Merging Russian regions: assessing the reform before its second waveicelds
NAO is a so-called ‘matryoshka’ region in Russia – it is a federation entity and concurrently a part of another federation unit, Arkhangelsk Oblast (province) in the Russian North. NAO’s territory is 176,000 sq. km (more than of Bangladesh or Uruguay) with just 44,000 inhabitants. Arkhangelsk Oblast has 413,000 sq km and 1.1 mln inhabitants; the united region would be larger than France and the biggest territorial unit in the European part of Russia. A notable issue is that NAO is named after the Nenets, a small indigenous people, who comprise approximately 19 percent of the okrug’s population.
Why the second wave? In the mid-2000s, Russia already carried out an administrative-territorial reform of merging some federation units (‘subjects’ according to the Russian Constitution) into bigger ones. In 2017-2019, my colleagues and I , all researchers of the Center for Spatial Analysis in International Relations (Moscow-based Institute of International Relations, MGIMO), conducted a comprehensive study of the earlier mergers. The results have been recently published in the monograph “The Merger of the Regions of the Russian Federation: sociological data, in-depth interviews, a comparative analysis” (in Russian) . The volume provides for complex and multi-dimensional evaluation of the previous federation reform based on rich empirical data collected on the ground in all the merged okrugs. Carrying out this study, we could not predict that it would be so topical and that the new merger would start immediately after the book’s publication.
The merger process at large is of particular interest because it concerns autonomous okrugs (districts) – a type of federation entities routinely regarded as ethnicity-based . The first stage took place in 2004-2008 and involved six out of 10 autonomous districts in Russia. The terms ‘merger’ or ‘unification’ beg a clarification; the autonomous okrugs in question were already a part of their ‘mother’ regions , and the process meant the loss of the status of federation units and not the unification of separate regions. The list of mergers looks as follows:
- Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug with the formation of Perm Krai in 2005;
- Krasnoyarsk Krai and Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug and Evenki Autonomous Okrug into already existing Krasnoyarsk Krai in 2007;
- Kamchatka Oblast and Koryak Autonomous Okrug to form Kamchatka Krai in 2007;
- Irkutsk Oblast and Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug into Irkutsk Oblast in 2008;
- Chita Oblast and Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug to form Zabaykalsky Krai in 2008.
Most of the okrugs were economically underdeveloped regions with a scarce population (the only exception from this rule was Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug). According to the official explanations, the rationales for the mergers were the improvement of administration and the amelioration of the population’s access to public services. The former autonomous okrugs have not ceased to exist as single territorial entities; they have been transformed into municipal and/or special administrative units with special legislative guarantees. The loss of the previous status was done in exchange for increased budget funding, special developmental programs, and infrastructural projects.
Our research methodology included participant observation, in-depth interviews with local officials and professionals working in education, tourism and culture, randomized brief phone polls with local residents, the collection of written, oral and audiovisual materials as well as publicly exposed symbols, and the content and discourse analysis of the collected texts. We processed 555 complete and 48 incomplete survey questionnaires filled in via phone interviews.
Summarizing the results, we came to the following. Firstly, the assessments of the reform are substantively polarized: about a quarter of the respondents describe the reform’s outcomes in extremely negative terms, and about the same number are extremely positive about it. Secondly, we assume that the respondents are unable to clearly differentiate between the outcomes of the reform and other factors such as the overall framework of political and socio-economic development. These potentially distorted perceptions might play a role in both positive and negative attitudes. During the in-depth interviews, local officials often resorted to explaining this or that negative development as a consequence of not quite thought-through policies of regional or federal authorities, but rather as the result of external factors or ‘ill-luck’, such as the 2008 economic crisis. Ordinary respondents make no such distinctions, and one should also take into account the limitations of a sociological survey with set questions and simplistic answers.
Thirdly, based on the phone survey in 11 urban areas, it can be posited that in the eyes of the public, there are more and less successful cases of merging regions. The most satisfied respondents live in Kamchatka Krai, while the least satisfied reside in Perm Krai and Zabaykalsky Krai. At the same time, there is a noticeable gap between the attitudes of the current and former administrative centers, which is quite understandable. The former centers lost their high status along with political and economic role within the newly formed regions, and this loss turned out to be insufficient to compensate for the infrastructure projects aimed at development, especially considering how long it took to implement them.
Fourthly, the overwhelming majority of respondents believe that there was no setback in terms of interethnic relations. Obviously, it had been a potential risk, since the mergers involved ethnicity-based regions (colloquially known as ‘national autonomies’). Moreover, the respondents in both current and former administrative centers share the view that the state support from regional and federal authorities to eponymous ethnic cultures has grown. In this respect the danger of ethnic minority cultures’ gradually dying out following the downgrading of autonomies has not become a reality, and it is truly the reform’s positive achievement.
In the course of our research, we determined the official and unofficial goals of the federal reform in question. The official goals include bridging the economic development gap through merging the subsidized territories with donor regions and increasing governance efficiency through reducing the number of thinly populated federation units with an extremely high share of public sector enterprises and a low proportion of private sector. Among the unofficial goals mentioned were boosting the centripetal forces within the Russian federal system by curtailing its ethnic component (for the federal authorities) and increasing the budget opportunities and formal status of the regions (for the regional political elites). We detected that initially (in Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug, for example) the implementation focused more on pursuing the official goals, while later on the unofficial goals took priority (in Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug), and that might have been among the reasons why the reform was suspended.
In our model, we identified the advantages and disadvantages of the reform for the enlarged and downgraded regions (recipients and donors). The areas that the reform had little impact on in both types include interethnic relations, security, law and order, and human rights. For the enlarged regions (oblast or krai) the advantages included a status boost (a former oblast becomes a krai) and a more prominent role in the Russian political arena, as well as gaining full control over financial flows and executive authorities in the former okrug. The disadvantage lay in the need to redistribute budget funds from the krai to the okrug. As a result, the territorial identity of the recipient regions has strengthened, and the local people are encouraged to support the reform or feel indifferent about it, even if the living standards hadn’t noticeably improved.
For the donors (autonomous okrugs), disadvantages included the status shift from regional to subregional, the severance of direct ties with Moscow and the closing of local offices of federal government structures. The creation of a new formal special status with ornamental okrug authorities without an independent financing mechanism and the depletion of personnel resources also amount to a loss. Among the advantages we can name a partial implementation of important infrastructure projects, a significant increase in funding allocated for supporting ethnic cultures and language as well as access to krai-level programs, first and foremost mandatory medical insurance program (known as the OMS). As a result, the territorial identity has weakened, and this has led to a certain disappointment in the reform, despite some improvement in terms of living standards.
What the merger scenarios have in common is that the former autonomous okrugs gained a special administrative-territorial status. It remains unclear what that status implies exactly, since it was defined on a case-by-case basis hinging on the results of political deals with different and fairly diverse entities in question.
The two main models are as follows: 1) transforming autonomous okrugs into municipal districts with their own elected head, district council and administration, as was in the case of Taimyr Dolgan-Nenets District and Evenki District; 2) transforming autonomous okrugs into special administrative okrugs managed by a newly created ministry (for Komi-Permyak Okrug) or administrations with the ministerial scope of powers (for Ust-Orda Buryat Okrug, Agin-Buryat Okrug, and Koryak Okrug) that become part of the krai/oblast executive system. The mandate of these ministries/administrations is basically confined to ethnic and cultural issues, while their heads automatically become quasi-governors (Komi-Permyak Okrug, Koryak Okrug) or deputy heads of the krai governments (Agin-Buryat Okrug, Ust-Orda Buryat Okrug). With the second model, there can be variations: for example, Agin-Buryat Okrug boasts not only an administration but also the Agin-Buryat Representative Assembly – an advisory body to Zabaykalsky Krai legislature.
Besides, all the okrugs/districts with a new special status are represented in the legislatures of their respective oblasts/krais, but quotients vary greatly, from 20 percent in the case of Koryak Okrug to 3.3 percent in the case of Komi-Permyak Okrug.
As mentioned, the most striking phenomenon that the sociological data including in-depth interviews reveal is that the assessments of the reform outcome are polarized. Why did the reform polarize public opinion so much? There are some reasons that are valid for all consolidated territories, and some that are specific to certain groups of regions.
First of all, the reform is considered a reform mostly in the expert community. In official communication and mass media, the mergers were portrayed as bottom-up initiatives coming from individual regions and then supported by the federal government. Following this logic, the federal government did not feel obligated to draw up a single institutional integration model for all of them, leaving it to the federation unit in question to devise a specific formula for the future relations with the former autonomous okrug(s). At the same time, the voters came to the referenda with a clear understanding that the reform was Moscow’s deliberate policy decision aimed at nation-wide issues pertinent to governance, development, and security. This was predominantly why they supported the reform and forwent their lobbying mechanisms aimed at pursuing local interests. After the breaks were pulled on the reform midway (three autonomous okrugs refused to be part of it), the federal government lost interest in that idea entirely, and in the end, the special status promised to the former autonomous okrugs proved to be mostly ornamental and not buttressed by either administrative or financial resources.
This is what the second reason for the public resentment is rooted in: some people feel cheated, since they saw the reform as some grand national-level project, and they expected to get the federal government’s special attention in exchange for their support and loyalty. However, the former autonomous okrugs have almost completely disappeared from the federal government’s agenda, while the tools for lobbying directly in Moscow stopped functioning. As a result, they feel trapped in the political setup in the krais.
Thirdly, the absence of a clear goal prevents the residents from assessing whether the reform was successful or not. For example, former Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug and Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug saw a sharp rise in the support for the ethnic cultures, whereas in former Evenki Autonomous Okrug and Koryak Autonomous Okrug the ethnic component continues to weaken due to migration processes. In essence, the trends of political, socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural development proved to be divergent in all six cases, so the local people assess the reform based on their personal experience and issues they consider important, which makes the bigger picture look lopsided.
Fourthly and finally, our research shows that the psychological aspect played a key role in the popular opinion about the reform. Regardless of the actual development and progress, the reform is supported mainly in the regions that have acquired a higher status (all of them, except Irkutsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Krai, became krais anew). It is opposed in those that have lost their position. This is particularly salient in former Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug and Evenki Autonomous Okrug which became municipal districts without even a symbolic okrug status, and former Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, where the richer region became part of the subsidized one. Therefore, our research shows that for the people, even a symbolic kind of status outweighs actual improvements in their quality of life. As this is the case, the population of the former autonomous okrugs blames the reform for their numerous problems which existed before and would in no way be resolved by retaining the status of a region. This is especially evident with regard to poor transport infrastructure or harsh northern climate, which are both present in former Evenki Autonomous Okrug and Koryak Autonomous Okrug.
The contorts and mechanisms of the future unification of Arkhangelsk Oblast and Nenets Autonomous Okrug are not defined yet, and it is not possible to predict whether the stakeholders can avoid mistakes and setbacks that manifested themselves at the first stage of the federation’s territorial redrawing. Obviously, the new initiative if launched without a comprehensive expert analysis is doomed, as Russians say, to step on the same rake as before.
 Nenets Autonomous Area and Arkhangelsk Region want to merge. TheArctic, 13 May 2020, https://arctic.ru/infrastructure/20200513/943353.html; Георгий Тадтаев, Владислав Гордеев. Главы Архангельской области и НАО подписали меморандум об объединении. [The heads of Arkhangelsk Oblast and NAO signed the memorandum about unification]. RBC. 13 May 2020. https://www.rbc.ru/politics/13/05/2020/5ebbe56a9a7947fac46be2ec
 The team comprises Igor Okunev, Petr Oskolkov, Maria Tislenko, Emma Bibina, and Rostislav Shilovski.
 Окунев И.Ю. (руководитель проекта), Осколков П.В., Тисленко М.И., Бибина Э.С., Шиловский Р.С. Объединение регионов Российской Федерации: Социологические данные, глубинные интервью, сравнительный анализ[Okunev, I, TislenkoM., Bibina, E., and R. Shilovski. The Merger of the regions of the Russian Federation: sociological data, in-depth interviews, a comparative analysis]. Moscow: AspectPress, 2020. https://www.aspectpress.ru/books/?folder=20&issue=844.
 The Russian Federation is composed of six types of regions; of them three (republics, the autonomous oblast and autonomous districts) are deemed as set up based on certain nationalities.
 Currently three of the four remaining autonomous okrugs, being federation regions, are also parts of other units; only Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, which seceded from Magadan Oblast in 1992, is stand-alone.
Image: © Igor Okunev