Thursday, August 15, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Said Preparing to Create Western Siberian Gubernia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 15 – Moscow is preparing to amalgamate the Tyumen Oblast, the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, and the Yamalo-Nenets AD into a single “West Siberian Gubernia,” according to a Tyumen expert who says this plan may have added importance because it builds on efforts of Sergey Sobyanin, former Tyumen head and now Moscow mayoral candidate.

                Today, the news agency -- which often has broken stories long before Moscow outlets -- reports that the Urals Federal District is “on the brink of grandiose changes” and features an interview with Svetlana Yaroslavova, director of the Tyumen Center for the Study of Civic Initiatives about them (

            Given the oil and gas wealth of the two autonomous districts and the current importance of Tyumen, the Urals news agency says, the “reunion of the earlier divided Tyumen oblast” will give new opportunities to the peoples of the North and make the new guberniya’s capital ‘one of the eight” most powerful capitals in the Russian Federation.

            Evidence for this coming change, the news agency continues, is that Tyumen oblast did not have a major celebration this year of the 69th anniversary of its establishment but is planning to hold a massive one next year when it will be “one of the richest regions of Russia which gives more than 50 percent of its income to the federal budget.”

            Svetlanda Yavoslavova provides more background on what is coming, including the remarkable history of the exit of Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets out from under Tyumen’s control some 20 years ago. Her remarks, says, may “surprise some” but it adds that “the more improbable the prediction, the more rapid it is likely to be achieved.”

            The scholar says that she was already working in the oblast when it was united and when the Tyumen Gas administration was “the most powerful structure” throughout what many called “the energy heart of Russia.”  At that time, Tyumen dominated the entire area, but after the two districts left, it became much weaker.

            “As soon as they obtained independence,” she says, the two districts “began to conduct their own policies,” policies which were “openly separatist with regard to Tyumen” despite the fact that all transportation nets and cadres training came from there. As a result, Tyumen “in one hour” was transformed “from a capital to a provincial center with an uncertain legal status.”

            “This initiative came from Moscow,” Yaroslavova says. It was intended to break the power of Tyumen gas and allow others to exploit the new capitalist system.  One of its collateral consequences was that the Tyumen research institutes lost much of their reason for being and close. But that was the policy” – “to separate Tyumen from the administration of the North.”
            It was a clear example of “divide and rule,” as anyone could see. The two districts were in no way ready to be independent federal subjects: Khanty-Mansiisk even in 1996 was a village without almost no stone buildings. It was made the capital by the district governor, Aleksandr Filipenko, to weaken the influence of Surgutneftegas and TNK.

            The same strategy was followed in Yamalo-Nenets where Salekhard not Noyabrsk was named the capital despite the fact that only the latter was connected by roads and air to the outside world.  That eliminated Tyumen’s influence and allowed Moscow and its favored businessmen to control the situation. 

            That policy changed in 2000, Yaroslavova says. Moscow sent Sobyanin to be governor of Tyumen and he sought to recover the two lost districts.  People said, she continues, that “the North will help Tyumen and raise it up under the condition that here there will be their own northern governor.

            “For Tyumen,” she continues, “this was a major breakthrough” which attracted investment and led to the construction of roads, viaducts, federal highways, and other facilities.  “After Sobyanin, his successor [Vladimir] Yakushev has continued to develop the infrastructure” of the region.

            Tyumen residents, the expert says, view the north as very much art of them, although some of the residents of the two districts still feel a certain antagonism toward the former. “This separatism” has its roots in the ideology of the 1990s and the actions of Moscow and its officials at that time.
            But “everything changes,” and young people in all three places now accept the idea that they will be better off in a single unit, although attitudes could change overnight if this amalgamation is handled in a clumsy way.  That makes the selection of a Tyumen leader to oversee this process absolutely critical and means that the new unit not be called Tyumen because of the feelings of the residents of the two autonomous districts. 

            According to Yaroslavova, Moscow plans to reduce the number of federal subjects from the current 83 to about 25 on a territorial rather than ethno-territorial basis and to call them the same thing, almost certainly gubernias, a restoration of the tsarist-era term.  Tyumen is likely to remain the capital, although Tobolsk might be chosen by Moscow instead.

            As for the city of Tyumen, she concludes, “it is fated to develop” because it is “‘the gate to Siberia.’” Yaroslavova says the city will grow to over a million residents in the next decade and become, given political turbulence abroad, a major tourist destination for Russians in the years ahead.

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