Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Medvedev Seen Expanding Putin’s Regional Amalgamation Policy

Paul Goble

Baku, May 8 – Newly installed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will at the very least continue and may quite possibly dramatically expand the policy of his predecessor Vladimir Putin to combine federation subjects and thus reduce their total number, according to an analysis published yesterday.
In an article in Argumenty nedeli, Mikhail Tul’skiy argues that Medvedev will go ahead with the three unification referenda now scheduled during the next several years and will very likely follow staff recommendations and combine “more than ten additional regions” over the longer term (
If the new president in fact does so, that would reduce the total number of federation subjects from the current 83 (down from 89 at the start of Putin’s rule) to 74 or even fewer. More important, it would reduce the number of non-Russian regions far more seriously than the number of predominantly ethnic Russian ones.
On the one hand, such a change in the political map of the Russian Federation – one that would mean the percentage of that country’s territory nominally “non-Russian” would fall from more than 50 percent in 2005 to 30 percent or less in the future -- would play well to the increasing number of Russians who believe in the idea of “Russia for the Russians.”
But on the other, it would infuriate many of the increasingly numerous non-Russians, possibly intensifying nationalist sentiments among them and certainly making the lives of administrators in more than a few of the new and likely predominantly ethnic Russian regions far more complicated.
And consequently, as an increasing number of analysts have pointed out, the amalgamation of regions will not improve administrative efficiency in the Russian Federation as Putin and Medvedev have claimed. Instead, the creation of fewer but bitter regions may create new problems for Moscow.
Between 2005 and 2007, the Putin regime organized referenda on unification in 11 regions, winning overwhelming majorities in favor of this step in both the larger ethnic Russian federation subject and the smaller non-Russian one everywhere but not always securing an overwhelming share of all voters.
At present, three more referenda are in the works -- in Arkhangelsk oblast and the Nenets Autonomous District, in Magadan and Chukotka, and in the Altai kray and the Altai kray – although in each case there is significant and in at least one member of each pair growing resistance, something that will force Moscow to use administrative measures to get its way.
But according to Tul’sky, discussions are now taking place in the Russian government about other combinations. The “largest” under discussion would combine the country’s two capital cities with their surrounding oblasts, thus allowing the cities to expand and to put an end between the political squabbles between the city and oblast heads.
Most of the combinations now under discussion, however, like those that have already been carried out involve combining non-Russian regions where the titular nationality is relatively small with larger Russian regions. Indeed, the only exceptions were the Komi-Permyak and Agin-Buryat districts, where the titular nationality formed large portions of the population.
Three combinations sometimes mentioned in the media, however, are unlikely to happen: First of all, Moscow will not seek the unification of Adygeia with Krasnodar kray even though the Adygeis (Circassians) form only a quarter of the population of their titular republic lest they create problems in the North Caucasus during the run up to the Sochi Olympics.
Second, Moscow won’t fold in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast into Khabarovsk kray, even though Jews form only 1.2 percent of the former, lest the Russian Federation be subjected to charges of anti-Semitism. And third, Moscow will not “liquidate” Karelia where the titular nationality forms less than 10 percent of the population lest it anger Finland.
(Another combination being discussed that may not happen, Tul’sky notes, is the amalgamation of Tyumen oblast with the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets districts, whose titular nationalities are small but whose total population is larger and has a higher standard of living than in the Russian federal subject that would form the core of any unit.)
What this means, the Argumenty nedeli journalist says is that if Medvedev proceeds with this policy, he will soon have to tackle the far more difficult challenge of combining ethnic Russian regions or possibly dividing one predominantly Russian but poor oblast – Kurgan – between two wealthier ones – Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk.

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