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Russia: Putin Proposes Contentious State Power Grab in Siberia

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

On April 20, the Russian newspaper Kommersant revealed [ru] an ongoing legislative project to create a state company to oversee the economic development of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Working on orders from Vladimir Putin, the Ministry of Economic Development has drafted a law to establish this entity, and has already distributed the document to four other ministries for approval. If created, the state company would be responsible for developing 16 sub-federal units in Russia's east that collectively make up 60% of the country's entire territory. The legislation would suspend many current laws on subsoil extraction, foresting, land ownership, urban planning, labor, and citizenship. Most contentiously, the state company would be under the direct control of the Russian President, effectively granting the Kremlin carte blanche over fundamental elements of local governance across Siberia.

A gas pipeline in Novosibirsk, Russia. (19 Dec 2011) Photo by AIHAM DIB, copyright © Demotix.

News about Putin's plan for Siberia has provoked a variety of reactions in the RuNet blogosphere. The prospect of a ‘grand national project’ (the end-all panacea to the country's woes, according to Russian ‘patriots') has predictably met with approval from Putin's supporters and opprobrium from his critics. Study some of the individual responses, however, and the schism at the heart of any such dichotomy quickly reveals that Russian bloggers harbor certain apprehensions that shape their political perceptions. While a trend emerges that ostensibly demonstrates a divide in popular opinion, a closer reading can identify fundamental shared assumptions that are vital to understanding the landscape of RuNet civil society.

The Anti-Putin Bloggers

Yuri Krugovykh represents one of the most peculiar groups of bloggers: anti-liberal, anti-Kremlin Russian nationalists. Twenty-years-old, Krugovykh is convinced that Putin's plan for a new state company in Siberia is an American plot to colonize Russia's eastern regions through Moscow. Attacking the groups that assembled earlier this year to defend Putin against liberal democrat protests, Krugovykh writes [ru]:

It's very funny to listen to the ‘anti-orange’ activists after Putin's election victory was so favorably received by the United States. What's all this about the GosDep [the U.S. State Department]? What are you on about? Putin is doing everything exactly according to instructions. The Kremlin's [American] bosses are entirely satisfied.

Konstantin Krylov [ru], a pro-liberal, anti-Kremlin Russian nationalist, also worries that the proposed state company in Siberia would hark back to Tsarist colonialism, replicating Ivan the Terrible's oprichnina [en], a seven year period in the mid-sixteenth century, when the Russian Tsar held exclusive power over vast territories and many of the financial centers of the empire.

Echoing Krugovykh's concerns about the Kremlin's interest in obtaining foreign wealth, Krylov writes [ru]:

Incidentally, removing 60% of [Russia's] territory from local control would also seem to pursue ‘curious relations with foreigners’ (just as Ivan the Terrible had). I wonder, will they sell off the land by the roots, or just empty out all its useful deposits and limit themselves to that?

Blogger Maksim Kalashnikov [en] (real name Vladimir Kucherenko) is a Eurasianist Russian ‘patriot’ (not to be confused with Russian nationalists, whose beliefs bear a distinctly ethnic component). While Kalashnikov shares others’ unease that the new state company could inflict upon Russia a new wave of colonialism, his most serious objections are rooted in the notion that Putin's draft legislation embodies “the privatization of the state,” marking the pinnacle of Putin's ‘fanatical support’ for economic liberalism. For Kalashnikov, the state company in Siberia represents a clone of the East India Company, which Putin intends to use to destroy Russia's state apparatus [ru]:

Under the happy pretext of ‘developing Siberia,’ they are not only creating a clone of the East India Company, but are also legalizing the very principle of privatizing the government and the state apparatus. […] Next, the monopolies will take over the state, become the authorities, take over command of the army and penal system, and finally brush aside even the appearance of democracy with a junta.

In Kalashnikov's doomsday scenario, the United States is just as much a victim as Russia. Capitalism's impact on governance (represented by state-controlled monopolies) will be the same everywhere, he contends, consuming Washington and Moscow alike.

The Pro-Putin Bloggers

Khakassian blogger Mikhail Verkhoturov strongly endorses [ru] the proposed state company (even going so far as welcoming comparisons to Ivan the Terrible's oprichnina), and accuses liberals of premature objections:

The liberals are astonishing people. They can't even for a second resist their fault-finding psychosis and not start talking about how ‘they'll skim off the budget, they'll plunder everything, they'll sell Siberia to the Americans-Chinese-Japanese.’ They've already started to whine, when the corporation hasn't even been created yet!

Nikolai Starikov [en], a well-known conspiracy theorist and state television manager, also embraces the oprichnina label, perceiving [ru] it to be the only measure capable of countering ‘Western-engineered’ decentralizing reforms initiated during Russia's winter of street protests:

The Russian state lost the information war that was unleashed against it on the eve of the elections. […] In an information war, people aren't wounded or killed, but the losers are reprogrammed by the winning side. […] After December 2011, the centerpiece of Russia's concessions to our ‘Western partners’ was the passage of the new law on elections.

According to Starikov, the direct election of governors is also a Western initiative to weaken the Kremlin:

If the President doesn't get the ability to ‘filter’ the list of governor candidates, it will be a powerful blow to the territorial integrity of Russia. […] Think about it: what does the direct election of governors really mean? It is a reduction of the President's rights. Before, he could appoint — now he cannot. Ask yourself what, other than pressure from the West, could prompt the urge to pass this law in such a short timespan?

Finally, Starikov defends the creation of a powerful state company, under the direct control of the President, as a last line of defense against the chaos unleashed by the West:

How do we neutralize the potential election of governor-populists and governor-democrats and governor-separatists? How do we avoid the creation of authorities at the regional level, who might begin to sabotage federal programs and prioritize development programs based on Washington's ‘requests'? What is to be done with those who are suddenly ruled by narrow local concerns, rather than nationwide interests? […] Put Eastern Siberia and the Far East under [the President's] personal control. Create a structure that will bypass the rebellious boyars and promote the national interest.

The RuNet's Distinctions 

While the pro-Putin and anti-Putin battle lines are as clear as day, it is worth noting that the Russian blogosphere is permeated by misgivings about the outside world's intentions. Critics fault Putin for surrendering too much to the agents of the West, whereas his supporters defend his tactics as the only way to deter further Western (and perhaps future Chinese) manipulation.

Respectable public figures, like former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, have based their objections [ru] to Putin's plan for a Siberian state company on concerns about crowding out private investors and competitors. Worries focus on the freeness of the market and durability of the rule of law, if the state company is endowed with the proposed extraordinary special powers.

While legal and economic questions play a role in the RuNet debate about the potential Siberian state company, conspiratorial phobias animate all sides, sometimes driving the conversation to extremes that are difficult to understand without a thorough appreciation of the RuNet's particular landscape.

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  • Jake Turk

    Starikov’s comments are a rollercoaster. Any diminution in federal authority threatens Russian territorial integrity… yet Russia has earned the right to be treated as both a stable entity and a modern society.

    “Ain’t she a beauty? Biggest one on the block, with twelve cylinders and six hundred horses under the hood! Just don’t slam the door too hard. Oh and never, ever leave the city.”

  • vladtirus

    Putin’s stand is neither “anti-americanism” (anti-american rhetoric dropping from Putin’s tongue sometimes is just a means to “pseudo-mobilize” the Russian inhabitants facing more and more economic and bureaucratic challenges) nor is it “pro-american”-his goal is to maintain at power on the backbone of the bureaucracy, therefore the corporate capitalism and “ruled democracy” is his way to achieve that. Creating one more giant like Gazprom is within his line although eventually it will lead the economy to collapse in some time. Such economy is not flexible and vulnerable to crises. This is not evident to Putin as he hardly cares about the country he gripped..worse to him any way

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