Staunton, October 18 – Vladimir Putin has announced plans to build a bridge from the mainland to Sakhalin Island, an enormous expensive undertaking; but at the same time, he and his regime are taking ever more money away from that oblast, now one of Russia’s wealthiest, leading to economic decline and population loss.
But what is still worse, commentator Lyubov Barabashova writes on the OpenRussia portal, what Putin is doing on Sakhalin, he is also doing with regard to the Kuriles and many other of the country’s most distant regions: he is taking more money from them to make up for the growing deficit in Moscow (openrussia.org/notes/714962/).
As a result of the development of oil fields by foreign companies, Sakhalin oblast today “is one of the wealthiest in Russia,” she says; but that is about to come to a screeching half if Moscow goes through with its plans to take 68 billion rubles (1.1 billion US dollars) out of the regional budget over the course of the next three years.
As the money came in, the regional authorities invested much of it in subsidies and benefit packages for the population, actions that slowed the outmigration of Russians from the island: In the 25 years after the end of Soviet controls on movement, Sakhalin’s population declined from just over 700,000 residents to 480,000.
People are still leaving but at a much slower pace because of the benefits that the regional government has been able to afford up to now. But if Moscow goes through with its plans to cut the amount the region retains or gets back from the center, many fear that outmigration will accelerate creating a security problem for the country.
The amount the central government wants to take from Sakhalin’s budget is twice what the island’s authorities spend on social supports for the population, medical care and education. All those programs will have to be cut back, people will suffer, and those who can, the most educated and the youngest, will then leave.
Cultural programs are already slated to be cut back and there soon won’t be any money for veterans and pensioners, Barabashova says. People are angry: the residents of Sakhalin have already collected 17,000 signatures on a petition in defense of the existing budget, and regional officials are appealing to Moscow via the Duma.
The regional government has not begun to prepare adjusted budgets to take into account the cuts, she says, hoping against hope that Moscow won’t do what it says it will. But the odds are against them in that regard.
Perhaps still more important, what Moscow is doing to Sakhalin is echoing elsewhere in Russia, Barabashova says. A representative of another petroleum center, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, says that if Moscow cuts funds for Sakhalin, “then there is no sense for other regions to work well and earn money.”
They will see, the Yamal deputy says, that if people work well, Moscow will simply take everything away from them; and so they will decide that it isn’t worth working well. Better to do nothing and take what crumbs the center will in fact give.