Vienna, April 16 – After a pause for the parliamentary and presidential elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reduce the number of federal subjects by amalgamation appears set to resume, possibly crossing two red lines that many, including Putin himself, have said may cause serious problems for the country.
On the one hand, St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko has stepped up her push to combine her city, -- which is a federation subject -- with Leningrad oblast, a move that if achieved could open the way to the combination of Russian oblasts and not just non-Russian autonomies with surrounding and predominantly Russian ones.
And on the other, analysts in the Russian capital and many in Mari El say that Moscow and the local Russian leadership are conspiring behind the scenes to combine that Finno-Ugric republic with one or more of the neighboring and predominantly Russian oblasts in the Middle Volga region.
Not only would that represent the first time Moscow would have eliminated a republic in this process, something troubling enough and a move, successful or not, that would certainly increase fears and nationalism in larger non-Russian republics like Bashkortostan and Tatarstan.
On February 14, Putin himself had indicated that he very much wanted to proceed with his amalgamation plan but that he would do so very cautiously, because, in his words, “amalgamation for the sake of amalgamation is not our goals. Everything depends on the citizens of Russia who must take this decision.”
That makes the two new moves striking because in Leningrad, Matvienko is pushing for something that voters in both her city and Leningrad oblast have rejected in an earlier referendum and because the moves in Mari El are being conducted largely and intentionally out of public view.
In St. Petersburg, Matvienko is pushing hard for amalgamation, arguing that she reads Putin’s words as giving a green light to do what she has long wanted to, even though many in her own city and most of the leadership of Leningrad oblast oppose that (www.fontanka.ru/2008/04/15/070/ and www.gzt.ru/politics/2008/04/16/060120.html).
According to Moscow observer Aleksey Makarkin, Matvienko’s declarations mean that “unification initiatives will continue under the next president,” that “stronger regions will attempt to annex weaker ones, and that Moscow will allow the unification of equal regions and not just the absorption of the so-called “matryoshka” national districts.
If he is correct and if the ambitious Matvienko is not restrained by bureaucratic resistance in Leningrad oblast or new calculations by incoming Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, then a majority of Russian federation subjects will be in play, possibly triggering controversies that will certainly complicate the life of the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, as one might expect, the situation in Mari El is murkier but potentially even more serious. According to a length and detailed report prepared by Moscow’s Foundation for CIS Nationality Policy, officials in both Moscow and Ioshkar-Ola believe that Mari El should be combined with its Russian neighbors.
Its authors, R. Khabibullin and Anna Shiryayeva enumerate more than 20 reasons why officials have reached that conclusion, including among others the ability of the authorities there to keep the Mari and the Finno-Ugric world from finding out until it is too late (www.mari.ee/rus/articles/soc/2008/04/11.html).
Having assembled what evidence they could to show that this is what Moscow and Ioshkar-Ola intend, the two analysts note that eliminating national republics in this way will almost certainly prove more threatening to the stability and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation than the existing units now are.
They acknowledge that “there are definite destructive forces in the world” which would like to divide Russia by using its national republics, but “the liquidation of such subjects” would not counter that threat, one that Putin spoke to in February, but make it worse.
Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that anyone in Moscow or Ioshkar-Ola is listening to such arguments. Indeed, earlier this week, an article that appeared on one LiveJournal site quickly spread fears through the Mari community on the very eve of the Congress of the Mari People.
That article said that its author expected to live in Tsarevokokshaysk, the earlier Russian name of Ioshkar-Ola, “in the near future,” a statement many Maris saw as an indication that the Russification of their republic will continue and even intensify via its unification with one or more of its Russian neighbors.
Such fears were further fanned when it was discovered that the author of this article now serves as a senior official in Mari El’s education ministry. Still worse, he earlier was a member of the now-banned Russian National Unity and has been an active supporter of Russian Marches there (www.mari.ee/rus/articles/soc/2008/04/14.html).
If that is the kind of individual Moscow and regional officials following its line intend to use to promote the amalgamation of non-Russian republics with Russian ones, the future for the former is very bleak in the near term. But clearly the future for the Russian Federation as a whole is over the longer haul even bleaker still.