Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Putin's Region Amalgamation Plan Seen Ending Up in the Courts

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 21 -- President Vladimir Putin's plan to combine smaller non-Russian autonomies with larger and predominantly ethnic Russian regions not only has run into a brick wall of opposition after a series of successes but has left in its wake numerous unresolved issues that almost certainly will require decisions by the Constitutional Court.
Beginning in 2004, Putin organized a series of referenda to approve the amalgamation of the Komi-Permyak Autonomous District with Perm oblast, the Koryak AD with Kamchatka, the Evenk and Taymyr AOs with Krasnoyarsk, and Agin-Buryat AO with Chita, and the Ust-Orda AO with Irkutsk.
In no case did Moscow have much difficulty in securing approval, and this policy -- one that will cut the number of federal subjects from 89 to 83 -- has played well both among Russian nationalists who object to any special status for these minorities and among many Western analysts who view it as contributing to political efficiency in the Russian Federation.
But it is very unclear whether Moscow can continue this policy elsewhere. Many leaders in the non-Russian federation subjects currently slated to be with Russian ones are not only opposed to this plan but have some important political resources that those in the first group of autonomous districts did not. As a result, they have slowed if not stopped forever this amalgamation effort.
The leaders of the Khanty-Mansiisk and Nenets AOs, for example, have succeeded in blocking the abolition of their districts at least for now because their areas are wealthier than are the Russian regions with which the Putin administration would like to combine them, and they have formed alliances with major Russian oil and gas companies to oppose the move.
The leadership of the Republic of Altai has been able to mobilize nationalist feelings against folding that region into the Altai kray. And the leaders of Adygeia, which was Putin's next target for change, not only have mobilized the other Circassian republics inside the Russian Federation to oppose it but also have enlisted the support of the powerful Circassian diasporas in Turkey and Jordan.
Now, however, a new and potentially more serious obstacle has emerged, not among these future candidates but in precisely those places where the amalgamation process had won approval and was generally assumed to be on track. And that problem, to the extent it becomes widely known, could end any chance Moscow has for reducing the number of regions further.
In all six cases where the voters approved such combinations, both Moscow and regional officials said that residents of the non-Russian regions who were being asked to vote their political territories out of existence would continue to enjoy certain special rights and that the new federal subject would pass legislation and create institutions to ensure that.
Now that the votes have been counted and Putin's victory in this area proclaimed, however, local officials and local populations are struggling to try to figure out just what those new laws and new arrangements should be, and the leaders of the newly combined krays are trying to decide whether they need to keep these promises or others they may have made to Moscow.
Last week in Irkutsk, scholars at the regional Institute of Legislation and Legal Information organized a roundtable on precisely this issue and its implications for the Russian Federation as a whole. The Transbaikal's most important newspaper, Vostochno-Sibirskaya pravda, carried feature articles on these sessions November 15 and 17 ( and 42902).
Petr Sazonov, a senior researcher at the institute where the meeting was held, said that everyone involved was troubled by the fact that "there is no single approach" in Moscow or locally to the definition" of the rights of those regions that have be been folded into others.
On the one hand, he noted, many of the non-Russians involved believe that Moscow and the leadership of the Russian regions must live up to its promises. But on the other, many officials, noting that the whole point of this exercise was creating a "common legal space" across the country, argue that they need not and indeed should not do so, however vocally the non-Russians insist.
Not surprisingly, this difference of opinion has led to a variety of outcomes. "Irkutsk," Krasnoyarsk Law Professor Konstantin Knyaginin told the meeting, "has behaved like an honest bridegroom," conducting itself toward its bride as it promised before the marriage. But elsewhere, regional officials have not, concluding that Moscow's message is that they can "marry as they like."
He noted that this issue is already being discussed by several committees of the RF Federation Council, many of whose members believe that these unresolved issues mean that the Russian legislature must change the law both to provide some country-wide guidance for these amalgamated areas and to give the regions involved more time to implement it.
But such steps, Knyaginin and others in Irkutsk concluded, are hardly likely to be sufficient in and of themselves. And the participants in this meeting predicted that these problems will not only complicate debates about amalgamation elsewhere but also be resolved if squaring this circle is indeed possible by a decision of Russia's Constitutional Court.

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