Staunton, July 28 – With regard to Russia’s regions, there is only one thing the Kremlin fears more than their pursuit of independence or rejection of its plans to amalgamate them and that is efforts by some of them to unite from below without regard for and indeed in opposition to Moscow.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, various oblasts and krays formed regional groupings like the Siberian Agreement, a trend that threatened Moscow’s control over the periphery of the country more than any one of them could. As scholars pointed out at the time, countries with relatively few component parts are more likely to fall apart than those with many.
First under Boris Yeltsin and more recently under Vladimir Putin, Moscow has worked hard to restore the situation in which oblasts, krays and republics must look first to Moscow and not to neighboring areas, except when the Kremlin wants to combine them or oversee them with its federal districts.
But the virtues of regional cooperation, although invariably played down by Moscow and Moscow-centric analysts, are great, and there are indications that the growing economic crisis in the Russian Federation is leading at least some in the regions to think about new combinations that would unite from below what Moscow has been unable to force together from above.
In a commentary on Newsbabr.ru, Matvey Bagrov pointedly asks “Will there be a unification of Buryatia, Irkutsk Oblast and the Trans-Baikal Kray?” and suggests that there are good reasons that local governments, local businesses and the local populations should want that to happen (newsbabr.com/?IDE=137328).
The Russian commentator’s brief discussion of this possibility focuses on the current problems of the Buryat Republic and why its leaders and people should favor such a solution, an approach that may make progress toward the goal of unification more difficult given Buryat unhappiness with the inclusion of two Buryat districts in the other two federal subjects.
But the argument Bagrov makes has a more general application elsewhere in the Russian Federation and thus is worth recounting as a straw in the wind about how hard-pressed areas across the country are now thinking about extreme steps they might take or be forced to take to deal with the current crisis.
According to the Babr.com commentator, “the economy of the Buryat Republic leaves much to be desired. By 2017,” he says, “the republic won’t be living but only surviving,” given that it has a much lower standard of living, much lower savings rate, and much lower credit rating than its neighbors. Moreover, its schools and housing are much worse too.
“The market of internal reserves is devilishly small,” he says, as is the market in goods and services, and “in the republic are extremely limited or completely absence the resources needed for independent resolution of the problems of development.”
The Buryat authorities, Bagrov continues, “understand the extent of the problems perfectly well. But there is a resolution of the problems of the crisis” there that they may not have thought about sufficiently. That is “the unification of Buryatia, the Trans-Baikal kray and Irkutsk oblast. This would be a first and major step to modernization.”
“Unification would allow the use of the advantages of each region and their variety at the level of a macro-region. Access to all kinds of resources of all three regions would allow to boost such branches of industry as machine building, metal fabrication, and reprocessing. And all serious issues of the region would be solved together. And people would find it easier to live.”
“The most important thing,” Bagrov says, is that “the initiative must be taken by the population, by the businesses of the subjects and by the executive power. By the 2017 elections in the Buryat Republic, there must be a pre-election program about the realization of measures of ‘a road map’ of integration.”
If that happens, he says, it will make possible “the preparation and carrying out of a referendum of the population of the three regions concerning the formation of a macro-region. All three regions are unique from all points of view,” Bagrov argues, “and the new macro-region must gain all this uniqueness.”
Nothing may happen with this idea: each regional government is jealous of its prerogatives even if the population would be better off in a larger unit, and Moscow may very well try to hijack such notions and proclaim that this all constitutes a popular demand to restart Putin’s stalled regional amalgamation plan.
But the very fact that economic conditions in the federal subjects are now so bad that this idea is being floated simultaneously highlights just how difficult things are beyond Moscow’s ring road and how some in those places are thinking about solutions that could take them in very different directions than Moscow wants.