By Paul Goble
Vladimir Putin is already planning to reduce the number of federal subjects after the elections next year in a process that will go far beyond his actions in 2007-2008 when the number fell from 89 to 83 through the amalgamation of the so-called “matryoshka” subjects and likely will take place over the six years of his new term.
That prediction is contained in a post on the Telegram site Metodichka by an anonymous commentator who appears to have good access given the level of detail he offers. (For a screenshot of the original article which has not yet been posted elsewhere, see Metodicka20170907.JPG).
According to the report, the reforms are to begin in the Volga Federal District under the direction of Mikhail Babich who is close to Kremlin aide Sergey Kiriyenko and will involve the future of republics and territories into new units based “not on a national-territorial division” but on economic questions alone.
In the Middle Volga, that will touch off a serious struggle “among the three main aspirants” to head the new entity there: Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and Samara. And “everyone understands [already] that the new status of the region, equal among equals” will have serious consequences for resources and for “the growing political ambitions of local elites.”
According to the Metodichka report, “a struggle behind the scenes has already begun” with emissaries from existing entities visiting Babich and Kiriyenko to lobby for their interests. Some hope that Tatarstan will come out the winner and that this possibility will serve as “a worthy compensation to the region for the failure to extend the bilateral treaty” with Moscow.
But if that is the case, the report continues, Kazan will have to pay a high price: it will have to give up its “expressed national ideology” and the policies that flow from it. Tatarstan would be the most natural nucleus for such a new entity, but the issue is whether it can take the ideological steps Moscow would require to allow it to remain such.
This report is intriguing for many reasons. Three stand out. First of all, it may be nothing more than a way to keep Kazan in line now that Moscow has failed to extend the power-sharing accord. After all, any dramatic action to try to get such an agreement would mean that the Tatar leadership would be excluded from that of any new entity.
Second, it may be an effort to keep other Russian regions and Russian nationalists happy for the duration of the election campaign. After all, Putin has been promising for a decade to reduce the number of federal subjects by combining non-Russian with Russian ones and has not delivered. This could be a signal that he at least plans to do so in his next term.
And third, given the difficulties of combining regions and the growing resistance even in places where it has already happened, this suggestion may be designed to kill of the possibility by forcing someone near the center of power to disown the Metodichka report and to say that nothing of the kind is really on the table.
That third possibility may seem unlikely, but it should not be written off. If the leaders of the regions and especially the non-Russian republics believe they are threatened with losing their jobs and their fiefdoms in the future, they may be far less willing to deliver for Putin than many now are.
Indeed, if many of them conclude that Putin really does want to redraw the borders of the federal subjects in a radical way, that could change the political dynamic of the campaign, transforming what has been a minor issue in recent years into a central one for the campaign – and making it something where Putin has more to lose than he may now imagine.