Monday, July 6, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Another Obstacle to Putin’s Plan to Amalgamate Russia’s Regions

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 6 – Vladimir Putin had little difficulty pushing through the amalgamation of two Buryat federal subjects into the predominantly ethnic Russians surrounding them, but now a new problem has arisen: the residents of one whose status has been reduced to that of an ordinary district want the same special privileges the residents of the other that has received them.
And this demonstration effect suggests that both Moscow and regional governments are going to be challenged to come up with a more acceptable definition of “an administrative-territorial unit with special status” that they have promised the six national districts that have been folded in to five now “united” federal subjects.
Last week, deputies from the Ust-Orda Buryat District which since January 2008 is part of Irkutsk oblast complained that they had not been given the rights and powers that officials and residents of the Aga-Buryat district have now that the latter is part of the Trans-Baikal kray, the successor to Chita oblast (
This argument took place in the context of developments in neighboring Krasnoyarsk kray, which, when it absorbed the Evenk and Taymyr autonomous districts in January 2007, treated these two areas as administrative subdivisions of the kray with no special rights because of their ethno-national history and population.
At a roundtable last Wednesday, scholars and administrators squared off on this question. Svetlana Praskova, a specialist at the Irkutsk Institute of Legislation and Legal Information, pointed out that there is no specific legal definition as to what constitutes a “special status” for ethnic regions. Perhaps, she added, “Irkutsk oblast will become a pioneer in this.”
But if so, it will have to overcome the proclivity of officials as in Krasnoyarsk to “repeat the Soviet system of organization, when all settlements were divided into rural soviets and at a higher level, districts, without any special administration combining these regions,” even though “former autonomies have received a number of rights which other regions do not.”
Praskova pointed out that in Perm, where the Komi-Permyak district was folded in, these rights were “extremely limited” and involved only “the development of ethnic types of sport and culture,” despite promises that their “national uniqueness” will be protected. “Practice shows that very little attention is being paid to this,” however, perhaps, she said, as a result of “the crisis.”
The situation in TransBaikal kray, as the Chita oblast is now known, is “different.” There, the Aga-Buryat district has “the right to coordinate profile territorial subdivisions of kray ministries,” an arrangement that means they are under “dual subordination,” to the minister and to the district administrator.
Krasnoyarsk kray currently does not make any distinctions for the Evenk and Taymyr districts or even suggest that any will be made, but in Irkutsk, while little has been done yet, the Ust-Orda regional charter specifically allows for the adoption of a special law that would govern relations between that region and the oblast authorities.
In principle, then, Praskova says, there is no reason why Irkutsk could not adopt arrangements like those in the Trans-Baikal. But some officials are very much opposed. Eduard Devitsky, the deputy chief of the legal department of the Irkutsk governor’s office, said that any “special status” should not make the district equivalent to what it was “before unification.”
According to Devitsky, “everything necessary has already been written down in the Statute: the preservation of national uniqueness, the harmonization of social-economic development, and media in the Buryat language.” Giving the Buryats more powers, he continued, would “contradict” federal law.
But legal experts argued last week that Devitsky’s position is disingenuous. Bato Damdinov, a specialist on constitutional law at Irkutsk State University, said that “in fact, the Federation laid on the subjects the power to establish a ‘special status’” for these ethnic regions. Indeed, he suggested, “special status” is “a euphemism” for autonomy.
And to the extent that is the case, he continued, federation subjects can follow the approach adopted for the Aga district, “without giving way to ‘political-legal mimicry’ as is the case in Krasnoyarsk kray,” where, Damdinov said, “the autonomies have lost their status without acquiring anything in exchange.”
Other speakers seconded that view. Klementy Khabituyev, a representative of Ust-Orda, said that his region had seen its rights cut since unification and argued that there ought to be at least one deputy governor position reserved for the Buryats in order to secure the rights of that people in the federal subject.
Another Ust-Orda official, Anatoly Prokopyev, called for making his district a “special economic zone” in order to protect its specific features, a proposal others at the meeting supported as well. And a chorus complained that the oblast had failed to live up to its promises: only two of the 15 projects promised during the referendum have been completed.
Ignoring the rights of minorities especially after making such promises is “dangerous and harmful,” participants said, and they suggested that Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk should follow the TransBaikal approach were, in the words of one, “our brothers have advanced far ahead.” If Irkutsk follows Krasnoyarsk, all Buryats, he said, will ask why Buryats there agreed to that.
Many in Moscow counted each vote to amalgamate federal subjects as some kind of final victory, but the discussions last week suggest that such conclusions are at best premature and that the experiences of non-Russian groups in one part of the country are ever more likely to inform the attitudes of those in another, something that points to more trouble ahead for Putin’s plan.

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