Vienna, May 29 – Between 2003 and 2008, Vladimir Putin reduced the number of federal subjects from 89 to 83 by folding in six autonomous non-Russian districts into larger and predominantly ethnic Russian krays, but since that time, his regional amalgamation drive has run into a brick wall.
The four remaining autonomous districts, whose leaders have seen what happened to the others, are resisting any Moscow effort to include them in surrounding Russian areas, and other larger federal units are opposed because any combination would mean that one or another group would lose positions and power.
But now there is evidence that Putin is going back to an idea he first advanced in December 2007 when as president, he told the Council on Science, Technology and Education that Russia needs to define “the concept of ‘macro-district’” and consider how its borders should be defined by territorial, natural, infrastructural, demographic and ethno-cultural characteristics.”
After that, the then-president suggested, the country would need to consider coming up with “a program of development” that would “optimize the administrative structure of the regions” and explore on the basis of the development of such economic units the possibility of changing borders of political ones.
In order not to frighten his audience or more important regional officials, Putin said at the time that “the change of administrative-territorial divisions of course is a task not of the present day, but it is necessary to think about it. And we slowly without making any sudden moves are continuing this work.”
Now, there is an indication that Putin is seeking to put this alternative regional amalgamation plan into action. On Thursday, the administration of Tomsk Oblast announced the formation of the first “macro-district,” one that will include it as well as the Novosibirsk and Kemerovo oblasts and Altay kray (svpressa.ru/politic/article/25742/).
The Tomsk project bears the title “A Scheme for Territorial Planning of the Southwestern Part of the Siberian Federal District,” and its organizers say it will define “a single vector of development for all four subjects of the Russian Federation,” with financing coming from both the federal and local budgets.
Moreover, its backers say, “the realization of this project will give a number of advantages to the residents of Siberia. In particular, it will allow the beginning of the construction of a high-speed toll automobile road over which it will be possible to drive from Tomsk to Novosibirsk in [only] one hour.”
But it seems clear that more is involved here than just the construction of a single highway, and “Svobodnaya pressa” surveyed several Moscow experts about what they see coming from this latest effort.
Aleksey Makarkin, the deputy general director of the Center of Political Technologies, pointed out that “the idea of reducing the number of regions is an old idea” but that “until now,” the only successes Putin has had have been with “the so-called ‘matryoshka’ subjects,” which are those which are inside the borders of another federal subject.
Combining others, he noted, is “much more complicated” because any moves in this direction are certain “to encounter resistance from the side of local elites.” Obviously, creating macro-regions of the kind now being undertaken in Western Siberia may push things forward, but Makarkin suggested that the road toward “political integration” would be long and difficult.
Yevgeny Gontmakher, the deputy head of the Institute of World Economics and International Relations who has served as an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev, was more negative. He told “Svobodnaya pressa” that “the practice of increasing the size of regions has not justified itself,” a possible indication that Medvedev too is skeptical about this approach.
And Vladimir Pribylovsky, the president of the Panorama Research Center, was also dismissive. He suggested that Putin’s fascination with amalgamating regions was a continuation of the Soviet era practice of combining and dividing institutions in order to “imitate activity” rather than to achieve any real goal for the country.