Why Russia Won’t Disintegrate

In short: because regions have no independent elites, the Russian ethnic population prevalented, and the national peripheries are financially dependent on Moscow. But federalization after the regime's collapse is inevitable

15 Nov 2022
Why Russia Won’t Disintegrate
Photo: Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Arguments about how “Russia is about to fall apart” are a fairly regular prediction among political scientists, and have been for all 30 years of the country’s existence since the fall of the Soviet Union. The war with Ukraine has drastically shortened the timeframe of these apocalyptic predictions: first, Russia could well lose the war and, second, a defeat would weaken the regime of President Vladimir Putin — and who knows if he’ll manage to hold onto power? 

“No Putin, no Russia,” is a phrase some representatives of the democratic opposition are ready to quote, following State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin’s lead. Those in the democratic opposition believe that the weakening of the central government will push the oblasts to govern themselves independently. IStories spoke with political scientist Alexander Kynev about why, from his point of view, nothing like this will happen.

Types of disintegration

The break-up of Russia is unlikely even should Putin lose his war on Ukraine. The disintegration of states isn’t accidental; the primary reasons it may happen are twofold.

First, the behavior of the elites who control territory. In such a case, regions that were already actually self-sufficient would be detached. The collapse of an empire is often a collapse along the boundaries of personal unions. Take for instance a monarch of several states. He annexed the territories through dynastic alliances, treaties, etc. And then, when the very figure of the monarch disappears from this association, the empire crumbles and the territories continue to go their own way. 

Elements of such a disintegration were also seen in Russia, when the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Finland (actually independent states with their own constitutions) withdrew from the collapsing Russian Empire in the 20th century. Sometimes this core, in the form of a monarchy, replaces something else. For example, in the Soviet Union, the monarch figure was, in fact, replaced by the Communist Party, which held the republics together by a parallel system of power.

In this scenario, the regions already have their own established elites, they are self-sufficient and make political decisions. Such a scenario is typical for the collapse of traditional empires in Europe and the Middle East.

Second, for social, cultural and ethnic reasons, when territories under the rule of some ethnic groups then separate and self-determine. This “national self-determination” is more a story about the end of colonialism in the 20th century. Territories and their autochthonous populations were captured, to be ruled by an external administration. As self-awareness and a sense of unity grew among the people, alongside the development of a common language, coordination and cooperation took place, an identity appeared, and the territory later got a chance for self-determination. 

Often such a territory did not have any prototype in the past — many colonial possessions did not have any states before the colonizers came. The basis of disintegration in these cases is namely ethnic self-determination, but it still runs along the existing administrative boundaries within the colonies. Although they are often revised, one can recall the history of two Cameroons — French and English — which then united.

Disintegration requires either an elite that is interested in it and controls territory, or for the population of the territory to feel like an ethnic or religious community

The most easily separated territories are remote, whose connection with the empire is weak. Here the question of disintegration is a question of self-determination, assessments of profitability and economic connections, the ability to retain control, and more. The Spanish colonies in Latin America are an example of this, though the disintegration still took place largely along the administrative boundaries established by the Spaniards.

In any case, disintegration requires either an elite that is interested in it and controls the territory, or for populations within the larger empire to feel like distinct communities; that’s usually expressed in the proportion of ethnic or religious groups that live in this territory.

It’s difficult to imagine a secession situation when the territories don’t differ from one another; the same people live there, there’s no elite and no differences among the population.

No elites, no ethnic groups

Most of the regions in Russia have a majority ethnic Russian population — over 80% in most. There are few ethnic republics in which titular ethnic groups are the majority: even many large ethnic regions still by-and-large have a Russian population. Buryatia, for example is 66% ethnic Russian. 

In many republics there is also no single [dominant] ethnic group. In Dagestan, for example, there are more than one hundred ethnic groups, with four dominating. In other regions, a single ethnic group breaks up into sub-ethnic groups or clans, as in Yakutia. In this case, the ethnic Russians act as a lubricant that unites the territory, with the Russian language serving as a common tongue.

There is a small set of regions that have a pronounced ethnic identity. These lie mostly on the periphery: a belt along the borders in the North Caucasus and South Siberia. That’s Tyva, which was the last region to join the Soviet Union, and largely retained its identity, though it is absolutely loyal to Moscow. Regions such as Yakutia or Tatarstan are, in fact, enclaves — they are surrounded by the larger Russian state and have no external borders. We don’t know of cases from history of successful separation of enclosed regions like these.

As for the elite factor, many people remember the regional elites of the 1990s — Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, to name a couple. This is a relic of a bygone era. Regional elites as an entity have disappeared over the past 20 years — the Kremlin’s regional policy was deliberately built to destroy the potential for [power centers outside of the center] to form. 

Power in the regions is de facto appointed by Moscow from top to bottom — there is not one power vertical, there are many. Regional administrations are not a single force; governors can’t appoint their own deputies without Moscow’s consent, for instance, and each deputy has their own Moscow boss. It is a multi-layered cake, where almost every official operates within a vertical from Moscow. They are regularly rotated, too: it’s rare for a governor to serve more than one term. Deputies change even more often. 

What team would be capable of pursuing their own policy amid these conditions, much less separating a region?

There is not one vertical of power in Russia, there are many of them: almost every regional head has their own Moscow boss
There is not one vertical of power in Russia, there are many of them: almost every regional head has their own Moscow boss
Photo: kremlin.ru

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the union republics had stable elites that didn’t change for years. Under Stalin, there was a strong reshuffling of personnel — a conscious policy to mitigate threats of collapse. Khrushchev continued this policy, also often rotating regional leaders. Under Brezhnev, stabilization began in everything. Under his rule, leadership in the territories didn’t change for decades: the First Secretaries [the actual leaders of the republics that were part of the USSR] sat quietly for 15-18 years. When Gorbachev came, there was also no personnel revolution — yes, they were sent into retirement, but they were replaced mainly by other local leaders. There was one “alien” sent to the republic — Gennady Kolbin to Kazakhstan — which caused protest. He didn't stay there long.

In the late Soviet Union, there were stable elites who knew each other and controlled territory. There is none of that now. There are managers who are tied to Moscow and represent Moscow — not the regions.


There are no economic elites either, because practically all large regional property long ago became part of federal corporations. Even large medium-sized local businesses are almost non-existent; what’s left are pittances: something from trade, something from construction, local food industry, agricultural enterprises... But there is nothing close to the companies of the 1990s, which were a sort of base for regional elites. The former regional elites have become the regional managers of federal companies. Some have been there for a long time and know each other, and even have some sort of local business, but this is not the case to separate.

Basically, they are represented in legislative assemblies, there are regions where they are well coordinated — such as the Novosibirsk region — but on the whole they are very dependent, weak, have no leaders, and cannot formulate a coherent policy agenda. I don't see the possibility of an entity separating from among the regions.

Of course, there are still a few regions with strong elites that Moscow is afraid to touch. For example, Tatarstan.

Even if there are several border regions with a predominant ethnic group and a strong local elite, they’re all subsidized [by the federal government]. For example, Chechnya.

You can look at the modern world: take France, which has retained the largest network of overseas possessions. In places like French Polynesia or New Caledonia, which you can’t even reach without refueling the plane, well, what do you have in common with France? Nevertheless, secession referendums are held regularly — they fail, people want to stay. Why? Because France supports these territories financially. Only help from Paris allows them to maintain a high standard of living. 

It’s enough to go to any neighboring country to understand the difference. There is the French island of Mayotte, a former part of the Comoros, which remained with France after a referendum in the 1970s. When you swim across the strait and find yourself on the neighboring islands, you realize what a colossal difference it is. What they have is a small slice of Europe (albeit completely Islamic) and after a few tens of kilometers, absolute poverty, mountains of garbage, etc. Everyone understands that this [high standard of living] is possible only with outside help. So who needs to separate and what for?

All the talk about Russia’s collapse is more about political desires, affirmations, which have psychological and ideological underpinnings, but stray far from reality and the needs of the regions.

Not a collapse, but a change of flags

What is the worst-case scenario? The collapse of the state, the collapse of the federal government, insoluble conflicts between federal groups. In conditions of unrest, when there is no federal power, turmoil can begin and something could really crumble along the edges. But all things being equal, I don’t foresee such a scenario. I think that if the crystallization of regional elites starts, it won’t be now. Rather, it’ll happen after [regime] change in the federal government, when the agenda will change and new rules of the game will be determined.

The lion's share of the appointees, most likely, would immediately leave the regions. A certain vacuum would develop, filled with something. What that something will be, we don’t know — leaders will emerge in the process. All this would come later. And it doesn’t necessarily lead to disintegration — there would simply be a negotiation process on the powers to be held (keeping the topic of finance in mind).

One should not confuse anti-Moscow sentiments with separatist desires. If you look at local sociology, yes, there’s dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy, the establishment, and there are anti-Moscow sentiments. But there are no sentiments that could be interpreted as "for disintegration." This is not the same thing — many make a semantic substitution here. 

On the contrary, people who are in favor of disintegration are perceived in a negative light on the ground, to put it mildly. People perceive it as a value that they live in Russia. Many residents of the Far East are much more patriotic than Muscovites. For example, the movement for the retention of the Kuril Islands at Sakhalin is strong. And the people of Sakhalin in this sense are much more patriotic than the average Muscovite, who will say: ‘Come on, give these Kurils [to Japan] and don’t suffer anymore.’

Theoretically, separatist desires could arise in raw-material donor regions, such as KhMAO [Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug], YNAO [Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug]. But there’s nothing like that. And there, almost all resources are federal property. Nobody will give it to them.

After the change of power I believe federalization rather than disintegration will begin. Simply because it’s cyclical — in our country the relations between the center and the regions have always shifted on a pendulum. Now things have turned out to be too strongly relegated to the side of unification and centralization — there is a pending request for distinctiveness, for somehow identifying ourselves, to find points of self-development.

The arrest of Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal sparked months of protests. Don’t confuse anti-Moscow sentiments with separatist desires, however.
The arrest of Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal sparked months of protests. Don’t confuse anti-Moscow sentiments with separatist desires, however.
Photo: AP / Scanpix / LETA

I think that, just like 30 years ago, the movement will be largely symbolic. Where did self-determination begin in the early 1990s? Regional flags, renaming of territories, anthems, and so on. It seems to me this is the best, safe option, because the center has generally unified everything, and a departure from unification will be well received. 

Let them argue, foaming at the mouth, what to call the republics — to carry out, say, a reform of the names of the regions. In Russia we usually call them by the names of the capitals, but outside of Russia this is not always the case. I now think that one of the ways to hold the country together would be a campaign to choose geographical names for regions — for example, through referenda. It would be a colossal process that would launch social life. 

Let's say we make all oblasts into “krais” and let them choose their own names — for example, ‘Ladoga Krai’, ‘Yenisei Krai’, or turn Zabaykalsky Krai to Baikal Krai. Moving away from being tied to the name of the capital would be a good story about independence, identity and an attempt to say who we are generally.

Everything that concerns authority — for example, the organization of federal and local police, legal proceedings, taxes — I think, will be decided separately in each region.

There will be a difficult story, perhaps we will have to adopt transitional laws, a new Constitution, and then in the course of discussions some concepts, points of view will be formed, they will acquire supporters, and political parties will form around this. I want to remind you that in the U.S. the first major parties appeared just around the topic of separation of powers — the John Adams’ Federalists and the Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. Everything will be nonlinear in our country — there cannot be a two-party system due to the diversity of the political environment. We cannot have one common opposition, there will definitely be separate left, separate right, etc.

I think that a new concept will be formed in the process of negotiating, and it’ll be a good lesson — there will be a crystallization of the elites. But all this will be after a change of power, not before.

This text is a retelling of Alexander Kynev's responses from an interview with IStories.