The Regions Exist?
If you live in Russia, but outside of Moscow, do you exsist?
Newsday March 7, 1999
Russia’s Inner Struggle / Federal government losing its authority over
By Michael Slackman.
Krasnodar, Russia – Winding their way through backroads, often waiting until
nightfall to make the journey, drivers with pockets stuffed full of rubles
pull their trucks into Nikolai Tetovskoy’s weathered and sagging warehouse.
Inside, the deals are made quickly, the vehicles are loaded, and the drivers
slip back into the night, hoping they are not stopped by the police.
The smugglers are not trading in drugs, or guns, but a contraband that thrives
in the thick, black earth of Tetovskoy’s farm: It’s wheat. Plain, old wheat.
Sometimes peas, sometimes corn and even barley. Often, he clandestinely sells
meat. Sides of beef, freshly slaughtered, from the small herd of cows he
Here in southern Russia, one of the nation’s most productive agricultural
regions, Krasnodar governor Nikolai Kondratenko has unilaterally prohibited
exporting most food products. His order would be tantamount to the governor
of Florida declaring it illegal to ship oranges to Louisiana. Or Gov. George
Pataki prohibiting baymen from shipping oysters to New Jersey.
Kondratenko can get away with his order because there is no one to stop him.
Russia is far from the monolithic state it once was under communism, an image
that remains burned into the consciousness of much of the West by the Cold
War. But when the Soviet Union spun out of control, pulling itself apart,
the centrifugal force undermined the cohesion of Russia itself, down to the
provincial, even municipal levels.
is chaos brewing, not the kind of anarchy that breeds rioting in the streets.
But a virtual free-for-all has broken out among regional leaders, with each
presiding over his jurisdiction as though it were an independent nation.
Regional leaders are signing trade deals with foreign governments. They have
refused to pay federal taxes. They are requiring permits to live within the
most desirable cities. Some are trying to run a centrally controlled,
communist-style economy. Others are pushing the bounds of capitalism, selling
land to individuals. Last year alone, local officials adopted 1,500 laws
that violate federal law. At least eight regions have tried to restrict the
sale of food outside their borders.
“Nobody has levers of power, neither the president, the government, the
governors, the Duma nor the Federation Council. Nobody. Nobody is in charge,”
said Michail Prusak, governor of the Novgorod region north of Moscow. “That
is the main trouble. Each of us shouts and screams, but we cannot do anything.
We are all separate.”
The confusion that has replaced the Communist Party’s once-iron grip on national
policy underscores the complicated reality that is Russia today: For all
intents and purposes, Russia as a unified government operation does not exist.
There are 89 so-called subjects of federation, the equivalent of states,
each with very different rights and responsibilities. There is a central,
federal government, but it is so powerless that officials have been unable
to force local officials to nullify those laws that violate the federal
constitution. “We have no mechanism for enforcing the decisions of the
constitutional court,” said Yury Skuratov, the prosecutor general who recently
resigned for health reasons.
Complicating the situation, Russia has no experience with federalism or
separation of powers. Under the czar, who was said to have been chosen by
God, virtually everything was controlled by the monarch. Then during the
seven decades that the communists ran the government, everything was decided
by the Party. That meant fishing boats plying the waters of the Far East
could not even empty their nets without approval from Moscow. Often, the
fish rotted in the sun.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s government sought to work
out relations with the regions, particularly those with ethnic strongholds.
But the effort was undermined amid fears that Russia was on the verge of
dissolution. As separatist feelings spread, particularly in those ethnic
enclaves, President Boris Yeltsin began entering into treaties with regional
governments. These documents created a dizzying and uneven patchwork.
In one case, for example, the treaty with Tartarstan freed the young men
from having to serve in the military outside the borders of the region. Another
treaty allowed the region of Bachkortostan to set up its own banking system.
Overall, 46 treaties were signed, producing in their wake an abundance of
hard feelings between regions but keeping Russia together in name.
“There is much that is subjective in Russia,” said Nikolai Khovansky, head
of the legal directorate of Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament,
and a specialist in relations among the regions. “The outcome of the treaties
often hinged on the relationship between the governor and the government.”
For a time, however, the system managed to hold. But much of that early success
hinged on the popularity and moral authority of Yeltsin and the ability of
the center to provide cash to the regions. As Yeltsin’s credibility vanished,
and the federal bank accounts drained, the center has grown weaker and weaker.
In fact, there is a growing concern that even the military owes its allegiance
to regional, and not national, leaders. It is the regions that have provided
many military units with food, clothing, blankets and shelter.
“It is possible to speak about a kind of disintegration, as well as the risk
of further disintegration, both of which are connected with the weakness
of the center,” said Nikolai Petrov, scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie
Center in Moscow. “There is a real danger now.”
situation has raised concerns that Russia’s fragile federation will fail
to coalesce and may dissolve into an uncertain future. “There is no immediate
threat of dissolution, but it is a bomb without a detonator, said Sergei
Artobolevsky, a professor of geography and adviser to the Ministry of Regional
Policy. “If you don’t pay attention to this bomb, somebody will put the detonator
in.” Aman Tuleyev, governor of the Kemerovo region in western Siberia, was
more alarmist about the situation: “It is the collapse of the country. It
All of this has finally caught the attention of the federal government, which
since the summer had been preoccupied with the political crisis caused by
Yeltsin’s decision to twice dismiss the government and by the nation’s economic
collapse. Slowly, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has begun to turn his focus
to the regions, fearing that if the center loses any more power it will be
unable to enforce laws, or even to hold the country together.
In a recent speech, Primakov said the chain of command between Moscow and
the regions should be “like a solid line, not a dotted line,” and added that
he wants to restore “a rigid vertical system of authority.” He called for
replacing the democratic process of electing governors to instead have them
chosen by local officials from candidates selected by the president.
To begin to achieve his aim, Primakov organized a meeting last month of all
top federal and regional leaders, hoping to forge a strategy to buttress
the floundering federation. (All the meeting accomplished, though, was to
make clear the extent of the differences that exist. One governor, Konstantin
Titov of Samara, stood and said, “We are trying to usurp federal power.”)
The prosecutor general is preparing a report detailing the offenses of 10
Primakov has increasingly turned to the secret police, the one tool in the
federal arsenal that is guaranteed to get the attention of local leaders
and encourage them, if not force them, to bide by Moscow’s will. Increasingly,
local officials are being charged with corruption for economic activities
that violate federal law.
The frustration and sense of urgency among federal officials is palpable.
“We must have a mechanism of intrusion to allow the center to force the regions
to obey the law,” said Yegor Stroyev, chairman of the Federation Council.
“We need power, not for the sake of power, but for the well-being of our
The regional authorities see it differently. Over and over, they cite the
maxim that the best government is the government closest to the people, and
they are pushing that agenda. Titov, of Samara, recently announced a new
political movement, aimed at uniting regional leaders so they can put up
their own candidates for federal office. But they have decided not to wait
to begin to flex their independence and pursue their own policies.
Saratov, for example, an agricultural and industrial center on the Volga
River about 400 miles south of Moscow, officials have flouted federal positions.
In perhaps the most dramatic example, the regional government grew tired
of waiting for federal lawmakers in the Duma to pass a law allowing for the
sale and private ownership of land, so they passed their own law.
“Just imagine, before our law was passed, land was excluded from any trade,
or business deals,” said Vladimir Prokopchuk, head of the Saratov Land Committee.
“Federal laws banned this because the Duma views this as a political issue.
They have slogans, `Land is our mother.’ But they don’t think about life
in the regions. Our law was a vital economic and political necessity. If
we face obstacles on the federal level, we will protest. We will sue them.”
So far, sales have been slow and cautious. Just over a month ago, an ordinary
citizen, an Afghanistan war veteran and pasta manufacturer named Anatoly
Suspitsin, purchased a swath of frozen land, sandwiched between two massive
concrete buildings, where he plans to build a coffee shop. For 100,000 rubles,
or about $5,000, he became one of the first people in post-Soviet Russia
to actually own land. Local officials view people like Suspitsin as the only
hope for the resurrection of the regional economy; while federal officials
see him as nothing less than a threat to the integrity of the Russian federation.
“Everything is possible in our country,” said Suspitsin, who said he knows
that if the federal government chooses to it can eventually nullify his ownership
of the land. “But I don’t want to be like the rest. Very few people want
to achieve anything. People here in Russia for 80 years, all they did was
fulfill orders and now they cannot apply their own initiative. They are awaiting
Three times so far, the prosecutor general has tried to overturn Saratov’s
land law, and three times it has failed to force its will on the region.
Officials said they plan to go back into court and try again. Yet, the defiance
in Saratov runs deeper still. This past winter, local officials grew concerned
about the notion of “food security.”
Officials said Muscovites would drive to their region, where food was cheaper,
load their trucks and take the food back to the city, allegedly leaving local
residents without enough to eat. Rather than further aggravate federal officials
with an outright – and illegal – ban on such a practice, they imposed new
regulations that effectively achieved the same result. They required that
producers receive 12 permits every time they want to transport food out of
“We never undertook any illegal actions or approved of any restriction,”
said Andrey Rossoshansky, minister of trade in Saratov, adding this complaint:
“They expected us to provide food in Moscow.”
In Krasnador, the governor tries to regulate the price of goods sold in his
region. He regularly publishes price lists for food in the local papers.
The governor’s staff declined to comment on any of his policies, but an ally
of Kondratenko defended his independent approach. “Our interests contradict
Moscow’s interests,” said Yuri Gavrilenko, deputy ataman, or leader, with
the Cossack movement based in Krasnodar. “Ordinary people do not agree with
12 March 1999, Johnson’s Russia List
The Left in a Siberian City
By Renfrey Clarke
NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia – There’s not a great deal of joy in being a worker in
Russia, and things are harder still if you aren’t in the relatively well-off
capital, but out in the provinces. It makes a big difference, though, if
you can get a handle on the real meaning of what’s happening in the country.
And if you can join in waging a political fight for working-class interests
– well, you may not eat better, but the psychological pay-off can be enormous.
Those, perhaps, are some of the reasons why left-wing activism continues
even in some of the most remote corners of Russia.
Not that Novosibirsk, where I have spent the past few weeks, is exactly the
sticks. With about a million and a half people, it is the largest city in
Siberia, and a key centre of education and science. In Soviet times, Novosibirsk
was also one of the hubs of the country’s high-tech manufacturing. This point,
though, is a sore one.
Near where I have been staying is a defence plant which once turned out fighter
planes at the rate of twelve a month. In 1998 it produced just three aircraft,
and wages at the plant have not been paid for two years. The collapse of
the high-tech sector is one of the reasons why, in the 1996 presidential
elections, a majority of voters in Novosibirsk Province opted for the candidate
of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
In both the provincial and city assemblies, Communists hold solid blocs of
seats. The KPRF, however, should not necessarily be identified with the left.
With its strong legislative presence in Novosibirsk, and about 4000 paid-up
members in the city, the party is in a position to keep the local authorities
under heavy pressure on issues such as social services and the payment of
“budget sector” wages. But forces to the KPRF’s left complain that the party’s
deputies have long since reconciled themselves to capitalism, and are more
interested in trading influence within the local administration than in defending
Not all the city’s oppositionists have been so readily tamed. Novosibirsk
has at least five emphatically anti-capitalist political parties and groups,
with a combined membership of perhaps 300 people. Another significant left
presence is the local organisation of the Union of Officers, made up of
opposition-minded retired military personnel. A number of small trade unions
are also aligned with the left. Considering how many people in Novosibirsk
live barely above starvation level, the size and political impact of the
committed left is surprisingly small.
The reasons why angry workers in Russia do not, for the most part, flock
into left-wing parties are diverse and go far back into the history of Soviet
times. A major obstacle for the left, however, is simply the poverty that
made workers angry in the first place. For Russian workers, even the bus
fare needed if they are to get to meetings can be hard to find. For the parties
they might join, membership dues cannot be a large source of income. Nor
can literature sales, since newspapers can only occasionally be sold rather
than given away. For expenses such as rent, telephone bills and printing
costs, left organisations usually depend on a few supporters who have higher
incomes and can make donations.
A further brake on the growth of the Russian left, in Novosibirsk and elsewhere,
is the fact that large numbers of workers lack the time for political activity.
To keep themselves and their families, they have to hold down two or even
three jobs. But with capitalism discredited in Russia, and the ruling authorities
widely hated, the failure of the left to grow impressively cannot be put
down solely to practical difficulties.
The decisive reasons have to be political. Even in a city as large as
Novosibirsk, left political activists remain almost completely isolated from
the international left and its debates (something brought home to me by the
fact that my presence at various gatherings over the past few weeks has been
a real event). Few good historical materials are to be had, especially in
Russian. Marxism-Leninism to most Novosibirsk leftists therefore remains
the skewed, selective version found in Brezhnev-era party primers.
Not surprisingly, the reasons why Soviet socialism and the USSR itself were
quickly and deliberately dismantled are baffling to most people on the
Novosibirsk left. And the things that activists cannot understand themselves,
they cannot explain persuasively to others. Compared to the perplexities
of the 1980s and 1990s, the politics of the Stalin era seem to many leftists
to be agreeably straightforward.
But if nostalgia for Stalinist times is comforting to the old, it is repellent
to the young. And of course, the unrepentant Stalinism of various groups
on the Novosibirsk left (including the largest, the Russian Communist Workers
Party) is seized upon by liberal propagandists out to brand the whole left
as totalitarian. The fact that the main political experience of most Novosibirsk
leftists has been in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appears in their
Among the former military officers in particular, unquestioning submission
to orders from above is seen as a definite political virtue. The result is
that the left parties, as well as having a dogmatist cast, tend to be marred
by rigid hierarchism in their internal regimes. With internal party democracy
ill-developed and poorly understood, political differences have been expressed
in factionalism and recurrent splits. It should not be thought, though, that
the post-Soviet left in Novosibirsk has achieved nothing. Left-wing news-sheets
are published semi-regularly in the city, and though often turgid reading,
they provide a vehicle for bitter criticism of the new capitalist order.
Opposition demonstrations each year on May 1 and November 7, the anniversary
of the 1917 revolution, draw about 10,000 participants. During 1998 Novosibirsk
leftists twice organised actions in support of the “rail wars”, when unpaid
miners and other workers in the nearby Kuzbass region blocked rail lines.
And on January 23 this year, left activists from Novosibirsk were among more
than 150 delegates at a remarkable congress of representatives of labour
collectives, strike committees and workers’ councils from Siberia and the
Urals. Held under tight police surveillance in the Kuzbass city of
Anzhero-Sudzhensk, the congress heard the call for a shift from parliamentarism
to active workers’ struggle.
A Council of Workers of Siberia was elected, and a decision was taken to
support only those political parties that joined actively in defending workers’
rights. Even the characteristic failings of the left groups in Novosibirsk
are being addressed. Surrounded by piles of books in a run-down apartment,
a former research scientist and philosophy teacher (nameless at his request)
chairs meetings of an analytical group.
How does the crisis in Russia reflect the evolution of capitalism outside
the country’s borders? And what did the founders of Russian Marxism really
think about the internal regime needed in a workers’ party? The participants
in the group are searching for answers. Meanwhile, tertiary education lecturer
Aleksandr Glazunov is the moving spirit in an Inter-Party Initiative Committee
of Communists. Representatives of five left organisations gather weekly to
conduct dialogue, hoping to clarify differences and perhaps, overcome them.
It is fair to conclude, however, that when rapid growth of the Novosibirsk
left begins, it will not be led by veterans of Soviet socialism but by younger
activists whose political experience dates essentially from the 1990s, and
whose sense of the international heritage of the left is keen. In Novosibirsk,
such people are grouped in the local organisation of the Russian Communist
Union of Youth, known by the abbreviation “Komsomol”.
With about 70 members in Novosibirsk Province, and 40 or so in the city itself,
the Komsomol is among the larger of the local left organisations. It has
one deputy in the provincial legislature. Linked in earlier times to the
KPRF, the Komsomol now insists bluntly on its independence. According to
Yevgenia Polinovskaya, a Novosibirsk history lecturer who coordinates the
Komsomol’s work in Siberia, the falling-out with the KPRF reflected disagreement
by young radicals with the party’s right-wing course, opposition to its growing
nationalist bent, and anger at KPRF interference in the Komsomol’s internal
affairs. When Polinovskaya ran as a Komsomol candidate in elections for the
provincial legislature in December 1997, the KPRF refused to back her campaign,
running a non-party factory director against her.
Much of the activity of Novosibirsk Komsomol members centres on their paper
“Novosibirsky Komsomolets,” which appears four or five times a year. Interesting
and well-produced, the paper is by far the best literary offering of the
local left. With about a third of its members students, the Komsomol also
works to develop the student movement and to promote actions in defence of
In addition, it conducts its own political education work, with activities
such as discussion camps and debates with other political tendencies. Alone
on the Novosibirsk left, the Komsomol presents itself as an internationalist
current. Its search for lessons and examples outside the Soviet and Russian
experience is carried on largely through the Internet, where it has a web
Leftists in Siberia are not short of courage or devotion. To pack into a
decrepit Moskvich car and drive hundreds of kilometres in minus-thirty
temperatures, and then to spend a day conferring in an unheated cinema beset
by police, would test the mettle of most Western radicals. The shortcomings
which hold the Siberian left back are different, rooted in the areas of program
and method. Until now, the authorities have been able to assume that the
errors of the left would rule it out of account indefinitely as a potential
mass opposition. But that assumption may soon cease to be justified.