At an April 26 meeting in the Kremlin with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, President Vladimir Putin again defended the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s Donbas. In referring to these puppet formations, backed near-exclusively by Russia’s military and financial support, Putin uttered a remarkable phrase: “One or another territory of any state is not obliged to apply for permission to declare its sovereignty to the central authorities of the country” (Kremlin.ru, April 26). The Russian leader said something similar following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014; but in a dialogue with the UN secretary general, Putin’s statement was especially noteworthy. He appealed to the fact that, in 2010, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) effectively accepted the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, although the Serbian authorities opposed it. At that time, Russia also refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo, but now Moscow appears ready to manipulate this precedent for its own interests.
The ICJ based its 2010 Kosovo ruling on “exceptional circumstances”—in light of the ethnic cleansing carried out in this autonomous region by Slobodan Milošević’s regime, his continued rule in Serbia would only lead to an aggravation of the conflict. However, this precedent has in no way ever applied to the Ukrainian situation, either in Crimea or Donbas. The Ukrainian authorities have never suppressed Russians on an ethnic basis; so Putin’s analogy lacks legitimacy.
In truth, a contradiction of sorts does exist in the language of the UN Charter between the principles of the territorial integrity of states and the right of peoples to self-determination. Putin is playing on this tension, exploiting the self-determination concept for his own political use. Yet the Kremlin leader’s rhetoric on this topic may have inadvertently opened up a Pandora’s Box that could have long-term repercussions for Russia’s regions. One day, they may also demand unilateral self-determination, without any consent from the central authorities. And if Putin objects, he will be reminded of his own words.
The Kremlin fears any genuine regional self-government arising in the country. Immediately after coming to power in 2000, Putin began to dismantle Russian federalism, depriving the regions of any political, economic and cultural rights. The name of the unchanging party of power, United Russia, is itself indicative.
But with the beginning of the 2022 large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s own internal “unity” has begun to crack. For now, the economically plundered ethnic republics like Buryatia or Dagestan continue to send their contract soldiers to war because there are few other opportunities for their young people to earn a decent wage. However, the returning stream of coffins is already causing social discontent there (see EDM, April 19, May 3). And anti-war protests have broken out not only in the national republics but also in ethnically Russian regions, such as Pskov Oblast, where about 100 military personnel refused to be sent into combat (ERR, April 7).
The “Kosovo precedent” is much more applicable not to Ukraine but to Russia itself. As long as the Moscow-centric empire persists, its regions will remain colonies without rights, and this problem is fundamentally insoluble within the Russian legal framework. The conflict between the imperial center and the regions sometimes erupts unexpectedly. For example, in late April, one of the main Kremlin TV propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov, insulted the inhabitants of the Urals, accusing them of “anti-patriotism.” The local authorities and the opposition united together in condemning Slovyov’s insolent remarks (Region.Expert, May 2).
On May 8, on the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, a rather symbolic event called the “Forum of the Free Peoples of Russia” took place in Warsaw. It was organized by the Polish Solidarity Foundation for Journalists, whose president, Krzysztof Skowroński, said in his welcoming speech, “We are unconditionally in solidarity with Ukraine, which is fighting for its freedom today. But complete liberation in our part of the world will become possible only when all the peoples who are still suppressed by the Kremlin empire become free” (Rusconfederation.org, accessed May 16; Sdp.pl May 9).
The Warsaw Forum differed significantly from the Free Russia Forum, which has been meeting in Vilnius for several years and gathers mainly political emigrants from Moscow. At the Vilnius Forum, the problems of federalism and regional self-government in Russia usually remain in the background, given only one discussion panel from time to time. But at the Forum in Warsaw, this topic became pivotal and dominant, since, according to the participants, it is the de-imperialization of Russia that is the most urgent task of world politics. Otherwise, the Kremlin’s empire will continue to threaten other countries and suppress the peoples living on its territory (Sdp.pl May 9).
Political exiles from Bashkiria, Tatarstan, Buryatia, Chechnya as well as the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North spoke at the Forum of Free Peoples, offering multiple examples of the growing demand for federal self-government in the Russian republics today. Moreover, the participants called on Europe to support such activism since it will be in the interest of the European countries themselves. A real Russian federation, made up of semi-autonomous regions preoccupied with their own internal development, will not pose a threat to the transatlantic alliance.
Significantly, the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia brought together civil activists from not only national republics but also ethnically “Russian” regions demanding regional self-government. The representative of Kaliningrad said that his oblast has become a hostage to the Kremlin’s militarism, although its inhabitants are interested in developing friendly relations with their European neighbors. A Novosibirsk journalist recalled the dissatisfaction of Siberians with the colonial policy of Moscow, which extracts Siberian resources and “converts” them into aggression against other countries. Indeed, the community of Novosibirsk State University has actively opposed the war in Ukraine (NSUforPeace, accessed May 16). A regionalist movement also exists in St. Petersburg, despite the fact that it was the capital of the Russian Empire for two centuries. Its representatives advocate for the abolition of the Soviet-era name of their region—Leningrad Oblast—a return of its historical name of Ingermanlandia, and its transformation into a republic.
Such discussions are notable because they contradict the Kremlin propaganda’s labeling of these activists as “separatists.” Rather than supporting atomist “disintegration,” they are seeking formats for new, contractual, equal relations between their regions. But from Moscow’s point of view, any such inter-regional, federative (in the original sense of the word) agreement represents a threat. For now, repressive measures from the center are holding the imperial edifice together. Yet any perceived future weakness in the Kremlin could encourage a renewed drive for regional autonomy, with local leaders remembering Putin’s fateful words about territories not needing “permission” from the center to declare sovereignty.