Staunton, April 28 – In a display of contempt for the Russian constitution and the views of the peoples living in the Russian Federation’s more than 80 federal subjects, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin has called for replacing the federation with a unitary state based on 21 urban agglomerations.
On the one hand, his words only provide fresh evidence that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is anything but the federation it officially styles itself because they show that many officials in Moscow believe they can redraw the country’s map unilaterally and without consulting the population.
But on the other hand, they raise the political temperature in the country because wealthier regions don’t want to take responsible for poorer ones and both residents and officials in the regions and republics don’t want the kind of changes Khusnullin is talking about and will resist them as they have in the past.
Not surprisingly, the deputy prime minister stressed that this was only his personal opinion and the Kremlin said that any such changes could occur only if they were supported by the populations involved (ura.news/news/1052482838). But Khusnullin has let this genie out of the bottle again, and the consequences for Moscow are likely to be overwhelmingly negative.
And his comments might have gone unnoticed except for one detail: A year ago, Khusnullin said that calls for changing the borders of regions and republics or amalgamating them were “provocations” (rbc.ru/politics/05/02/2020/5e3aba059a794732609ef35a). That he is saying the opposite now suggests there may have been a sea change in the Russian leadership.
Indeed, that there is support in Moscow for amalgamation was suggested yesterday when LDPR Duma deputy Sergey Natarov called for the absorption of Khakasia and Tyva by Krasnoyarsk Kray (t.me/natarovsv/347).
Between 2005 and 2010, Vladimir Putin pushed for the amalgamation of the so-called “matryoshka” autonomies with the surrounding and predominantly Russian krays. Under that program, he joined the Komi-Permyak AD to Perm Oblast in 2005, the Koryak AD to Kamchatka Oblast in 2007, and the Agin Buryat AD to Chita Oblast in 2008. (In the last case, he also folded in Chita Oblast.)
In each case, facing resistance, he organized a referendum and pushed through a pro vote. But when in 2020, he sought to combine Arkhangelsk Oblast and the Nenets AD via the same means, popular resistance, much of it already organized to resist Moscow’s plans to build trash dumps, Putin had to allow those involved to postpone any vote at all.
Russian experts are almost unanimous in opposing plans for amalgamation now both on principle – running a country with a small number of federal units is no easier than one with more – and in practice – because combining rich and poor regions won’t make both richer but rather exacerbate problems and the anger of the population (club-rf.ru/theme/542).
The only potential combination which enjoys much support in the expert community is one in which the Tyumen matryoshka would be eliminated by folding in the Khanty-Mansi AD and the Yamalo-Nenets AD into Tyumen Oblast, although many think that these two ADs would resist strongly (akcent.site/mneniya/13971).
But one analyst offers an intriguing explanation for what is going on, Ildus Yarulin, a political scientist at Russia’s Pacific University, says that Putin hinted at amalgamation in his address to the Federal Assembly, that discussions about it must be taking place within the government, and Khusnullin simply let the cat out of the bag (club-rf.ru/theme/542).
“At present,” Yarulin continues, “the regions have practically no sovereignty and this means no normal life, but the center is not in a position to resolve all issues. This means, there needs to be a search for a balance. But how is that to be done? With the creation of macro-subjects?” But that has already been tried with the federal districts.
“Perhaps,” he says, “the plenipotentiary representatives aren’t needed and that we are going to be presented with a new structure.” That could happen next year when there will be a new Duma and Russia will mark the centenary of the formation of the USSR. Such is the power of dates that we could be resented with “a new country.” After all, Yarulin says, we’ve already adopted a new constitution.
Perhaps the most balanced study of amalgamation projects so far was prepared several years ago by Igor Okunyev of MGIMO. He said that amalgamation presented pluses and minuses for both the territory doing the absorbing and the territory being absorbed (realtribune.ru/federalizma-v-rossii-net-est-unitarnoe-gosudarstvo).
Russian regions which absorbed non-Russian Ads gained in status and weight and achieved complete control over financial flows and executive power in the districts, but they lost some of their own resources because they were expected to help the absorbed districts improve their standard of living.
The non-Russian ADS that were absorbed, Okunyev continued, gained some financial benefits, but they suffered a diminution of status because they no longer were directly connected to Moscow and the loss of a chance for their own people to rise through a bureaucracy under at least nominally their direct control.
But any talk about amalgamation and border changes will lead some to propose changes Moscow would not want to see happen. And in the wake of Khasnullin’s remarks, some of these are now being pushed. Two of the most prominent are Circassian calls for the unification of the Circassian republics into one and calls for Bashkortostan to recover the Orenburg corridor.
The Bashkir demands for the recovery of the Orenburg corridor are likely the most disturbing from Moscow’s point of view because they would give Bashkortostan and indeed all the republics of the Middle Volga a border with a foreign state and thus a far greater opportunity to pursue independence.
Now, the Free Idel-Ural movement has picked up on Khasnullin’s words and called for beginning border changes and regional amalgamation with the Orenburg corridor and the peoples of the Middle Volga (idelreal.org/a/31227964.html). For background on this explosive issue, see this author’s discussion of the issue at jamestown.org/program/the-orenburg-corridor-and-the-future-of-the-middle-volga/).