Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Will Russia Break Apart?

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Will Russia Break Apart?

Article excerpt

Hayden Smith discusses the prospects of ensuring political stability within the Russian Federation.

The `contagion' of the Asian financial crisis, which has recently taken the world by storm, has found incubation in formerly optimistic Russian soil. After 1992-93, the lowest point in Russian economic reform, Russia was confidently expected to become an energetic player in the global market economy. As much as 75 per cent of Russia's total income is derived from private enterprise,(1) and the country has become a major importer of Western consumer and other finished goods. Its highly educated workforce and largely untapped natural resources -- gas, oil, metals, timber, uranium, precious gems, and gold -- all testify to Russia's massive potential wealth. It has, therefore, come as a tremendous shock and disappointment to see the former communist super-power fall to financial problems of an ironically capitalist origin.

Russia's economic troubles are of obvious concern to international markets, but the ethno-territorial implications of the current crisis have largely been ignored. The widely publicised war in Chechnya, for instance, was largely the product of Chechen motivations to secede for economic reasons, Prior to the conflict, Boris Yeltsin's `shock-therapy' reforms had produced an unemployment rate of 85-90 per cent among ethnic Chechens, an intolerable situation. Other `national republics' also face a higher level of social discontent than that found in the more ethnically homogenous parts of Russia. The greater instability in the provinces arises from the fact thai most non-Russian ethnic groups are comparatively under-skilled and, hence, less `employable' than ethnic Russians. Since social benefits, such as the dole, pensions, etc, are frequently not forthcoming, many non-Russians have resorted to desperate action, like supporting anti-Russian and nationalist-separatist political groups.

There is, in consequence, a very real threat that increased poverty in Russia's ethnic enclaves could precipitate ethnic warfare on an unprecedented scale and the final break-up of the Russian Federation. The international implications of such a collapse include the disruption of energy supplies to Europe, the mass-exodus of refugees to the West, and the transfer of nuclear weapons into questionable hands. Moscow is thus confronting a crisis which goes beyond purely economic concerns.

Imperial expansion

The problem of separatism in the Russian Federation originates in the overly ambitious pattern of expansion that Moscow pursued through the centuries. Conceived as a small relatively homogenous core of Slavs in the far west of the country, the Russian state gradually expanded into the vastness of what was to become the Soviet Union. Slavic colonisation of the eastern `interior', however, could only really begin when the intervening khanate of Tatarstan had been subdued, which was achieved in 1552. In medieval times, Tatarstan was an extremely prosperous and militarily powerful state, frequently challenging Russia's supremacy. Turkic-speaking and Islamic by religion, the Tatars have traditionally played a very important role in Russian history. For instance, the Tatars were the first non-Russian ethnic group to be incorporated into the Russian state, elevating Russia's status to that of a multi-ethnic empire. Later on, the Tatars became the intermediaries between the Russians and the Muslim and Turkic East, considerably assisting Russian expansion into these areas.

Slavic movement into non-Russian regions inevitably raised the question of `what to do' with the newly acquired peoples. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, about 40 per cent of its people were of Turkic origin -- confirming that Moscow had effectively `bitten off more territory than it could handle'. The Russian `answer' to this self-generated problem was to assimilate these ethnic groups through cultural and linguistic Russification. …

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