Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 11

Last week saw the resumption, in a new and sharper form, of the debate over the desirability of “rationalizing” Russia’s eighty-nine republics and regions (“federal subjects”) and combining them into larger units. This is the second time since Vladimir Putin became president that the federal system has come under discussion. The first was last spring, just prior to the creation of the seven new federal districts. Commentators speculated at the time that the solution was only temporary. Similar debates had occurred during Boris Yeltsin’s tenure, and the current discussion differs little from earlier ones. As before, the debate burst out of the blue. Everyone assumed that the Kremlin was planning to amalgamate the regions and republics, even though no one in the presidential team had hinted that any such thing was going on.

The discussion began on January 4, when Volgograd Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalyov announced that the number of republics and regions was to be reduced from eighty-nine to at most fifty (Russian agencies, January 4; Russky Sever [Vologda], January 12). “The issue has come to a head, and everyone understands that,” Pozgalyov said. “We don’t need a toy kingdom. All the regions should be equal in their opportunities.” Putin, according to the Volgograd governor, has already prepared the necessary changes in the constitution. Pozgalyov was hazy, however, about the sources of his information, saying simply that his conclusions “followed logically” from Putin’s actions.

The same day, a member of the presidential team disavowed Pozgalyov’s assertion. Aleksandr Blokhin, minister of federation affairs, said that a quick fix was not on the agenda. “So far, we have not even decided whether to tackle this task,” Blokhin declared. “I work with eighty-nine regions. I might tell you that it would be good to reduce them to no more than thirty or forty… but, in order to do that, the constitution would have to be changed. That’s a very complicated procedure. There’s no way, therefore, that it’s going to happen quickly” (Segodnya, January 4). Blokhin did not, however, deny that the law on the status of Federation subjects currently being drafted would make changes to the map of the Russian Federation. It will, for example, try to settle the problem of the relations between some of Russia’s larger regions and the autonomous districts (ADs) included within its borders. The problem here is that the Russian constitution is internally inconsistent. On the one hand, it insists that all the “subjects of the federation” are equal in status. On the other, it declares that some autonomous districts are subordinated to their surrounding oblasts. This legal nonsense has provoked some fierce turf battles.

Blokhin’s comments about plans to resolve the problem of “enclosed subjects” set off fresh discussion. The newspaper “Zhizn” reported that in February or March of this year the Kremlin will start restructuring Russia’s administrative-territorial map. Several autonomous districts may be disbanded (for example, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and the Taimyr and Evenk ADs). The existing borders between regions may also be revised, some of them up and some of them down, and the total number of federal subjects will be reduced to between thirty and forty, the paper reported (Zhizn, January 9). Similar reports followed in other newspapers. Nezavisimaya gazeta reported that the government was preparing a document which would amalgamate the regions by resubordinating all the ADs to their surrounding oblasts. It is, however, by no means certain that this will happen. For one thing, as the paper noted, the government does not have the authority to do this, so its plans may not get off the drawing board (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 10).

This discussion, however, was held against a backdrop demonstrating the relevance of the idea. On January 14, gubernatorial elections took place in Tyumen Oblast and in the Nenets AD (Russian agencies, January 14). According to preliminary results, the winner in Tyumen was Sergei Sobyanin, deputy presidential representative to the Urals federal district, with 51 percent of the vote, while the winner in Nenets was the incumbent governor, Vladimir Butov, with 68 percent (Ekho Moskvy, January 15). For Tyumen Oblast, the presence in the north of its territory of the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets ADs creates many problems. Likewise, Nenets AD creates many problems for the region within whose borders it exists, Arkhangel Oblast.

Controversy erupted during the election campaign in Tyumen with the dissemination of an analytical paper entitled “Actions for establishing the executive power vertical in Tyumen Oblast.” The paper, authorship of which was attributed to Vladimir Selivanov, director of the oblast’s department of information and regional relations, listed ways of stripping Tyumen’s ADs of their autonomy (Sibirsky Posad [Tyumen], January 10). Though Selivanov dismissed the document as a forgery aimed at “fomenting discord” between the northern and southern parts of the oblast, relations between Tyumen and the two autonomous districts became strained. It is worth noting that in the south of the oblast the favorite to win the election was incumbent Governor Leonid Roketsky, who Putin reputedly backed, while Sobyanin, who some members of the Kremlin team backed in defiance of Putin, was the favorite in the northern autonomous districts (Obshchaya gazeta, January 11).

Russia’s governors do not agree on whether the regions should be amalgamated. Many are motivated by a simple desire to oppose the center in its war with the regions. Governor Vladimir Butov of Nenets AD, for example, said that the amalgamation idea was “half-baked.” Not only would it do no good, he asserted, it would in fact “freeze the development” of the regions. Sergei Katanadov, head of government in the Republic of Karelia, dismissed the notion on the grounds that there was in reality no possibility of changing the number of regions. Yevgeny Mikhailov, governor of Pskov Oblast, also rejected the idea as a “harmful undertaking” (Russian agencies, January 12).

Meanwhile, Pozgalyov’s proposal was seconded by Saratov Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, who expressed his disquiet that the Komi-Permyak and Taimyr ADs, neither of which has a population of more than 30,000 people, have a voice in the national parliament equal to that of Russia’s largest and most populous regions (Russian agencies, January 12). Aleksandr Uss, head of the Krasnoyarsk Krai Legislative Assembly, called for a discussion of the possible reduction of the current status of the Evenk AD, which is situated within the krai (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 12).

As before, however, the subjects of the Russian Federation remain listed by name in the Russian constitution, and the list can be changed only by amending that document. This would require a complex array of procedures requiring a high degree of support among the governors. On the face of it, this means that, were the Kremlin to undertake the challenge, its chances of success would not be high. The discussion may well therefore be only the Kremlin’s latest psychological attack on the governors.

If the Kremlin is serious about the idea, however, it may try to circumvent the constitution. Here it is worth noting Aleksandr Blokhin’s position. Though he has not specifically raised the issue of a constitutional amendment, Blokhin has hinted at the possibility of grading the various republics and regions according to status. He has also suggested that some regions should be given the “right” to delegate their rights to others. In today’s Russian reality, some regions may find themselves forced to exercise this “right.”