Earlier this month, a lawmaker known for loyalist legislative proposals introduced a bill that would criminalise even talking about separatism in Russia. In an apparent attempt to emulate the law that bans promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, Yevgeni Fyodorov, a deputy of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, proposed, along with two other lawmakers, making the promotion of separatism a crime punishable by up to six years in prison. If one promotes separatism in the media, the punishment could be up to 20 years. There’s little evidence that the legislation will pass. For one thing, fellow United Russia member Pavel Krashennikov, who heads a RF Gosduma legislative committee, criticised the proposal for being excessive, which is usually a signal to ultra-loyal deputies that they need to curb their enthusiasm.
However, the interesting thing about this proposal and others like it is that they unwittingly express some of the government’s most pressing anxieties. The gay promotion ban, for instance, isn’t as much about homophobia among officials (Russian officials aren’t particularly homophobic) as it is about patriotism and the wish to unite people against a common enemy, whilst the supporters of the ban on American adoptions rationalised it as a way to “force” Russia’s dysfunctional foster care system to get its act together. In a bid to show their loyalty, lawmakers will go for provocative measures to try to solve problems that government can’t solve in the first place.
Meanwhile, the threat of separatism is direr than meets the eye. Following the breakup of the USSR, the government faced two bloody separatist insurrections, both of them in Chechnya. President Vladimir Putin’s administration, for lack of a clear-cut ideology, credited itself with reining in separatism after the tumultuous 1990s. The way the government and its supporters see it, Putin’s first two terms were primarily about making sure that the country remains in existence. The state credits itself with a lot of things, but counts keeping the country together as a major achievement. One shouldn’t brush off the government’s preoccupation with this issue as protectionist paranoia.
Historically, Russia was touchy about what it perceived as foreign threats… unnamed forces seeking to tear it asunder. This mentality of a country under siege was the ideological justification for everything from a crackdown on protesters (Putin blamed the US State Department for protest activity) to the gay promotion ban. It may look like the Kremlin is battling bogeymen, but the separatist threat is actually very real, and it has a name… Russia’s size.
Russia’s enormous size is the elephant in the room from which its major problems stem. The threat of separatism isn’t just about the conflict in Chechnya. It’s as much about the country’s lack of road infrastructure, a problem that’s a function of Russia’s size, climate, and economy. If that weren’t enough, it’s also about the very identity of Russia as a multinational state… and if keeping one-sixth of the world’s landmass intact is a challenge, consider the fact that this landmass now includes 21 ethnic republics with different languages and cultural identities.
Fyodorov introduced the draft proposal soon after supposed calls for separatism that came in response to last month’s ethnic unrest in Moscow and the resulting rise in nationalist sentiment. In that regard, many view Russian nationalism as a separatist problem… Putin himself said as much in his address to the nation last year. Taken together, all of this means that the government really is under siege… not from the outside, but from within. The state spends a gargantuan amount of energy dealing with the one thing that makes it great and is its own enemy at the same time… its size. Let’s keep that in mind when we complain about crazy legislative proposals.
21 November 2013