Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Elections Likely to Slow Regional Consolidation Effort

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 10 – Election results in the new Perm kray, which folded the Komi-Permyak autonomous district into the surrounding Perm oblast, are certain to disturb many Russian politicians and likely to cause many of them to put off any further consolidation of regions until after 2008.
According to an article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” yesterday, the vote there for a new kray legislative assembly suggests that people in the former autonomous district may be less happy with the combination than many had expected and are prepared to vote against those who they believe are its authors.
In the past, voters in the former Komi-Permyak AO were among the most supportive in the country of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. In the last vote before consolidation, 46 percent backed its slate. Now, in the latest count, only 34 percent did, a politically significant decline (http://www.ng.ru/printed/80044).
While the percentage voting for United Russia across the entire kray in fact rose from 31.4 percent to 34.6 percent, “Nezavizimaya gazeta” journalist Aleksandr Kynyev pointed out, few of its members are likely to be happy about putting themselves and their party at risk by engaging in any further territorial re-engineering.
That is all the more so because the Kremlin is rapidly running out of places where consolidation could take place without too much difficulty. So far, the Kremlin has organized the consolidation of Perm oblast and the Komi-Permyak AO, Krasnoyarsk kray with Taymyr and Evenkia, Kamchatka with the Koryak AO, Irkutsk with one Buryat region, and Chita with another Buryat territory.
When these unions are all formally completed by mid-2008 -- and all have much longer transition periods built into the plan) -- President Vladimir Putin over the last two years will have overseen a reduction in the number of federation units from 89 to 83, a small but significant reduction.
All involved “matryoshka regions” – federal subjects located within other federal subjects – and all of the smaller, non-Russian regions so far were poorer than the predominantly Russian areas into which they were combined, something that made this step more attractive than it might otherwise have been.
Only three other “matryoshka” regions are typically named as immediate candidates for consolidation: the Nenets AO within Arkhangelsk oblast and Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets districts within Tyumen oblast. But they are different in an important respect: In both, the non-Russian regions are wealthier than the Russian ones.
Indeed, the Moscow journalist suggests, the smaller non-Russian units will pay off the larger Russian ones in order to maintain their independent status well into the future, a kind of bribe that he suggests the leaders of the two Russian areas will be only too willing to take.
That has led Moscow to look elsewhere, either to areas in the Far East that were combined in Soviet times, to some Russian oblasts, and to the absorption of Adygeia by Krasnodar kray. But in many of these cases, there is serious opposition on the ground and various practical problems that Moscow would have to overcome.
Moscow could arrange, Kynev says, to “force the unification of the richer Khabarovsk kray with the depressed Jewish Autonomous District or ‘to return’ Chukotka to Magadan oblast, but at this point, the list of relatively ‘problem-free’ unifications is exhausted.”
Local officials and popular groups in both the Altai and in Adygeia have shown they are prepared to demonstrate against any such move and in the latter case to invoke powerful co-ethnic groups abroad. (Adyge is the self-designator for Circassian, and there are more than three million Circassians in Turkey and the Middle East.)
And the only other candidates for consolidation Kynyev mentions – Kostroma and Yaroslavl oblasts – would do nothing to help the Kremlin in its drive to reduce the number of non-Russian units in the country and could spark questions about Moscow’s intentions for other predominantly Russian regions as well.
That makes the results of the voting in Perm kray so important because with the upcoming elections to the Duma and the presidency, no Russian politician is likely to be interested in taking any step that could undermine the ability of his party or himself remaining in office.

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