Staunton, November 22 – There are certain questions the mere posing of which often becomes more important than the answers anyone will give to them. Precisely such question was raised by a writer on a Moscow news portal at the end of last week who asked his readers to reflect on whether Russians in fact need all the space Russia now occupies.
That question is provoked, Kirill Govorov asks in KM.ru, by the plan the regional development ministry has come up with that calls for Moscow to focus its attention on 20 major urban agglomerations and largely neglect the rest of the country, an approach that will exacerbate existing regional differences (news.km.ru/nam_ne_nuzhno_vse_prostranstvo_r).
In fact, Govorov argues, the plan, if realized, will in a short time “convert almost all the territory of Russia into a vacant human desert,” something that he says is leading many in the expert community to denounce it as at variance with Russia’s interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of the country.
Some experts have gone so far as to argue that “the realization of this doubtful project will put the territorial integrity of [the Russian] state at risk,” an argument that has “nothing in common” with the typical alarmism of the media but rather is based on careful statistical analysis which suggests this new plan could make disintegrating trends “irreversible.”
Drawing on statistics from 2007 – the last pre-crisis year and a time when differences among the regions were less than now – the difference of GDP per capita between the richest and poorest regions was “almost 20 times,” and the poorer regions have been falling further behind for more than a decade.
By 2005, Govorov points out, roughly a dozen of the Federation’s 89 subjects provided “more than 50 percent of the GDP.” And the difference between these regions and the rest is rapidly becoming “the main social contradiction which is giving rise to political conflicts” and feeding in to the demographic problems the country has.
(As if to underline the KM.ru writer’s point, the Russian statistical agency today released figures showing that the rate of unemployment among the regions varies widely as well, with the rate of the regions with the highest unemployment being 45 times that of those with the lowest (www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=408368&cid=6).)
“In more than half of Russia’s regions, 47 of 89, there was an increase in the number of deaths in 2005,” and while “the excess of deaths over births for the country as a whole was 1.6 times” in that region, in 23 of the poorer regions, that figure was 2 to 2.8 times, a trend that is pushing them ever further behind.
For example, the KM.ru writer notes, the difference between the region with the highest life expectancy and the one with the lowest reached “almost 23 years in 2005,” and for men alone, this difference exceeded 25 years, “ranging from 46.4 years in the Koryak Autonomous District to 71.7 years in the Ingush Republic.”
Because of these regional differences, Russians are on the move: “Over the course of the last 15 years, more than 46 million – a third of the Russian population – have changed their place of residence in the hopes of a principle improvement [or at the very least] a stabilization of their situation.”
If current trends continue or if they are exacerbated by the new megalopolis plan, Govorov says, “the degradation of the overwhelming majority of cities and districts which are not federal or regional centers and megalopolises will continue,” with all the adverse social, economic, and political consequences that trend will entail.
Appended to Govorov’s article is a brief interview with Yury Krupnov, the chairman of the observers’ council of the Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development and a frequent commentator on the impact of the interaction of these forces on political life in the Russian Federation.
Krupnov suggested that the agglomeration approach “contradicts a different conceptional model” in which the entire country would benefit and appears to reflect the notion of some among the powers that be that betting on those urban centers that are already doing well and neglecting everyone else will give them “a bonus” in the form of more rapid development.
But even if that such a strategy were to work in the short term as the result of what might be called “competitive federalism,” he said, it would ultimately fail even in development terms and generate tensions between the haves and have nots that Moscow would find it far more difficult to respond to than the one it would confront with a more balanced approach.