Twenty years ago, in a now-classic study, “Gorbachev’s Failure in Lithuania,” historian Alfred Erich Senn documented the ways in which Mikhail Gorbachev failed to understand the diversity of challenges then facing Soviet rule and adopted a one-size-fits-all policy. This had the effect of exacerbating these problems throughout the country and hastening the end of the Soviet Union.
Today, one can say much the same thing about Vladimir Putin. And nowhere have the current Russian president’s failures of understanding and his failure of response been more obvious and more fateful over the last year than in the strategically important republics of the Middle Volga. There, the Kremlin leader has mistakenly assumed that he faces the same challenges to central control that he does in the North Caucasus and has adopted a similar strategy to governance.
Over the past dozen years, Putin has assumed, largely on the basis of his experience with the North Caucasus, that the primary threat to the territorial integrity of Russia is Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, he has argued that Moscow can best defeat that challenge by a combination of force, economic assistance and the installation of hyper-loyal regional leaders. The classic example of this approach has been Putin’s support for the Chechen regime of Ramzan Kadyrov. But the Russian leader has extended it across the North Caucasus, creating a series of Potemkin villages of superficial stability.
Far more fatefully, Putin has drawn the same conclusions and adopted the same policies in the Middle Volga. Yet, because these republics are quite different, the results he has obtained have been different as well. More urban, more economically powerful and more politically astute than the North Caucasus, these republics have pursued and continue to pursue a kind of secular nationalism that has very little to do with any rise of Islamism in the region. Nevertheless, certain events, such as the attack on the mufti of Tatarstan and the murder of one senior Muslim official there last summer—what some have called “the Caucasianization” of the Middle Volga—have allowed Putin and all too many outside observers in Russia and abroad to argue otherwise.
There are indeed a few Islamic radicals in these republics, especially in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, but they are not setting the political tone there or in the Christian Turkic republic of Chuvashia or the Finno-Ugric republics of Mari El, Mordvinia and Urdmurtia. But despite the attention Putin and the Moscow media have given to them (See the continuing flow of articles at www.kazan-center.ru/), the actions of the Islamists, which seem more about attracting headlines or justifying Moscow’s intervention (zvezdapovolzhya.ru/obshestvo/otkrytoe-pismo-13-12-2012.html), are far less significant than several other developments.
First, in the face of Moscow’s opposition, Tatarstan’s State Council at the end of the year voted to allow Tatars to write in the Latin script rather than the Cyrillic-based one when they deal with republic officials, a step that brings this Middle Volga republic more closely into line with the broader Turkic world rather than with Moscow and the rest of Russia (www.ng.ru/regions/2012-12-24/100_graphics.html).
Second, Mintimir Shaymiyev, the former president of Tatarstan whom Putin displaced but who remains the most influential non-Russian leader in the Russian Federation, has argued that legislation affecting the non-Russians needs to be considered in a way so that they will not always be outvoted by the ethnic Russian majority. “It is impossible by a simple vote in the State Duma,” he suggests, “to defend the interests of the national republics because there are always fewer [non-ethnic Russian deputies] and [they] cannot count even on a simple majority.” That must be remedied by “the participation of the representatives of the national republics” in Duma deliberations about laws affecting the republics (www.kommersant.ru/doc/2088279).
And third, Rashit Akhmetov, publisher of Kazan’s “Zvezda Povolzhya,” has argued that Putin’s plan to suppress the non-Russian republics puts the Russian Federation on a most dangerous course (zvezdapovolzhya.ru/obshestvo/predchuvstvie-28-12-2012.html). At his December press conference, the publisher noted, Putin spoke casually about the possibility of “liquidating” the republics when he said that “if the republics themselves made such a request about a decision of their own legislative organ or after the holding of a referendum, then such decisions were possible.” But “which republic will go first in such a voluntary ‘parade of gubernizatsias?’ One can only guess.”
What one can be certain of, Akhmetov said, is that such a drive to do away with the republics will lead to a rise in inter-ethnic tensions, provoke “the growth of protest attitudes among the national movements in the republics, and then end with the disintegration of Russia.” However, “the liquidation of the republics is an idee fixe of the Moscow leadership,” and lacking any understanding of the situation, Putin is thus promoting an idea that will lead to precisely what he says Moscow most opposes.
“Putin has said,” Akhmetov continued, “that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But that collapse, whatever the Kremlin leader believes, “was not an accident.” It was “an iron necessity, and Yeltsin’s contribution was that this disintegration occurred peacefully.” Today, he added, “the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians is being used for the growth of patriotic attitudes and the ideological ‘cementing’ of ‘the state-forming people,’” but given that “more than 50 percent of the country consists of mixed families […] this slogan is extraordinarily.”
“In the 21st century, Russia cannot exist except as a federation; otherwise, it will break apart as a result of the growth of internal tensions.” But Putin and “the special services in principle are not capable of carrying out processes of economic modernization or even more the democratization of society; the function of the special services is protection and security… They seek to minimize the risks” by choking off information and being “suspicious of anything and everything.”
Such a trajectory, it would seem, is far more threatening to Moscow’s future than the actions of the small number of Islamists in the Middle Volga on whom Putin and his colleagues in the Center are focused.