Apr 9, 2005 | 02:06 GMT

8 mins read

Russia: The Spreading 'Revolutionary' Spirit

A "revolutionary" spirit inspired by the fall of Kremlin-backed governments during popular demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan is building within Russia proper with the West's encouragement. Regional forces are positioning themselves to grab power in constituent republics of the Russian Federation with significant nonethnic Russian populations. If they succeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of the Russian Federation as a state and country.
Well-organized demonstrations in Bashkortostan on March 26 and similar protests being prepared elsewhere in Russia show that the Western-encouraged "revolutionary" movements in the former Soviet Union (FSU) are spilling over into Russia. This trend indicates the first "revolutions" inside the multiethnic Russian Federation will be on a regional level in areas with significant nonethnic Russian populations. Disparate groups — pro-Western liberals, anti-Russian nationalists, Islamists and crime syndicates — will try to lead these "revolutions" and use them to their advantage while making temporary alliances among themselves. Geopolitically, these potential "revolutions" are more dangerous to Moscow than the Chechen war. Unless the Kremlin acts quickly to deal with these movements, Russia's territorial integrity will start crumbling. Russian security sources and opposition forces have intelligence that "revolutions" similar to — and even larger than — the current attempt in Bashkortostan are being prepared in several other Russian regions, including Bashkortostan's neighbor Tatarstan, Yakutia and Tuva in Siberia, Karelia in the northwest, Kalmykia in the lower Volga region and several republics in the North Caucasus. Many of these areas are strategically significant. If any broke away from Moscow after a Western-inspired "revolution," not only would it set precedent for breaking the Russian Federation as a state, it would put the rest of Russia in an untenable position indeed. Take, for example, Tatarstan and Yakutia. Tatarstan is perhaps the most important of these potentially breakaway regions. One of the major economic engines for all of Russia — because of its developed oil sector and status as a center of mechanical engineering, among other things — Tatarstan presides over the middle Volga region and sits between Moscow and the Urals, the main base of Russian heavy industry. Together with Bashkortostan, Tatarstan controls Russia's longest strategic transportation corridor from its eastern borders to Western Europe. If Tatarstan is cut off from Russia, little oil and few trains and trucks would be able to make it from Russia's Far East and Siberia to Europe. Tatars also are the most politically active and influential ethnic minority in Russia; only 23 percent of them live in Tatarstan, while others are in Moscow and other important centers. Many have commanded top positions in Russian politics, economics and security services. Tatar oligarchs are second — though a distant second — only to Jewish oligarchs among Russia's elite. The Tatar lobby in the Kremlin and Tatar mafias in Moscow and the Tatar capital of Kazan' are among the strongest in the country. Tatarstan's current privileges as a republic within the Russian Federation are the highest and closest to independence. Separatism — and, to a lesser but still important extent, Islamism — have developed strongly among Tatars since perestroika. Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev is a moderate nationalist — Russian President Vladimir Putin does not dare replace him, despite their political struggle over Tatarstan's quiet drifting away from Moscow, because there are forces in Tatarstan more radical than Shaimiev. Those forces, which are preparing to push for full independence, make Tatarstan appear ripe to become the next big stage for anti-Kremlin protests. Yakutia — currently called Sakha-Yakutia Republic — is Russia's biggest region and occupies one-fifth of the total territory of Russia, namely a huge chunk of Eastern Siberia. It is Russia's "gold mine" and also very rich in diamonds. If it breaks away from Russia, Yakutia would shut out Russia's northwest — Chukotka, Kamchatka and other areas — from the rest of the country, leaving the isolated areas at the mercy of the United States (Alaska borders this region via the Bering Strait). Yakutia saw violent anti-Russian separatist demonstrations under former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, with ethnic Russians killed on the streets of Yakutsk, the republic's capital, in the late 1980s. The separatist movement is still very much alive there, and Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have reached Yakutia and are actively trying to unite the opposition, Yakut government sources say. The frequency of demonstrations in the Russian Federation's nonethnic Russian areas has steadily increased in recent months. Demonstrators in Ingushetia periodically demand the return of the disputed Prigorodny District from North Ossetia, an issue which has led to protests against Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, a close friend of Putin. Protesters in Karachay-Cherkessia in October 2004 stormed the office of their President Mustafa Batdyev. North Ossetia has seen protests to call for the resignation of President Alexander Dzasokhov, who the public blames for inaction during the Beslan school crisis in September 2004. These regions already have some regional autonomy and would have fewer steps to take to break from Moscow than ethnic Russian areas where displeasure with the Kremlin's policies and some desire for autonomy also is growing. Moscow's influence among non-Russian republics is weaker than elsewhere in Russia, because many locals in non-Russian regions feel more bound to their local ethnic and religious groups than to Moscow. It makes sense, then, that "revolutions" under a pro-Western banner are starting in Russia's ethnic minority areas where central control already is weak — the goal is to hit Russia in its weakest spots so the "revolutions" have a better chance of success. Clearly, momentum is building to shift regional power away from the Kremlin. Protesters are emboldened by the success of the recent popular "revolutions" in nearby FSU republics. Furthermore, protesters no longer fear reprisals by the Russian government, because Moscow's response to recent demonstrations has been docile — with no arrests or harsh penalties for opposition leaders. Opposition groups also see support from abroad. U.S. President George W. Bush promotes democratic reform around the world to advance his administration's goals for the United States, and Washington has supported oppositions and immediately recognized the new governments instituted after "revolutions" in the FSU. Western NGOs such as the Freedom House and Soros Foundation affiliates help opposition forces with planning, organize seminars on how to lead protests and quickly train activists, assist with printing opposition publications and give some financial support. U.S. Protestant missionaries — intentionally or not, though Russian authorities suspect the former — also play an important role in helping non-Russian ethnic regions break away from Moscow. It is telling that newly converted local Protestants have become opposition activists in those regions. Some Bashkir evangelical converts said many hundreds of them participate in and even spearhead the "revolution" there. This is a very high number, given that there are roughly 8,000 known converts there. Several hundred activists from the evangelical community is quite significant, given that in Kyrgyzstan, for example, it took only 2,000 to 3,000 demonstrators to break into and occupy the central government offices, de facto displacing the old regime. By encouraging "revolutions" in Russia's ethnic minority areas, the Bush administration — and, to an extent, Europe — is following the footsteps of all other powers that have tried to weaken Russia. The British Empire gave money, arms and military instructors to the Caucasian and Central Asian tribes rebelling within the Russian Czarist Empire in the 19th century. The entente did the same for non-Russian nationalist movements during the October Revolution and in the 1920s, hoping that ethnic minority areas would break away from Soviet Russia. Adolf Hitler's Germany formed legions of many thousands of nonethnic Russians unhappy with Moscow's rule during its invasion of the Soviet Union. The opposition forces preparing "revolutions" in nonethnic Russian areas are composed of different forces, ranging from pro-Western liberals to anti-Russian nationalists (both moderate and radical), to Islamists (again, both moderate and radical) and crime syndicates. Though their end goals are different, these groups have made concerted and thus far successful attempts at uniting in anti-Kremlin movements. Moderate nationalist opposition sources in Tatarstan say the U.S. NGO experts working in that region have made the call for unification the main point every time they talk to opposition activists. Because these various groups will try to use the "revolutions" to their own ends while cooperating with others in the process, it seems some successes in these regional movements are possible — but there also is uncertainty about what forces will eventually benefit. For the time being, it seems pro-Western liberal forces are taking the lead in Russia's "revolutionary" movements. This is because the other groups believe they can go along with the liberal-led, Western-encouraged movements for now, and when the revolution ends, if their goals are met — for example, if the nationalists or moderate Islamists end up in charge of an independent state — such a state would be better off being aligned with the West, where it can enjoy Washington's support, rather than taking what support might be available from Russia and other neighbors. Indeed, the current openly pro-Western regimes in Ukraine and Georgia are governed in part by hardcore nationalists, who often outrank pro-Western liberals. The demonstrations have yet to result in a substantial shift in authority in the republics, but the potential is quickly growing. So far, Russia's conciliatory responses have further encouraged the opposition. It is clear that the destabilizing force of "revolutions" is entering Russia proper, and unless Moscow moves quickly to deal with these well-organized, Western-supported and increasing protests, Russia could start seeing its territory slip away, piece by piece.

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