Russia Won't Fall Apart

When my friends from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Lithuania read the Russian press, they are amazed by articles whose thrust can be summed up as: "How sad that the Soviet Union broke up!" Lately this theme has moved into the liberal papers, although with a new twist: "Russia is about to fall apart!" And although this whole problem is artificial and abstract, it's worth thinking about what makes it so topical.

Nostalgia for the Soviet era is understandable when you look into the eyes of the old people who demand that we turn the clock back, or those who speculate on these feelings. The "party of war" addresses this group when it argues that Russia must keep its soldiers in Tajikistan, spending taxpayers' rubles to prop up an unpopular pro-Kremlin regime.

The former "peace-maker" in Chechnya who led the storming of Grozny, Lev Rokhlin, now a State Duma deputy, appears on television and in all seriousness assures the voters that the Taliban intend to seize not only Tajikistan, but also the Baikonur space complex, and to threaten Russia's southern border.

Other deputies are convinced that the Khasavyurt agreement, which brought the Chechen war to an end, could cause a chain reaction of separatism. If Chechnya receives the special status its leaders demand, this could provoke other regional leaders into seceding from the federation.

Liberals fear that the 52 gubernatorial races this autumn will yield new leaders with strong anti-Yeltsin views, and their fight with the Kremlin could threaten the territorial integrity of Russia.

While half of the new governors do represent the communist and nationalist opposition, this is no cause for panic. Alexander Rutskoi, long a leader of the anti-Yeltsin movement, declared his loyalty shortly after taking office in Kursk. His position is typical of many opposition politicians who have risen to national prominence, such as Federation Council chairman Yegor Stroyev and cabinet member Amangeldy Tuleyev, both communists.

Russians have a strong "border" mentality. For decades, Soviet literature and films created a near-mythic image of the border guard. Beyond the border was the realm of enemies, from whom one could expect only evil. The sanctity of borders was traditionally beyond doubt.

This helps explain Russians' inability to accept the loss of Crimea, which Khrushchev in a princely gesture gave to Ukraine in 1954. But many forget that the internal borders and the status of the regions of the USSR changed many times.

Lenin granted independence to Poland, Finland, Lithuania and Estonia, which had been part of the tsarist empire. In 1936, with one stroke of the pen, Stalin removed Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from the Russian Federation. Under Khrushchev, the Karelian-Finnish Union Republic was transformed into an autonomous republic within Russia.

If Chechnya had received the status of a union republic in time, like Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, it would have become a sovereign state in 1991 with no problem. The current debate over Chechen sovereignty is therefore also artificial and abstract.

Russia's borders changed in the past, and will continue to change. But the recent mania about internal borders arouses only astonishment or pity. Conservatives in the State Duma belabor the theme of Kaliningrad's "separation" from the federation, as if it were about to float away to Germany.

Others try to frighten us with the Primorsky krai's strengthened ties with Asia, and of Karelia's contacts with Finland and Norway.

These relationships are just part of the global trend towards intensifying regional cooperation. Kaliningrad's ties with Germany strengthen Russia's financial position and its political influence, but many in Russia are not yet ready to accept or even understand this.

Many political analysts call Russia a "federation on paper": artificially formed and bound not by rights and obligations, but by directives from the Kremlin. Today the transformation from a paper federation into a real one, built on vital economic and cultural ties, is underway. This transformation depends on the depth and pace of the Yeltsin government's economic reforms, with support in the regions.

The course of reform has been slowed by the unresolved issue of the distribution of rights between the federal and regional governments. Every region is home to some 60 federal agencies which regularly conflict with local authorities when federal property is involved.

In this confusion the regions sometimes act as they see fit. The Yakut and Bashkir republics declared that their natural resources -- oil, coal and diamonds -- were not federal property. The Yakut constitution allows for a regional army, and the governor of Sverdlovsk oblast, Eduard Rossel, recently unveiled a new currency, the "Ural franc."

The Kremlin understands that the issue of regional rights has come to a head. Anatoly Chubais and his team are developing a plan to resolve the issue based on the French system of prefectures. The plan envisions creating unified federal government centers in the regions that would control the implementation of federal programs without interfering with local authorities. A similar system is already in place in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

The problem of Russia's territorial integrity has now lost its apocalyptic tone, and is being resolved through negotiations and agreements. Therefore, the rhetoric of the "party of war" has not found a wide audience among the political elite or the voters. If a danger faces Russia today, it is political and psychological. I would call it "playing on the Russian-ness of Russia."

When politicians forget the million of Moslems and other non-Russians who live in this country, they become capable of causing Russia far more harm than even the "party of war" with its hysterical nostalgia for the imperial past.

Yury Buyda is on the editorial boards of Znamya and Novoye Vremya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.