 will see “a confrontation between the security services and a significant number of Muslims living in the North Caucasus rise to the fore”. 

Society compensates for failures of the state

Sokolov is the first specialist on the Caucasus to investigate the curious news stories coming out of Dagestan. Here, jamaats (village communities) have started to pay medical professionals to visit their villages at their own expense (as a rule, these visiting doctors are kinsmen who’ve been working in the big cities.) This turned out to be successful, and now this practice has extended to teaching staff


Society has thus made headway in an area where the state has failed in spite of its multi-billion rouble projects. Taking responsibility for their own infrastructure, villagers have set up quality medicine and education for themselves, at the same time addressing an often emotional issue — bringing back their kin to the mountains. Russian soldiers in Khushet village, in the mountains of Dagestan, 2007. Photo CC: Timur Abdullaev / visual RIAN. Some rights reserved.

Of course, we’re talking about a maximum of ten villages here. This is a local success even for Dagestan. But nothing is stopping other communities from trying this out. 

Still, the most important thing here is how this problem is being solved. If inviting doctors is a matter of survival (it was prompted by a rising death rate, including of patients during simple operations), then finding good teachers is a signal that education is in demand, an investment in long-term development. 

An ineffective state can only welcome these initiatives — the story about Dagestan was shown on federal television

But if you take into the account the fact that secular ideology is losing out to Islam in Dagestan, then we can assume that something bigger is behind these developments. Perhaps it is what Hannah Arendt described as the elite’s temptation to substitute violence for power when it begins to slip from their grasp. 
The transformation of a population into a nation is not a task for the state 

Arendt’s diagnosis is all too reminiscent of the modern Russian Federation. Putin’s concepts of the “Russian World” and patriotism as the only possible national idea are closely intertwined with how Russia’s law on separatism and the law on foreign agents are applied – and, more often that not, with anti-extremist and anti-terrorist legislation.

The way they are applied is evidence of a full-blown crisis in Russian domestic policies. 

Frustration that turns to apathy 

Social media is an apt reflection of the mood of ordinary people. Take this recent question from a user in a VKontakte group in Kalmykia: “Can you point to any positive results of the head of Kalmykia Alexei Orlov, who’s ruled the republic for six years now?” 

“I can only see one,” the same user states, “People in the regions don’t rely on the authorities. They solve their problems themselves.” 

Meanwhile, a blogger from North Ossetia updates his status: “I’ve had enough. The hassle, intrigue, politics, money (and its absence), the idiocy inside and outside the system… People have had their priorities wrong for too long.”

Every day, my newsfeed is full of these kinds of posts. Apathy and the realisation that you can’t expect anything from the authorities are the main motifs of discussions on Russia social media.


At the core of this sense of emptiness, this ideological vacuum that became obvious after the fall of the Soviet Union, lies nothing but a longing for the homeland. No one feels at home here: neither ethnic minorities, who experience discrimination due to their ethnicity, nor Russian Slavs, outraged at the corruption of public officials and the courts willing to avert their gaze when so-called “people from out of town” commit crimes. All railways lead to Moscow. Vanadzor, 2012. Photo CC: Tim Waters / Flickr. Some rights reserved. Emil Pain, a prominent political scientist and ethnographer, recently spoke of Russia as “a country without a society, a country without a nation”. 

Yet the transformation of a population into a nation is not a task for the state. Ruling elites are more interested in subjects than citizens. A nation emerges when people are ready to fight for their own rights.

It’s easier for national republics to form a common agenda on this issue. Although the fact that a congress of Kalmyk people, rather than peoples, was recently held suggests that the ideology of ethnic, rather than civic nationalism, is what brought people together.

Multiethnic Dagestan could, in principle, overcome these narrow borders. While local nationalism divides society, Islam offers a platform for consolidation in the future — to form the political nation of Dagestan. But here the authorities have successfully maintained the artificial confrontation between “traditional” and “non-traditional” Muslims for a long time.
At the core of this sense of emptiness, this ideological vacuum that became obvious after the fall of the Soviet Union, lies nothing but a longing for the homeland 

In an over-centralised political system, there’s little point talking of society’s chance to take back the state in a single region. The Leviathan that is the state will react to what Arendt described as the “slipping away of power” with an intensive build-up of the power ministries, which remain capable enough to prevent any attempt to monopolise the centre.

Given that Putin’s new National Guard is subordinate only to the head of state, we can see how the vertical sees the solution to the national question.

But is there something that will prompt the population to fight for their rights and thus create a nation along alternative, democratic lines? Liah Greenfield, a scholar of nationalisms, believes that a new elite is needed for this kind of future — an elite that will fight not for its own power, but for the people’s respect, given the connection between individual dignity and national identity

Unfortunately, as the Kalmyk people’s congress in Elista shows, people are always ready to “force others to respect them” on a local level, but are far less ready to defend their dignity when it comes to the arbitrary rule of public officials and law enforcement.

In today’s Russia, it’s more realistic to wait for the state to reach the final stage of exhaustion and let power slip from its grasp. Of course, then we’ll have to deal with the same questions: you can’t build a nation without civic activity. 

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