Moscow says a lack of centralization is to blame for corruption, inefficiency, and slow economic reforms in many regions. Under Putin, the Kremlin has had legislation approved reducing the power of local governors and legislatures. It has also drafted a bill aimed at cutting the number of political parties in the federal parliament.
The 17 April popular referendums in Siberia, in which voters approved the merger of the autonomous Taimyr and Evenkia regions into the much more populated Krasnoyarsk territory, is all part of a pattern.
"The idea [is] that stability in a large country can only be had through direct control, which means that you want to have as few political players as possible, because many players are thought to be confusing, they cannot be controlled and therefore they're bad," said Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies in The Hague. "So what you end up having is an idea whereby if there are too many political parties, [you] change the election law, get rid of single-mandate districts, increase the electoral threshold. This is what the Duma just did last week. So you end up with fewer political parties and the idea is that they will be more controllable. The same logic applies to the regions."
Most observers in Russia have welcomed the idea of the regional merger. They said Taimyr and Evenkia’s tiny populations -- Taimyr has 37,000 people while Evenkia counts just under 18,000 -- do not justify retaining separate administrative structures and all the bureaucracy this represents.
Folding the two sparsely populated but resource-rich regions into the Krasnoyarsk territory, with a population of nearly 3 million, makes economic sense, according to Vyacheslav Nikonov, of Moscow’s Politika Foundation.
"The Krasnoyarsk region is an industrial center," Nikonov said. "Taimyr and Evenkia are natural resource regions whose division from the Krasnoyarsk region -- through all sorts of administrative barriers -- is simply disadvantageous."
Recently, the first deputy speaker of the Duma, Lyubov Sliska, echoed Kremlin policy when she said similar mergers should take place until the number of regions in Russia is reduced to about half the current 89.
Nikonov said he shares this view and said it will reduce bureaucracy and make Russia easier to govern from Moscow.
"The idea is absolutely correct, from an administrative and an economic point of view," Nikonov said. "The total number of regions is too large. Managing such a large number of regions from one center is very difficult. In addition, we have an absolutely unprecedented example of nesting-doll federal regions, where regions that should have equal legal status actually find themselves within another region, which creates a lot of administrative confusion. These nesting-doll regions have to be dealt with and merged."
Others are more skeptical. RFE/RL’s Russian Service conducted an unscientific poll on the streets of Moscow, where reaction was mixed. One woman said Russia’s leaders have always been fond of big projects. But if past experience is any judge, the results of this megalomania never live up to expectations.
"Before, we had small collective farms and there was order. And then they merged them and created large collective farms and things turned into a mess," the woman said. "Small countries are neater. But in our enormous country we're not going to have order. And the more we create bigger entities, the messier it's going to be."
De Spiegeleire in The Hague said he agrees. He noted that many countries -- especially in Europe -- have highly successful economies precisely because they are small and adaptable. Many highly developed large countries tend to replicate these conditions by having a high degree of decentralization, so that most decisions are made on a local level. This has two advantages. It breeds healthy competition among regions, and it ensures that those who make the decisions are most familiar with conditions on the ground.
"Some of the most successful large countries are very decentralized and have a federal system," de Spiegeleire said. "I'm thinking here of the United States, of course, Canada, Germany, even Brazil. You need that to have a really workable system, which is not the kind of control that the people who are in power in Russia now or that were in power in the Soviet Union thought was necessary. It's a system of checks and balances that ends up yielding much more stability, certainly in the medium term, than any type of direct control that you can have."
De Spiegeleire called the Kremlin’s drive to consolidate power “profoundly ill-guided.” But he said he believes that, paradoxically, the merging of regions will have precisely the opposite effect that Moscow is seeking.
Several governors who are allied with powerful business interests are preparing to follow the Krasnoyarsk example by absorbing smaller surrounding regions. If this happens, said de Spiegeleire, the Kremlin will have inadvertently created a new class of regional politicians with the political and economic power to counter Moscow’s influence.
"What will end up now is that you have weaker regions being swallowed up by larger regions that have connections to very powerful financial industrial interest groups," de Spiegeleire said. "And that will start re-creating some of these checks and balances that the system is trying to get rid of. Obviously, a small entity like Evenkia, or like Taimyr, or like some of the other autonomous districts which will probably be swallowed up by some of their neighbors -- all of these players were very weak players in the political system. So in a sense this is only strengthening regionalism."
A centralization reform that ends up fostering decentralization? In Russia, anything is possible. As Putin himself told voters while campaigning for a second presidential term: “Russia is a nation of paradoxes.”
(RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report.)