Reorganizing Russia

by Nathan Hamm on 4/21/2006 · 8 comments

RFE/RL’s Victor Yasmann writes a very interesting article exploring whether or not the Russian government is planning to eliminate ethnic republics and districts. Some ethnic okrugs, such as the Komi-Permyak, Evenk, and Taimyr okrugs are merging with other regions. The latter two will merge with Krasnoyarsk Krai while the first has already merged to Perm Oblast’ to form Perm Krai. There are more merges potentially in the work.

The plan discussed in the weekly was drafted by the Council for the Study of Productive Resources (SOPS), a little-known but quite influential think tank that works for the office of Russia’s government and prime minister. According to the plan, the Russian Federation would comprise 28 federal subjects, instead of the current 88.

The plan proposes the merger of all ethnic autonomous republics with neighboring Slavic administrative areas to form new provinces. It also suggests eliminating any reference to ethnicity in the names of the new provinces. In particular, the plan proposes to merge:

* The Republic of Tatarstan with Ulyanovsk Oblast to create Volgo-Kama Province;

* The Republic of Bashkortostan with Orenburg Oblast to create Yuzno-Ural Province;

* The Republic of Udmurtia with Perm Krai to create Zapadno-Ural Province;

* The republics of Mary El and Chavash with Kirov Oblast to create Volgo-Vyatka Province;

* The republics of Kalmykia with Astrakhan, Volgograd, and Rostov oblasts to create Volgo-Don Province;

* The republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and North Ossetia with Stavropol Krai to create North Caucasus Province;

* The republics of Adygeya and Karachayevo-Cherkessia with Krasnodar Krai to create Prichenornormskaya Province.

* Finally, the plan would abolish numerous autonomous ethnic regions in Siberia, the Urals, and northern Russia.

And why should anyone pay attention to SOPS?

That the SOPS has formulated such a plan is not to be taken lightly. It was created in 1916, and for the past 90 years has systematically been involved in drafting major national projects both in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In particular, the SOPS was involved in elaborating the Bolshevik plan of electrification known as GOELRO; it also participated in the preparation of the Soviet five-year economic plans that later became part of GOSPLAN.

More recently, the SOPS was behind the proposal in 1998 to divide Russia into seven federal districts, which was materialized by Putin in 2000. Today, the SOPS is working on further reshaping Russia’ administrative composition.

I’m somewhat skeptical that all of these proposed changes will be realized. While the Kremlin certainly is interested in regional restructuring that strengthens the power of the center, it is unlikely that it will go full-bore and restructure the federation in ways that would almost certainly cause ethnic disturbances. Many (almost all?) of the autonomous ethnic districts are already majority-Slav and have non-titular leaders, but the titular nationalities of some republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan would almost certainly resent being lumped into larger administrative units with Russian executives.

Dmitry Oreshkin, a senior expert with the Russian Academy of Science’s Geography Institute told “Argumenty i fakty” that the Kremlin’s merger efforts can only work in small ethnic entities. “But how can they dissolve a 5.5 million-inhabitant-strong Tatarstan?” he said. “Such attempts can only offend Tatars.”

In turn, Rostislav Murzagulov, a close aide to Republic of Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, told the weekly: “One needs to cool the hot heads demanding the abolishment of nations and the unification of everything.”

What is quite unsurprising about these proposals is that they are strongly supported by politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has referred fondly to the larger, more centrally controlled administrative units of the Russian Empire. In Mari-El, where an ethnic Russian backed by the Kremlin rules as president, the language and culture of the titular nationality find little support. While the nationalities policies are not the same as they were under the tsars, the results are turning out to be the same. And a more centrally controlled Russian Federation that took away much of the national autonomy that does exist would certainly make linguistic and cultural preservation all the more difficult.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Azjon April 22, 2006 at 12:51 am

Zhirinovsky gets his way??!!

rustam April 22, 2006 at 4:17 am

Smells like Uzbekistan. Russia – 28 federal subjects, Uzbekistan – 14 regional subjects. But small detail, Uzbekistan 447,4 km2, population 27 mil., Russia 17075,200 km2,population 142,8 mil.
The same authoritarian system, the overwhelming power on the hands of executive, all powerful “law enforcement”, no free media, dormant parliament and corrupt judicial system. Excellent, viva Putin!!!!

Hulegu April 22, 2006 at 4:58 am

There’s an article about Kalmykia in the latest issue of the New Yorker. It’s not available online, but here’s an excerpt from the press release:

“Michael Specter reports from Kalmykia, one of the smallest of Russia’s twenty-one republics, on its enigmatic leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who, Specter writes, “is not your typical post-Soviet millionaire Buddhist autocrat” (“Planet Kirsan,” p. 112). Ilyumzhinov is also the president of the Fédération Internationale des Échecs, or fide, the governing body of world chess, and he is attempting to change his country’s fortunes by making it a chess capital. Specter writes, “Ilyumzhinov functions a bit like the Wizard of Oz…. In Kalmykia … his picture dominates the airport arrivals hall, and billboards … show him on horseback or next to various people he regards as peers—Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama.” Ilyumzhinov says, “Everything here comes from my image…. I am lifting the republic up.” Specter writes, “Many people dispute the last part of that assertion, but nobody questions the first.” Ilyumzhinov was elected President in 1993, at the age of thirty-one. He immediately abolished the parliament, altered the constitution, and lengthened his term of office. Specter notes, “He finds little beauty in democracy and readily concedes that his republic is corrupt,” and he counts Saddam Hussein, Ghenghis Khan, and Bobby Fischer among his friends and heroes, along with the Dalai Lama. He says of Saddam, “He did hold it all together. In Iraq, you have the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds. So many problems. But it was quiet then. You had to negotiate with him, but that’s politics. Of course, I’m a Buddhist. When there’s torture going on and blood flowing, I don’t like it.” Ilyumzhinov has sunk millions of his own money into the construction of Chess City—as he has done for thirty-eight Buddhist temples, twenty-two Orthodox churches, a Polish Catholic cathedral, and a mosque—and chess is a vital part of any Kalmyk child’s education. Yet, Specter writes, as much as seventy per cent of the labor force is unemployed, and few believe that chess will do much to change that. During one conversation with Specter, Ilyumzhinov compared George W. Bush to Genghis Khan, approvingly: “Bush is creating order, conquering countries, territories, new oil wells, he hands them over to rich oil companies, they’re rich and getting even richer—that’s O.K. Bush has an army, he has a Congress … he has a Senate, he has a Court. Maybe soon there’s going to be a big American state…. But, as long as there’s order and discipline, what’s the difference?’’ He then returned to his conviction that the human experience might end soon anyway. “Tomorrow, aliens will fly down here and say, ‘You guys are misbehaving,’ and then they will take us away from the earth.”

Peter April 22, 2006 at 5:05 am

In actual fact, Russia has 88 federal subjects, not 28. At any rate, it is not correct to frame this question as one about democracy, as this is not the only question at hand.
Only last week, the inhabitants of the Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District voted overwhelmingly to unite the two regions. Though there have been concerns voiced by the Buryat minority there, the fact remains that the region has been run abysmally and economic maladministration has done little to alleviate the difficulties of people living there.
Other mergers to have been approved to date have also taken place thanks to referenda. Those include one between the Perm region and Komi-Permyatsky autonomous district in 2003 and the Krasnoyarsk region with the Evenkia and Taimyr autonomous districts.
No doubt there are all the grounds for questioning Putin’s motives, but the fact is that the 1993 constitution that established the basis for centre-periphery relations was a ridiculously bad piece of legislation. It was in the natural course of things that any strong Russian leader, democratic or otherwise, would have to revisit the legacy of that document. The devil of this business, perhaps more so than many other aspects of Russian politics, is in the detail.

Rustam April 22, 2006 at 6:22 am

Come on Peter I did not say that it is 28!!!!!
If the trend that we have seen up until now, so called “stream lining of centre-periphery relations”, the most important elements, in my opinion, of which were two “reforms” – the appointments of governors and transfer of pretty much of all revenues from local budgets to the federal budget (ever increasing financial dependence of periphery from the centre), will continue, even on the basis of referenda, the validity of which, for example when it takes place in Buryatiya or Kalmikiya for that matter, is under BIG doubt (presidential elections in Russia still need a lot of improvement to make them transparent and fair, let alone federal legislative elections) and all this under the background of all the factors that I have pointed out in my first post surely is not good for the democracy and the development of civil society in such a crucial state as Russia and sadly it is and will always have negative effect to us in Central Asia, already in neighbourhoud with ever powerful China with its thirst of energy.

Peter April 22, 2006 at 6:32 am

I don’t want to argue about it but…

“Smells like Uzbekistan. Russia – 28 federal subjects, Uzbekistan – 14 regional subjects.”

Otherwise, I agree with everything you say.

Nathan April 22, 2006 at 12:41 pm

FWIW, I’m not opposed to this per se, but I agree with Rustam’s points in the fifth comment. I’m generally all for administrative structures that make strong centralized governments weaker (I’m such an American…), but there’s arguably a case for it in Russia. My worry is more for what it means for the standing of the titular nations in the ethnic republics and its potential for causing instability.

Lyndon April 29, 2006 at 10:22 pm

This is a very interesting topic. On a slightly different point, I read the New Yorker piece mentioned above, and it was so sloppy that if I had more time I would blog about how it’s a classic example of someone writing a stock feature story about an aspect of Russia and not even getting basic facts right. Near the start of the article, it mentioned that Russia had 21 regions, or republics (I don’t remember the exact word used and don’t have the text handy) – there may be 21 ethnic A.O.’s, but even if that’s the case there was no mention of the other 60-some subjects of the federation. One wonders where the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checkers were on this one. There was some other fact they got wrong that I was going to gripe about, too.

And the rest of the article read like everything you’ve read in the past 10-15 years about a journalist’s only trip to some corner of the Russian provinces – incessant ridiculing of the local leader and his quirky ways, etc. Whatever. Making fun of Kirsan is like shooting fish in a barrel, and at some point it got old – it almost made me feel bad for the guy. The New Yorker is the only weekly print magazine I read on a regular basis these days (the folks at the Economist haven’t been able to make the US mail work so far in 2 months of trying), and it’s usually a pleasure to read, so I was a bit disappointed.

OK, thanks for letting me get that somewhat off-topic rant off my chest. Nathan, I hope you’ve been well, it’s been a while.

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