Sunday, February 2, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Growing Inequality among Russia’s Regions Undermines Power Vertical, Moscow Geographer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 2 – Growing inequality in the economic performance of Russia’s regions requires that the regions be given more authority to make decisions, a grant that many in Moscow are reluctant to make because that will undermine Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical” and threaten the country with disintegration, according to a Moscow geographer.

            In a comment posted on the portal last week, Dmitry Oreshkin, a political geographer at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that the economic gap among the regions is great and will only continue to increase, even if the center dispatches “effective managers” to those lagging behind (

            Those that are doing the best will make the greatest demands on the center, he continues. “The more developed the region and the greater the amount of investment, including from abroad, the greater will be its need for formal guarantees for capital and for citizens” and thus they, not backward regions, “will ever more sharply feel the deficit of independence and rights.”

            Moscow is an obvious but special case because it is both the most successful region and the center, Oreshkin says. The situation in Kaliningrad is more instructive.  That city is viewed by many as “a zone of the possible development of separatism.” That’s unlikely now, but the potential for such a development exists “despite the fact that this is a very Soviet city.”

            In the past, the population of that exclave consisted primarily of the families of military personnel. “Now, people in Kaliningrad live chiefly through trans-border business and regularly travel to Poland and Germany and see how things are arranged there.”   That leads them to question what regional and all-Russian officials are doing.

            St. Petersburg could be the same, Oreshkin suggests, were it not for the pressure the central government has placed on it since Lenin’s times.  That pressure still matters, the geographer says because “cities live not decade to decade as people do but generation to generation.”

            He argues that Siberia and the Far East are not really inclined to separatism either: “People living on those distance territories are more patriotic than the residents of the center.”  But these regions pose another and more severe problem: rapid depopulation and hence the loss of the center’s leverage on them.

            “The laws of geographic development are such,” he continues, “that depressed provinces are dying and the more advanced territories are flourishing.” Treating them all the same or attempting to run them that way from the center is not very effective, although that reflects Soviet practice which led to “a hyper-centralized country.”

            Today, Oreshkin says, “the redistribution of power between the centers and the regions is continuing,” but as in the past, in Russia, it manifests itself as “a spiral,” in which the center now tightens the screws on the regions and then loosens them.

            Moscow operates within “a corridor of possibilities.” On one side are concerns about “the integrity of the state and loyalty,” and on the other are worries about economic effectiveness. When one seems a greater threat, Moscow moves in one direction; and when the other, it moves in the opposite way.

            At present, he argues, Moscow is more concerned about economic development and thus the regions “have received greater freedom,” a situation in which some have prospered and others not. But this very diversity in economic outcomes has political consequences and could lead to worries about territorial integrity and thus push Moscow again in the opposite direction.

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