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Russia: Regions Continue To Merge

A fish market in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii, the provincial capital of Kamchatka Oblast (file photo) (AFP) Two far eastern regions overwhelmingly agreed on 23 October to merge into a single province. This is not the first time Russian regions have voted in favor of a merger -- the latest referendum is a continuation of the Kremlin’s drive to improve governance in provinces and consolidate its control over the country’s sprawling territory.

Moscow, 24 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Almost 90 percent of those who cast ballots in the 23 October referendums in Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, on Russia’s Pacific coast, supported merging their regions.

The decision is the latest illustration of how strongly Russians back the Kremlin’s push to bring down the number of Russian regions from 89 to less than 50.

The administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been encouraging sparsely populated regions to merge with their more populous -- and usually better-heeled -- neighbors.

It says this will make regions easier to govern and thereby help reduce bureaucracy and boost economic performance.

A Fashion For Merging

Sergei Markov, a political analyst connected to the Kremlin, hails the decision to unite both regions.

He told RFE/RL that the Koryak Autonomous Okrug -- one of Russia’s least populated regions -- is not viable and does not require its own, separate administrative structures.

"I am fully convinced that the merging of regions fosters better governance," Markov said. "An education department was created there and an education department there, a health department was created there and another one there. The doubling-up of a range of structures will end. Koryak is not a viable region, it does not have an economic basis on which to develop independently."

Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous will not be the first regions to unite -- or, in this case, re-unite, since they were part of one province until 1993.

Perm Oblast in the Urals merged with the neighboring Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug in 2003.

A referendum in Siberia in April 2005 supported the merger of the Evenki and Taimyr autonomous okrugs into the more populated Krasnoyarsk Krai.

Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug have also expressed their wish to merge, and there are plans to merge Chita Oblast with the Aga Buryat Autonomous Okrug in eastern Siberia.

Vertical Of Power

The idea of merging regions fits into the government’s efforts to establish what it calls a "vertical of power," under which the country’s administration is centralized in the Kremlin.

Yevgenii Volk is the director of the Heritage Foundation. He says the Kremlin, by reducing the number of federal regions -- and thereby the number of local governors -- hopes to further tighten its grip over Russia’s huge provinces.

"From a political point of view, reducing the number of regions means such big structures are easier to govern," Volk told RFE/RL. "Increasing the size [of regions], in my opinion, will not change much. But the Kremlin is interested in reducing the number of regions in the Russian Federation and to further strengthen its control over these newly formed regions."

Like Volk, some observers have serious doubts the plan will live up to expectations and predict life conditions in the newly merged regions will see little, if any, improvement.

Vladimir Pribylovskii, the director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, says uniting regions will have no effect whatsoever – neither improving governance nor even helping the Kremlin’s extend its influence over regions.

"The reform to unite regions is a whim of the federal center," Pribylovskii said. "This is a political fashion now. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the political fashion was to break up regions; today the political fashion is to unite them. One can separate, one can merge, this doesn’t change anything. Whether Koryak and Kamchatka are two regions or one doesn’t make people’s life any better or worse."

A Wealthy Governor?

Once the merger of Koryak and Kamchatka comes into force, the new province will need a new governor.

Putin’s envoy in the Far East declared on 23 October that he regarded Viktor Vekselberg, one of the country’s richest men, the best governor of the new province.

This choice is obviously inspired by the governorship of Roman Abramovich, Russia’s richest man and owner of England's Chelsea soccer club, in neighboring Chukotka Oblast.

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