Saturday, September 22, 2018

Minsk Mulls Increasing Number of Oblasts from Six to 18, Raising Specter of Regional Instability

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – The Belarusian Academy of Sciences is working on plans to change the administrative-territorial divisions of the country, a step that will give Minsk new opportunities to shift officials around but that is likely to create bureaucratic confusion and new opportunities for subversion by the Russian Federation for some years to come. 

            The plans are being developed by the Academy’s Institute of Economics, Tatyana Vertinskaya, one of its scholars, tells Zvyazda because many in Minsk believe that the current territorial arrangements are far from optimal in terms of services and development possibilities ( in Belarusian; in Russian).

            Today, she says, “the districts of the country vary by size and by transportation links to regional centers. Thus, four of the six oblast centers are located more than 200 kilometers from the center of the country, while 16 district centers are situated closer to Minsk than to the centers of their own oblasts.”

            Vertinskaya says that the situation has not yet reached a critical state and that she favors an “evolutionary” approach to changing the existing administrative-territorial arrangements, on that could be called “a soft path to its improvement.”  Under its terms, regions could be combined with cities, and their governments combined as well.

            In addition, she suggests, it would be a good idea to unify regions with fewer than 20,000 people with neighboring and larger districts, thereby allowing Minsk the opportunity to reduce the existing number of regions to 95 to 100 in place of the far larger number of regions and rural soviets which exist at the present time.

            But the economist says that there are also those who favor a more radical approach, one that would transform Belarusian government in fundamental ways. It would shift the current three-level system (rural soviet, district and oblast) to a two-level one (region and oblast) thereby eliminating many of the smaller government units altogether.

            Its implementation would mean the creation of 15 to 18 new super-districts or okrugs in place of the existing six oblasts, with a reduction in the number of 1300 district and rural soviets to approximately 450 to 475, with a consequent savings on personnel and greater opportunities for economic development.

            Although Vertinskaya makes no mention of Moscow’s calls for the federalization and decentralization of neighboring Ukraine, calls that appear intended to weaken Kyiv and increase Russia’s ability to influence the domestic situation in Ukraine, the plans in Belarus she mentions would appear to open that country to a situation in which Moscow might do the same there.

            At the very least, the possibility of such radical administrative-territorial changes will introduce new uncertainties and even confusion in the Belarusian government – and in those troubled waters, an outside force that does not wish Belarus well could easily assume a more menacing form. 

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