Monday, December 22, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Are Russia’s Federal Subject Heads to Become Governors General?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 22 – Vladimir Putin has agreed with proposals by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to require the heads of the federal subjects to bear responsibility for mobilization and fighting against diversionary forces, a step that makes them into something like tsarist-era governors general and could presage a new territorial delimitation of the country.


            At his meeting with the senior officials of the defense minister on Friday, Putin signaled that he supports Shoigu’s proposals and even mentioned that these should be implemented by “taking into account the experience of the general governorships in Russia” before the revolution (


            That institution existed in some but not all of the territories of the Russian Empire between 1703 and 1917 and gave those who occupied it a combination of civil and military power, according to “Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s” Vladimir Mukhin, who writes on military affairs for the Moscow paper.


            As he points out, there is a post-Soviet precedent for taking this step: at the end of 2011, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka gave the military rank of major general to six oblast governors and the Mensk mayor and has referred to these officials since that time as “governors general.”


            “If something similar occurs in Russia,” Mukhin writes, “this will be a relatively new page in the contemporary history of military reform in the country,” even though Shoigu and other defense ministry officials have talked frequently about the need to get regional heads more involved in the draft and in defense preparation.


            On Friday, Putin indicated that he agreed, arguing that it is now time to “concentrate administrative resources” on this issue in order to fulfill the tasks of national defense especially since many bureaucratic structures are now involved in defense and the governors must coordinate their work at the regional level.


            As Mukhin points out, the details of this new arrangement are still far from clear, and they are likely to become so only as current defense laws are amended.  But there are at least three interesting possibilities that this new/old approach raises. First, it could presage a further amalgamation of regions and republics, possibly along the lines of the country’s defense districts rather than simply economic zones.


            Second, it could give the governors added weight in political contests with the center because they would have closer ties with the defense establishment – or alternatively it could allow the country’s military to control them and thus run large swatches of the country, thus changing the balance between civil and military power in Moscow itself.


            And third, and most speculatively, it could help power nationalist and secessionist moves by giving the heads of federal subjects and their population the sense that they have an institution, in this case, a military one, that they could use on their own, just as some in the union republics at the end of Soviet times emphasized the importance of the republic foreign ministries.


            In any case, what may seem just another bureaucratic throwback to the past may turn out to have a far greater impact on the future than even its authors intend.

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