Publication: Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 237

The Russian Duma has adopted a bill intended to prevent smaller regions (autonomous okrugs) from seceding from larger one (krais and oblasts). There are eight autonomous okrugs (AOs) in Russia. Typically, they are sparsely populated, located in inhospitable areas, and rich in natural resources such as oil and gas. The 1992 Russian Federal Treaty put the AOs on an equal legal footing with the krais and oblasts, and the richer ones have been agitating ever since to set themselves up as independent entities. The krais and oblasts in question are understandably less keen on the idea, but a precedent was set in 1993, when the Constitutional Court allowed the Chukchi AO to secede from Magadan Oblast. That same year, the upper house of the Russian parliament adopted a resolution giving AOs the same rights as krais and oblasts, and their equality was reaffirmed by the 1993 constitution.

The Yamalo-Nenets AO is now trying to secede from Tyumen oblast. The oblast is fighting back, since the AO occupies half its territory and produces almost all of its gas (in fact, it produces almost all of Russia’s gas). The Yamalo-Nenets AO tried to secede from the oblast once before, in 1990, but came under strong pressure from the federal government not to do so. This time its leaders are sticking to their guns. For starters, they say they will not allow AO residents to participate in the elections for the governor of Tyumen oblast due to be held on December 22.

The federal authorities oppose any rocking of the boat. The Duma has therefore weighed in with a hastily drafted Law on Ties between Regions and Autonomous okrugs. (Itar-Tass, December 18) The bill declares (a) that all the resources on the territory of the AOs are the property of the krai or oblast, and (b) that any elections must be held throughout the territory of each krai or oblast, that is, they must also be held in AOs wherever these exist.

The bill now goes to the upper house of parliament. Yamalo-Nenets AO’s newly elected governor has already called it "a blatant contradiction" of the Russian constitution. The problem is that, as is so often the case, Russian law is ambiguous. Yamalo-Nenets signed the 1992 Federal Treaty as part of Tyumen oblast, yet the Federal Treaty described them both as equals. It nonetheless appears that, if the Yamalo-Nenets leaders appeal to the Constitutional Court, they will have a strong case. If they win, other resource-rich AOs are sure to follow. Although no AO has yet expressed a desire to leave the Russian Federation, the federal authorities appear afraid that this could be the eventual result.

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