Friday, October 29, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Experts Push for Revival of Early Soviet Model for Regional Amalgamation

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 29 – Experts from the Rostov Effective Administration Institute have suggested that Astrakhan and Volgograd oblasts be combined into the single Lower Volga Kray they formed in the 1920s, a proposal that could provide a model for further regional amalgamation not only there but elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
Yesterday, the Rostov experts speaking at a round table devoted to the prospects for the development of the Lower Volga enclave Volga unanimously agreed that unification of the two oblasts would both help Volgograd overcome its economic problems and promote modernization in the new federal unit (нижнее-поволжье/).
While there is no indication that Moscow is currently behind this idea, ongoing discussions about restarting Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation project suggest that at the very least some of the powers that be will be attentive, all the more so because the Rostov experts’ proposal draws on a previously existing division and is cast as a modernizing step.
At the conference, experts from the Rostov institute agreed that “significant changes” are taking place in the Lower Volga region, pointing both to developments in each of the current federal subjects there and to Moscow’s increased attention to the region, including President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent visit to Astrakhan.
Within what they call the Lower Volga “enclave,” the experts continued, there is forming up “a new hierarchy of the regions,” one in which Astrakhan is becoming the “dominating” political subject both within the region and more generally, with the other two federal subjects, Volgograd and Kalmykia falling behind.
Of particular importance as far as Astrakhan’s role is concerned, the experts pointed not only to Moscow’s decision to use that city as the site of talks about the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute among the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents but also to Astrakhan’s role in the Caspian region.
Astrakhan oblast, the experts noted, is “the only non-Muslim territory with access to the shore of the Caspian Sea, through the waters of which pass the border of the ever more complex and tense Russian-Iranian neighborhood.” Neither of the other two subjects has done as well either at home or as a foreign policy player.
Kalmykia has had particular problems, something that has forced Moscow to pursue “a unique strategy in many respects,” one that has “formally” kept that republic within the Lower Volga enclave but that in practice has moved it out of that grouping, For the Kalmyk elite, the experts said, this had both “pluses” and minuses.”
On the plus side, this has meant that Moscow has put on hold any chance of changing the status of Kalmykia. But on the minus one, it has led to a situation in which Moscow has refused to pay for the kind of large investment projects in that Buddhist republic that could allow it to develop and modernize.
Meanwhile, over the last two years, Volgograd has, contrary to Moscow’s expectations, fallen behind both economically and politically. The “illusions” the center had as recently as 2009 about that oblast have now dissipated completely, with little expectation that there will be much progress there in any sector there soon.
Given this situation, the Rostov analysts continued, the idea of uniting Astrakhan and Volgograd oblasts into a single new federal subject, the Lower Volga kray, “as a mechanism of overcoming the deepening economic and political inequality” between the two is increasingly attractive.
The capital of the new kray would be Astrakhan which would play the predominant role in the new unit by developing “a shore economy,” that is, “the infrastructure formed in the Volga delta and on the northern coast of the Caspian Sea” and linking it with the canal system of Volgograd, Kamyshin and further afield.
. Such an arrangement, the experts argued, “would become a way out for the Volgograd territorial segment, the agro-industrial sector of which at present is experiencing a most sever crisis,” one exacerbated by the fact that the new Volgograd leadership “is not taking convincing steps to overcome [it].”
And they conclude that “the establishment of a Lower Volga kray with a capital at Astrakhan thus is an effective step toward the modernizing of the economic and political system of the current region,” adding that recent actions by Moscow suggest that “preparation for such a unification have already begun.”
A comment posted on this article suggests another reason why Moscow might be considering such a step in particular. A Lower Volga kray existed before, from 1928 to 1934, when it included eight districts made up of 76 rayons, plus the German ASSR, the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast and the city of Saratov.

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