Economic Crisis Claims Another Victim: Putin's Regional Amalgamation Plan
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
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Vienna, November 27 - Despite support from President Dmitry Medvedev and from some regional leaders, Vladimir Putin's drive to combine some federal subjects and thus reduce their number is now on hold at least to the end of the current economic crisis and may be dead altogether, according to Moscow experts.

Moscow has pushed the unification of certain regions to "make the administration of regions easier" Oksana Goncharenko, a longtime Moscow specialist on the affairs of Russia's regions and republics, told "Kommersant." But "the economic effectiveness of [such steps] is still not visible."

And all of Moscow's promises to the contrary, "the unification of a depressed region to a stronger one have not made them richer and have not reduced the amount of federal aid on which the central authorities had counted," she continued. Consequently, in the current economic environment, there is little interest in pursuing what had been a centerpiece of Putin's policies.

At the present time, the Moscow paper reported, officials continue to discuss the possible unification of the Nenets autonomous district and Arkhangelsk oblast, Chechnya and Ingushetia, Moscow city and Moscow oblast, Pskov and Novgorod oblasts, and St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast.

The last case has received the most attention in recent days because St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko as recently as last Friday raised the issue in a speech, citing Medvedev's declaration at Izhevsk earlier last week that combining the northern capital and the oblast was "extremely necessary."

So far, the following regions have been combined: Perm oblast and the Komi-Permyak autonomous district in 2005, Taymyr and Evenkia with Krasnoyarsk kray in 2007, Kamchatka oblast and Koryakia into Kamchatka kray also in 2007, Irkutsk oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat district in 2008, and Chita oblast the Aga-Buryat district into Transbaikal kray this year as well.

In none of these cases, Goncharenko said, do the people of either of the formerly separate parts live better as a result, and in most, the center has had to send even more money to both, precisely the opposite outcome Putin promised and that many who voted in the required referenda expected.

And in an increasing number of cases, the smaller non-Russian units which were folded into larger and predominantly ethnic Russian ones have suffered a serious loss of local control and are now complaining vigorously that their special requirements are being ignored by both the powers that be in the amalgamated region and by Moscow as well.

As a result of amalgamation, Nikolay Maymago, the head of the Taymyr Association of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, said, that former federal subject has been reduced to the status of a municipality and its "geographic, climatic and transportation features" are not taken into consideration.

And - again - despite promises, not a single piece of legislation passed by Krasnoyarsk or Moscow since the amalgamation has treated the Taymyr region as something special or given it the chance to "defend the rights of the indigenous population," Maymago continued, noting that he and others had complained to the president the Duma and the Federation Council.

An equally unfortunate situation is emerging in Kamchatka kray. There, according to Boris Chuyev, the former speaker of the former Koryak Duma, told the paper, Moscow's subventions equal about 60 percent of the kray budget and the population is declining, a trend exacerbated by cuts in the number of government positions that had existed earlier.

In Perm kray, many of those who had been officials in the Komi-Permyak autonomous district are now pushing for it to be defined as a single municipality "with its own budget, parliament and elected head, something they say would allow them to use federal subsidies "more effectively" and to support the Komi-Permyak language and culture.

Thus, in the words of Rostislav Turovsky, the general director of the Agency of Regional Research, "the amalgamation [of federal subjects] has not given practical results," a consequence he suggested of the unfortunate reality that "no one thought about how people will live and how the territories destroyed will be administered."

The journalists of "Kommersant" summed up this situation in the following way: "the regions as before are under financed, and their amalgamation has become an example of virtual politics, of the games of bureaucrats at the federal and regional levels" in which the interests of the population and the country as a whole are ignored.

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