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Europe: Analysis From Washington: Neither Coercion Nor Concessions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian and French responses to regional challenges suggest that neither coercion nor concessions alone will promote federalism in the absence of a broad societal agreement on the proper division of power.

Instead, as the experiences of these two formerly unitary states show, either the repression of regionalism or concessions to it may have just the opposite effect, promoting divided power and even threatening the territorial integrity of the state.

Last week, the dangers of using coercion alone were very much on view in Russia, and the risks of making concessions were highlighted by French policy in Corsica.

Since assuming presidential powers in Russia at the start of this year, Vladimir Putin has sought to rein in that country's regions through the use of coercion -- openly in the case of Chechnya, and via expanded reliance on the security services elsewhere.

But despite some legislative victories in Moscow last week, Putin's efforts appear to have backfired. On the one hand, the Chechen war continues, with Moscow taking ever greater losses, its representatives there divided, and backing for the war ever smaller.

On the other hand, Putin's attacks on the prerogatives of the regions not only has led some of them to increase resistance to central authority, but has gained them allies in Moscow who fear that attacks on the regions may be followed by attacks on themselves.

And this pattern led several Moscow political analysts last week to speculate that Putin's attacks on the regions, just like Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to rein in the union republics in 1990-91, could threaten the territorial integrity of Russia.

Meanwhile, the French government last Thursday took the opposite tact, ceding unprecedented powers to Corsica in the hopes of ending more than 20 years of separatist violence there.

Under the terms of an agreement announced by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the French government has agreed to amend the country's constitution to allow the Corsican regional assembly to adapt national laws.

Jospin said that a lasting peace was a precondition for the implementation of this accord. The Corsicans have agreed, but not all for the same reasons.

Corsican Assembly President Jose Rossi said last week that "the test that the government has proposed takes account of everything we wanted."

But Corsican nationalist leader Jean-Guy Talamoni suggested that the current agreement "is not an end. It is just a stage." These remarks suggest that he and his colleagues will pocket the concessions they have received and simply increase their demands.

Both that possibility and the likelihood that other regions in France might now seek concessions like those Corsica has won set off a political firestorm across France.

Conservatives in Paris denounced this move. A leader of the party of President Jacques Chirac said that "it is essential to recall that the Republic is indivisible," an obvious reference to Chirac's own stress on unity in a Bastille Day interview earlier this month.

One Parisian newspaper suggested on Friday that the concessions to Corsica have opened the door "to multiple demands for special laws... which can now be claimed in Brittany, Alsace or the Basque country."

As if to confirm that expectation, the Democratic Breton Union announced that the concessions to Corsica "are a terrific encouragement for our organization to continue and accelerate." The Basques and some Alsatians almost certainly will take a similar line.

Consequently, France appears likely to find its efforts to contain a regional challenge by concessions counterproductive, not only with respect to Corsica but concerning other regions of France that have long sought but been denied regional autonomy.

As different as the situations of Russia and France are regarding regional challenges, the two countries do share one thing in common. In neither is there much agreement on who should do what, and on what powers only the center should have and which ones the regions should be involved in.

Instead, the center and the regions struggle over power as such, dividing power rather than sharing it and thus making their contest a zero-sum game in which a victory by one is a loss by the other, rather than one in which each can benefit.

Overcoming such a situation requires the creation of a new consensus about who should do what. Sometimes that will be possible and sometimes not. In any case, it appears to require a very clever and long term strategy.

But the Russian and French experiences make clear that regimes which rely only on coercion or only on concessions in dealing with regional challenges are almost certainly going to create very different futures than the ones they say they want.