Vienna, December 13 – President Vladimir Putin’s comment at the end of last month that Moscow may modify the borders of some of the seven federal districts he created either reflects or has sparked speculation that the Kremlin plans to re-divide the administration structures of the Russian Federation in more radical ways.
This week, the RBK news agency reported that the Russian government in fact has drawn up plans to transform the seven federal districts into seven “meta-regions” with slightly different borders than the existing ones have and to reduce the number of federal subjects to “no more than 50” (http://www.apn.ru/news/article18680.htm).
According to that agency, the Kremlin plans to begin by combining Moscow and Moscow oblast, a move Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has long sought, to unite St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast, something the city authorities there desire, and to recombine Chechnya and Ingushetia, which Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has urged.
But if each of these steps has its supporters, all have serious opponents. Neither Moscow nor Leningrad oblast leaders want to cede their power to a combined entity, and Ingush officials, even those who are the most pro-Moscow, have been openly skeptical about the desirability of recombining the two republics that split apart 15 years ago.
In the past, such opposition of regional leaders in places like Adygeia and the Altai has been sufficient to slow if not completely stop whatever plans Moscow may have, but now there is another factor that APN analysts suggest may put a hold on this idea at least over the electoral season.
However much the leaders of the newly combined units might feel they owe the Kremlin and its leader, they would control far more assets and thus be in a better position to contest what the federal center might want. Indeed, the APN analysts say, such a combination could lead to significant conflicts between Moscow and the regions.
Why then did this report appear and appear now? There are at least three possible explanations, none of which can be immediately excluded. First, the RBK news item may simply be a complete fabrication, imputing to a comment Putin made on November 30 about the boundaries of the federal districts far more than is in fact there.
Second, this report may constitute a testing of the waters, an effort by the central authorities to see just how regional and other leaders might react to such a move. If so, then the lack of reaction to it over the last few days indicates that most of them are pursuing a cautious wait and see approach.
Or third, it could be completely accurate. In that event, Putin may be planning a kind of “big bang” approach to administrative reform, one that would allow him to introduce a number of very radical changes quickly at the end of his presidency and thus position him to form new alliances with new leaders.
If the last possibility is correct, then this move may be part of a far larger game intended to increase Putin’s freedom of action not only with respect to the regions but also in Moscow itself. Obviously, some of the regional leaders who would be losers at home could find themselves elevated to Moscow as newly minted Putin allies.
But there is one detail about this report that suggests the journalists who prepared it may be guessing or alternatively that the officials who put this idea into their heads were making something up out of more or less whole cloth: the number 50. Ever since at least 1825, Russians have been fascinated by the number of American states.
The chief ideologue of the Decembrists, Pavel Pestel, wrote that he and his fellow conspirators hoped to divide the new Russia into 13 states, just like the United States at the beginning of its history at the end of the eighteenth century and a number that he thought would promote a free and democratic Russia.
And in December 1991 -- indeed on the very day that the presidents of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus were meeting to eliminate his position and the country over which he ruled -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told journalists that he hoped to divide the USSR into 50 states, just like the United States now.
By making reference to this number, RBK joins a long tradition of superficial copying of American arrangements by Russian leaders, but given Putin’s current political course, it seems extremely unlikely that he in fact would be prepared to settle on exactly the same number.
And thus it may very well be that the radicalism of this proposal, if indeed it is real, is intended to allow him to take several smaller moves, thereby winning more friends among Russian nationalist groups without creating the kind of threat to the central authorities that a smaller number of larger federal units might pose.