In examining Yeltsin's and Putin's differing responses to ethnic conflicts along Russia's periphery, Emil Payin, Director, Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Studies, INDEM Foundation, Moscow and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Kennan Institute proposed that we might glean a deeper understanding of the varying directions that Russia has embarked upon in the recent past. Payin was joined by Michael Thumann, journalist, Die Ziet, Moscow Bureau, and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center at a 1 December 2000 lecture at the Kennan Institute.
Connecting Putin to Yeltsin's late rule allowed Payin to deconstruct the myths of Putin as a representative of pragmatic liberal reform. Payin responded to the myth that Putin brought order and stabilization to relations between Moscow and the regions, finding that the second Chechen War particularly demonstrates a trend towards disintegration. While Yeltsin managed to squelch growing discontent at the expense of con-cessions to the republics, under Putin the situation has worsened. The pressure Putin places on the leaders of the republics revives their nationalist separatist strength.
As in any drawn out conflict in occupied territory, the demoralization of the Russian army and dissat-isfaction of the people is at hand, as both economic and social losses are being felt. Another consequence is that Moscow's response to Chechnya has exacerbated developing Russian policy towards non-Russians. Putin's strategy is aggressive, contributing to the rise of separatist sentiment among the republics. This strategy fosters the growth of secret nationalistic movements, rather than responding directly to Putin's policies.
As the Chechen war drags on, the rebels cease to fear the army, and the perceived weakness may inspire other nationalities to accelerate the breakup of Russia.
These strategies can lead to solidarity amongst all offended nationalities, threatening the notion of a unified Russia. If the Russian Federation had allowed Chechnya to succeed, Payin stated, it might have prevented the ensuing "domino effect." Instead, solidarity has formed among non-Russian nationalists along religious and cultural lines. The potential for such uprisings increases as the population changes along ethnic lines. Russians are becoming the minority group, particularly in much of the North Caucuses. It is estimated that Russians could become minorities in the biggest republics of the Povolzh region, Siberia and in the Far East.
Possible outcomes of the situation, noted Payin, are secession along the border republics or, more seriously, the collapse of the country entailing the formation of one or two new countries in the heart of Russia. In order to curtail such a collapse, Payin advocated a multi-cultural doctrine, wherein the leaders would recognize the threat to the country and open representation in the central government to non-Russians. This tactic, Payin noted, is unlikely to bode well with the current leadership.
Payin concluded with murky optimism, that there is still time to overcome the present course of Putin's administration, in the process making way for new political powers of the liberal democratic sense.
In response, Thumann agreed that Russia's multi-ethnic character has always been a fundamental, yet often underestimated, factor in Russian politics. Using the Sakha region as a case study, Thumann explored Yeltsin's use of concessions to stabilize rebellious republics and contrasted this to Putin's more aggressive strategy of centralization.
Thumann credited Yeltsin with developing a "prudent though economically inefficient mode to prevent regions and republics from leaving the nation." Though critical of Moscow's motives in launching the two offenses into Chechnya, Thumann otherwise found that Yeltsin held the Russian Federation together by peaceful means rather than by war. Yeltsin, for example, granted the wealthy, yet far from independent, Sakha region a commitment that "whatever they wish to give they may give; whatever they wish to retain they may."
Using subsidies and tax breaks to accommodate the regions most inclined to protest, argued Thumann, the central government managed to diffuse a crisis before it could spread. This policy of appeasement inhibited the formation of a national ideology against which separatist movements could have rallied.
In contrast to Yeltsin's strategy of concessions, Putin has embarked upon the reverse strategy, naming Russia as a great power to strengthen support from the people for his reform policy. Thumann stated that many Russians were receptive to this policy after the 1998 crisis, as centralization enhances efficiency. Thumann credited the inception of this plan to Yeltsin's second term. Thus far, Putin has reduced the role of the Federal Council and eliminated the regions' leaders from this council while adopting Yeltsin's abandoned plan to divide Russia into districts with individual presidential representatives. With the established policy of concession-making, Putin may find resistance as he moves towards centralization.
Thumann concluded by pointing to Putin's predicament of addressing the restructuring of the state as a whole, for doing so ignores ethnic identities. Instead, he found that discussions must be considered in terms of ethnicity in order to conceive of a broad sense of accurate citizenship. Should Putin's centralization efforts fail, substantial concessions to the republics will become inevitable.