Sunday, October 3, 2021

Moving Capital Won’t Solve Russia’s Hyper-Centralism but Creating Regions with Equivalent Populations Could, Sarutov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 29 – Moving the Russian capital from Moscow to some other city won’t by itself promote either federalism or regionalism, Dmitry Sarutov says. The current capital and its environs are simply too large and too economically powerful and would continue to exert a baleful influence even if the political capital were shifted.

            But there is a way out, the Urals regionalist says, and it is this: the creation of regions elsewhere in Russia with populations about the same size as the Moscow amalgamation and with economies approaching its level. That would leave Russia with seven or so super-regions that would reduce the relative influence of Moscow (

            Sarutov does not say, but it follows from his argument that one of the reasons Moscow officials moved so hard to undermine and then destroy super-regional groupings like Greater Urals Republic and the Siberian Agreement which existed in the 1990s was that they could see that such bodies represented a threat to Moscow’s paramount power.

            And he also does not say, but recent history shows that countries with smaller numbers of political units are at greater risk of disintegrating than those with a larger number as witness Yugoslavia and the USSR, on the one hand, and the United States and the Russian Federation, on the other.  And this is another reason Moscow is not prepared to tolerate too much regional amalgamation.

            It may even explain why the federal districts which were supposed to do more than simply bring the governors to heel have not been allowed to. If they gained the power to act in a more unified and corporate way, they too would constitute a threat to the dominance of Moscow across the entire Russian political system.

            Nonetheless, Sarutov’s argument is intriguing both because it was prompted by a suggestion that the EU reconstitute itself into 28 states with approximately similar populations in place of its current arrangements where the members are of radically different size and power and because it represents an attempt to promote regionalism, if not federalism in Russia today.

            The proposal for the EU remains only an Internet discussion, the Urals historian says; but the fact that it is being made at all reflects a recognition of the impact of the varying size of political units on a system. In Russia, this disproportion is enormous with Moscow far larger in population and economic power than any other region.

            That means, Sarutov continues, that “the interests of federal officials living in the capital get mixed up with the interests of the capital itself,” something that under the circumstances precludes both federalism and regionalism as an examination of federal and regional states around the world.

            Of the 27 countries in the world which call themselves federations, none has a greater imbalance between the population of the capital and the population of any of the rest of the federation’s components. And of the 12 which have devolved significant powers to regions, only a handful have disproportions between the capital and the regions equal to Russia’s.

            “It is clear that such a situation harms Russian regions,” Sarutov says. And it is not surprising that many have called for the capital to be moved. But that alone won’t solve the problem and eliminate the pernicious influence of enormous Moscow over the remaining and smaller federal units.

            The best way out, he argues, is to create “several regions which would be comparable” to Moscow and its region at least in terms of population. Efforts were made in that direction in the 1990s with the creation of the Greater Urals Republic and the Siberian Agreement.  But Moscow suppressed them.

            If Russians are to hope for real federalism or at least recognition of regional rights, they need to try to create such institutions now rather than waste time calling for the shift of the capital. That may sound like a solution, but, Sarutov says, it isn’t and simply distracts attention from what needs to be done.


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