Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Russia's Centralist Measures

In the wake of the Beslan massacre, President Vladimir Putin announced a number of measures which, at best can be seen as anti-federalist, and at worst anti-democratic. Joe Gandelman over at The Moderate Voice has a good summary and is clearly warned by the developments in Moscow.

It's often said that one key goal of many terrorist and separatist groups is to radicalize the population by creating a government clampdown. The clampdown creates more anti-government outrage and helps recruit angry young militants to the cause.

Therein lies the danger for Vladimir Putin, as a few pieces of Russia's young democracy die.
I agree to a point. With politically motivated insurgencies aimed at overthrowing a government (elected or otherwise) this is a correct assumption, driving a wedge between the State and its citizens by eliciting a clampdown on all citizen liberties, afterwards seeking to blame the 'repressive' State and garner support for the insurgency. However, this usually works best in a dictatorship, with the insurgents' attention focused on attacking the State's infrastructure, while avoiding capture. This will make the State move towards treating all its citizens as suspect, curtailing liberties along the way, in an effort to sift out the insurgents. Who then can claim 'You see?'

In the case of Russia, you have a federalist society which is learning democracy, a slow process (and living in Spain, which changed from dictatorship to democracy in 1977, I can attest to this). It is a classic recipe for problems, when constituents in part of the federacy feel that other federal states are directly harming their interests, causing them to lose interest in the federal structure or to seek separation.

As a side note, I sometimes think that countries that have just exited a dictatorship, during which usually regional identities have been repressed, much like in the Soviet Union or in Francoist Spain, are best of to start with a central government, out of which a federalist project should be formed. To start directly with a federation can cause an 'overload' of nationalist sentiments followed by demands of high autonomy, which can turn into a competition between the federal republics with the State, or amongst themselves. To start off with a centralized model can dampen the separatist expectations, let democratic values take root and then move towards a federalist state (at which point the federalist states should be free to choose to stay or opt for independence). The problem of course is twofold; that normally, in the euphoria of the dictator gone and repressed groups free, people do not wish to wait any longer, partly out of fear of what this State will do to them. Incidentally, this same thing led in Spain to Basque separatist party Batasuna, 'political' wing of terrorist organization ETA, to be included in the democratic process, only to be forbidden for its support of terrorism earlier this year. A party which never should have been included in the first place, but alas, the beginnings of democracy are like a drug. The other problem with starting of 'centralist' and move towards a federation, is that usually, what is centralized, stays centralized.
Russia's enemy, Islamist Chechens supported by Al Qaeda, has not so much an argument against the government of Russia or Chechnya, but against Russian society as a whole, in what they deem as lands of Islam, the Caucasus. The atrocities committed in Beslan (no coincedence that North Osetia is predominantly Christian, the exception in the region) were the last in a series of attacks directed at Russians, from Moscow to the Caucasus region itself. They have made no distinction in their objects, from government buildings to army bases to theaters in Moscow, subways, hospitals and now a school.

Their enemy is anyone not like them.

Russia has problems with its republics, and these problems stem from the Federalist structure within the geographic realms of the old Soviet Union, at least where attainable (multiple republics separated themselves from the CIS), where federalism was introduced only to ensure avoiding the entire breakup of the country. It needs to address the problems with its republics, and it might very well be that a centralized model could be better. Taking away powers from republics that do not seem capable of protecting their own people or promoting freedom, could be a good thing. The problem with that, however, is that Putin is no stranger to anti-democratic sentiments himself, and the question would be if he would be the right man to lead such a project.

To return to Gandelman's point, that by 'clamping down' on federalism in its republics, Putin would be somehow feeding the monster, I don't think that the Chechen Islamists or Al Qaeda will get one more recruit out of these measures. Ordinary Russians know this Islamic threat will not stop by giving independence to Chechnya, or by pulling out Russian troops even.

That would truly feed the monster, something the young democrats of Spain have not learned yet.

UPDATE 09/15/04: Nathan over at The Argus has a good piece on it.