Russian expert debunks Putin’s ‘regionalism’ argument used to justify annexation of Ukraine

Scotland independence referendum

Scotland independence referendum 

Analysis & Opinion, Russia

One of the underlying tropes of current Russian official discourse is that anything Russia is doing has a precise analogue in the West and that therefore no one in the West should criticize Moscow for doing what the Russians insist is the same, an updated version of the Soviet response to criticism by saying “in America, people lynch Negroes.”

Russian arguments of this kind — whether for the notion that Moscow has the right to unilaterally use force beyond its borders, insist on state status for its language in neighboring countries, or adopt a federal system like the one its constitution says it has – must be addressed and refuted not just because they are wrong but because they are a source of confusion.

In a post on Forbes.ru today, Vadim Shtepa takes on one of the most illegitimate of these Kremlin ideas, the notion that what Moscow is promoting in what it calls “Novorossiya” is much the same thing as regionalist movements in Europe.

Shtepa, editor of the online journal “Inache” and one of Russia’s most prominent advocates of regionalism, points out that “Russia which has not become a real federation should not be calling other countries to adopt ‘federalization,’ given its own profound shortcomings in that regard.

Not long ago, Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” told “The Telegraph” that he favored organizing a kind of “international of separatists” because all of them had the same agenda. But that is simply not true.

Europe has been taking on “ever more federalist characteristics,” Shtepa points out, and it even organized two referenda this past year in Scotland and Catalonia. Neither succeeded, but it was only such referenda and only superficially in that regard that Europe’s commitment to federalism and Russia’s in the case of Ukraine are the same.

First and foremost, he continues, “all the European regionalist processes of recent years have had a peaceful character and are based on the broadening of the rights of local self-administration, according to the EU Charter. Moreover, none of these efforts proclaimed its ties to a foreign country.

The situation in Ukraine could not be more different. There, violence has been at the center of the “regionalist” effort, and those involved in it have constantly proclaimed their “pro-Russia” orientation and even indicated that they want to become part of an expanded Russian Federation.

“Such a policy must not be called regionalism, which strives for self-administration,” he says. “It is irredentism, the striving to leave one country and join another.” And in the past, it almost always has been about the promotion of “this or that ethnic nationalism” and the formation of a single “nation state.”

But as Russian historian Andrey Zakharov has pointed out, what is happening in the case of Russian policy toward Ukraine is an example of “imperial federalism,” the use of federalist language not to promote regional self-administration but rather to allow for “the imperial expansion” of one state at the expense of another.

Shtepa notes that “such an inversion of federalism” was first pointed to a half century ago by American political scientist William Riker in his book, “Federalism: Origin, Operation and Significance” where he argued that now that colonial empires have passed into history, “federalism is becoming the only means for the territorial expansion of the state.”

No one would accept the idea that any country should become an empire after the events of the last century, Shtepa says. “But in federalist ‘packaging,’ these imperial atavisms all the same still look completely legal from the point of view of international law.” And thus it is not surprising that Putin is exploiting that possibility now.

Yet another reason is that the USSR in fact practiced “imperial federalism” at various points in its history as a means of extending or attempting to extend its borders, the Russian regionalist says. That is exactly what Stalin was trying to do in the case of Finland by means of the Winter War of 1939-1940.

(It is not part of Shtepa’s argument, but it is worth noting that Stalin’s failed effort at imperial federalism nonetheless led to what became known as “Finlandization” in which Helsinki deferred to Moscow’s wishes for decades thereafter.)

What happened in 1939-1940 in Finland, is happening again in “Novorossiya,” and once again Moscow has run into a wall it did not expect. “Ukraine has not turned out to be ‘the failed state’” Russian propaganda has suggested. But such parallels are enough to show that “’Novorossiya’ has nothing in common with contemporary regionalism.”

It is of course the case, Shtepa says, that “Crimea really could have become a regionalist phenomenon,” if the Soviet government had accepted the results of a January 1991 poll there calling for Moscow to elevate Crimea to the status of a union republic or if the Ukrainian government had accepted the Crimean constitution of 1992 and promoted economic development there. Kyiv didn’t and the result was the growth of “pro-Russia” attitudes.

But however that may be, “economically and logistically, Crimea is absolutely connected with Ukraine,” and those were the reasons Khrushchev transferred it from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. Talk about some underhanded plot is simply unworthy of being taken seriously, Shtepa suggests.

Moreover, it is ridiculous to argue that the international community should accept the Moscow-organized referendum in Crimea last year. It was called and carried out in only 10 days, “a sharp contrast” with referenda in Europe and one that meant that none of the serious issues involved could in fact be discussed. And it did not increase the rights of the residents of Crimea; it reduced them.

But in addition to all those factors, Shtepa says, there is the question as to whether Russia has “the moral right to call other countries to ‘federalize’ if Russia itself in fact has never been a federation” and continues to repress anyone who calls for federalism as it did last year with the March for the Federalization of Siberia.

His article thus leads to the conclusion that while it may be possible to compare apples and oranges, it is a huge mistake to confuse the two, especially when one side in the dispute has a vested interest in denying reality.

Edited by: A. N.

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