Staunton, January 27 – Russia faces something even worse than disintegration, a long period in which the regions ignore Moscow because Moscow has insufficient funds to ensure their loyalty lest they lose all chance of getting money in the future and in which Moscow ignores how them are ignoring the center lest it provoke secession, Dmitry Oreshkin says.
That is a truly unstable and unpredictable situation, one that could be described although Oreshkin doesn’t use this term, as a failed state, a place where lots of institutions have power but where there is no single controlling center able to ensure consistency across its territory. Such states are especially dangerous as they may seek to resolve their problems via aggression abroad.
Such states may continue to exist with the same borders but their politics will be fundamentally altered, with the center and the periphery living in very different realities and with the risk that one or the other could miscalculate and send the country into a death spiral all too real.
The reasons many are talking about the possibility of the disintegration of the Russian Federation is the economic crisis, Orseshkin says, because “in Russia, any economic crisis always acquires a geographic dimension,” given the extreme centralization of the Russian economy.
Moscow collects the money and sends part of it back to the regions, but at present, there are “fewer than ten donor regions” and “a minimum of 76” who rely on federal subsidies. If the center runs out of money, the leaders of the latter face “stress” from two directions given that the center has imposed unfunded liabilities and that local elites can’t raise enough money locally.
Such officials invariably explain their problems in the following way: “Moscow isn’t giving” what it should. “Such appeals very well confirm the thesis that the crisis is acquiring a geographic dimension” given that “Moscow is guilty of everything.” But they can’t break with Moscow lest they not get any funds in the future.
In the Russian Federation now as in the Soviet Union at the end, “the most depressed regions are the last to begin to accuse Moscow because they are most depend on subsidies from it.” But those who most actively sought to escape from the USSR were precisely those like the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who were relatively better off.
Those who are better off now are those which can produce more oil and gas or sell more agricultural goods or are the site of defense industry, Oreshkin says; but those are precisely the ones who are dependent on Moscow in other ways in order to get money for what they extract or build.
Chechnya is a major recipient of federal aid, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Kadyrov “has in fact created a sovereign state in which there is its own law and economy, even though it is subsidized.” But Moscow “doesn’t actually control it.” The center provides money but “Kadyrov spends it as he likes.” In such a situation, he isn’t ready to try to secede.
As for other regions, their leaders will try to get what they can and Moscow will increasingly recognize that it has lost control over exactly what they do with the subsidies. Calling for secession is political death, but ignoring Moscow is increasingly possible – and hence the common legal space Putin promoted earlier will disappear.
Instead, the regional elites will use whatever money they do get as they like, “and the Kremlin will look through its fingers at their activity in the region.” All will be as satisfied as they can be with limited resources, but the Russian Federation will increasingly look like anything but a unified state.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States. He also served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.