Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“Separatism” Added to List of Things Russians Aren’t Allowed to Talk about

Dead journalists.  The existence of homosexuality.  Anything which “offends” Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  And now Vladimir Putin’s political allies in Russia’s Duma (parliament) put forth a bill on November 8th which provides for prison terms of up to 20 years for “spreading separatist propaganda.”  The move comes on the heels of other assaults on free speech which have been damaging Russia’s already-precarious reputation as a new democracy: the jailing of members of the anti-clerical, anti-Putin dissident punk band Pussy Riot, the requirement that any charitable or nonprofit groups branching out into Russia have to register as “foreign agents,” and, most controversially in recent weeks, a new law criminalizing so-called homosexual propaganda.  This last has prompted calls at the popular level for boycotts of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or at least for protest actions to disrupt the Olympics themselves.  (Putin has promised that no athlete or spectator at the Games would be prosecuted under the new law, but that sort of misses the point.)

And what counts as “separatist propaganda”?  Well, the most likely answer—as with “homosexual propaganda”—is: anything that makes the authorities decide they want to arrest you and throw you into a hole for as long as they want.  This will doubtless include, along with violent insurgents who mean ill, many peaceful citizens with legitimate aspirations for autonomy for their ethnic and national communities.

It will also probably include much silliness as to what constitutes a separatist propaganda.  The ban on so-called gay propaganda, incidentally, has gotten so silly that last month a Kremlin vexillologist addressed a minor kerfuffle over Russia’s far-eastern Jewish Autonomous Oblast (J.A.O.)—which is, as discussed recently in this blog, a godforsaken patch of Siberia set up by Josef Stalin as a dumping ground for a troublesome minority, though today almost no Jews live there.  It seems the J.A.O. has a flag which some mistake for the “gay pride” flag.  But as the federal government official explained, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast flag ...

... was not in fact the same as the “gay pride” flag:

The designer of the J.A.O. flag, Alexandr Valyaev, even chimed in, explaining, “ On its flag the gay movement uses seven stripes, not six.  ...  The rainbow is a divine symbol, taken from the Bible.  God threw the rainbow from the sky into the wilderness of the desert as a symbol of hope.  Gays used this divine symbol, the rainbow, but removed from its spectrum the light blue color, so it’s already not a rainbow.”  In fact, the J.A.O. flag just has a lighter blue than the gay-pride flag; nothing is missing.  But, nonetheless, I notice that this Valyaev fellow seems suspiciously well versed in what the gay-pride flag looks like.  Check his papers.  (Also, the Kremlin will have a harder time explaining away the official protocols for the display of the J.A.O. flag, which call for the flag-bearer to hang the banner out of his back left jeans pocket, and then take it out and swing it above his head in a rotary motion when “Disco Inferno” comes on.)

Islamists’ proclaimed “Caucasus Emirate”
Seriously, though, Russia does have a separatism problem—most seriously in the predominantly-Muslim North Caucasus region.  Though Chechnya was pacified in two horrific wars of aggression by Russia, nationalism still persists there, awaiting a reawakening, while a Chechen government-in-exile still operates out of London.  More seriously, the Caucasus Emirate movement—a salafist, jihadist Islamist terror group which came into being after the Chechen wars lured floods of idealistic, battle-hardened young Muslim fighters from Afghanistan and the Middle East—claims that the Muslim regions of Russia’s southwestern rim are a separate Islamic state and that Russians are the interlopers.  They have killed hundreds over the last few years in a merciless campaign of ambushes, assassinations, massacre, and suicide attacks on government targets and “moderate” (mostly indigenous Sufi) clerics.  Ingushetia and Dagestan have been hit especially hard.  The Emirate has also shown signs of spreading into other restive Russian regions, such as the far-flung Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia, which was one of two republics to refuse initially to join the new Russian Federation after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Smaller, lesser known movements persist as well.  President Boris Yeltsin had told Russia’s constituent republics and other jurisdictions (oblasts, okrugs, krais, etc.) to “take as much autonomy as you can stand.”  But Putin has reversed that course—withdrawing de facto autonomous status from places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and even installing loyal Kremlin stooges to run places like Chechnya.  There is always the possibility that some of these other regions will get ideas and rise up—from the Finno-Ugrian-speaking Karelians along the border with Finland to the mostly-Buddhist Kalmyks and Tuvans, to the Sakha (Yakuts), Altai, Chukchi, and other peoples of the far east, to ethnic-Russian frontiersman who would like to see Siberia (all of Russia east of the Urals—i.e., 10% of the land surface of the world) become its own independent nation (some have even called for Siberia to join the United States), to “Volga Germans” who once had their own republic within Russia, to residents of the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave in former German territory who would like to split and join the independent Baltic States, and even to revived Cossack hosts along the border with Ukraine and Kazakhstan and the cis-Caucasian steppes who recall their days of glory when separate Cossack republics flicked in and out of existence during the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Could it come to this?
The most delicate area right now, though, is the Circassians.  Inhabiting an area of the northeastern Black Sea area, including the northwestern Caucasus, the Circassians were dispersed and nearly exterminated in a series of brutal invasions by Russia in the mid 19th century.  The remnant Circassian subgroups are now spread out as mostly minorities in three different republics—all of which, to complicate things, are claimed as territory of the so-called Caucasus Emirate.  Circassians, already becoming more nationalistic in their diaspora in Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, have become especially politicized by the choice of Sochi as a site for the 2014 Olympics.  Sochi was the site of one of the worst of the Russian massacres, in which the Ubykh subgroup of Circassians was wiped off the map exactly 150 years before the 2014 Games.  For Circassians, Sochi is hallowed ground and the choice of the site a provocation.  The Caucasus Emirate has vowed to cause trouble at at the Olympics, and Cossacks, hired by the government, have vowed to defend the Games from the trouble-makers.

Circassians remember their genocide.
But is this ideologically consistent?  Of course it isn’t.  This is Putin we’re talking about.  Although Putin cites Russia’s own internal insurgencies as it blocks the accession of the Republic of Kosovo (which split from Russia’s ally Serbia) to the United Nations, he has long played a double game.  Regular readers of this blog well know that Putin used the occasion of a 2008 war with the Georgia to grant diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that de facto seceded from Georgia (and cleansed their territories of ethnic Georgians) right after the fall of Communism.  (A month ago, as reported at the time in this blog, Moscow narrowly decided against allowing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to send their own Olympic teams so Sochi.)  More quietly, Russia props up the de facto independent Republic of Transnistria, which seceded (never formally recognized) from Moldova in the 1990s, and, even more quietly, backs the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which Armenia (which remains friendly to Moscow) carved out of the west flank of independent Azerbaijan in a nasty war.  Isn’t all this separatism too?  Well, yes, unless you classify those regions as “properly” part of Russia.  Putin hasn’t come right out and said that, but if he wants to have that conversation we can certainly have that conversation, and he won’t end up looking very good.

Russia’s newly empowered Cossacks.  Don’t worry, they’ll keep things nice and orderly
and peaceful—you know, like before.
In any case, will a new law criminalizing separatist propaganda make Russia’s separatist problems better or worse?  It will certainly allow Russian authorities to round up radical clerics, Muslim gang members, and anyone else suspicious with little provocation and lock them up for a long time.  In the past, though, in the Caucasus, that kind of thing only angers and emboldens the insurgency.  It is also likely to lend international sympathy to the cause of an autonomous or independent Circassia, something the movement, because of past association with jihadists, it does not enjoy.  If the Olympics were already going to be a headache for Putin, they certainly will be now.  Already, gay activists—and lots of just plain old visitors and participants who have a sense of equality and decency—are plotting ways to whip out and unfurl gay-pride flags at various times during the games, even the opening ceremonies.  Perhaps lots of other flags will start appearing as well.

Tatarstan’s flag.  Will it fly again?
Maybe even in Sochi?
Putin needs to realize that democracy means having the right to express whatever your views are on how you should be governed, including separatist sentiment.  And he will learn the hard way that suppressing national aspirations only stokes the fires.  But tyrants never learn.

[You can read more about Circassia, Siberia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Circassia, Chechnya, and many other sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting article. That map of post-Russia is especially fascinating. It may seem far-fetched now, but I'm sure that when the Soviet Union was strong today's map would be far-fetched too.


Subscribe Now: Feed Icon