Vienna, May 7 -- The Kremlin’s amalgamation of small non-Russian regions with larger and predominantly Russian ones has not worked out the way its supporters routinely claim, and any future attempts to combine larger units -- Russian or non-Russian -- would both reduce Moscow’s ability to control the country and spark bloody conflicts.
That sweeping indictment of Moscow’s current approach and warning about what could happen if the Kremlin does not change course were offered by Vladimir Kazanskiy, a leading Moscow geographer who for more than 20 years has specialized on the problems of the far-flung regions of the Russian Federation.
Kazanskiy, who has published more than 300 scholarly books and articles over the last two decades, made these arguments in response to questions after his April 19 Polit.ru lecture on “The Unknown Russia.” Both his lecture and his responses were posted online at the end of last week (http://www.polit.ru/lectures/2007/05/04/kazanskiy.html).
The Moscow geographer reported that he had recently visited what is to become Perm kray, the result of the folding in of the Permi-Komyak district into Perm oblast, a process that led off the ongoing Kremlin effort to reduce the number of federal subjects by eliminating the so-called “matryoshka” republics (non-Russian areas within Russian ones).
First of all, Kazanskiy pointed out, the Russian government’s explanation for this particular move was fundamentally dishonest: Despite having tried to become a self-standing republic in 1993, the Komi-Permyak district had never separated itself from Perm oblast and thus did not need to be “recombined” as Moscow insisted.
Moreover, despite the Russian government’s pledge to provide more funds for the Komi people and the new “combined” kray, there are few reasons for optimism about the future development of either the Komi or -- and this is a point almost never made -- of the Russian region of which it is now an almost indistinguishable part.
“The entire Soviet experience of administrative divisions showed that those ethnic groups which had their own territories survived,” while those who did not suffered often to the point of extinction, he notes. The Komi-Permyak until recently were one of the former, but now thanks to this amalgamation, they may prove one of the latter.
Whether the disappearance of this or any other people via assimilation into larger units is a disaster, of course, depends on one’s perspective, Kazanskiy acknowledges. But often, small ethnic communities make enormous contributions -- and consequently the disappearance of any group involved losses whose extent cannot be estimated in advance.
During his recent visit to the new Perm kray, however, the regional geographer says he observed another development which may prove even more distressing to its authors: That region as a whole is now virtually “some kind of colonial country” controlled not by its own population or even the central government in Moscow but instead by LUKOIL.
Whatever impact either of these developments will have in the future remains to be seen, Kazanskiy says, but “the process of unification of regions is continuing. So far it has taken place without large short-term losses and without any bloodshed. But soon there will a next stage, when there will be large losses and undoubtedly blood.”
“Just try to imagine [what could happen if Moscow were to seek] the unification of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan” in the Middle Volga, the regional specialist suggests.
Combining non-Russian regions either in the Middle Volga or the northern Caucasus is a step some politicians and many academic specialists analysts have regularly argued against. Kazanskiy’s comments are entirely consistent with what they have said: such steps would be dangerous.
But in contrast to most other writers, Kazanskiy suggests that combining what many call “Russian” regions could have some equally threatening consequences even if these steps were not accompanied by the kind of violence he suggests is likely to occur in the case of the larger non-Russian areas.
On the one hand, Kazanskiy notes, regional borders, which had become more open in the 1990s, are once again becoming “ever more significant” for the lives of their leaders and populations alike. His study of 500 websites from the regions suggests that each region increasingly looks to itself rather than to its neighbors or even to the center.
“Not in one of these 500 sites that were reviewed,” Kazanskiy continues, was there any intention to compare its territory with a neighboring one.” Instead, each boosted its own region -- with many proclaiming themselves to be “the center of Russia” -- while ignoring all other regions.
And on the other hand, “formally” there are no “ethnic Russian” regions. But if two or more of those called that by most officials in Moscow do combine, the consequences will be both immediate and dire: “an increase in corruption,” a decline in the quality of life of the population, and “a fall-off in the ability of the government to administer them.”
Indeed, he says, if Moscow finds it difficult to manage affairs in smaller “Russian” regions now, it will face even more serious challenges both administratively and politically if it chooses to go forward with any moves to combine the regions as some close to the Kremlin are now advocating.
Kazanskiy’s warning beyond any doubt will attract some attention, but his very directness -- including his willingness to criticize not just the current Russian regime but also the ideas of Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on how Russia should be reorganized -- equally certainly will lead some to dismiss him as a marginal figure.
But given Kazanskiy’s impressive analytic record -- one that includes among other things, discussions of the impact of Russia’s incomplete urbanization of many residents of its cities -- that would likely be a mistake, perhaps even a fatal one for those who hope to keep the Russian Federation at peace and in one piece not only now but into the future as well.