Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Two Russias’ – Urban and Rural -- Increasingly At Odds, Tver Official Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 6 – Like Disraeli’s description of England in the 19th century, the Russian Federation of today has split into “two Russias” increasingly different and isolated from one another and increasingly hostile to each other, a development that one provincial official argues is not sustainable for much longer whatever those in Moscow may believe.
The “first Russia,” Oleg Dubov, the head of a district in Tver who maintains a blog on regional politics, says, is “the country of the big cities,” with a modern economy, the influx of active and educated young people, and the possibility of earning high salaries and pursuing a variety of careers (community.livejournal.com/ru_politics/18503243.html).
The “second Russia,” he continues, is “the country of the villages and small towns,” places the Tver activist says have been “thrice deceived, robbed and bled to death.” Unlike the cities, “this Russia never supported market reforms or liberal ideas,” and today, despite their deferential votes for the Moscow leaders, its members feel “defeated in their own country.”
These “two Russias do not understand one another,” he continues, and “their contacts are minimal,” limited in most cases to the use for a few months each year by urban residents of dachas they have had Tajik workers build for them. In every other regard, there is “a wall of silence between the victorious urban Russia and the defeated provincial one.”
This situation, the Tver blogger insists, is not sustainable over the long haul. Indeed, he suggests that Russian politicians are going to have to focus in the immediate future on bringing the “two Russias” back together again into “a single, great and flowering country” because the “patience” of the second Russia is rapidly running out.
Just how quickly that is taking place, Dubov says, has been somewhat obscured by the slight improvement small towns and rural areas experienced in some areas in the first years after “the horrors of the Yeltsin 1990s.” But now things are getting worse, especially since Moscow’s methods of “putting down” the provinces are become “less cruel and more gradual.”
But if the methods have improved in some respects, even become “perfected,” the Tver official says, Moscow’s campaign against “the second Russia” has neither ended nor changed directions. Instead, it has become even more dangerous and insidious, threatening to destroy finally what little the “second Russia” was able to hold on to before.
Dubov describes what he says are “the current methods for the destruction of the Russian provinces”: the destruction of the social sphere of the village, the “final solution” of the land question, the creation of a system of “communal apartheid,” and the destruction of local governments responsible to the population rather than to those in power.
The thorough-going destruction of the social sphere, however many problems it had in the past, did not begin until 2004, Dubov says, when Moscow officials began talking about “optimization,” a code word for insisting on equal per capita government expenditures regardless of local conditions.
In education, this meant the massive closure of rural schools whose smaller class sizes made them more expensive on this measure than urban schools, the closing down of one of the key institutions not only helping to hold the younger generation in the regions but also to hold village communities together.
Moscow did adopt a law saying that the regions and localities could maintain schools with small class sizes, Dubov acknowledges, but he points out that this was an unfunded liability: the provinces could do so only if they came up with the money, something most of them were not in a position to do.
The situation in health care in rural areas is if anything even worse, he continues. Not only are many hospitals and nursing stations already closed, worsening health care for everyone there, but wage arrears have been growing over the last several months, leading to the departure of still more personnel to the cities.
And other cultural institutions, such as clubs and libraries will be shut down over the coming year, leading to the unemployment of those who worked in them and the disintegration of rural communities whose members had relied on these and who will now find themselves more isolated than before.
Another “first Russia” attack on the “second Russia” was Moscow’s plan for “the final solution” of the land question. Yeltsin’s distribution of vouchers allowed urban operatives to buy up agricultural land for almost nothing and then sell the most picturesque parts of it to urban residents for dachas.
Dubov says that he had always wondered what the operatives did with the other land, but now he recognizes that they used the land much as Chichikov did in Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” as collateral for getting loans which they had no intention of repaying. That enriched them but left many rural residents without land and without any prospect of work.
A third attack on the provinces consists of Moscow’s efforts to create “communal apartheid,” in which urban residents would be privileged and rural ones discriminated against not only in the provision of services (something that has long been true) but also in the amount of money allocated per capita for people to live.
Reforms introduced in the late 1990s concerning payments for communal services also were based on the idea that any government support should treat all residents of the country equally. But that worked against residents in rural areas in a double sense, something Dubov clearly believes the authors of this project knew.
On the one hand, it has meant that rural residents had to pay more on their own because delivery costs were higher given the lower density of population and greater distances involved. And on the other, it has meant that they have to pay for coal and heavy oil, the predominant sources of heat in rural areas rather than less expensive gas, as urban residents do.
In short, in proclaiming equal treatment of people who were in inherently unequal positions, Moscow made a choice for the “first Russia” and against the “second,” something that is leading “at the start of the 21st century in Russia step by step toward the construction of communal apartheid” and ultimately to an explosion against it.
And finally Dubov points to the destruction of local governments, an action that took place not under Yeltsin but rather under Vladimir Putin and now Dmitry Medvedev, a destruction that eliminates the one part of the government apparatus that Dubov argues was responsive to the people in rural areas.
The law not only splits up what had been effective units and transforms their heads from elected positions to appointed city managers, more responsive to those who appoint them than to those who had elected them, but also creates a larger and more burdensome bureaucracy that rural areas are not going to be in a position to sustain if they hope to provide other services.
In short, Dubov concludes, the situation in the provinces, in what he calls the “second Russia,” is now “worse than in the 1990s.” And he calls for his fellow rural residents, people who “sincerely love [the country] and never considered it part of ‘Western civilization,” to demand that Moscow start listening to them and not just to “the first Russia.”

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