Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s New Agglomeration Plan Threatens Non-Russian Republics

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 17 – Officials in the Kremlin and the Russian government are preparing to seek the transformation of the map of Russia, creating 20 giant super-regions centered on major urban agglomerations on top or or in place of the 83 existing federal subjects, in response to demographic and economic problems and to promote modernization.
But the grandiose nature of the plan, which some experts have already dismissed as a campaign stunt by President Dmitry Medvedev intended to show that the country is not moving toward a new period of stagnation, is certain to provoke a political firestorm if the powers that be at the center try to introduce it quickly.
On the one hand, this project would cost many officials their jobs, challenge the territorial arrangements of Russian life, and introduce disorder into both economic relationships and political ties. And on the other, it could eliminate the non-Russian component of Russian federalism by folding in all non-Russian units into larger and predominantly Russian ones.
Yesterday, “Vedomosti” reported that senior officials have prepared a new map of Russia, one based on 20 agglomerations rather than the 83 existing federal subjects. While spokespersons were not prepared to confirm that this plan is about to be announced, they did not deny it either, the paper said (
Unlike previous regional amalgamation efforts which focused on the existing federal units and sought to combine them, the new plan reportedly focuses on cities and on the need to develop them beyond often stagnating company towns to places where modernization and development can take place more freely and effectively.
But the plan calls not for the development of existing cities but rather for “the reation of general conditions for the accelerated migration of the population from single profile cities into larger ones,” a potential death sentence for 90 percent of Russia’s cities, although the plan’s authors deny that.
Given that the country’s population is projected to continue to fall, by 2025-2030, “only six major cities can count on [even] a small growth of population” under the existing system: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, and Samara. Omsk, Kazan, Ufa, Chelyabinsk, Rostov and Perm will all become smaller.
Instead of trying to preserve what the document calls “the provincial urban system” of Russia, which in recent years has lost “more than 20,000 population points,” the plan calls for the formation of 20 major agglomerations with a population of more than one million people each.
Because of their size and complexity, these new agglomerations will be able to offer more to their residents, but this will be achieved not by “the mechanical combination of population points” but rather by “the coordination of plans of territorial and infrastructure development and the provision of a free migration regime.”
The new three-million-person strong agglomerations will provide “a critical mass of intellectual resources” and thus form “an infrastructure of knowledge” and promote “a new model of urban administration and the conception of a creative city.” These places will have city managers, high tech infrastructure, and numerous public services.
Were such places to develop “spontaneously,” the plan says, “there could arise serious risks for the state” including the creation of “imbalances in territorial development.” And consequently, the central powers that be must take control of the situation in order to ensure order.
Many Russian commentators are already expressing extreme skepticism. Andrey Buniich, the president of the Union of Entrepreneurs, said that the whole plan smacked of Khrushchevian overreaching and the time of the creation of the sovnarkhoz system, something that further undermined the Soviet economy (
And he suggested that “our government [which] cannot deal with much less complicated tasks suddenly is taking up the rearrangement of the entire countries, building 20 super cities” and so on. Given the improbability of the realization of these ideas, Bunich said, it appears that this is an effort to distract attention of people from real problems.
“It is understood that the task is beyond our capacity, but it is possible to talk about it, to open unending discussions … in a word, instead of improving the economy and dealing with real economic reforms, today’s powers that be are occupying themselves with administrative creativity,” something that will do no one any good, including them.
Meanwhile, Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Moscow Institute of the Problems of Globalization, said that the plan recalls “the history of the Byzantine Empire,” which died when its rulers pulled back to the single city of Constantinople and the rest of the empire fell away and the whole enterprise passed into history.
But Elena Minchenko, director of the Institute of International Expertise, disagreed with the notion that the plan would be a disaster, even though she suggested that it was probably being offered less as a road map for the future than as part of Medvedev’s electoral campaign, and she argued that many have misunderstood something they haven’t read.
“Among many people,” she told “Svobodnaya pressa,” the mistaken impression has formed that the currently existing structure of the regional division of Russia will change. Naturally, this isn’t so. The agglomerations will be created in the already existing borders of the subjects of the federation.”
Their task, she continued, will be to create “centers of attraction and development around which will be grouped smaller cities and company towns.” But if she is right, the new plan, even more than the eight federal districts, will introduce new confusion and chaos into the Russian state and economy, with the agglomerations competing with everyone else.

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