Friday, May 30, 2014

Crimean Anschluss Provoking a New Russian Regionalism

By Paul Goble

Vladimir Putin’s push for the federalization of Ukraine is now echoing in Russian regions, nowhere more powerfully than in the exclave of Kaliningrad, where support for independence has declined in recent years from 7 percent to 4 percent. But, at the same time, calls by its residents for the oblast to be given “special status”—and that is what most Russians understand by “federalization”—have increased to 53 percent.

According to Russian analyst Pavel Pryannikov, who blogs at, “the ‘Russian spring’ in Crimea and in the eastern portion of Ukraine has shown the ordinary Russian that from now on the norm in his region and in his country could become” something very different than it has been in the past (

Indeed, he suggests, ordinary Russians now increasingly feel that in pursuit of what they believe is Kremlin-approved “federalization,” they might choose to seize government buildings, carry weapons, nationalize the property of the oligarchs, and decide the most important questions via referendum.

That is a lesson Moscow certainly does not want its own population to learn or even more to see manifested in the event of inter-ethnic conflicts or the next round of cutbacks in company towns. And it is one that would be especially worrisome in Kaliningrad, which has always been considered “one of the most separatist regions in Russia.”

In a poll conducted in 2003, “fewer than a quarter of Kaliningraders” did not want any significant political or economic changes in the status of their oblast, with about 7 percent calling for independence, 12 percent for its joint subordination to the European Union and Russia, 37 percent for a special economic status within Russia, and 11 percent for a special political one (

Support for any such fundamental shifts in the status of Kaliningrad fell until recently, almost certainly because Moscow did send more money to the region and because Vladimir Putin made it clear that his government would crack down hard on any calls for independence or joint subordination to the European Union.

But a poll taken in April, that is after the Crimean anschluss, shows that Kaliningraders are once again thinking about the status of their oblast and how it might or should be changed ( On the one hand, Moscow certainly took pleasure in the fact that the percentage of Kaliningraders calling for independence fell by almost half to 4 percent.  But on the other, the Russian government can hardly be pleased that “the number of Kaliningraders who consider that their region should have a special status—that is, [be a beneficiary of real] ‘federalization’”—is up sharply to 53 percent. 

In commenting on the results, the New Kaliningrad portal said that “the level of so-called separatist attitudes in Kaliningrad oblast today is in fact falling toward zero,” a reflection of what it suggested “was a consolidation of the regional community around the notion that separation from Russia is an impermissible thought.”  But at the same time, as Pryannikov points out, Kaliningraders do not want to be a region like any other but “a special region.” And as Putin and his ruling team have implied in Ukraine, that could open the way for independence or joining a neighboring country at some point in the future.

Consequently, while the face of Kaliningrad is changing under the impact of the Crimean annexation, the challenges that this non-contiguous Baltic region poses for Moscow are likely to grow. This is all the more so because, having taken the position it has pushed in Ukraine, the Putin regime is likely to be far less capable of preventing the growth of this new set of attitudes not only in Kaliningrad but in other predominantly ethnic-Russian regions of the country.

And that, in turn, means Russian regionalism may prove an even greater threat to Moscow’s ability to govern the country than even do the national movements of the various non-Russian nations currently within the borders of the Russian Federation.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pushkino Skhod Reflects Pattern of Russian Federation’s Move to the Right

By Richard Arnold
In the Moscow region town of Puskhino, on Thursday, May 15, football fans and other hooligans held another skhod (people’s gathering) which resulted in the arrests of 40 people. The skhod drew around 500 people out into the streets to march in protest to the May 13 murder of 22-year-old Spartak Moscow fan Leonid Safyanikov by two men, one of whom was a migrant from Uzbekistan, Zhazoniyra Akhmed. Following the deadly incident, Akhmed flew to Uzbekistan. The skhod threatened to morph into a pogrom before order was restored by riot police (OMON) and other law enforcement authorities ( Indeed, several times, the people who had met for the skhod did actually engage in violence, trying to break through to a dormitory where working migrants are known to live. For the most part, however, those who gathered for the skhod were simply content to take an aggressive public stance at an ethnic rally ( Zhazoniyra Akhmed was charged under article 111 (intentional infliction of harm to victim, resulting in death), article 166 (stealing a car), and article 167 (intentional damage to others’ property), and ordered detained in absentia. With the help of Uzbekistan’s criminal authorities, the diaspora, and human rights organizations, Akhmed flew back to Moscow and was formally arrested at Domodedovo airport ( Other than the immediate events that allowed the protest to happen, the Puskhino skhod is notable for three reasons.

First, it demonstrates the continued success of the Far Right’s tactic of mobilizing ordinary people in response to particular crimes, which are then generalized to an entire ethnic diaspora group. The so-called “Kondopoga technology” ( has been used to great effect in generating hostility to migrants in the past. The events of Pushkino demonstrate that this is still an avenue of mobilization open to the Far Right. Similarly, this incident suggests that actors on the Russian Far Right are indeed promoting this as a way to address social problems.

Second, the Pushkino events demonstrate the move of the Far Right toward concentrating on football fans. Since the banning of the Far Right ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’ in 2011 ( and the general crackdown on skinhead gangs by the Russian authorities, Far Right groups have tried to recruit supporters amongst soccer fans and team fan clubs. Of course, football fans all across Europe are believed to be affiliated with Far Right organizations, and in Russia the cooperation between the two groups has been well documented. Still, the abandonment of any kind of formal structure outside the groups of football fans is notable.

Third, it foretells that the Russian regime itself may move even further to the right. The protests in 2012 against Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency combined two social opposition forces—the nationalists and the liberals—who might never have had anything to do with one another were it not for Putin’s reelection to the Kremlin. In order to prevent further dissent, the regime repressed the liberals but tried to co-opt the ethno-nationalists, as witnessed by Putin’s use of the term “Russki” (ethnic-Russian) nation in his speech on March 18, welcoming the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol ( Because the regime now relies on such people for support, it is unable to crack down on expressions of ethnic pride and racism without undermining itself. Hence, the Russian state in the future is likely to permit more skhods and possibly move even further to the right. The riots in Pushkino are perhaps part of a pattern that will set the contours of Russian (and global) politics for a long time to come.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Rogozin’s Threats Highlight Russia’s Isolation

By Richard Arnold

Russia’s international isolation progressed even further on May 15, when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that Russia would be blocking the signal of the American Global Positioning Satellite system on its territory. From June 1, the “work of American stations transmitting the GPS signal in Russia will be terminated unless negotiations concerning the placement of GLONASS stations on American territory are completed” ( GLONASS is the Russian rival to the American GPS system, which is admittedly many years behind, although it is predicted to be roughly comparable in quality to GPS (

Rogozin’s statement is of more symbolic than practical importance, as there is no indication that, outside of Russia, the system will be affected at all. The idea that the United States could use its GPS system to gain some possible military advantage in a confrontation with Russia has also been ridiculed even on the Russian Internet ( Rather, the primary effect of such a move is most likely to be symbolic and a perfect metaphor for Russia’s choice to opt out of the international system in the wake of Moscow’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine.

Dmitry Rogozin had earlier provided another metaphor for Russia’s isolation on May 14, when he declared that Russia would be ceasing cooperation with the United States’ space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after 2020 ( Russia would be redirecting its attention elsewhere, Rogozin said, and not to joint space exploration (see EDM, May 15). The announcement should be troubling for NASA, as Russian rockets launched from the Baikonur space station in Kazakhstan currently remain the only way of reaching the International Space Station (ISS) following the termination of the US shuttle program in 2011. If the United States wants to keep the orbiting laboratory functioning beyond its putative end of use date of 2024, it will have to work out another way of carrying supplies and astronauts to and from the ISS. Joint cooperation in space continued between the United States and the Soviet Union even during the Cold War, so this announcement implies an even frostier relationship than was true in the middle of the last century.

On April 2, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) already suspended cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan, including in counter-narcotics and helicopter maintenance programs ( A counter-narcotics program in the country is clearly in Moscow’s best interest due to Russia being the biggest market for Afghan heroin and hashish. At the same time, Russian investment in Afghanistan is picking up steam, possibly suggesting Putin’s desire to anchor his position in Central Asia ( Afghanistan is a particularly symbolic case due to it being the graveyard of the Soviet Union after US-backed Mujahedeen turned the country into a quagmire similar to Vietnam for the United States. Restoring Russia’s position in Afghanistan would be a major symbolic victory for Vladimir Putin, who could truly claim to have exorcised the ghost of Soviet demise. Taken individually, none of these moves is likely to have an effect on the international order; but taken together, they provide evidence that a new climate of mutual suspicion, distrust and fear has settled over the world. Such international discord creates new opportunities for other rising powers in the world to become more assertive and is possibly at least a partial explanation for the timing of Chinese activism in the South China Sea and in Vietnam.

Friday, May 9, 2014

‘Ethno-Religious Organized Crime’ Now Threatens North Caucasus, Moscow Says

By Paul Goble

The Russian Procuracy has told the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) that “the greatest threat to security and stability in the North Caucasus region comes from organized criminal formations of a religious-extremist direction, which have formed diversionary groups” (

Moscow officials clearly intend this to be a sign of progress in their fight against the militants, an indication that militant groups are no longer receiving as much funding from abroad as they did, and that the militants are having to return to methods they used in the early 1990s to finance their operations. But the situation is more complicated than that, and the convergence of criminal and militant groups in the North Caucasus may make it more difficult for the authorities there to root out either. Indeed, this symbiosis could lead to a new growth in both.

While Moscow’s latest statement is little more than a combination of charges Russian officials have made against the militants in the North Caucasus in the past, it calls attention to three new developments, each of which bears watching.  First, it suggests that the militants now have an increasingly effective way of financing themselves domestically even if Moscow is able to cut off their funding from abroad.  Indeed, the report says that one of the most common kinds of criminal-militant interaction is the use of stolen or lost bank cards to funnel money to anti-Russian groups in the countryside.

Second, the new terminology suggests that Russian officials now plan to charge at least some “ordinary” criminals with links to those Moscow identifies as terrorists.  That would significantly increase the sentences of anyone so charged.  Russian prosecutors clearly believe that this will act as a deterrent against the willingness of any criminal to cooperate with militants.  But the result could be exactly the opposite: If ordinary criminals are likely to face such charges, they may have good reason to link up with militants who may be in a position to provide them with some protection against judicial overreach.  Indeed, such a change in Russian prosecutorial behavior could lead to the growth of militant groups rather than the reverse.

And third, this new term suggests that Moscow now faces a far more deep-rooted problem than it did in the past. If criminal groups and militant ones are linking up in the ways that the prosecutors say, then the Russian authorities face a far more difficult challenge in the North Caucasus than they have been claiming in recent years. That such a conclusion is justified is suggested by the report itself: it says that given what is taking place, the authorities must set up “a reliable organization of operational-investigative activity directed in the first instance at uncovering criminal intensions and also at the identification and location of persons involved in the preparation and carrying out of crimes of a terrorist character.”

At the very least, this suggests that, today, Russian law enforcement bodies are, in fact, very much afraid that they face an enemy who is stronger than in the past.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Moscow Launches Soviet-Style Propaganda Effort to Link North Caucasians to Nazis

By Paul Goble

One of the constant themes of Soviet propaganda was that the peoples who were deported at the end of World War II deserved it because they had collaborated with Nazi Germany during that conflict. With the passage of laws and the issuing of statements by Soviet and then Russian leaders to rehabilitate these groups—Vladimir Putin’s decree last month rehabilitating the Crimean Tatars and other groups deported from that Ukrainian peninsula is only the latest example—such attacks had become much less common.

But now, in what may presage a broader campaign in advance of the May 21st commemoration by Circassians around the world of the 150th anniversary of their deportation, Russian commentators are reviving Soviet-style claims that those who were deported in at least some cases deserved it because of their collaboration with the German invaders. The latest involves the Kalmyks, a 180,000-strong Buddhist nationality, which lives in a republic adjoining the North Caucasus and which was deported with major losses of life in 1943.

Writing for the Interfax news agency, commentator Viktor Solodkov says that one Kalmyk who in recent years had enjoyed the reputation as a hero of Staliningrad— Gennady Zolochevsky—in fact had voluntarily joined the German forces as a soldier in the anti-Soviet Kalmyk Cavalry Corps and served it rather than the Red Army until 1945. In 1946, Solodkov continues, Zolochevsky, was found guilty of crimes against the Soviet Union and sentenced to 15 years in a prison camp. In 1992, the Interfax commentator says, Zolochevsky unsuccessful sought rehabilitation as a victim of political repression (

But the Kalmyk authorities reversed the decision of the Russian court because they were “handing out rehabilitating documents […] without any checks whatsoever. And a decade later, in 2005, on the basis of that decision by Kalmyk officials, Zolochevsky was even given the status of a Soviet veteran of the Great Fatherland War with all the rights, benefits and respect that title gives—including a large pension. And this injustice was compounded in 2011 when the Kalmyk authorities gave him a series of additional subsidies as a veteran.

Encouraged by his success, Zolochevsky tried to obtain even more, but finally, some Russian officials checked court records and rejected his applications. Yet, despite that, he has retained his earlier benefits. Now, Solodkov says, some people are trying to change that.

“It is probable,” the Interfax commentator says, “this is not a unique case of fraud involving veterans’ rights.” That last comment transforms what might appear to be a simple story into something more. First, it is beyond any question an attack on Kalmyk officials and by implication other non-Russian republics that may be “protecting” such people. Second, it is an invitation for witch hunts against anyone Russians suspect may be hiding something.

And third, and most serious, Solodkov’s article is the latest in a new wave of attacks against anyone who has opposed a Russian government, tsarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet, in the past, an indication that more such blackening of the reputations of individuals and whole nations is all too likely.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The International Flavor of Kremlin Propaganda

By Richard Arnold

Russia-watchers have noted the Kremlin’s domestic deployment of propaganda, which attempts to harness Russian society’s support for its imperialist project in eastern Ukraine (see EDM, May 1), but the efforts being made by the Kremlin to change international opinion have received less attention. Of note has been the focus on Putin’s allies in the European Far Right ( The widely expected strategy is for Russia to promote far-right parties like the Front Nationale (France), Jobbik (Hungary), and the British National Party (United Kingdom) ahead of the European Parliament elections due in May 2014. A good showing by these parties, which are fundamentally opposed to the European project as it currently stands (though not against the idea of racialized European Union—see Richard Arnold & Ekaterina Romanova, “The White World’s Future,” 2013), could have dire consequences for the future of Europe. Yet, Russian plans to remake the map of Europe also have other international dimensions.

In particular, unofficial Kremlin mouthpiece Vladimir Zhirinovsky wrote an open letter to Poland, Hungary and Romania suggesting that they annex (by referendum) the western portions of Ukraine ( According to Zhirinovsky, the two halves of Ukraine have “different mentalities,” which makes living together very difficult. Indeed, “when left for many years, mutual dislike, accompanied by open conflict, often turns into bloody carnage.” Zhirinovsky proposed that the Chernivtsi, Zakarpattia, Volyn, Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankisk, and Rovensky regions should all hold referenda on whether they would rather be part of neighboring countries rather than remain within Ukraine. The regions were incorporated into Ukraine during the Soviet era, something Zhirinovsky described as a “historical mistake.” The plan would have little legal foundation in international law, but would give Russia’s own “referendum” on Crimean sovereignty a more solid legal base. Of course, there is no sign that the Western countries would cooperate on such a proposed bargain. Notably, Poland said the plan was a product of Zhirinovsky’s “sick mind” and called it “ridiculous” ( At least through conventional political channels, then, such proposals to change the international political scene are somewhat lacking.

But this has not stopped the Kremlin from trying to present such an image to the rest of the world. For example, the Kremlin’s English-language Voice of Russia service featured an article about how ethnic Poles in the Zhitomir region of Western Ukraine are demanding a referendum of their own ( According to the article, which cites a number of supposed “experts” on the ethnic situation in Ukraine, the “referendum” was initiated due to the divisive issue of the memory of the 1943 Volhynia massacre where Ukrainians killed between 50,000 and 100,000 ethnic Poles. This Voice of Russia story follows attempts by the Kremlin to use ethnic minorities throughout the former Soviet space to achieve Russian national goals—such as the Rusins in western Ukraine (see EDM, April 8). Overall, this creates an impression of Russia as a historically revisionist power, bent on fundamentally changing some of the milestone treaties on which the current world order is based. Rather than just revisiting the Belovezh’a accords of 1991, which dismantled the Soviet Union, Russia seems to want to turn the clock back even further.

That Russia should be trying to sway international public opinion is not surprising, given the magnitude of international norms its president broke by ordering the annexation of Crimea and promoting instability in eastern Ukraine. The vision of Europe that the Kremlin projects is one that promotes the importance of ethnicity in international relations. This is hardly unexpected given the contentious debates over the place of ethnicity in the multi-ethnic Russian Federation and the fact that Russia experienced a different historical development of nationalism to the Western European states.