Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Regional Amalgamation Moscow Will Never Approve: Recombining Bashkortostan and Tatarstan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 5 – Over the last 15 years in Russia, there have been two competing proposals about redrawing borders of the federal subjects: Vladimir Putin’s amalgamation program that has sought to join smaller non-Russian regions to larger Russian ones, and Aleksey Kudrin’s suggestion that the country should be reorganized around urban agglomerations.

            Putin’s program, launched in 2003, ran out of steam by the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev when most of the so-called “matryoshka” republics were combined with Russian krays but then effectively reconstituted as special regions with special powers within those regions. 

            As a result, the experts of the pro-Kremlin Institute of Contemporary Development concluded in 2010 that “the process of unifying regions has not given the results the authorities expected,” a conclusion that put a stop to the Putin program although some politicians continue to talk about it (bbc.com/russian/russia/2010/04/100407_insor_report_russia_critical.shtml).

            In 2013, Federation Council head Valentina Matviyenko told Tatarstan parliamentarians that “sooner or later” Moscow would revisit this program and move to combine at least some of the regions, a position she reaffirmed as recently as 2016 (vz.ru/politics/2016/4/27/807577.html and azatliq.org/a/27695139.html).

            As  Ayrat Shamilin of Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service points out in a commentary today, despite all the talk of changing the administrative arrangements within the Russian Federation, Moscow really doesn’t take the interests of the non-Russians into consideration (idelreal.org/a/moskva-boitsa-obyedineniya-tatarstana-i-bashkortostana/28897826.html).

            And that is especially true, she argues, in the case of the Middle Volga where “Moscow fears the unification of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan,” two closely related Turkic Muslim republics that Stalin in his first act of ethnic engineering divided in 1920. 

            Shamilin also points out that the advocates of urban agglomerations also ignore non-Russians and their interests because “the population of the [proposed] agglomerations would be only a quarter of the population of all Russia.” The other 75 percent includes most of the non-Russians who would thus be left out and presumably left in existing federal subjects.

            There are two major additional problems with this approach, she says. On the one hand and unlike the rules about changing existing federal subjects by referenda, there is no procedure in place to make this happen.  And on the other, it would put another layer of bureaucracy in place and make development even more difficult.

            But it is surprising that the advocates of both amalgamation and agglomeration do not did into consideration “the ethnopolitical factor, the federal constitution or the desire of the regions themselves.” Instead, they proceed with programs in spite of the national characteristics” of the country and show that “the republics for a long time have not been considered state formations.”

            Efforts to introduce a discussion of ethnic considerations by proposing either the combination of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan or the formation of an urban agglomeration based on Kazan, Naberezhnye Chelny and Ufa have generated an immediate and extremely negative reaction from Moscow’s plenipotentiary on the scene.

            Mikhail Babich says that there is no basis for combining the two republics because “the effective path of amalgamation always involved the unification of a weak region to a strong one,” all the evidence to the contrary (idelreal.org/a/28896051.html). And the same thing is true, he suggests, regarding an urban agglomeration that would link the two.

            “It might seem,” Shamilin comments, “that the followers of Zhirinovsky and the liberal economists don’t have anything in common.” But in fact, both proceed in the same way: they “ignore the nationality basis of the 22 republics of the Russian Federation,” something that points to more trouble ahead if either program goes forward without support from below. 

            These discussions, she suggests, recall the sovnarkhozy Nikita Khrushchev introduced, which combined regions, divided autonomous republics, split up urban and rural party organizations and more.  “The reforms didn’t survive, but the country lost a decade.” That could happen again.

            Experience shows, Shamilin concludes, that “a renewed structure of power cannot change the quality of administration and resolve the old problems of the country.” And at a time of economic crisis, engaging in such harebrained scheming would have “political consequences” Moscow certainly wouldn’t like. 

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