Michael Thumann is Moscow bureau chief of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
Russia's multiethnic character has always been a fundamental yet often underestimated part of Russian politics. Both tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union crumbled when economic crisis and bureaucratic collapse coincided with a rebellion of minority peoples. Until 1990, only a handful of Western scholars paid attention to the problem, but it has been quite broadly discussed since. The Russian Federation, as a nation-state under reconstruction, inherited some dilemmas from its predecessors. Today, government and power structures in Russia still must cope with a great variety of ethnic groups in a vast country.
The task of holding together a multicultural state was the first challenge to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and it is still high on his agenda. Under his leadership as Russia's prime minister in 1999, Moscow restarted the protracted war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Putin and the Russian elite justified the intervention with a straightforward argument: If we do not prevent Chechnya from seceding, a precedent will be set, and the whole Russian Federation will eventually collapse. The notion of a dangerously weak Russian state has been the talk of Moscow ever since the Russian Federation emerged out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. The common wisdom about the past and present of the Russian state is as follows: In the Yeltsin years, Russia was close to falling apart. In relation to the center, the autonomous republics became too powerful because Yeltsin's regional policy was in disarray. Now, President Putin is gradually returning order to Moscow's relations with its regions and republics.
I would like to address those assumptions and argue that (a) Russia went through stormy waters in 1992 and 1993 but then the tide of secessionism receded; (b) Yeltsin developed a practical, though economically inefficient and costly, mode to prevent regions and republics from leaving the federation; and (c) Putin has indeed fundamentally altered Yeltsin's regional policy. His drive toward centralization is designed to enhance economic efficiency, though it may damage the vulnerable center-periphery relations. This policy cannot resolve the structural identity problem in the Russian Federation.
The rebellious republic of Chechnya is at the core of the general misunderstanding of Russia's federal relations. At the height of the first Chechen campaign, Bill Clinton praised Yeltsin as the savior of the Russian Federation and compared his efforts to those of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. However, as champions of federalism, Yeltsin and Lincoln had less in common than Clinton thought. The first and the second Chechen wars were never fought for the sake of a durable federation. The crusades on the northern Caucasus lacked a clearly defined military cause. They were triggered more by Moscow's political struggles, partisan economic interests, and settling of old scores than by any earnest effort to stabilize Russia. 1 Remarkably enough, the Russian government launched the first campaign a year after a consensus on a new constitution was reached, and when the power-sharing treaties with the republics had just been signed. Furthermore, both Chechen offensives, in 1995 and 1999, were launched in election years. That is key to understanding the Chechen imbroglio in Russian politics.
In contrast, it was not war but peaceful compromise by which Yeltsin managed to hold the rest of the federation together. By examining one case, that of the Republic of Sakha, or as native Russian speakers refer to it, Yakutia, I will illustrate the subtle bargaining process that prevailed in the Russian Federation throughout the 1990s. Eventually, I will try to assess President Putin's first steps toward reforming the federal structure of Russia.
The Republic of Sakha, located in the northern part of the Russian Far East, is a territory the size of India but with a population just half the size of Slovenia's: one million. …