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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Different Kind Of Border Problem

Washington, 5 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Since the Soviet Union collapsed a decade ago, governments in the region have devoted a great deal of attention to converting what had been internal administrative borders into international boundaries. But only now are they beginning to wrestle with yet another kind of border problem: the precise delineation of administrative lines within their own countries.

In an interview published in Moscow's "Segodnya" newspaper on Thursday, Aleksandr Blokhin, Russia's minister for federation affairs and nationality and migration policy, is quoted as saying that his staff is preparing draft legislation on the regulation of administrative borders within the Russian Federation.

According to Blokhin, most of the subjects of the federation -- the oblasts, krays, and republics -- have regulated their borders with each other on the basis of bilateral agreements. But he added that there remain "approximately 20" places where there are no such agreements and hence where the potential for disagreements and disputes exists.

In Soviet times, such administrative borders were both frequently changed and widely ignored by both Moscow and local officials. The central government controlled all taxation and distribution and consequently these lines while sometimes a matter of local pride played a secondary role in the political and social life of the country. And it is not surprising that Moscow largely ignored this issue in the first post-Soviet years.

But there are three obvious reasons why the Russian government is devoting attention to the question of internal administrative boundaries now.

First, given President Vladimir Putin's efforts to re-centralize control, he and others in Moscow are undoubtedly uncomfortable with a situation in which subjects of the federation might make deals with one another without Moscow's blessing or even involvement. Such spontaneous behavior on the part of the country's components would fly in the face of Putin's oft-expressed wish for greater central control in this areas as in others.

Second, even if the Russian Federation's subjects are reduced in number or in status compared to the situation under former President Boris Yeltsin, they are likely to become increasingly important both in terms of collecting taxes and distribution of resources.

As in the United States and other federations, the subjects of the Russian Federation appear likely to get some taxing powers and they already are the divisions on which resources from Moscow are being distributed. If the regions or republics were to remain able to redraw their own borders autonomously from Moscow, they could gain important leverage in this process at Moscow's expense.

Thus, for example, one region might give up a poorer area to another so that the former would bear fewer welfare expenses and the latter would be able to seek greater resources from Moscow itself. Such unregulated shifts could make central planning and budgeting almost impossible, especially if regional leaders were to decide that this was the best way to pursue their distinctive interests.

And third, addressing the question of internal administrative borders now may allow the Russian government to deal with two issues it has not yet been able to find an easy way to tackle. On the one hand, new legislation on redrawing internal administrative borders could set the state for the partition of Chechnya some have proposed between a loyalist north and a still independence-minded area in the mountainous south.

On the other hand, such legislation might allow the central authorities to overcome a constitutional problem they now face in their efforts to reduce the number of federal subjects. As Blokhin acknowledged in his "Segodnya" interview, such a change would require amending the constitution as each of the subjects is specified in that document.

But if Moscow were in a position to redefine the borders of the autonomous okrugs and even other subjects of the federation at will, it might then be able to achieve many of the same goals of reducing their status further without raising a red flag about the future nature of Russian federalism which a discussion of amendments would inevitably do.

In any case, the Russian government's decision to prepare legislation on internal administrative borders underscores the fact that these lines on the map can sometimes be almost as significant as the international state boundaries to which Moscow and other capitals in the region have devoted so much attention.