Monday, November 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Said Planning to Amalgamate Ethnic Russian Regions Next

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 4 – Having faced intense opposition from non-Russian federal subjects to any change in their status, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to continue his regional amalgamation program by combining predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts, according to the Moscow Agency of Political Research.

            That group reported on Saturday that the Kremlin has decided to combine Bryansk and Orel oblasts in the Central Federal District and Astrakhan and Volgograd oblasts in the Southern Federal on late next year or in early 2015 after the next rounds of gubernatorial elections are held there (

            According to this Moscow group, Putin and his entourage have decided to do so because they lack a sufficient “cadres reserve” to come up with enough effective governors for the existing federal subjects, but there are almost certainly other factors in the Kremlin’s calculus assuming this report is true.

            On the one hand, Moscow is rapidly running out of the so-called matryoshka situations in which the center folded in a predominantly non-Russian republic into a larger and predominantly Russian oblast or kray. One of the few left is the Adygey Republic in Stavropol kray, but any change in the status of the former would antagonize both Circassians and ethnic Russians.

`           Any move to combine the remaining non-Russian republics, particularly in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga, would be resisted by national movements both because of their own national movements and the sad experience of those non-Russian regions that have been amalgamated, something people in all these places are very much aware of.

            And on the other hand, focusing on predominantly ethnic Russians, few of whom have powerful regional movements attached to them and thus are in most cases easier to maniuplate, will allow Putin to portray his amalgamation plan as an ongoing effort rather than something which local opposition has killed.

            There is ample precedent for such a move.  Since the  death of Stalin and the return of the peoples he deported, there have been far more changes in the borders of the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays than there have been in the much more sensitive demarcation lines of the non-Russian republics and districts.

            Focusing on the predominantly ethnic Russian federal subjects now, however, will entail at least three major problems for the country’s political leadership. First, many Russian nationalists are likely to view this simultaneously as inappropriate Kremlin deference to the non-Russians and as an attack on themselves by reducing their nation’s status.

            Second, there is a very real risk that combining predominantly ethnic Russian regions will create more problems for the center than leaving them alone. Since the 1920s, Moscow has routinely split up ethnic Russian regions lest any one of them become too strong and challenge the center.

            The classic example of this is to be found in the Russian Far East where Moscow repeatedly redivided Russian oblasts and krays out of a concern that larger Russian areas would be harder to control. Reversing that approach could recreate the very problems that the earlier policy of division was intended to address.

            That is all the more likely now because of the emergence of regionalist movements in many parts of the Russian Federation. Many of them already speak about areas larger than any existing oblast or kray, and establishing larger federal units could give them a better launching pad to push their anti-Moscow agendas.

            And third, and following from this, there is a serious danger that this latest round of regional amalgamation could be hijacked by regional political and economic interests.  Major corporations and their political allies almost certainly would view such changes as an opportunity to expand their on powers, exactly the reverse of what the Kremlin wants.

            In addition to the problems of combining ethnic Russian regions, there is another and perhaps more important one.  Many non-Russian republics and oblasts would read the shift in Kremlin policy either as a victory for them and encourage their resistance to the center or as a temporary respite from amalgamation efforts directed against them.

            In either case, they would be unintentionally encouraged to promote their own separate national agendas now.  That is all the more so because, the Agency of Political Research reports, the Kremlin has also decided to promote regional amalgamation “in every federal district before the end of 2018.”

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