“The idea of uniting Tatarstan and Mari El is also good”

The interview with a political expert about the current prospects for the practice of enlarging the federal subjects of Russia

“The idea of uniting Tatarstan and Mari El is also good”
Photo: gosrf.ru

The process of consolidation of Russian regions, which began in the 2000s, stumbled on the idea of uniting the Nenets Autonomous District (NAO) with Arkhangelsk Oblast. The population of the NAO actively opposed the merger. As a result, on July 2, the head of the NAO, Yury Bezdudny, announced that the referendum on the unification of the two subjects of the federation was cancelled. Why the authorities listened to the voice of NAO residents, whether it is possible to reanimate this idea and which region could be united with Tatarstan — read in the interview of Realnoe Vremya with political expert Ilya Grashchenkov.

“The reform, invented not on the spot but in Moscow, does not give a positive effect, but exactly the opposite”

Ilya, what has the consolidation that happened in Russia with several subjects given? Has it solved any problems of the regions that have been accumulating there for years?

What consolidation has given can be seen in three examples — the unions of Krasnoyarsk Krai with Taymyr and Evenkia; Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous District into Perm Krai and Kamchatka Oblast with Koryakia into Kamchatka Krai.

If little has changed in the lives of ordinary people in Perm Krai and Krasnoyarsk Krai with the merger of the two subjects, the changes have been significant for large corporations that are engaged in mining and logistics in these territories. They received the opportunity to develop their business without coordinating any decisions with small autonomous regions like Taymyr.

But recent events show that these business interests can lead rather to negative things, judging by the story of the diesel fuel spill near Norilsk, which, as we know, went to the North Sea. If earlier local residents — the residents of Taymyr — could sound the alarm about this and the district authorities could respond to this outrage, now such issues are resolved by the governor of the unified territory. But the governor looks at these territories less closely than local leaders would.

On the other hand, if you take Kamchatka with Koryakia, then it is important to know that Koryakia had been in a deplorable state before — something was constantly burning, sinking, and there was not enough equipment in the region. But with the inclusion into Kamchatka, it became easier for its residents — military services, emergency services began to work for this region as well. Besides, the time has changed — the situation when the district did not have enough money to buy and repair equipment has already gone, and the remote area now is serviced in the same way as all the regions of the country.

Photo: culture.ru
Besides, the time has changed — the situation when the district did not have enough money to buy and repair equipment has already gone, and the remote area now is serviced in the same way as all the regions of the country

The centre intuitively believed that the story of the unification of Koryakia and Kamchatka could be repeated with the Nenets Autonomous District — they were saying that the residents of the NAO would receive high-quality medical care in the case of unification with Arkhangelsk Oblast. But since the Nenets district is very small, and there is a lot of money there — it turned out that the district's budget would have to be divided with Arkhangelsk. Therefore, it turned out that the benefits that were promised to the NAO had to be purchased, and this did not find the support of people.

When this reform was initiated with the unification of regions, the federal authorities wanted to reduce bureaucratic expenses and strengthen control over spending in a number of regions. Did they succeed?

Unfortunately, when Russia carries out optimisation and efficiency reforms, it is so accepted that all this ends with an even greater expansion of the staff of officials, even more bureaucratisation and corruption. Why this happens, we can speculate for a very long time, but so far it turns out that the enlarged territories decided not to demand a reduction in the administrative apparatus that would serve them.

When, for example, we talk about the bureaucratisation of the Nenets Okrug, it is clear that there is a problem of Northern import, environmental problems and gas production. And these things are better supervised locally because they understand the needs of the district. But the centre — in Moscow — thinks that the NAO can live according to the same patterns as conventional Moscow. The attempt to reduce bureaucratic pressure by introducing some schemes, KPIs, and other things results in that instead of clear systems of work that were organised from below in the region itself, some complex and incomprehensible scheme is imposed, in which there is a lot of unnecessary formalism.

The reform, which was invented not on the spot but in Moscow, does not have a positive effect, but on the contrary — some misunderstandings begin, some endless trips to Moscow for approval, some curators are appointed, representative offices, ministries are formed, and so on.

Let's take the Far East: there are so many agencies that have created — the corporation for the development of this region, the Ministry of the Far East, and the same representative office, but no one has properly maintained the territory. And the question arises: what does it take to make the territory work?

Photo: wikipedia.org
The reform, which was invented not on the spot but in Moscow, does not have a positive effect, but on the contrary — some misunderstandings begin, some endless trips to Moscow for approval, some curators are appointed, representative offices, ministries are formed, and so on

The Buryat factor could have saved the depressed Transbaikalia

By the way, about the Far East. You've mentioned Kamchatka and Koryakia united in a positive way, but we also have Zabaykalsky Krai, which was born through the union of Chita Oblast and one of the ethnic districts. I have often heard and read about the terrible depression and decline of this federal subject.

Yes, there were previously pockets of Buryat territories in Transbaikalia, as well as in Irkutsk Oblast, and, in my opinion, the ethnic chain could influence the development of territories. Yes, ethnic territories can also be depressing — the population can get drunk there, the economy cannot develop, investments do not go there. But the Buryat potential in Buryatia itself is actively used — they have Buddhist ties with China, and if the Buryat autonomies did not disappear, the Eastern influence of the Buryats could be used to build economic potential with, for example, China and Mongolia. And if the Buryat factor is irrelevant for Irkutsk Oblast — it is already quite developed, then this factor could somehow save the depressed Transbaikalia.

I think that autonomy as an element of self-government is a line that should not be the enemy of the federal centre. It is only important to develop an approach to it. Yes, the centre is afraid that there will be the second parade of sovereignties in Russia, but why not formulate some interesting ideas and meanings for autonomous territories?

After all, it is ridiculous when the centre decides to declare in Kamchatka, for example, the year of urban environment — benchs, bike paths, and so on. And Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is beginning to adapt to these needs, although other issues are on the agenda in the region — for example, the formation of a unified urban planning policy in the city. But in the autonomy, there are other issues, not bike paths, and they require an even more individual approach.

“In order not to create a hotbed of tension, the idea was pushed back, but it will be returned”

Then it is logical that the individual approach to the NAO was not demonstrated by the centre and people were not clearly explained the idea of consolidation, isn't it?

The idea of combining the NAO with Arkhangelsk Oblast was tried to be modelled a long time ago. Somewhere back in 2004, the centre tried to start the idea of unification, but this case was one of the most difficult: the territory of the NAO is rich in income, and if it was poor, there would be no questions with the idea. When you are not just attached somewhere but also offered to share something, it is different.

Yes, the territory of the NAO is the territory of Russia, but people in the NAO have already formed a special approach to organising their own lives. They feel culturally, traditionally, and economically independent. When the question of uniting the two regions arose, it was to take into account some kind of integration — that is, we do not just include the Nenets in Arkhangelsk Oblast, Komi or elsewhere, but we say that the region will benefit from this. Let's say the economy is diversifying and the region will not only live off gas but also develop its intellectual base.

Banner against the unification of Arkhangelsk Oblast and Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Naryan-Mar. June, 2020 Photo: wikipedia.org
Yes, the territory of the NAO is the territory of Russia, but people in the NAO have already formed a special approach to organising their own lives. They feel culturally, traditionally, and economically independent

But what it resulted in? Let's, they say, include a small rich region in greater Arkhangelsk Oblast, resolving the issue of budget funds coming to Arkhangelsk — there are still few people living in the NAO and why listen to them, they say. This lack of accounting caused misunderstanding of people, who were afraid that it would violate their traditional rights.

By the way, when the republican or district authorities get the right to conduct an independent agenda, they achieve better results.

Yakutia, for example, is actively developing the IT cluster, and now we can see that the republic fits well into the IT technology market, the digitalisation market. Why not include other regions of the North in such digitalisation programmes, especially since energy in Siberia and the Far East is cheap? I think that the fear of losing the right to development, becoming an appendage of the region, also dominated in the independent NAO — with the merger, it may turn out that the former district will become a suburb.

Can we say with confidence that the topic of uniting the NAO and Arkhangelsk Oblast has been finally removed from the agenda of the authors of the idea — the same governors of these regions?

To be honest, I don't know if this idea was abandoned. Either Governor of theArkhangelsk Oblast Tsybulsky, or Bezdudny from the NAO said that no, it was still necessary to unite, that the population did not understand this yet, and in 20 years they would appreciate the idea. I think that so far people have been forced to listen — both in connection with the NAO's protest vote on the Constitution and in connection with the deterioration of the socio-economic situation.

Not to create a hotbed of tension out of the blue, the idea was pushed back, but it will be returned to as soon as it becomes possible. Maybe it will happen sooner than we think — perhaps, before the State Duma elections, there will be an idea to mobilize, for example, Arkhangelsk electorate for such an association.

Why are Tatarstan's elites respected

Is it possible to unite Tatarstan with one of its poor neighbours? For example, with Mari El Republic?

The idea of uniting Tatarstan and Mari El is also good — your republic is one of the largest in Russia in terms of oil production, and in Mari El oil has been prospected for for 30 years (although the previous head of the republic said that he knew where there oil was, but no one has found it in Mari El). And, of course, when joining Tatarstan, Mari El could increase its production potential at the expense of numerous Tatarstan enterprises — in Kazan, as in Moscow and St. Petersburg, there is an overabundance of production territories that are not necessary for these cities, and modern infrastructure allows them to be transferred to other territories with the organisation of housing for the same workers.

In fact, of course, this would be a state planning practice — the chief plans where we have and what will be produced, what is needed for this, where people will live, and so on. But Russia is a kind of empire — there is no getting away from it. We have an expansive economy, which drives people to develop new territories.

Photo: gtrkmariel.ru
The idea of uniting Tatarstan and Mari El is also good — your republic is one of the largest in Russia in terms of oil production, and Mari El has prospected for oil for 30 years

In our country, it is impossible without voluntarism — and therefore, it is possible to transfer, say, many grain enterprises of Tatarstan to Mari El. All this would give a boisterous growth of agriculture, logistics for procurement and, at the same time, would develop the economy of a particular region of Mari El.

If we follow the market path, that is, we create agglomerations 'Moscow' and 'Kazan' and reduce spending on both, we want to have people close by — then small regions will be abandoned. What path of development seems best — the authorities should choose: Stalin's one, to the detriment of the state budget or private budgets, but for the future, or the path the effectiveness of which we haven't understood over 30 years of the new Russia.

Our economy is too small and provincial for now. We are now at an administrative crossroads, and the idea of uniting territories is in many ways also a question of the strategy that the authorities will have to choose.

Can the ethnic republic with rich regions or other similar republics be prevented from uniting by the ethnic factor?

I think that the ethnic factor in this issue should no longer be present. It was the USSR that gave rise to the ethnic factor, when, for example, in Central Asia, the fact that there was an ethnic elite, there were ethnic characteristics trumpeted — and because of this, they should be given the best. But everything exactly led to this — the constant feeding of ethnic republics led to the fact that they felt some kind of exclusivity, and as soon as there was a possibility of leaving the USSR, some of them declared it.

Russia will not repeat this — what is the point of Moscow nurturing the elites on an ethnic basis? The approach to uniting ethnic republics or a region with an ethnic republic should be and will be businesslike — after all, the elites of Tatarstan are respected not because they are Tatar, but because they are able to control the part of financial flows that are not spent but contribute to the development of the region and keep the economy working.

Of course, the ethnic factor is somehow taken into account — culturally and religiously, but the possible association in our conditions is a purely administrative story. People will remain Russians, and it is somehow unproductive to discuss the national issue here.

If there is a need for unification, it is not necessary to link it to some ethnic peculiarities. After all, the NAO does not unite with Arkhangelsk not because the Arkhangelsk citizens will conquer the Nenets, but because the NAO is simply afraid of falling living standards.

Photo: veorus.ru
The elites of Tatarstan are respected not because they are Tatar, but because they are able to control the part of financial flows that are not spent, but contribute to the development of the region and keep the economy going

Can we assume that despite the embarrassment of merging the NAO and Arkhangelsk Oblast, large regions will still appear on the map of Russia?

The unification of the NAO and Arkhangelsk Oblast was a failure purely technologically, but I do not think that the issue of regional associations is closed for the Kremlin — approaches and methods will just be reviewed. After all, no one is against the development of regions and no one is against the fact that consolidation serves a common goal — the development of the Russian economy or a particular territory. If the association is based on positive aspects that people understand and that their superiors can explain to them, and not trick them, as often happens. If the goal is to put money from one pocket to another, this will always give rise to a protest wave, which may then lead to the growth of some separatist sentiments.

By Sergey Kochnev
UdmurtiaTatarstan