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#14 - JRL 7237
June 23, 2003
How Many Regions Does Russia Need?

It seems that an extensive reorganisation of Russia's regions is imminent. The reorganisation aims to create a smaller number of regions that will be much larger in size. National Autonomous Districts may be abolished, small regions may be merged into larger ones, and Moscow and St. Petersburg may become regional centres, losing their status as separate administrative districts.

Recent statements by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov suggest that the process is already underway. Twice in one week he said that increasing the size of the regions would make the state easier to govern. Both times he added that 40 would be a suitable number of regions. So far the only concrete plan announced by Mironov has been merging the Komi-Perm District with the Perm Region, but the suggestion that 40 is a desirable total indicates that the changes will be sweeping. The current total of 89 regions will fall by more than half, meaning that almost every administrative district will be affected by the changes.

Only 24 of the world's countries have a federal structure and of these only Russia has as many as 89 federal administrative districts. The Russian Federation is asymmetric (some might say lopsided) as its administrative districts do not all have the same legal status. In some of its articles the Russian Constitution declares equality, but in others it consolidates inequality between its regions. The federal administrative districts have been created according to different principles (some are purely administrative and some are based around ethnic groups). Some regions form part of others but are still fully-fledged federal administrative districts. This situation frequently leads to serious legal and political conflicts.

The current system makes it difficult to govern. The theoretical equality between the regions is not born out by life. They are of different sizes, they have different populations and different ethnic make-ups, the level of economic development varies between them and, most worryingly, income levels also vary. Only about 20 regions are either profitable or break even. The rest cannot get by without federal subsidies.

If everything is left as it is, differences between poor and rich regions will just grow wider and the federal government will have to go on transferring resources from donor regions to poorer recipients forever. This scenario gives the latter no incentive to develop their own economic potential, while the former would like to shed their responsibilities as donors, just as businessmen hate paying excessive taxes. Supporters of reform believe that larger regions will make economic ties between companies simpler, improve the flow of capital, help the domestic market to develop and increase the competitiveness of the regions. They say that reform will strengthen the federal government, increasing its coordination and control functions.

Some supporters of reform are pressing for it to focus on existing economic blocks: energy, metallurgy, fuel etc. Others see geographical centres of gravity as the most important factor. These include Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Rostov, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk and so on. Proposals being discussed include the desirability of merging the Sakhalin Region with Kamchatka and the Koryak National District, the Krasnoyarsk Region with the Taimyr Autonomous District and the Evenk Autonomous District, the Altai Region with the Altai Republic, the Novgorod and Pskov Regions, the Kurgan and Chelyabinsk Regions, the Chukotka and Magadan Regions, and the Irkutsk Region with the Ordyn-Buryat Autonomous District. Even more sensitive proposals have also been made.

A map of the Russian Empire published in 1916 shows 36 provinces and 11 regions on the territory of modern Russia (although some extend into modern Kazakhstan and Ukraine). Some of them (for example the Dagestan and Yakutsk Regions and the Kazan and Ufa Provinces) roughly correspond to their current equivalents. This lends weight to the idea of resurrecting pre-revolutionary provinces while preserving republics that were formed during the Soviet era within their present administrative boundaries. This solution would be the most natural from a historical point of view.

Since 1917 the administrative map of Russia/the Russian Soviet Republic has undergone many changes. On January 14, 1929 the Central Industrial Region, based around Moscow, was set up. It comprised the Moscow, Tver, Tula and Ryazan Provinces. On June 3, 1929 the region was renamed after Moscow and the provinces became districts within the Moscow Region. The region took on its current shape and size after it lost the Kalinin Region (now the Tver Region) in 1935 and the Tula and Ryazan Regions in 1937. In 1929 a huge Western Region was also created, only to be broken up later into the Bryansk, Smolensk and Velikie Luki Regions. The first two continue to exist today, but the third has long since been swallowed by the Pskov Region, which, in turn, was carved out of the Leningrad Region that once included most of North-West Russia.

Old maps show such regions as the Azov-Black Sea, Balashov, Grozny, Nizhny Amur, and Ussuriisk, Regions, and the Murmansk District of the Leningrad Region. Between 1940 and 1956 there was also a Karelian-Finnish Republic that was then demoted to the Karelian Autonomous District. In the 1930s a Jewish Autonomous District was created on the banks of the Amur River. It still exists today, despite a lack of the people for who it was intended. In the 1980s, in the twilight of Soviet rule, there was talk of creating two gigantic regions in Siberia instead of the existing ten, with the aim of making the task of governing it much easier.

Of course, if reform begins, the administrations of regions facing the axe will actively oppose the project. Yaroslavl Regional Governor Anatoly Lisitsin made a lot of enemies when he put forward the idea of merging 'strong and weak' regions together (he specifically suggested merging his donor region with the Kostroma Region). Nobody wants to lose a governorship and lower their own status. However, 'strong' governors are counting on being appointed or elected leaders of the new, more powerful regions. Sverdlovsk Regional Governor Eduard Rossel and Saratov Regional Governor Dmitry Ayatskov have confidently stated in public that 30-50 regions is enough for Russia.

The leaders of the ten autonomous districts and the Jewish Autonomous Region, who realise that their fiefdoms are first on the list for abolishment, have most reason to be worried. Large and wealthy regions like the Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Districts are not at all keen to lose their independence. Leaders of large ethnic republics, who are rightly concerned that they will lose many of their privileges during the reform process, are critics of the idea of increasing the size of the regions. The heads of republics like Altai, Khakasia, Karelia and Komi must be thinking about whether they have been included in a 'second list'.

Critics of the idea of merging regions claim that separatist movements may become stronger in rich and economically self-reliant regions. Instead of increasing central control and tapping reserves of economic growth, this could lead to the collapse of Russia as a single legal and economic entity. This can be countered by the argument that after reform the number of recipient regions will fall sharply and donor regions will have to open their purse strings much less often. As for separatism, there are already plenty of bombs ticking away.

It's no secret that oligarchs already control five of the ten autonomous districts - naturally those that have the most natural resources and the highest level of economic development. As the autonomous regions are first on the list to be abolished, their leaders will put up a serious fight. The federal government will probably try to prevent representatives of big business from heading the new regions and at the moment it has both the strength and political will for this.

The economic and social benefits of reform are currently being emphasised by its proponents. At a recent meeting with the governors of the Perm Region and the Komi-Permyak Autonomous District, President Putin said that 'we all know there have been frequent economic problems caused by this artificial division: If you, as leaders, think it necessary to join forces to tackle economic problems and raise the population's standard of living, then I am ready to support you.'

The heads of both houses of parliament support potential reforms. Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev believes that the current situation, 'where some regions receive up to 90% of their budgets from the federal centre', is ridiculous. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov has carefully suggested that the idea would only be justified if 'the population of a region is prepared to unite with another and sees that this will bring an improved standard of living.' He also believes that it would not be productive to impose reform from above.

The first candidates for reform from regions of equal status could be Moscow and St. Petersburg and their surrounding regions, although this could cause a number of problems for their populations and business as well. The legislative base for merging the two capitals with their surrounding regions is almost ready. The 'Presidential package' of laws on reforming regional and municipal authorities will give Moscow and St. Petersburg full municipal powers, which will mean that they will be free to shed their status as regions if they wish.

The Russian Constitution states that a new federal region can be formed from two or more adjacent regions by merging them together. The regions that wish to merge have the right to introduce such a proposal. The proposal must then be supported by the regions' residents in a referendum before the president can introduce a bill on the creation of a new region into parliament.

If the bill is passed by both houses of parliament, it becomes a federal constitutional law (the State Duma must pass the bill by a two-thirds majority in three readings and three quarters of the Federation Council's members must also support it). The required changes must then be made to article 65 of the Russian Constitution, which lists the regions of the Russian Federation. Despite the relatively complex nature of the merger process, it is likely that there will be regions willing to go down this path. A pilot project was chosen according to the above-mentioned principle of 'helping a neighbour': incomes in the Komi-Permyak Autonomous District are half those in the neighbouring Perm Region.

:It is quite difficult to predict how many regions there will be in Russia in ten years' time. Nevertheless, it fair to say that radical suggestions that there will be seven regions mirroring the current federal districts are unlikely to be proved right. The majority of Russia's regions are already larger than major European countries. The figure of 40 named by Sergei Mironov is a much more likely total.

Anna Goryanina. St. Petersburg Translated by Robin Jones

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