Will Russia fall apart without Vladimir Putin


There are still aspirations for independence in Russia. The Moscow central government reacts to this with violence. The political success that goes with it, however, also has costs.

President of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. (& copy picture-alliance)

The rapid rise of Vladimir Putin began at the end of August 1999 with the Second Chechen War. This rise was also possible because Putin took on one of the greatest fears of many people in Russia: the fear that the new Russia might fall further apart, following the Soviet Union. The Chechens' drive for independence in the 1990s had shown that this was not just a theoretical possibility. In addition, the 1990s were generally characterized by strong centrifugal tendencies. The Moscow center, which had (had to) let the Soviet republics go, was (politically and economically) weak. President Yeltsin had called on the regions to take "as much sovereignty" as they could swallow. Many, including some of the ethnically constituted, "national" republics, took very long gulps.

Putin turned this wheel backwards with the great approval of the people of Russia, especially, but not only, the ethnically Russian. He did this with rigor, but was also fortunate to have an economic upswing that began in 1998 and was mainly supported by the rapid rise in the price of oil. So, figuratively speaking, the Moscow center no longer only had the stick at its disposal, but was also able to distribute a lot of carrots. The decisive factor in convincing a large majority of the population that Putin was doing many things right, if not everything, was probably the hard to brutal determination with which Chechnya was kept in the country by renewed war. However, as is so often the case with political successes, this success also brought with it some costs. And as so often, the return (payday) could be postponed for the time being.

The emergence of the Russian multi-ethnic state

In order to understand today's situation, I have to go back a little deeper into the history of the Russian multi-ethnic state, because the (self) understanding of a social group as a "people" or even as a "nation" is always the result of historical processes Result of political and social disputes.

Both the Russian Empire until 1917 and the Soviet Union until 1991 were empires in which more ethnic non-Russians lived than ethnic Russians (43% Russians at the end of the 19th century, slightly less than 50% in the Soviet Union). The Russian empire differed from other European empires (e.g. the British Empire) in one essential respect: the conquered territories were incorporated directly into the Russian state, not always immediately, but ultimately all. They were not overseas territories and the conquered people became citizens of the great country at the latest with the Soviet Union. That is perhaps the most important reason why it is highly controversial in Russia to this day whether the country was even a colonial empire.

It has been different since the end of the Soviet Union. Since then Russia - despite its self-definition in the preamble of the constitution as a "multinational people" (Russian: "mnogonazionalnyj narod"; http://www.constitution.ru/de/) - an ethnically quite homogeneous country. According to the 2010 census, 81% of the population are ethnic Russians. The largest ethnic minority are the Tatars with 3.7%, followed by Ukrainians with 1.4%, Bashkirs with 1.1% and the Chuvashes with 1%.

The national minorities with special territorial rights can be divided into three groups: First, the Volga republics, which have been part of the Russian Empire since the 16th century and which, along with their elites, are very well integrated into Russian society. Second, the autochthonous peoples of the far north, Siberia and the Far East. They usually have a rather weak national identity, at least this is hardly expressed in particular strivings for autonomy. And third, the peoples of the North Caucasus, who were only subjected to bloody wars in the second half of the 19th century and incorporated into the Russian Empire. This is where aspirations for independence, see Chechnya, are most virulent.

No coherent minority policy

Is there a coherent state policy in Russia today with regard to the ethnic minorities living in the country? To answer with Radio Yerevan (a very often insightful approach in Russia): in principle, yes. In 2012, President Putin signed a "Strategy for a Nationality Policy of the Russian Federation by 2025", which replaced a similar paper adopted under Yeltsin in 1996. But to be frank, there are few links between these documents and what is actually going on. Because this "strategy" does not address the post-colonial (and by no means exclusively Russian) contradiction, namely why there are ethnically based and territorially demarcated entities within the Russian state in which certain ethnic groups (but not all) enjoy special, if essentially only linguistic and cultural privileges, while the question of state sovereignty is taboo.

In Russia in the 1990s, which tried to be democratic, this, what should you call it, "indecision" became a major problem. A problem that the Russian state was only able to deal with with regard to the Chechens (who just did not see that Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians or Kazakhs got their own states, but they did not) only with violence (I know, it There are many different theories as to why the First Chechen War "really" started, but this is a more structural analysis). Only Putin, who was surrounded and fulfilled by less democratic scruples, then found the necessary determination to follow the path of violence to the (provisional) end. For all other ethnic republics it was a clear sign not to even try. The current election results there, which consistently show an approval of Putin of 80 percent and more, testify that this sign has arrived. Even if that should be seen less as approval than as a sign of loyalty.

But Putin reactivated another Soviet relic for his nationality policy. The concept of the "Russian world" cannot only be understood as directed towards the outside world (currently mainly towards Ukraine). It is also, perhaps primarily, intended for inward consolidation. In relation to the national minorities, he repeats the Stalinist thesis of the ethnic Russians as the "older brothers" of the other, smaller peoples in Russia, only in a somewhat more modern language.

To summarize again and to put it a little differently: The nationality strategy is only called that, but is not a strategy, but a postulate (yes an evocation), also a largely unhistorical one. The incantation is to claim that the state of Russia is eternal and indivisible. But just a look at the very latest history clearly shows that this is not true. Of course, most people in Russia also know that (which is why they are so afraid of the further collapse of the country) and that is why something completely different is politically effective: the brutal double war against the Chechens, who are aspiring to leave the country, first from 1994 to 1996 and then again 1999.

Chechnya de facto independence

Now to the costs already mentioned. The Moscow center did not win the Second Chechen War as clearly as is often assumed. In fact, Chechnya is now more independent under Ramzan Kadyrov than it has ever been since the surrender of the legendary Imam Shamil in 1866. Precisely because many Chechens fought for an independent state at such great losses and many, not just the fighters, but also civilians, women and children, Russian laws only apply to a limited extent in Chechnya. Everyone else knows that too. One could describe today's deal with Kadyrov from the perspective of the Kremlin (or Putin, that is, see below, not so very clear) something like this: You can do anything, only the word "independence" is taboo. Kadyrov sticks to it. In a way, he even makes fun of it (although he might not see it that way, on the other hand, like many dictators, he seems to have a cruel, deeply obscene kind of humor) by demonstrating publicly as Russia's greatest "defender "exclaims.

Although this is not described in sufficient detail, because Kadyrov's declared loyalty does not belong to the country or the state, but to Vladimir Putin personally. And it's always a game. A game for favor at the court of the feudal lord, which Kadyrov makes Putin de facto into (and who, it seems, is not reluctant to be made to do so). But it is also a game with the alternative, disloyalty, in which Kadyrov repeatedly tests the limits of the unauthorized. This has once again become particularly clear in two events in recent weeks, in the public dispute with the head of the State Committee of Inquiry, Alexander Bastrykin, and in the forced wedding of a 17-year-old woman with a 47-year-old police chief and Kadyrov friend.

Organs of power versus Kadyrov?

For a long time, especially after the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in February of this year, some people in Putin's environment, especially those from the security apparatus, have been a thorn in the side of Kadyrov's arrogant ignoring of almost all laws and even unwritten rules. The reason is probably not to be found in the particular law-abidingness of these people, but rather in the fact that Bastrykin, Interior Minister Konovalov, the secretary of the Security Council Patrushev and others claim this privilege exclusively for themselves. They do not like the fact that Kadyrov, through his direct access to Putin and his (no matter whether actual or assumed) lack of alternatives, seems to be in the process of forming his own (independent) pole of power in the network of strong men in and around the Kremlin.

When police from the Stavropol region in Chechnya, neighboring Chechnya, tried to arrest a Chechen man at the end of April, Chechen police opened fire. At least one Chechen police officer died in the firefight, and Kadyrov publicly complained that the Interior Ministry was cheeky to act in Chechnya without his consent. Interior Minister Konovalov, but also Bastrykin, reacted quickly and harshly. Kadyrov, who, it seems, deliberately sought this argument, had to back down.

The story ended differently with the forced marriage called "century wedding" in the Russian press. The 47-year-old head of a local police station in Chechnya, friend and fellow campaigner of Kadyrov (people like that are there, in their respective little kingdoms, king and god at the same time), wanted a 17-year-old from his village to be his second wife. Bigamy is now banned in Russia, but at the end of last year Kadyrov called on all men of the republic, if they can afford it financially (and if they can, then because of him, which he did not forget to emphasize), a second or even to take third and fourth wives in order to counter the war-related deficit of men in Chechnya and to increase the birth rate. The young woman did not want to, the case and a first interview with her went through the national press, and the outrage, both because of the coercion and the impending bigamy, was great.

But then Kadyrov intervened personally and defended the police chief. The young woman's family was put under pressure, she was brought before the press again and a public declaration of love was pressed from her. This time Kadyrov also got support from Moscow. The child representative Pavel Astachow, one of the initiators of the ban on adopting Russian children by US citizens, let it be known that the minimum legal age for marriage is 16 years, so there is nothing wrong with it. The press spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, Priest Vsevolod Chaplin, even went so far as to explain that in the Christian tradition, marriages are possible from the age of 13 and that "polygamy" is generally a good Muslim tradition and therefore, since Chechnya is part of Russia, in accordance with the "traditional Russian values" that are currently highly regarded (the two adjectives used in Russian for ethnic Russian ("russkij") and state Russian ("rossijskij"), which also includes other peoples, get mixed up here. Kadyrov danced with the bride at the wedding, demonstrating how little Russian laws in his Chechnya have to scratch him.

The Chechens as foreigners in Russia?

The de facto independence of Chechnya, with Kadyrov's claim to play a leading role in the country's central power system, is one result of the Chechen wars. The other is progressive ethnic segregation in the North Caucasus, again most pronounced in Chechens. The proportion of non-Chechens living in Chechnya is now less than 3%. Before the wars, more than 50% non-Chechens lived there, mostly Russians, of course. Similar tendencies, even if not yet with this sharpness, can be observed in the neighboring republics in the North Caucasus. This is a development that distinguishes this region from the Volga republics and the north and east.

There is also another alienation. Surveys show that "people from the North Caucasus" (after all, citizens of Russia) are among the least welcome "strangers" in the Russian heartland, often far ahead of the otherwise little suffered (work) migrants from Central Asia. Even in everyday conversation, North Caucasians are often excluded from the national community by referring to "us" and "them". There is hardly anything similar with respect to, for example, Tatars, Bashkirs or Buryats (after all, also Muslims or, in the case of the Buryats, Buddhists) (although the "hardly" arises from my caution that I might have missed something).

Nobody can say how long these tensions can be controlled (perhaps for a very long time), but it is not difficult to assume that (coming) economic problems are more likely to exacerbate them. The memory of the war (with the "Russians", but also as a kind of internal Chechen civil war) is omnipresent in Chechnya. War is the point of reference in almost every conversation and story. Every family has dead and, perhaps even worse, disappeared (who are probably dead, but - because hope is the last to die in Chechnya too - cannot really be mourned). All of this is only masked by the brutal dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov.

Conversely, nobody anywhere really paid any attention to the (mostly ethnic) Russian soldiers who went through the war or, in recent years, served in Chechnya. Without being able to describe it in detail here, it conceals an enormously high potential for violence, which is often found in Russian society in relation to the North Caucasians as a whole (and occasionally also towards other "foreigners"). But this aggression also plays a role externally. As individual reports and statements show, a large proportion of the Russian "volunteers" (some actually are, others not) in Donbass are likely to have "Chechen" experience of fighting and violence.


In a nutshell: Even in the short term, the North Caucasus will remain the Russian region where aspirations for independence are virulent and associated violence is likely. It looks much better, from the point of view of a unity of the country, in the Volga republics, in the north and in the east, although there, too, every nationalization of the discourse (like recently the "Russian world") immediately sometimes more violent (more on the Volga), sometimes causes less violent (in the north and in the east) counter-movements.

In the age of nation states it remains difficult to keep a "multiethnic people" together. The current leadership of Russia has not abandoned the old paths and has chosen the route through coercion. As the 1990s show, it must then not slacken (or have to slacken because the strength is lacking) in order not to let the spirits out of the bottle.

You can find this and other texts on Jens Siegert's Russia blog