Staunton, May 23 – A suggestion by Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov that “federal districts should not necessarily coincide with the borders of Russian regions” appears to be gaining traction in Moscow, the latest in a long line of proposals dating at least to Khrushchev’s time to weaken Russia’s oblasts, krays, and republics.
According to Prokhorov, most famous as owner of the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA, “a reform to enlarge regions on the basis of economic expedience is long overdue in Russia, but this process is long and difficult.” He suggested the first place this might happen would be in the Russian North (barentsobserver.com/en/politics/2014/05/russian-arctic-should-become-polar-district-22-05).
Proposals to make such changes have surfaced from time to time especially after Vladimir Putin created the existing system of federal districts in 2001 and launched his currently stalemated regional amalgamation effort in which he has sought to combine relatively small non-Russian areas with larger and predominantly Russian ones.
But what makes Prokhorov’s proposal interesting is not only his prominence – in addition to his wealth, he is the founder of the Civic Platform Party – but also the specificity of his ideas and especially the broad attention they have received in the Moscow media (See, among others, en.itar-tass.com/russia/732560, rg.ru/2014/05/22/delenie-site-anons.html and expert.ru/2014/05/22/mihail-prohorov-predlozhil-programmu-nep-2_0/?n=666).
Arguing that such a reform “to enlarge regions on the basis of economic expedience is long overdue in Russia,” Prokhorov argues that the first move in this direction should take place in the north. Specifically, he says, “a Polar District should be separated out, bringing within it all territories lying north of the Polar Circle and united by the Northern Sea Route.”
That would have the virtue, he suggests, of also “reflecting the logic of the development of extreme deposits, unique northern environment and the necessity to take into consideration demands of the indigenous peoples.” And as such, it could be “oriented towards shaping a vector of development towards the Pacific Ocean where Japan could become a strategic partner.”
He also calls for the creation of a South-Siberian Federal District, “which would stretch along the borders with China and Mongolia, while the rest of Siberia could be brought into a separate federal district in which energy-intensive plans would be concentrated,” thus allowing Russia to develop the region at the lowest possible cost.
Such a plan will certainly be resisted by the new regional ministries, by the heads of many of the oblasts, krays, and republics, and by Russian nationalists who will view the idea of a South Siberian FD as opening the way for even greater Chinese influence in Russia, especially in the wake of the Russian-Chinese economic cooperation accords signed this week.
But it may gain the backing of the one figure – Vladimir Putin – who is likely to be decisive because it offers the Kremlin leader a way out of his current problems with regional amalgamation, will help him promote development, and will offer him a significant opportunity to purge regional elites by simply eliminating the positions of some of them.
At the same time, that very possibility will likely lead many of the latter to dig in as much as they can, thus sparking a new and more intense period of center-periphery tensions in the Russian Federation, one in which some regional elites would be likely to try to link up with regional or ethnic groups in order to save their jobs.