Vienna, November 5 – Vladimir Putin’s effort to reduce the number of federal subjects by combining non-Russian autonomous districts with predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays now faces yet another challenge: the Nenets Autonomous District has asked Arkhangelsk Oblast to return some of the authorities it had ceded to the oblast a year ago.
That a combination of the Nenets AO and Arkhangelsk Oblast would prove more difficult than any of the earlier combinations Putin had pushed is no surprise: The oil-rich Nenets AO is far wealthier than Arkhangelsk, a sharp contrast to the other cases where the relatively poorer non-Russian districts could reasonably expect to benefit from a combination.
Indeed, the Nenets oil wealth meant that Moscow chose a different strategy than it had employed elsewhere, seeking not the immediate amalgamation of the two federal subjects but rather forcing the Nenets government to transfer some budgetary and administrative powers to Arkhangelsk, while remaining nominally independent.
That step, which occurred in early 2008, is now breaking down as, in the words of BarentsObserver.com, “the economic crisis is making it increasingly hard for the Arkhangelsk administration to meet its budget obligations both in Arkhangelsk Oblast and in the Nenets AO (barentsobserver.com/nenets-ao-wants-powers-back-from-arkhangelsk.4649334-116320.html).
Because Arkhangelsk is not providing the funds it promised even though much of the total revenue of the two federal subjects in fact comes from the AO, Nenets head Igor Fyodorov has called for a new accord that would give his district back some of the budgetary powers it ceded in 2008 on “a temporary basis” (www.arnews.ru/news/1219826.html).
In a letter to Arkhangelsk Governor Ilya Mikhalchuk, Fyodorov argues that such an arrangement will help both subjects, ensuring that the residents of the Nenets AO will receive the funds they need to weather the crisis while eliminating the requirement that the Arkhangelsk authorities have to come up with them.
But in fact, such a “temporary” move would restore the Nenets AO to the status it had earlier enjoyed as a federal subject and cost the Arkhangelsk powers that be some of the revenue they had been getting and retaining for their own oblast. And as a result, local observers say that it is unlikely Mikhalchuk will agree (www.arnews.ru/news/1220810.html).
Andrey Churakov, an Arkhangelsk political scientist, argues that in addition to the possible loss of revenue, there is another reason Mikhalchuk is unlikely to agree: signing such an accord would undermine his reputation with Moscow and throw into high relief his “own incompetence” in running the region.
“From the point of view of the economic situation,” Churakov said, “Fyodorov’s proposal is a wise one. More than that, it seems strange that the initiative for the return of plenipotentiary powers to the district came from the district and not from the oblast which has been hardly able to cope with these powers” over the last year.
That highlights something that Mikhalchuk can’t want to have advertised: “the command of the Nenets governor is more professional and concerned about the territory entrusted to it than is the leadership of the Arkhangelsk oblast.” And because of Mikhalchuk’s political ambitions, the political scientist said, “he won’t adequately assess Fyodorov’s proposal.”
But even if Mikhalchuk does not, many in Moscow are certain to view this exchange as an indication that any push for the total amalgamation of the Nenets AO and Arkhangelsk oblast is likely to be counter-productive at least in the near term. And that judgment is likely to slow efforts to combine other federal subjects elsewhere in the country as well.