Friday, September 21, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Opposition to Putin’s Regional Amalgamation Plan Spreads

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 21 – Two exchanges in the Russian media this week, one in the Altai and another in Ingushetia, suggest that the leaders and people in Russia’s regions are increasingly opposed to President Vladimir Putin’s oft expressed desire to cut the number of federation subjects by combining smaller regions and republics.
The first of these involves the Altai Republic and the Altai Kray. Earlier this month, Aleksandr Berdinkov, the president of the Altai Republic took part in ceremonies commenorating the 70th anniversary of the creation of the neighboring Altai Kray and made a comment that sparked a firestorm at home.
Berdinkov, apparently speaking at large, said that he was “convinced that there cannot be two Altais. There will be one Altai, great and powerful,” a comment, Moscow’s “Kommersant” reported on September 17th that his listeners saw as an endorsement of amalgamation of the two but that he quickly backed away from.
Shortly after he made his remarks, Berdinkov’s own press secretary Galina Savina effectively disowned them, saying that these “possibly” off the cuff comments had not been “prepared” and thus suggesting that no one should read anything into what he had said (
Bur nationalist activists in Berdinkov’s home republic were not prepared to leave things at that. Vladimir Kylyev, the leader of the Ene Til Group, suggested that the Altai Republic leader had been carrying out the wishes of Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, with whom he had met at the start of September.
On September 18th, Berdinkov acknowledged in a statement to the republic media that he had in fact met with Surkov and that the two had discussed the possibility of amalgamation. But the Altai Republic leader continued, “we came to the conclusion that as long as I am head of the Altai Republic,” nothing will come of this idea.
Berdinkov said that his comments at the Altai Krai jubilee were simply intended as a rhetorical flourish, one that reflected not a political but a “geographic” view of “a large and powerful Altai,” a region that includes not only these two federal units but also portions of two foreign countries.
Berdinkov’s latest remarks may have reassured some but clearly not all of his listeners in that distant republic, but meanwhile another case of possible amalgamation, this time between Chechnya and Ingushetia, showed just how sensitive this issue now is across the Russian Federation and why Putin has not been able to move forward on it.
Over the last few weeks, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has suggested that his government is prepared to come to the aid of the embattled leadership of neighboring Ingushetia and thereby restore order in that increasingly restive neighboring republic.
Because Chechnya and Ingushetia were part of a single republic almost up to the end of the Soviet period – the two broke apart after Chechnya declared its independence from the Soviet Union in early November 1991 – many commentators immediately assumed that Kadyrov, backed by Moscow, hoped to rule both areas.
Given the criticism Ingush President Murat Zyazikov has received for developments in his republic, such speculation was entirely natural, with some analysts arguing that it would be a step forward toward the complete pacification of the North Caucasus as a whole and others suggesting it would lead to a new explosion.
But however that might be in the future, Zyazikov is having none of it. In a statement picked up by RIA Novosti yesterday, he said that he had “said repeatedly that [he] would not accept any expansion, optimization of structural changes or any other configurations of political experiments of a territorial kind.”
The combination of the two republics, he suggested, might have been appropriate in the base, but now “we know that it had a very serious negative impact on [both] peoples – including the deprivation of particular individuals of their motherland and the deprivation at one time of their statehood in the 1920s.”
Because of that, he said, he “categorically” would not accept any union with Chechnya. The “multi-national people in Ingushetia do not need it.” And in words that seem to be a direct response both to Kadyrov and to Putin, “the Chechen people do not need it either” (
Given the strength of these feelings, it is difficult to imagine that Putin will be in a position to make any significant progress on regional amalgamation during the rest of his term. And this policy, so much ballyhooed earlier as uniquely his, may finally collapse when he leaves office.

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