This Sunday, August 17th, only a handful people showed up at the Siberian independence march, or “Federalization-rally” in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, capitol of Siberia. And it might look like the Kremlin itself appeared to be its most active participant through its vigorous hunt on media-coverage leading up to the event. What was this “federalization-rally” all about? And why would the Kremlin be so actively engaged to keep it quiet?
How the story really got airborne
Originally, it started off very quietly on the 31st of July when the BBC did a minor report about the planned “march for the federalisation of Siberia” with artist and activist, Artyom Loskutov. However, it caught more serious attention when Russian state media watchdog, Roskomnazdor demanded the story to be removed, and the BBC refused. This British refusal caught more coverage, and focused wider attention on other Kremlin activity that tried to shut down more linked media-sources, other interviews with Loskutov, and the closing of the Siberian campaigners’ pages on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. And finally even resulting in broader articles covering the trend behind these early ‘independence movements’ that might gain more traction in Russia.
The federalization-rally on August 17th
This Sunday, 17th of August was announced as the day for the “march for federalization”, most prominently in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. As the “march” was banned earlier by local authorities, they now changed it to pickets and rallies and although they used different names for their rallies, they all used the word of “federation” or related terminologies in one way or another. Of course all painstakingly pre-approved by local authorities.
The rally for the federalization of Siberia in Novosibirsk aimed to draw attention to a change of the status of Siberia within the Russian Federation. Under the current system, Siberia is run by several regional governments, and Novosibirskaya Oblast has a governor directly appointed by Putin. In a more autonomous republic, the people would be able to elect their own president or governor, and work towards a more fair distribution of benefits and tax-revenues related to the (huge) extraction of minerals and oil in the region.
However, next to the social-economic arguments, this march for federalization purposely aimed to draw attention and mock Russia’s Ukraine policy as well. And one really catches Moscow’s attention when touching a weak spot in official Russian policy. Especially when it pulls Ukraine into the equation.
Russian policy paradox on federalism
This weak spot is drawn along the following paradox: On one hand, the Russian Foreign ministry fervently advocated federalization within Ukraine, and nicely summed up the benefits of more autonomy within Ukraine’s borders. Culminating into the official recognition of Crimea as a sovereign state in March 2014. On the other hand however, Moscow’s headache starts when identical reasoning is applied to Russia herself: If separatism in Ukraine is a good thing, why could it not also be a good thing in Russia? Logically, Moscow doesn’t want this topic to be flirted with, and any contradiction in the reasoning is stoically denied: For Russia, separatism simply is a bad thing. Period. And in December 2013 the Kremlin made sure that a law was passed to make spreading separatist views through mass media punishable by up to five years in jail. Therefore it is much better to talk about federalism, than separatism. And, as on August 17th, it is much more successful to use slogans in Russia, similar to the ones used in Eastern Ukraine, merely substitute names and cities from Ukrainian ones to Russian ones.
More legal talk about federalism, within the Russian Federation?
This current strategy, using federalism as an allowed topic, enables the people to go to the streets with legal arguments. And at the same time, while remaining in full compliance with current laws, might be one of the few strategies left for the Russian people to raise attention for other relating goals as well. Whether it be the hypocrisy of Moscow’s policy in Ukraine, or simply to attract more attention to regional social-economic needs.
This might be a risky strategy to remain one step ahead of Moscow’s tightening noose on freedom of assembly and demonstration. But at the moment organising demonstrations or rallies in Russia is made anything but easy. And today, this might be one of the very few instruments the people are left with.
And perhaps even though few people attended the rallies in Novosibirsk and Yekatarinburg, this might also be a tentative start of more talk about federalism within the Russian Federation. Of course, that is, until the Kremlin comes up again with new restrictions on the freedom of assembly.
Author : Ernstjan van Doorn, who worked as an intern in Novosibirsk in 2004
Picture says : "Federalisation - no call to Russia's program - this is federation"