Monday, March 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: From a Russia of the Regions to a Russia of the Megalopolises?

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 26 – The Russian Ministry for Regional Affairs has prepared a draft plan calling for the development of six new giant cities similar in size and economic vitality to Moscow and St. Petersburg elsewhere in the country, a Moscow business newspaper reported today.
But this plan, under the terms of which the Russian Federation would rest not on regions but on enormous urban agglomerations, will have to overcome a variety of financial and political obstacles before the Russian government as a whole would be likely to approve and implement this radical change in the organization of the country.
According to a report in today’s “RBK Daily,” officials at the regional affairs ministry believe that the emergence of such an archipelago of cities would serve Russian national interests into the future better than the existing arrangement where the two capitals attract migrants and investment while most other regions suffer losses of both.
Under the plan’s terms as described in the newspaper and in a regional news agency ( and respectively), Moscow would enter into a new public-private partnership partnership with private firms to develop six new giant urban centers.
The paper described four of them: Greater Rostov, which would include Rostov-na-Donu, Novocherkassk, Taganrog and adjoining areas; Greater Sochi, on the Black Sea; Irkutsk, Angarsk, and Shelekhov in the Transbaikal, and Nakhoda, Ussuriysk, and Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.
The plan, which its authors suggest should be implemented over a period of 20 years, would be enormously expensive, involving hundreds of billions of rubles. And the cost alone is one of the reasons that many non-governmental experts believe it will never be implemented.
And even if the central government did find the money, several Russian analysts told the newspaper, it is difficult to imagine that this scheme could ever be realized. In the words of one, “major centers form themselves when there are real projects being conducted in them, not because they are the result of the conscious policy of the state.”
That is probably the rock on which this plan will founder, even though many Russian officials well remember Stalin’s construction of cities in the Russian interior where none had existed before and Brezhnev’s fascination with super-giant projects that served ideological rather than practical goals.
But there are two other reasons why this plan is unlikely to be realized, one of them very much on public view in the Moscow media today and another not so visible but likely on the minds of at least some analysts and politicians not only in the Russian capital but across the country as well.
On the one hand, the transformation of the Russian Federation into an archipelago of a small number of cities would strike at the powers of the existing regions and republics, few of whose leaders or populations are likely to be willing to yield their power and authority.
Indeed, as the two reports noted today, the regional affairs ministry first proposed this plan in the summer of 2005, but at that time, the Council of Ministers sent it back for reworking because the Moscow bureaucrats had not consulted regional officials. Supposedly, the second draft reflects the input of some of them.
But on the other hand -- and this could prove far more threatening to the future of the Russian Federation -- such a Moscow-sponsored move from a Russia of the regions to a Russia of the megalopolises might very well push the current Russian Federation toward a possible breakup.
Not only would this plan lead to the emergence of a smaller and thus individually more powerful set of players on the national scene – a development that analysts often have suggested makes the disintegration of any country more likely – but the difficulties of implementing such a plan over almost a generation would likely cause of the winners to ally themselves with some of the losers.
Such developments would almost certainly create a new kind of center-periphery politics, on very much at odds with those in the Kremlin who remain committed to the creation of a strong “power vertical” in which the center completely dominates the political landscape of the country.

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