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Analysis: The End Of The Russian Federation?

Wolfensohn's comments contrasted strongly with most others (file photo) The comments of World Bank President James Wolfensohn in "The Wall Street Journal" on 21 September stood out among the chorus of voices in Russia and abroad that have criticized President Vladimir Putin for allegedly using the pretext of the latest wave of terrorist attacks to strengthen an authoritarian regime.

"I personally would be reluctant to conclude that [Putin's] motives are bad," Wolfensohn said. "I think Russia is a pretty difficult place to run, and so I wouldn't come to that conclusion too quickly."

He added: "I think that Putin has a very difficult issue to face. The act of barbarism [in Beslan] has upset the entire country, and the first reaction is for security and trying to centralize it."

Other analysts have not been so sanguine, noting that Putin's proposals to abolish single-mandate-district representation in the Duma and to end the direct election of regional governors were developed by the administration months before the Beslan events and have little direct relationship to the problem of terrorism. RFE/RL's Russian Service on 15 September reported that an unnamed administration official admitted that the proposals had been developed long ago and that Beslan merely created an appropriate political atmosphere for bringing them forward.
"Any attempt to eliminate [the ethnic republics] will spread terrorism far beyond the North Caucasus."

"Who would have thought they would use the blood of innocent children to bring out of the drawers of their Kremlin desks some old projects and on that blood continue to build up Putin's authoritarian regime?" independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov was cited by RFE/RL as saying.

A number of well-connected political analysts and observers have predicted that Putin's innovations will not end with the proposals already put forward. Many have speculated that the Kremlin will use the momentum created by Beslan to advance another project that has been dear to the Kremlin's collective heart: the reduction in the number of subjects of the Russian Federation.

"A federal structure is a headache for any central authority," former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 September. "It is much simpler -- I can say this as someone who was once the head of government -- to govern a unitary state."

Yelena Babich, head of the St. Petersburg regional branch of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), told on 20 September that Putin's first two proposals coincide perfectly with the LDPR's longstanding political platform. "The LDPR always advocated party-list voting [for the Duma] and the appointment of governors," Babich said. "The next step for the president must be the enlargement of the regions. I hope that in the end we arrive at a unitary state, since federalism is killing Russia." In December 2002, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said that Russia should have about 30 provinces with populations of not less than 10 million people and that they should not have their own constitutions.

Other politicians have echoed this sentiment, particularly those governors who hope to see their stay in power extended by Putin's initiative. Significantly, only three of Russia's 89 regional leaders have come out against the president's proposal to end the direct election of governors. Kamchatka Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev said on 15 September that "Russia can only be a great power as a unitary state," Regnum reported.

Political scientist and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) Professor Andronik Migranyan told RFE/RL on 15 September that, historically, Russia has never been a federation and that "central Russia has always been centralized and unitary." He attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to a weakening of central power, acerbated by ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniester, and other regions. "If we cannot cope with radical Islam, with terrorism, and this playing the ethnic card in the Caucasus, there is a threat that it might move to Tatarstan, to Bashkortostan, and so on, stopping everywhere," Migranyan argued.

He urged the "radical leveling" of the federation subjects, particularly the elimination of the "significantly greater possibilities" enjoyed by the presidents of the republics in the federation. "There is an imbalance," Migranyan said. "A subject with a million people has fewer possibilities than a national-state formation with a population of just 200,000-300,000." Next, Migranyan said, the government should consider the "liquidation of the national-territorial and national-state formations, the reformation of the entire state." He said that "Eighty-nine [federation] subjects is very ineffective." He added that the country should be divided into regions on the principle of "economic efficiency."

National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii, who is believed to have close connections within the presidential administration but who has been critical of Putin's reform proposals since Beslan, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 September that the elimination of the ethnic-based state structures will be the next stage of Putin's reform. "An attempt will be made to equalize the rights of the ethnic republics and all the other regions, with the aim of fully standardizing the ethnic landscape from a legal, cultural, and semantic point of view," Belkovskii said. "Small ethnic territorial formations will be absorbed by larger components."

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" columnist and respected journalist Vitalii Tretyakov wrote in his column on 17 September that although "many think that an unitary state formed under the current conditions is much preferable for Russia, including for the so-called national regions," he wonders whether "many people think that within those regions themselves." However, he said that maintaining the "appearance of federalism" while having regional leaders appointed by the center will be "extremely difficult." He also said that Putin's proposal that the heads of the republics in the federation continue to be directly elected will also create a "dangerous asymmetry" if it means that those leaders will have "greater legitimacy" than the Moscow-appointed heads of the other federation subjects.

Ryzhkov also doubts that many people within the so-called ethnic republics would welcome the elimination of those structures, noting that they were formed as a way of giving some autonomy -- or at least the appearance of autonomy -- to certain ethnic groups in keeping with Russia's self-declared status as a multiethnic state. "Fortunately, the president has not yet touched the ethnic republics (in particular Tatarstan and Bashkortostan)," Ryzhkov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 September. "Because any attempt to eliminate them will spread terrorism far beyond the North Caucasus."

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service on 15 September, Ryzhkov emphasized the potential danger in destabilizing the country in this way. "Thank God that [Putin] did no more than undermine state institutions like regional government, the legislature, and so on," Ryzhkov said. "If he had gone further, if he now used this storm to arrange the rewriting of administrative borders [and] the liquidation of the republics, then the terrorists would undoubtedly find thousands of supporters in Tatarstan, including ideological supporters since the radical intelligentsia would certainly be in opposition. And then this could really spread along the Volga and into other regions."

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