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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Democracy And Secession

  • Paul Goble

Orlando, Florida, 17 April (RFE/RL) - The spread of democracy in Russia and the other countries of the former communist bloc is likely to spark ever more demands by ethnic and regional groups for autonomy or even secession.

But the institutionalization of democratic forms of government in this region may give the authorities there a far greater range of options to cope with such challenges than the authoritarian regimes they replaced ever had.

Evidence of just how democracy can spark secessionist challenges and of the ways a central government can respond without engaging in repression was provided in an unexpected place earlier this month: St. Petersburg, Russia.

Last week, two groups who want to see that predominantly Russian city secede from the Russian Federation and form the fourth Baltic republic met to plot strategy.

The two groups -- Independent St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Movement for Autonomy -- believe that secession is the only way for the former Russian capital to be able to live normally.

Anna Polyanskaya, a member of the Independent St. Petersburg group, argued that her home town is "a European city in an Asian empire" and that only by declaring independence could its residents live normally.

"Estonia, which has one-fourth the population of St. Petersburg and no natural resources, has pursued economic reform and is now stable." She added that this could not be said of her own city or country.

While many in St. Petersburg and in Russia more generally may be inclined to dismiss such notions, the two pro-secession groups have already attracted some serious political activists and support from the city's residents.

Among the former is Ruslan Linkov, a respected political organizer. And evidence of the latter was provided by the support given to referenda raising the status of the city's mayor to that of governor and calling for the city to become an autonomous republic.

None of this means that St. Petersburg is about to become an independent state, but with each passing round of elections in that city, its officials are becoming ever more responsive to the population rather than to Moscow.

As the population feels neglected or even harmed by the policies of the center -- and Moscow's failure to pay people on time remains a serious grievance -- its attitudes are going to be reflected in the demands of their leaders.

And such concerns are likely to overwhelm the meaning of common ethnic Russian ties, on which Moscow and many analysts have placed so much faith.

Calling for autonomy or even secession in such circumstances is a useful way for local officials to win support at home, attract attention in Moscow and to extract additional resources.

If Moscow responds -- and in such cases, it can do so by providing more assistance, allowing the regions to keep more of their own tax money, or by making political concessions short of independence -- the central authorities can probably contain the situation.

But if Moscow ignores these demands and if regional politicians continue to make them, then such movements may take on a life of their own, with individuals and groups who never thought of leaving suddenly deciding that is the only solution.

Many both in these countries and beyond their borders assumed that calls for secession were the unfortunate by-product of the first difficult period of transition from communism.

And even more assumed that Moscow's use of force in Chechnya demonstrated that no secession would be tolerated and hence none would emerge.

But the very democratic system that ultimately forced Russian President Boris Yeltsin to back away from the Chechen war is, as the St. Petersburg case demonstrates, also leading more people elsewhere, including many Russians, to think the unthinkable.

And as Yeltsin prolongs the negotiations with Chechnya and as that struggle looks ever less like a military one and ever more like a political one, other groups -- including some Russians such as those in St. Petersburg -- may decide to challenge Moscow.

To the extent they do, Yeltsin can hardly take refuge in the assumption that the transition to democracy will solve them for him.

Just the reverse seems likely to be the case as a glance at the world's oldest parliamentary democracy will show.

In the United Kingdom today, Scottish secessionists are becoming increasingly demanding and influential -- precisely because of the votes they control in the current round of British parliamentary elections.

The people of St. Petersburg may very well prove to be the same in the future.