Thursday 23 June 2022

Seizing the opportunity?


One of the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been increasing speculation about the possible break-up of the Russian Federation. From the Washington Post, through Bloomberg, to the i, columnists have been analysing the situation and wondering aloud whether the war could provide the spur needed for some of the 22 autonomous republics currently part of the Federation to seize the opportunity to break free. It comes against a background of increasing centralisation as Moscow accretes power from the far-flung parts of its empire, and increasing Russification, as the centre tries to impose a common identity and language on a very disparate group of nationalities, and the theory is that weakening a large colonial power by breaking it up into smaller states would generally be a good thing for the world at large. But only in the case of Russia, of course. Brave patriots seeking to escape the clutch of Russia are an entirely different thing from the dangerous separatists seeking to break up other established states, such as the ‘most successful political union in history’, as unionists like to refer to the UK, without a shred of hard evidence to back up the claim. It’s worth noting in passing that some of Russia’s possessions have, in one form or another, been part of ‘Russia’ since before the UK came into existence – historical longevity is clearly not the factor which accounts for the difference in perception.

Attempted Russification is nothing new – and nor is the concept unfamiliar to us here in Wales. It’s happening in the occupied parts of Ukraine right now (and for balance, it’s worth noting that the Ukrainian government is also attempting a process of Ukrainification as well). The remaining residents are issued with Russian passports, school curriculums are being aligned with those in Russia, and the rouble replaces the Ukrainian currency. It’s something that many states have attempted to do at many times in history, usually under autocratic rulers (who tend to be rather more effective, due to their innate ruthlessness, in enforcing the rules, using as much violence as is required). And despite all the lessons of history, such rulers always tend to believe that they can succeed in rapidly eliminating any sense of national feeling which does not align with the ‘official’ state view.

History has almost invariably proved them wrong. In Spain under Franco, the Catalan and Basque nationalities and languages were viciously suppressed for a generation; it didn’t work. Whilst the personality – and ruthlessness – of Marshall Tito kept the different nationalities of the former Yugoslavia together for decades, the country rapidly imploded after his death. Closer to home, despite the Welsh language being effectively outlawed for all official purposes for centuries, a fifth of the population stubbornly persist in using it, and we now have a government committed to expanding its use. Eliminating national identity by force takes consistent effort over a long period. Conversely, gaining independence and elevating the status of the Irish language seems to have been something of a disaster for the language. Perhaps the lesson is that, in many circumstances, the oppression itself provokes a reaction, meaning that oppression may not be the best means of achieving the unity of identity that the state demands of its citizens.

It’s a lesson that it’s unreasonable to expect Putin to learn any time soon. Dictators are far too easily convinced that they can simply will things to be as they wish and impose them if necessary; by the time they realise that they’ve got it wrong, it’s already too late. A similar rule applies to world kings – imposing their will on their distant possessions in the teeth of local opposition is usually counter-productive in the end, but their misplaced sense of self-belief makes it impossible for them to realise that fact until it's too late.

Will Russia fall apart as a result of the war in Ukraine? In truth, nobody knows. It wouldn’t be the first time a movement for national independence saw the imperial power’s difficulty as their own opportunity. On the other hand – as we also know only too well – killing an empire and all the exceptionalism which goes with it is no short term project either.


dafis said...

"... Brave patriots seeking to escape the clutch of Russia are an entirely different thing from the dangerous separatists seeking to break up other established states, such as the ‘most successful political union in history’, as unionists like to refer to the UK, without a shred of hard evidence to back up the claim...."

Imperialism and its affection for certain versions of the status quo are not unique to old timers like the U.K and Russia. A most recent manifestation of hostility to change within a nation state was the stance of the EU when the Catalans elected to break from Spain. The EU was quick to defend the constitution and integrity of a leading member and wanted nothing to do with a new state that had potential to be an effective member of the EU very quickly. Its attitude to the prospect of Scotland departing the UK in 2014 stank and may have helped defeat the campaign for independence. Now of course with the UK no longer "in the club" the EU may cynically shift its position although their main goal remains a UK re entry as they need members who can finance their activities. Imperialism of the new kind uses money and economic power but still remains focussed on controlling its component parts much as the UK and Russia have done for centuries.

John Dixon said...

Whilst not seeking to defend the EU's stance on Catalunya, I'm not at all sure that there is an equivalence here. The EU is (despite what the Brexiteers would have us believe) not a unitary state but a membership based organisation, and ultimately, its stance reflects the views of the member-states. Whether its position on, say, Scotland changes depends not on what the Commission may think, but on the views of those member states. I know it's not quite as simple as that in practice - the Commission can and does initiate policy on a range of issues, but it's unlikely to promote a policy (such as internal enlargement) which it knows in advance will be anathema to some of its members. That isn't the same, though, as saying that it wouldn't change that stance in response to a properly-recognised decision by one national minority or another to choose independence. What the EU is not is the 'empire' (evil or otherwise) as which the Farages of this world attempt to paint it.

Gav said...

Always had a soft spot for the old republic of Novgorod. OK they were all b@stards but maybe a little less so than most others around at the time. There's an argument that its destruction was when the rot started to set in, in that part of the world. Anyway, we won't see the like again.

A bit off-thread, we have recently come back from a very pleasant holiday in Corsica. The Corsican language seems to be having a bit of a revival right now. Maybe the Paris government has gone soft, or just hasn't found out yet, or have but don't care. (Tip: don't say it's like Italian unless you're looking for a polite but very long explanation of why it is most definitely not a kind of Italian, no sir.)