Monday, October 25, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Another Trial Balloon on Regional Amalgamation in Russia?

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 25 – Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party has introduced a draft bill that would allow the Duma and Federation Council to amalgamate federal subjects without a referendum in the territories involved, a measure that some believe is a trial balloon for the restarting of Vladimir Putin’s stalled effort to reduce the number of federal subjects.
Vitaly Sotnik, a journalist for the independent news agency, offers the fullest discussion so far of this initiative, its sources, its supporters and opponents, its prospects for passage, and the implications of a new push in this direction for politics in Moscow and the regions affected (
According to the journalist, Zhirinovsky’s party believes that the Federal Assembly should be able to decide on unifying federation subjects without a referendum in those affected, even though the existing federation subjects are listed in the Russian Constitution and referenda are required for any such step according to established Russian law.
“Some analysts,” Sotnik continues, “call the draft LDPR legislation an attempt of the Kremlin to sound out public opinion” about this step, but whether that is the case or not, the LDPR already has compiled a list of the federal subjects that it believes should be combined in order to reduce the number of such units.
These include Moscow and Moscow oblast, Tyumen oblast and Yugra and Yamal, and also Kurgan, Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk. Many have suggested the new Moscow mayor wants to absorb surrounding oblast (, and there is some interest in doing the same with St. Petersburg city and Leningrad oblast (
“Other experts,” the journalist says, “are certain that a fiasco awaits the project of the Liberal Democrats.” And sources in the Presidential Administration suggest that the Kremlin is far more focused on the upcoming Duma and presidential elections than on changing the size and number of federal subjects with all the political problems that would entail.
The LDPR, however, thinks it has a good chance to succeed with this bill. Vladimir Taskayev, the party’s chief for the Urals Federal District, said that “the practice of conducing referenda has compromised itself,” not only because of the enormous administrative pressure brought to bear in each case but also because of the high cost of holding such votes.
He added that “our bill is not in any way directed at the reduction of the democratic rights of citizens” because “decisions [about amalgamating subjects] will be taken in the State Duma, the deputies of which are chosen by the population.” Taskayev indicated that the method LDPR could be used first with Moscow city and Moscow oblast.
Officials in the Presidential Administration noted that “the idea of expanding certain regions has been discussed for a long time.” And a specialist at one of the analytic centers working with the Kremlin added that Moscow had focused on the folding in of the matryoshka subjects of Yugra and Yamal into Tyumen oblast.
But perhaps most intriguingly, this expert said that the powers that be in Moscow were also interested in combing Kurgan, Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk oblasts, the first time that Putin’s program of regional amalgamation would have involved only predominantly ethnic Russian regions.
Duma deputies with whom the journalists spoke, Sotnik said, generally indicated that they were “not against discussing the idea” of giving the Federal Assembly the exclusive power to decide on the borders of federation subjects but that they were unwilling to declare their support for the LDPR measure until they had time to become acquainted with it.
The expert community had a similar reaction, with most saying the idea is fine but the details are critical. At the same time, some of them noted that the LDPR had rarely been able to get one of its ideas passed and therefore suggested that people in Moscow and in the provinces ought not to be so worried.
Meanwhile, in a comment to, Natalya Zubarevich, the director of regional programs of the Independent Institute of Social Policy, expressed the fears of many. If the Duma approved the LDPR measure, it would represent an excessive level of vertical power in Russia and further weaken the regions (
Zubarevich is certainly correct. After all, Putin’s efforts between 2003 and 2008 to reduce the number of federal subjects from 89 to 83 by amalgamating the matryoshka subjects was part and parcel of his effort to re-centralize power. If his program gets a new lease on life thanks to Zhirinovsky’s proposal, that trend will almost certainly intensify.
But precisely because of that threat to their own powers, the elites and populations of many regions will certainly resist, possibly adding their voices to the regionalist movements within the Russian Federation and thus creating a situation exactly the reverse to the one Putin and Zhirinovsky clearly want.

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