Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Siberians, Local Power Is Still a Myth

AKADEMGORODOK, Western Siberia - A burly border guard wearing a newly designed uniform stamps the visitor's passport and declares: "Welcome to the United States of Siberia".


Outside, the weather is cold and snow covers the ground, yet the country's oil and mineral wealth have funded vast interior shopping malls, new fleets of fancy Western automobiles and other modern conveniences.


The image is, of course, pure fantasy, dreamed up by local politicians who threatened Moscow with secession after Boris Yeltsin dissolved parliament on Sept. 21.


Only three weeks later, parliament's destruction has revealed the threat to have been an empty sham, used to play the warring authorities in Moscow off against each other.


"Until the moment of the parliament's disbanding, separatism was just a card in the political game", said Fridrikh Borodkin, deputy director of the economics department at the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences here. "It was just an empty bluff".


The emotional threat stemmed from Siberia's frustration with Moscow's enduring colonial treatment of its regions, according to academics at this research mecca in the Siberian woods outside Novosibirsk.


At the same time, they say the crushing of the legislature in Moscow earlier this month could be the force that brings Siberia - for the first time in its history - genuine legal rights to rule over local matters.


"A process of economic disintegration between Siberia and the center is under way", Borodkin said.


As Russia recasts its political system, academics say it should look to Germany and the United States for models of regional relations with the center. A similar system in Russia would balance strong leadership in the Kremlin with influential regional leaders fighting for local interests. "There should be strong regions and normal relations with the center, which connects them to world markets", said Nikolai Pokrovsky, deputy head of the history department. "There should be a partnership of powers".


For hundreds of years, Siberia and Russia's other vast regions have had anything but equality in deciding local matters.


Through governors appointed by the tsars and then Communist Party officials responsible to Moscow, the Kremlin has long acted as a colonial power, exploiting but offering little in return.


The exploitation continues to this day. Siberia's gas fuels virtually every furnace in the country. The Siberian region of Sakha alone provides 20 percent of the world's diamonds and 30 to 40 percent of Russia's gold.


Siberians see only a fraction of this wealth. Most live on meager incomes, and Novosibirsk's recently ousted governor claimed that only one in 10 citizens can afford to buy meat.


The tradition of central exploitation has long fueled resentment, and during the Soviet Civil War, Siberia briefly created an independent state.


Yet Siberia remains dependent on its long-time master. Subject to cruel climates Siberia is unable to grow enough food for its 25 million people, making strong links to Russia essential.


To balance local and national interests, many academic experts here favor the German model of federalism, where the central government controls defense, foreign affairs, monetary policy, national transportation and some taxation. The regions can then decide local issues such as housing, energy, employment, ecology.


Strong governors, balanced by elected local councils, are the best advocates for regional interests under such a system, many experts here say. Russia's regions have already wrested some powers for themselves in recent years, taking advantage of the power struggle in Moscow to demand concessions. Regional governments have often competed against each other for the best deal.


With the anti-Yeltsin parliament gone, that game is over for good, every academic and lawmaker interviewed this week agreed, requiring a more systematic definition of what federalism means for Russia.


"The new parliament and the new president - that is Yeltsin if he is re-elected - together with the territories will solve this question", said Vladimir Ivankov, general director of Siberian Agreement, an alliance of 19 Siberian areas.


"I know all the governors in Siberia. I've drunk vodka with them and been to their home", said Ivankov. "None seeks the collapse of Russia".


The end of the state-run economy has already unleashed private enterprise in Siberia, weakening Moscow's grip. Most Siberians hope this process will continue and usher in an era of wealth.