Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Secession in Saratov – the Balashov Case

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 21 --  Although they rarely attract much attention from the national media, the predominantly ethnic Russian regions of Central Russia and the Middle Volga represent and are seen by Moscow officials to represent an increasingly serious threat to the political stability of the Russian Federation.

            Indeed, according to Vladimir Gusev, a regional affairs expert at the Stolypin Institute of Administration, these Russian provinces are now “a zone of political and economic instability on the basis of which can arise the most fantastic forms of political relations between the main subjects and branches of power” (

            The reasons for this conclusion, he suggests in the current issue of “Vlast,” a journal of the Moscow Institute of Sociology, are to be found in the socio-economic situation in which these “provinces” find themselves: “dying villages, aging infrastructure, abandoned agricultural centers, the absence of young people not to mention the creative class, and bad roads.”
            To make his case, Gusev focuses on the situation  in Balashov, a city and region inside Saratov oblast, whose residents have been trying to secede from Saratov oblast and join the wealthier Voronezh region, and who having been blocked in that effort by the authorities are still seething and forcing Saratov officials to pay attention to their plight.

            Balashov was briefly between 1954 and 1957 an oblast in its own right, but since that time, the city and surrounding territory have been part of Saratov oblast.  It had been a major industrial center, with an increasing population, and a place, Gusev notes, that as recently as 1998 was selected as one of the best small Russian cities in which to live.

            But today, its population is declining, its economy is collapsing, and its ability to finance its government increasingly shaky.  This year, for example, the oblast provided two-thirds of its bare-bones budget, but even with that subvention, Balashov had enough money to fund that budget for ten months. The city had to borrow the rest, something that is not sustainable.

            Face with this situation and convinced that Saratov can’t or won’t address its problems, a group of Balashov residents earlier this year formed an initiative group to seek a referendum on the secession of their district from Saratov oblast and its transfer to Voronezh. They collected sufficient signatures and in May presented this demand to Saratov.

            On June 5, Saratov officials turned them down flat.  Dmitry Chernyshevsky, a deputy in the Saratov oblast duma, said that Russian law would require not one referendum on such question but a whole series: one in the district, another in Saratov oblast as a whole, and a third in Voronezh oblast.

            And other Saratov officials made arguments that will be familiar to anyone who recalls Soviet objections to the disintegration of the USSR: The appearance of new entities would undercut economic efficiency, they suggest, and the burdens on the tax payer for new administrative costs would only increase.

            Gusev concludes his article with the hope that the two sides in this dispute, Balashov and Saratov, will come to their senses, that “no one will leave Saratov oblast,” and that more money will be found to improve the economy of Balashov and meet the social needs of its aging population.

            Whether the citizens of Balashov and the officials of Saratov will be able to do so, the scholar says, only “the immediate future will show.”

            Two events this week suggest that the prospects for progress are not good.  On Monday, Denis Fadeyev, the vice governor of Saratov oblast, made the latest of a series of recent visits to Balashov, but according to the local media, his visit did not calm the situation but may have made it worse (

            The Saratov official held a meeting only with Balashov officials and not with the members of the initiative group.  According to Viktor Volkov, the secretary of the local KPRF organization, that meant that Fadeyev was “not capable either of deciding or even becoming familiar with the problems” of the district.

            Volkov added that he had nonetheless been able to meet with him and “for more than an hour” told the Saratov official “about the serious problems of the district and city, the theft, corruption and criminality” and about the ways in which the authorities had ignored these problems or were even complicit in them.

            Fadeyev’s reaction, the KPRF secretary and a member of the initiative committee said, shows that Saratov has no intention of addressing the problems in Balashov. As a result, the citizenry is increasingly distrustful of the oblast authorities who “are not ready for constructive dialogue and are not able to function.”

            Today, the Balashov media reported yesterday, Balashov residents plan to demonstrate against the Saratov officials and demand the replacement of the officials Saratov has imposed on them before and after their as yet unsuccessful campaign to “secede” from Saratov and join Voronezh (

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