Staunton, August 20 – Minsk is planning to put in place 18 districts in place of the six oblasts created in Soviet times after next year’s census, a move intended to reduce outmigration from rural areas to the capital and from Belarus as a whole to foreign countries, Belarusian journalist Adarya Gushtyn says (news.tut.by/society/649960.html).
The current division of the country was put in place by the Soviet authorities 50 years ago and no longer corresponds either to the size of the population in the six oblasts or the needs of the post-Soviet economy. Minsk officials have been talking about it since at least 2003 but migration to Minsk from the regions and to foreign countries has brought it to the fore again.
Because the four rural oblasts are so much poorer than the urban ones and because many villages are far from the oblast center and thus can’t get services, there is enormous outmigration taking place, overwhelming Minsk and some other cities and increasingly leading to emigration abroad.
Currently, two variants of administrative-territorial reform are on the table, a “radical” one which would put in place 18 districts in place of the six oblasts and eliminate the three-level division of the country (village-district-oblast) and a “soft” one that would simply redraw some of the lines to equalize population among the existing oblasts.
The more radical the plan, the greater its impact but also the greater its cost and the longer it will take to implement. According to the expert community, the complete transformation of the administrative map of the country will have to overcome bureaucratic resistance and take at least a decade.
While the commission on regional reform the government has established will have to take such opinions into account, Gushtyn says, there is one thing that will not be required: any referendum or constitutional change. That is because the language of the existing Belarusian constitution allows for districts as well as oblasts and doesn’t enumerate only the latter.
But just changing the administrative lines, the expert community says, will not be enough to create the conditions that will reduce outmigration to Minsk and abroad. Instead, they argue, “the regions must be given more money and authority. “Otherwise,” in the words of Gushtyn, “the reform will be senseless.”
At present, a third of the budgets of the oblasts on average comes from the central government, something that gives Minsk important leverage but that has the effect of exacerbating regional imbalances and migration. Whether migration is now such a problem that Minsk will give this up is very much an open question.
Vladimir Kovalkin, head of the Kosht Urada program, says the regions must retain at least 90 percent of the taxes they collect if the reform is to be effective. “But unfortunately, in the current political system, this is impossible because decisions about the regions are taken in the center where the money is.”
What Belarus is now considering as a result of the impact of migration flows is a revision of the centralist paradigm which Minsk like Moscow has adopted. And that raises an intriguing possibility for Russia in the future: if migration flows there intensify both from the regions to the capital and to foreign countries, could Moscow follow Minsk in redrawing the country’s map?