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Russia: Movements Toward Sovereignty
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Setting > Ethnic Composition > Movements Toward Sovereignty

MOVEMENTS TOWARD SOVEREIGNTY


Beginning in 1990, many of the constituent autonomous republics and regions, delineated at various stages of tsarist or Soviet control, used the chaos and centrifugal force created by the breakup of the Soviet Union to move toward local sovereignty. The legislatures of most republics made official declarations of sovereignty over their land and natural resources between August and October 1990. Although the declaration of full independence by the Chechen Autonomous Republic was the most extreme result of such moves, some observers felt that the political and economic stability of the Russian Federation was threatened by the separatism of regions that were valuable because of their strategic location or natural resources. Furthermore, Russia, acutely conscious of having lost its "near abroad" -- the fourteen republics that constituted the Soviet Union together with the RSFSR -- could ill afford the second blow to national self-image that the loss of ethnically based jurisdictions would inflict.

Occupying about three-quarters of the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russia is the largest country in the world. It never has existed as a country within its present borders, however. Intent upon preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the government in Moscow maintains an uneasy relationship with the non-Russian (and particularly the non-Slavic) nationalities. This relationship stems from Russian racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes (for example, perceptions of the dark-skinned Muslims in the midst of white-skinned, Orthodox Slavs), a historical tendency toward xenophobia among Russian commoners and parts of the Russian intelligentsia, and a legacy of forcible incorporation of various ethnic and nationality groups into the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Further complicating the relationship is the fact that many of Russia's abundant natural resources lie in the territories of various regions now proclaiming exclusive sovereignty over those resources.

Although some tensions in ethnic and nationality relations stem from a desire for union between peoples on both sides of an internal or international border arbitrarily drawn by the tsars or by Soviet authorities, other motivations also underlie the assertiveness of national minorities in the federation. In the more liberal post-Soviet atmosphere, people no longer must suppress their anger over Soviet political and economic subjugation and Russification campaigns. Accordingly, non-Russian nationalities seek recompense for long periods of colonial-style exploitation of their indigenous resources for the benefit of the regime in Moscow. Another cause of dissatisfaction is the perceived failure of the Russian government to provide adequate support and protection for native schools and cultures. Finally, the end of the Russian government's monopolization and censorship of the news media acquainted minority groups with political trends, such as the spread of nationalism, with which the rest of the world has been familiar for some time.

Other tensions result from Russian policies that non-Russian groups perceive as discriminatory or confiscatory. Examples include unfair tax practices and the refusal of the Russian government to let various ethnic groups reap the income from sale of their indigenous products and natural resources.

Separatist agitation in many areas of Russia already had begun in the Soviet Union's twilight years. A full year before the Soviet Union's demise, more than half the autonomous republics in the RSFSR had adopted declarations of sovereignty. Every region of the vast RSFSR was affected by this trend, which was more an indication of the central government's waning authority -- even in regions relatively close to Moscow -- than it was an indication of intent by those declaring sovereignty.

In May 1990, the Tuva ASSR witnessed civil strife between the Russian and Tuvinian populations. Charging that Russia had failed to provide them with employment opportunities or suitable housing and had sought to eradicate their indigenous culture, the Tuvinians attacked Russian neighborhoods, setting fire to homes and forcing about 3,000 Russians to flee.

In October 1990, the Chuvash ASSR declared itself a full republic of the Soviet Union, a status that would have given it equal status with Russia, Ukraine, and the other thirteen Soviet republics. Although the announcement stated that Chuvashia would remain part of the Russian Federation, the republic would exercise complete control over all its natural resources and would make Chuvash equal with Russian as an official language. Also in 1990, the Mari ASSR, about 500 kilometers east of Moscow, proclaimed itself a full Soviet republic whose natural resources would become the exclusive property of its people and whose state languages would be Mari and Russian. The republic adopted the new vernacular name "Mari El," meaning "Mari Territory," and that name won official approval from the government in Moscow.

Also in 1990, the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast and the Adygh Autonomous Oblast unilaterally upgraded themselves to autonomous-republic status. While declaring their intention to remain part of the RSFSR, these jurisdictions asserted the right to local control of their land and natural resources. Still another declaration of sovereignty came from the Buryat ASSR. The Buryats declared that their republic's laws henceforth would take precedence over those of the RSFSR.

In northwestern Russia, secessionist sentiment manifested itself among the ethnic minorities of the Karelian and Komi ASSRs. In the autumn of 1990, local Karelian authorities protested insufficient food shipments by refusing to deliver timber and paper products to Russia. Many Karelians, ethnically close to the Finns, want their republic to become part of Finland.

During the period leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, local officials in the oil-rich Bashkir ASSR (renamed Bashkortostan in 1992) declared sovereignty, and the Chukchi Autonomous Region, which faces Alaska across the Bering Strait, declared itself autonomous and demanded control over its reindeer and fish resources. Commenting on the rash of separatist activity, an adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev remarked, "It's getting to the point where sooner or later someone is going to declare his apartment an independent state."

In October 1991, the legislature of the Tatar ASSR, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, adopted a declaration of independence from Moscow, and in 1992 Tatarstan approved a constitution that described the republic as being on an equal footing with the Russian Federation. And, in what was to become the most troublesome of the ethnic autonomy movements of the 1990s, Chechnya proclaimed its sovereignty in October 1991.

Among these nominally separatist political units, the transition from words to deeds has been uneven. In some cases, ethnic and nationality groups appear content with the mere form of sovereignty; in others, efforts are under way to give substance to the words of separatism. In republics such as Mordovia, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, relations with Russia are the defining issue among opposing political groups. Other republics, such as pro-Russian Kalmykia and independence-minded Bashkortostan, are firmly under the control of a single leader.

The enormous Republic of Sakha in north-central Siberia, rich in diamonds and other minerals, exemplifies the threat that secession poses to the Russian Federation. Sakha has declared that its local laws supersede those imposed from Moscow and that it will retain all revenues generated by the sale and use of its resources. The republic also has accepted substantial direct development investment from Japan and China. Many members of Sakha's Russian majority have sided with the indigenous population in supporting self-government or full independence. Experts believe that such regions as Sakha, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan theoretically have sufficient natural wealth to become viable independent entities. According to estimates, these regions' secession from the Russian Federation would deprive Russia of half of its oil, most of its diamonds, and much of its coal, as well as a substantial portion of such industries as automobile manufacturing.

Against the backdrop of ethnic and nationality tensions, a tug-of-war developed in the early 1990s over the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia and most of the smaller ethnic jurisdictions signed the Federation Treaty, which was an attempt to forestall further separatism and define the respective jurisdictions of central and regional government. The treaty failed to resolve differences in the key areas of taxation and control of natural resources, however. In some cases, self-proclaimed independent entities in Siberia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation have forged links with foreign countries. Commercial and cultural accords between Turkey and Turkic republics such as Bashkortostan and Chuvashia especially worry the central government.

Data as of July 1996




Last Updated: July 1996


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Russia was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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