Staunton, August 20 – On this anniversary of the August 1991 coup, some commentators are asking whether Russia could fall apart as the USSR did 25 years ago even as others are insisting that the differences between the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union make that impossible and even unthinkable.
But because some former senior American officials are now saying that no one imagined the USSR could fall apart until the coup happened – something that simply isn’t true as any review of the record will show – a consideration of the possibility that the future may not be what they expect and base their policies on is perhaps useful.
Moscow economist Vladislav Inozemtsev argues that despite the fears of many and the hopes of some, “the probability of the disintegration of Russia is extremely low.” Countries seldom fall apart unless either they are subject to outside force or are seriously divided along ethnic or religious lines (snob.ru/selected/entry/96635).
Russia today does not face either of these threats, he says. First, “in present-day Russia there does not exist that national-religious basis for ‘sovereignization’ of its constituent parts,” except for tiny portions such as the North Caucasus along the periphery whose departure would not threaten the country and might even be welcomed by the Russian majority.
Second, “the disintegration of a country like Russia could not bring economic benefits to either the Russian people as a whole or to the population of any of its potentially independent countries.” And third, those areas that might be interested in leaving either are surrounded by Russian ones, which makes independence difficult, or would fall into the hands of a foreign power such as China, a prospect that limits the attractiveness of departure.
For these reasons which he explores in detail in his article, Inozemtsev says that he “cannot foresee causes and occasions for ‘centrifugal’ forces to become the dominating political trend in present-day Russia” – “with one exception.” And it is to that exception that he devotes the core of his argument.
“Separatism could become a serious problem for the Kremlin,” he argues, only if it appeared in the form that would appear to be its complete opposite – in the form of a certain ‘re-arrangement’ of Russia and not its disintegration.” Indeed, Inozemtsev says, “this is precisely what should have been done with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s” but wasn’t.
According to the Moscow analyst, “the power of Moscow over Russia is strong because any variants of the disintegration of the country … appear as completely counter-productive and not having any benefits either for those who could leave or those who would remain.” But again, there is an exception.
“This variant,” he says, “could be called the scenario of ‘the anti-Moscow fronde,’” one that could arise because “historically Russia has been created not as a federation of territories … but as a classical colonial power,” in which Muscovy having freed itself from the Horde “began to transform” the lands around it into “settler and then military colonies.”
“Up until the middle of the 20th century,” he continues, “it broadened its possessions and, to the extent that it could, increased the presence of the Russian population in the regions it had acquired.” But by the end of the 20th century, it faced the problem of “’imperial overstretch’” and portions of the empire fell away. What remains is a place Russians can dominate.
“However, historically demarches against the power of the metropolitan center take place not only where it established its power by force of arms and its presence was limited by military garrisons and a certain number of ‘white people.’ These happen also where the population in its overwhelming mass consist of people from the metropolis, as happened in the formation of the United States of America.”
To be sure, there was an ocean between Great Britain and the American colonies, something that doesn’t exist between Moscow and its possessions of this kind. But while that can change the details of what might happen, it does nothing to change the principle, Inozemtsev argues.
If Russia’s economic decline continues for a long time and there is political destabilization in the center, Russians beyond the ring road “will have the complete right to call their rulers to account. The task in such a situation will not be the separation of part of the state from Muscovy but its subordination to the will of the rest of the population of the country.”
Such a transformation will be necessary if Russia, a country that now consists of “a conglomerate of Muscovia and its settled colonies,” is to develop; and it will require the development of both local consciousness and an awareness of what has to be done to make it a real federal state.
And in the course of this, there is little likelihood that the Russian Federation will suffer the fate of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, but it may very well face the one that arose when 800 years ago, the English barons forced the king to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede,” something many in Moscow would view as a kind of disintegration of their country.
Inozemtsev concludes: “the transformation of Russia into a genuine federation, even with the right of exit for its component parts and Moscow into one of its largest although least productive leaders seems to be the only means not of the salvation of the country” from what he suggests are the illusory prospects of disintegration but also of putting it on course to develop.
That is something, he suggests, which “all Russians without exception are interested in.”