The Russian government recently announced a plan to open up 6 of its 42 publicly identified closed cities (officially named closed administrative-territorial formations), as of January 1, 2016 (Tvrain.ru, October 30). Closed cities, a carryover institution from the Soviet Union, are home to military installations; facilities used for the development, production, or storage and disposal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and other facilities considered central to Russian national security (Interfax, October 23). During the Soviet era, these cities were given code names and did not appear on official maps. In their current manifestation, many of these cities have been identified and have been permitted to resume using the historical names they held prior to their closure. However, entry into these cities is still strictly regulated, even for Russian citizens.
Making the list of cities to be opened starting next year are: Seversk (Tomsk Oblast), Zelenogorsk (Krasnoyarsk Krai), Novouralsk (Sverdlovsk Oblast), Zarechny (Penza Oblast), Zvyozdny Village (Permsky Krai), and Lokomotivny village (Chelyabinky Oblast). These cities are home to over 350,000 people and are situated across the entire expanse of Russia (Vedomosti, October 29). Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, administers the first four of these cities, and the Russian Ministry of Defense administers the remaining two (Interfax, October 23). Among the strategically sensitive things located at these heretofore closed cities are facilities for the enrichment of uranium (including the facility at Novouralsk, which is the largest of its kind in the world) and military installations dealing with missile production and housing Russian missileers (Vedomosti, October 29; Kommersant, October 30; TASS, October 28; Tvrain.ru, October 30).
According to the Ministry of Economic Development, the goal of the government’s initiative to open up these cities is linked to optimizing federal budgetary spending (Kommesrant, October 30). Despite the prolonged decline in the value of the ruble and the sizable deficit in the recently announced Russian budget, the reclassification of these cities is said to be part of a development project that has been in the works since before Russia fell into an economic downturn (BBC—Russian service, October 27). Closed cities present unique challenges to economic development. The strict control over what and who is allowed to enter these cities restricts the flow of resources necessary to stimulate organic economic development. As a result, large subsidies from the federal budget have been necessarily allocated to supplement the budgets of closed cities.
What motivated the Russian government to start this process? Even if transitioning these cities had long been discussed, announcing these initiatives with only a two-month lead time before implementation is quite sudden. According to the plan, there will only be a nine-month transition period for the cities, starting on the first of the year (Interfax, October 23). Critics in the varying regional governments and within Rosatom are likely considering this when it says that the move to reclassify these cities is too fast and that more discussion is required to plan their smooth transition. To put this in perspective, Seversk, the largest of Russia’s closed cities, will instantly lose 900 million rubles of its 3.8 billion ruble ($13.9 million out of $59 million) budget, if it loses its status as a closed city at the start of the year (Kommersant, October 30). This one cut, which only saves the Russian government about $13 million, will leave the city of Seversk scrambling to find the resources necessary to continue to provide services to its 120,000 residents after losing almost one quarter of its budget, with little advanced notice.
The announcement of the plan has already been met with broad pushback. Many residents prefer that their city remains closed to the rest of Russia. In their measure, the positive externalities of living in closed cities outweigh the negative ones. The tight control over movement in and out of these cities provides residents with an increased sense of security. One city official from a closed city not slated for this round of status changes described closed cities as places where residents do not lock there doors and children can safely walk to school unaccompanied (Tvrain.ru, October 30). Moreover, government subsidies allows these cities to provide a level of benefits to the residents of these cities that would otherwise not be possible. Residents speaking out against the government’s plan are motivated by the fear of losing these subsidies and the standard of living they provide (Kommersant, Tvrain.ru, October 30). Given the nature of what is located within these cities, however, domestic political challenges are unlikely to either drive or redirect this process.
Russia was able to maintain its closed cities through all of the economic troubles of the 1990s. And the Russian government’s decision to maintain its current level of defense spending in its shrunken 2016 federal budget is a testament to the Kremlin’s commitment to spending on issues related to national security. For this reason, the transitioning of these cities from closed to open is particularly intriguing. In some cases, it is quite possible that the city in question may no longer be home to activities considered core to national security, or facilities in that city could perhaps easily be converted into lower-risk establishments. From a logistical standpoint, the two cities administered by the Ministry of Defense will have an easier time redistributing any top-secret resources located there. As for the cities with nuclear research activities, there is some talk of adapting these facilities to expand production into other areas—likely part of the much talked about, but thus far largely unsuccessful, plan to develop dual-use military technologies. Potential development opportunities aside, the heavy-handed decision by Russian officials to transition these cities on such a short timeline presents an opening for possible breaches of Russian national security.