Do ethnic federations undergoing democratization promote or discourage regional secessionism? This article argues, based on evidence from the Russian Federation, that when democratization produces a transfer of political accountability from center to region, the incentives of regional leaders shift, forcing them to react to local constituencies in order to retain office. If these constituencies desire autonomy, regional leaders must respond, making separatism not merely an opportunistic strategy but a necessary one for their own political survival. Democratization, then, can transform administrative regions into electoral arenas.
However, the case of Russia also demonstrates that regional demands for autonomy are not inevitable and may dissipate after they have begun. Popular support for nationalism and separatism varied significantly among Russia's sixteen ethnic republics in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period. This variation is explained by showing that mass nationalism, contrary to conventional wisdom, is neither a latent attribute of federal regions, nor a simple function of natural resource endowments, nor something summoned into existence by the manipulations of regional leaders. Rather, it is argued that increasing competition for jobs in the Soviet Union's failing economy allowed particular issues articulated by nationalist leaders to resonate with ethnic populations. Through the framing of issues of ethnic economic inequality, nationalist leaders were able to politicize ethnicity by persuading people to view their personal life chances as dependent on the political fate of their ethnic community. Thus, secession in democratizing ethnic federations can be best understood by directing attention toward the origins of popular support for nationalism and the role that support plays in the elite contest for power within subfederal regions.