Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Are Russian Regional Associations Set to Make a Comeback?

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 23 – Yesterday, Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel assembled the leaders of the Greater Urals interregional association for the first time in five years, thus resuscitating a potentially powerful set of horizontal ties that Vladimir Putin’s erection of his power vertical was designed to preclude.
In the early 1990s, eight such associations of federal subject heads emerged across the Russian Federation, none more active or enthusiastically led than the Greater Urals one headed by Sverdlovsk’s Rossel, who saw it as a means of uniting the regions as a way to prevent Moscow from playing its traditional divide and rule policy against them.
Precisely for that reason, shortly after becoming president, Vladimir Putin established the seven federal districts with Kremlin-appointed presidential plenipotentiaries to play up vertical ties between Moscow and each of the federal subjects as opposed to horizontal ones established by the regional heads themselves.
But now, as a result of the impact of the economic crisis, cutbacks in subsidies from the central government, and a new Russian president with a different approach to the governors, Rossel apparently senses that the time for the return of the regional associations has come especially if they are presented this time around as “anti-crisis” mechanisms.
And that is exactly what the Sverdlovsk leader has done. Yesterday, he hosted in Ekaterinburg the leaders of the Urals region, telling the governors and presidents that “now in conditions of the crisis, inter-regional cooperation can be one of the anti-crisis measures” (
Specifically, in his welcoming speech, Rossel called for “the development of inter-regional internal cooperation, the realization of join programs in support of rural areas, the creation of inter-regional clusters [of businesses], the development of tourism, and so on,” ideas that reported drew the support of all those present.
Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov went even further. He suggested that there was no good reason why the Greater Urals Association should not become the basis for “an economic region” organized by its own component parts and reflecting their needs rather than being imposed from above by Moscow.
Other speakers, including Chelyabinsk Governor Petr Sumin, were less radical. Sumin, for example, carefully combined statements from the recent speeches of President Dmitry Medvedev with ideas taken from Governor Rossel, an indication that he at least is not currently interested in directly challenging Moscow without a fallback position.
One indication that many regional leaders may be interested in such associations came from the insistence of Aleksandr Filipenko, the governor of Khanty-Mansiisk, on having his federal subject become a member. The others agreed, bringing the total membership of the Greater Urals Association to nine.
But because the organization has been inactive so long, there was some disagreement about when the next session should occur. The association’s statute calls for one every three months, but there was little interest. As a result, the leaders decided to hold a session at least every six months or when necessary. The next session will be in Ufa in February 2010.
In the intervening period, the attendees of the Ekaterinburg meeting resolved, they and their staffs will develop a new concept paper on the development of the Greater Urals area looking out to 2030, a document that they will discuss and presumably confirm at next year’s meeting.
Just what a reversal of fortune this week’s meeting represents, however, was highlighted in the report on it by the independent news portal After Putin came to power and appointed Petr Latyshev as his plenipotentiary representative to a somewhat differently defined district, the problems of the Greater Urals Association “began.”
Latyshev, reports, “personally spoke out against the work of the association,” regularly pointing out that Moscow’s regional policy “had changed” and that the regions had “fewer rights for discussion.” That put a damper on the Greater Urals Association and its leader (
Latyshev’s replacement, Nikolay Vinnichenko, has been less hostile and even “approved the idea of the holding of a session of the Association.” But Latyshev’s concerns about the implications of such a move were in fact highlighted by Rossel’s speech at yesterday’s session, the Urals news portal suggested.
“The Ural governor,” it pointed out, “in fact took on himself the functions of a meta-governor,” one to whom other governors and republic presidents should defer as a means of getting out of the current economic crisis. Consequently, it remains to be seen whether this meeting will be a onetime thing or the beginning of a new kind of regional politics to Russia.

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