Saturday, January 21, 2017

Moscow’s New ‘Spatial Development Policy’ Sparks Hopes and Fears in the Regions

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – A new “Strategy for the Spatial Development of the Russian Federation” is raising hopes for better coordination among existing regions, greater investment and infrastructure in the eastern part of the country, and helping Russia escape its current economic crisis by making it more competitive internationally.

            But it is also sparking fears outside of Moscow that it may ultimately lead to a new push for the political amalgamation of existing federal subjects and that it may create more chaos by creating yet another layer of bureaucracy between the center, the federal districts and the oblasts, krays and republics of the country.

            The new strategy is still under development by the Ministry for Economic Development, but yesterday, “Izvestiya” reported on an experts meeting in Suzdal where many of its provisions were outlined and concerns about them were aired ( and, with additional details,

            As outlined by ministry representatives, the new strategy document gives priority to development of the “geostrategically important territories” of the Far East, the Arctic Zone, the North Caucasus, Kaliningrad, and Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol; and it calls for the creation of economic “macro-regions.”

            Both domestic and foreign developments dictate these goals, the authors of the document said; and many of the experts in attendance welcomed the fact that Moscow had finally come up with a new spatial development plan. 

            Anton Finogenov, the head of the Moscow Institute for Territorial Planning, said that over the last century, Russia has gone through three major reorderings of its territories: under Stolypin before the revolution, in the 1930s, and since the 1980s; and it is long past time to put things in better order.
            “The existing spatial system is ineffective as far as the budget, the health of the population, military security, and the exploitation of natural resources,” he said; and “a certain balance is necessary between a project-based approach and simply allowing spontaneous tendencies to continue.”

            The existing federal districts, Finogenov pointed out, vary widely both demographically and economically, something that is “no secret for anyone” but which must become the basis for planning rather than something simply accepted as natural and inevitable.

            According to “Izvestiya,” the draft document outlines three possible scenarios: first, a conservative one in which few changes would be made to existing arrangements, a second one based on “competitive growth” among the regions that presupposes that they will be open to the outside world, and a third in which Moscow helps structure what the regions do.

            Natalya Zubarevich, head of regional programs at the Independent Institute for Social Policy, said that it is “premature” to discuss the document because it hasn’t been finalized.  Just what “macro-regions” would consist of is likely to change over time, she argued, and so people shouldn’t get agitated about their possible meaning. Finogenov agreed.

            But that hasn’t stopped people in the regions from worrying – although their concerns were reported only in the regional news agency Nakanune rather than in “Izvestiya.”  Many are fearful, Nakanune reported, that the macro-regions will be the basis for amalgamating more federal subjects, but other regional experts are less certain of that.

            Dmitry Serov of the Urals Experts Club told the regional news service that the existing federal districts were created to fight regional separatism and they have performed that job well; but they have been unable to improve the coordination of economic activities within the districts and need additional levers to do that.

            The economic macro-regions may be nothing more than an addition to the powers of the presidential plenipotentiaries, but even if the cut across them, Serov says, they will not necessarily be the basis for any new amalgamation effort.  What they will help promote, he suggested, are more economically powerful regions.

            Vladimir Sysoyev, a deputy from Tyumen, said that in many ways he thinks that any new macro-regions will represent a kind of reconstitution of regional bodies like the Siberian Agreement of the 1990s. If he is right, that cuts both ways: On the one hand, the region benefitted; on the other, Moscow felt threatened by such groups.

            And Mikhail Serdyuk, a former Duma deputy from Yugra, said that what all this about arises from the fact that “the trends in the economy are already ‘eating away’ at the borders between the governments and the subjects” of the Russian Federation, something he said that should be encouraged rather than restricted.

            “The unification of oblasts will not accelerate but on the contrary will freeze this process,” he said, because “all the administrative power beginning with the municipalities and ending with the regional bureaucrats for a year or more will be focused simply on putting their desks in order.”

            Serdyuk suggested that Russia doesn’t have enough time to waste on such exercises.

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