Staunton, November 19 – Last spring, the Kremlin sought to restart Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation effort by seeking to combine Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Nenets Autonomous District. The result was a disaster. Not only did the Nenets protest the very idea, but they became the only subject to vote against Putin’s constitutional amendments.
In the ensuing gubernatorial election in Arkhangelsk, the Kremlin’s candidate felt compelled to say that he and his Nenets counterpart had agreed to put off any moves in this direction. And most Moscow analysts of regional affairs concluded that the issue was dead at least for some time.
Yesterday, however, a move in the Arkhangelsk Oblast legislative assembly suggests that such a conclusion may be overstated and that there are people in Arkhangelsk and presumably in Moscow as well who want the question of the amalgamation of the two federal subjects reopened and pushed through via a referendum perhaps as early as next year.
The assembly approved amendments to the regional law on amendments, amendments that either set the stage for a new push for amalgamation or alternatively ensure that Arkhangelsk law conforms to Russian federal law. Ekaterina Lobanovskaya of the 7x7 regional news agency suggests.
The reason there is the possibility for both interpretations lies in the “unusual” status the Nenets AD has in relation to Arkhangelsk Oblast already (7x7-journal.ru/articles/2020/11/19/ne-mytem-tak-katanem-vernutsya-li-arhangelskie-vlasti-k-idee-obedineniya-s-neneckim-avtonomnym-okrugom).
“On the one hand,” Lobanovskaya writes, the AD “is an independent subject and is mentioned separately in the Russian Constitution and has its own representatives in the Federation Council and State Duma.” But “on the other, it is included within the Arkhangelsk Oblast” on the basis of special rules.
One of the most important is that Nenets voters can participate in their own elections and also in Arkhangelsk elections. “Formally, they could vote twice” in any referendum, “first as citizens of Arkhangelsk Oblast and then as citizens of the Nenets AD.” They would thus have an unusual way to shoot down any attempt to do away with their federal subject.
The new amendment “gives the right to vote in a referendum about the unification with the Nenets AD to all citizens of Russia who have ‘registration as place of residence or place of location on the territory of the oblast with the exception of the territory of the Nenets Autonomous District.”
That change is of interest, the 7x7 analyst says, because it eliminates the double voting the Nenets had enjoyed and is a remarkably direct indication that some are thinking about the referendum even now.
Aleksandr Tsybulsky, who shifted from being head of the Nenets AD to being head of Arkhangelsk Oblast, proposed combining the two federal subjects a year ago, thinking that would boost his chances and cause people to forget the support his predecessor in Arkhangelsk gave to building a Moscow trash dump at Shiyes.
Yes, people forgot; but they were even angrier about his proposal. Following Nenets protests and even more the vote against Putin’s constitutional amendments, Tsybulsky backed away from his proposal and agreed not to have any referendum anytime soon, even though it seems clear that he has never given up on the notion entirely.
Tsybulsky and his team have advanced two arguments for union: On the one hand, the Nenets AD is so small in population that it cannot articulate a full complement of state institutions and already relies heavily on Arkhangelsk. And second, the two share a similar oil and gas basin and combining the two would achieve certain efficiencies.
If indeed, the Tsybulsky regime and Moscow are planning to proceed, however, they will trigger a new outburst of anger in the Nenets AD whose people have already shown themselves on this issue and on the question of trash dumps more than ready to stand up to larger Russian entities and institutions.
Mikhail Rayn, a KPRF deputy in the Nenets parliament, says he sees this latest move in Arkhangelsk as an indication that Moscow and the oblast plan to move toward amalgamation anywhere and will use any means, “by hook or by crook,” to get their way. But they have to know that they will face real opposition in the parliament and in the streets.
While some in the AD favor the explanation that what is going on is simply another effort to bring Arkhangelsk oblast legislation in line with Moscow’s, many residents of Naryan-Mar, the AD capital, are furious at what has just taken place in Arkhangelsk and are plotting their resistance.
Viktoriya Bobrova, vice president of the Movement for the Defense and Development of the Nenets AD, says Tsybulsky thinks he can take money from the Nenets and improve things in Arkhangelsk. But in reality, he will simply make the situation of the Nenets AD worse and do little to improve things in Arkhangelsk.
Moscow political analyst Aleksandr Kynyev doesn’t deny that there are those in Arkhangelsk who want to amalgamate the two federal subjects, but they aren’t going to get their way. “Only ‘completely politically blind people’ don’t understand” that a move in that direction will lead to the restart of protests in the Nenets AD, something the Kremlin doesn’t need.
In any case, he suggests, the issue is dead at least until after next year’s Duma elections – and quite possibly for a long time after that.