Staunton, September 9 – Regional amalgamation hasn’t worked as advertised, but Moscow seems committed to pursuing it anyway, Ayrat Fayzrakhmanov says. Its latest tactic, in the best “hybrid” tradition of the Putin regime, is to use a plan to divide the country into 14 macro-economic regions and shift power away from federal subjects to them.
There is a very real risk, the Tatarstan historian says, that the latest Moscow plan will be used to set the stage for redrawing the administrative-territorial divisions of the country. At the very least, he suggests in Kazan’s Business-Gazeta today that all federal subjects should be alert to that possibility (business-gazeta.ru/article/394605).
Fayzrakhmanov suggests that the latest plan may play out according to the following “scenario” – “the gradual transfer of resources” away from the federal subjects, “the levelling out of the role of the subjects in distributing resources, and “the elevation of the role of municipalities which will then interact with the center directly.”
History suggests this is possible, but it also suggests that after much turbulence, everything will return to where it was and that the new economic divisions and any political divides they produce will be rejected – and the situation will return to precisely what it was before, with the shortcomings of the change compounding current problems, he continues.
The reason for that, Fayzrakhmanov says is that the center thinks it can do what it wants without regard to realities on the ground – such as combining “the entire Caucasus in one big gubernia” – and that economics determines everything. But in fact, the situation within these huge regions is more complicated and federal subjects are more than economic units.
Federal subjects, he continues, “are political phenomena and their existence and types are not simply a constitutional norm but the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation.” Changing them would thus require changing the constitution – and doing far more than just changing the list of its component parts.
Russia has undergone a redrawing of its administrative-territorial structures “many times,” the historian points out. Peter the Great created eight gubernias in place of 146 uzeds – thus establishing a Russia with even fewer divisions than Moscow’s new plan. But a decade later, he started increasing their number to deal with the problems of diversity.
The Soviet period saw many attempts at economic regionalization but a far smaller number of major territorial-administrative changes, Fayzrakhmanov says; but what is striking is that few of the economic regionalization plans led to changes in the political lines on the map of the federal subjects.
“The existence of republics remained unchanged” most of the time “despite the attempts of ‘economists’ to exclude this factor by replacing national self-determination with economic utility.” As a result, the republics generally remained untouched. And “in many senses, the current attempt to crate 14 macro-regions recalls the reforms of the 1920s.”
The central authorities nonetheless were never happy about the divisions. In the 1920s, the Soviets created 13 such territorial units plus ten autonomous republics, each of the latter being smaller than the former but both being “concentrated around a major city. (Kudrin’s proposal is thus nothing new.)
At that time, “the old gubernias were suppressed” because it was considered that such a number of administrative-territorial units would be easier to administer.” But many of the krays were enormous – such as the Far East – and contained within them a diversity that was almost impossible to run from a single center. As a result, these began to be carved up into smaller units.
But that approach, Fayzrakhmanov says, nonetheless had serious consequences: the economic regions drove the formation of infrastructure; and the regions and republics today are living with the consequences: “districts of the republics almost are not connected with each other by railroads” and highways.
Under Khrushchev, the Soviet government revived the Sovnarkhozy and divided the country into 24 macro-economic regions. But that number didn’t prove optimal and the whole system was scrapped. Aleksey Kosygin tried to change the situation but his approach was drive by the needs of the military-industrial complex rather than by the imperatives of the market.
That too casts a shadow on current development. Neither Andropov nor Gorbachev despite the hopes of some and the fears of others was able to put things in order, the historian says. But in Russia today, “the suggestion that there are too many regions in Russia has become almost axiomatic.”
But that prompts the question: what would be optimal? “In idealized tsarist Russia, in the middle of the 19th century, there were 55 gubernias;” at the time of Stolypin, there were 101. Most Russians appear to think that there should be many fewer because that will make the country easier to run.
“In the United States,” the Kazan historian says, “which is half as large as Russia territorially,” there are now 50 states. But no one says that this is a shortcoming of the US. By the way,” he adds, “some of these states have specific ethno-confessional characteristics, several have a second language, but we continue to view the US as the ideal non-ethnic federation.”
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