Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Regionalists in Russia Emerging Between Unitary State and Nationalist Movements, Activist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 27 – Vadim Shteppa, one of the chief ideologists of the Free Karelia movement who writes frequently on regionalism and nationalism in Russia, says that regionalist movements are emerging across the Russian Federation drawing on the model of regionalism in Europe to oppose the increasingly unitary nature of the Russian state.

            Regionalism in Russia, he told the Finnish journal, “Karjalan Kuvlehti” earlier this month, seeks federalism within the country as a means to promoting rights and freedom.  It thus stands between nationalist groups who seek independence and Moscow which has deprived the regions of their rights under the constitution.

            Indeed, what he and his fellow regionalists are doing in Russia, Shteppa continued, resembles the actions and growing important of “regional self-administration in Europe,” where this is “not so much ‘an opposition’ but rather an official and recognized strategy” ( 

            None of Russia's regionalists has achieved that status yet, he said, but he devoted the remainder of his interview to a discussion of the Free Karelia movement with which he is assocaited, its relationships with the nationalists and with the authorities, and his vision of the prospects for the Russian Federation depending on which course it chooses        

           Free Karelia, Shteppa recounted, "is a civic movement which developed on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network." It started five years ago and initially seemed to many to be "a kind of joke.  At first, its members simply talked about federalism and what they would like to see in Karelia in the future.
            But today, he said, there are more than a thousand people in the group, "a clear indication that regionalist ideas are becoming ever more popular in Russia." While officials have refused to recognize it as a political movement with teh right to take part in elections, Free Karelia has already grown beyond "'virtual space.'"
            Last year, for example, it participated in the Russia-wide protests against the falsification of elections and in Karelia protests about various local issues. Democratic groups and the free media are showing ever more interest in our activities, Shteppa said, and "they are sometimes actively discussing our ideas."

            Russian political consciousness, he added, "traditionally lags behind the European," and although Russia would like a visa-free regime with the European Union, it is still the case tht Russia and Europe exist "in two different worlds," as Shteppa says he showed in his recent book, "Interregnum: 100 Questions and Answers about Regionalism."

            But European ideas do penetrate Russia although they may take on a different shape there. And the regionalists of Europe are now a model for regionalists across the Russian Federation who today "exist primarily as informal network projects" but hope to influence Russian policy.

           Regionalists, Shteppa said, are dissatisfied with the current situation in Russia and consider it unjust. "Today in every oblast and republic one can hear that Moscow is an imperialist center that is stealing from the regions." The latter have no chance to freely choose their own leaders and "all their resources and taxes go off to 'the Center.'"

           What regionalists want, he argued, is for Russia to live up to the provisions of its constitution, to become "a real federation," and therefore the goal of Free Karelia is "to raise the level of the sovereignty of the Republic of Karelia" within the Russian Federation rather than to promote as the nationalists do its exit and establishment as an independent state.

           Thus, the regionalists keep "a certain distance" away from the nationalists, Shteppa said, and not just for the obvious reasons. "Many nationalists," he poitneout "are supporters of a centralistand imperial power," and that is the case with Russian and "however paradoxically" with non-Russian nationalists as well.The latter simply want Mocow to give them "more money to support national culture." With that "their political demands are in practice exhausted."

           According to Shteppa, regionalist movements in the Russian Federation have three distinct sets of demands, political, economic and cultural.  In politics, they fight "for free elections of republic parliaments and presidents, instead of the appointment of the authorities by 'the vertical.'"

          In economics, they "demand that the resources and taxes of [the regins] work for them] rather than for far-away bureaucrats and oligarchs." They do not want the regions and republis where they live to be treated as Moscow's "colonies" but as full-fledged membersof the whole country as the constitution requires.

           And in cultural affairs, regionalists in Karelia and elsewhere "call for the preservation and developent of [their] unique republic culture[s] and participate in the cultural measures" of all groups. Moreover, the regionalists support the development of "indigenous [ethnic] Russian culture ... which also today is suppressed by the empire."

            As these movements have grown, Moscow has become more interested in them. The FSB has asked the Free Karelia movement whether it receives any foreign financing  When the organs were assured that it doesn't, "they have left us in peace," although in Russia it is impossible to say that they won't turn toward repression at some point. 

           "But," Shteppa cotinued, "it is possible that they have found a more effective means for the struggle against us in the conditions of today's information-driven world." The organs have sought to ensure that the mass media idea what Free Karelia and its partners are doing and thus limit their ability to grow.

            Moreover, he added "the press close to the authorities usually puts the epithet 'separatists' on us." Given that "imperialist ideology is now in fashion in Russia," such a desriptio eans that for many readers demands for Russia to live up to its own constitution and laws are viewed as "'separatism.'"

           As far as the future is concerned, Shteppa suggested that his country has only two alternatives: "Either Russia will become a genuine federation where the rights and sovereignty of the regions will be respected or it will break up just as the USSR did." An the latter may happen far ooner and more quickly than anyone now believes.

            Externally the Putin "power vertical" looks strong but "in reality itis very rickety an weak." The ony systems that "in fact" are stong are democratic ones. Where everything depends on one man as in the case of authoritarian Russia, "if something happens, then everything immediately falls apart."

           Shteppa said his group "would like to establish and maintain links with other European regionalists," to exchange information or "possibly" organize joint projects.  And it would "be grateful to our European colleagues for legal support if that suddenly becomes required."

            The Finnish newspaper concluded its interview with Shteppa by citing the words of the manifesto of the Free Karelia Movement which paraphrase the famous words of the Communist Manifesto of 1848: "Down with the Empire! Long Live a Free Karelia! Regionalists of hte world, Unite!"

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