Another Sign Russia’s Matryoshka Autonomies are at Risk of Being Further Downgraded

April 14, 2015
A satirical political cartoon with regional leaders in the "Tyumen matryoshka." Picture via"

Staunton, April 14 – Vladimir Putin’s press secretary says that no one from the Nenets Autonomous District in Arkhangelsk Region or the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets ADs in Tyumen Region has submitted any questions for the president’s upcoming direct line program, a remark some say means the Kremlin doesn’t “view these autonomies as independent subjects.”

Dmitry Peskov said that “in all probability,” the residents of these three matryoshka autonomies “have no questions for Putin and that there everything is fine.” But analysts with whom spoke say that his apparently off-the-cuff words send a clear message.

On the one hand, they intensify nervousness about the appointment of governors in all three places, suggesting that the powers of those heading the autonomies may be cut relative to those of the oblast head. And on the other, his words may mean that the issue of regional amalgamation may be about to be reopened.

The two predominantly Russian regions have administrative control over the three ADs, but the large oil and gas reserves of the matryoshka autonomies and the power of Russia’s gas and oil industries have allowed them to resist the Russian regions’ intervention. Consequently, any signal from Moscow that they are of less importance is a matter of extreme concern.

Peskov’s words, points out, were immediately featured in “all federal and regional information agencies,” a pattern that suggests they were intended to be taken seriously. In the capitals of the matryoshka autonomies, that is certainly the case, given that Putin must propose new heads to the AD parliaments in the coming months.

Normally, Russian political analysts say, Moscow is concerned about questions coming from the people of this or that region because it suggests there may be problems between the authorities and the population. But here, they argue, the situation is just the reverse: “the Kremlin has become concerned about the absence of [such] questions.

Aleksandr Belousov, a Urals political scientist, suggests that the residents of these three matryoshka autonomies are not that concerned about domestic policies – they are used to taking care of themselves – and don’t need to ask Moscow about foreign policies and especially Ukraine because there are large numbers of ethnic Ukrainians living among them.

Other analysts, including Tyumen political scientist Aleksandr Bezdelov, said that Peshkov’s words may not be accurate or reflect reality. He may have been given incorrect information intentionally. Or, as Moscow analyst Konstantin Kalachev suggested, it may be that the people counting the questions for the Kremlin group them by region and not by AD.

In that event, someone calling in from one of the three matryoshka autonomies would be listed as having called from one of the two Russian regions. That could mean either nothing or, Kalachev said, a great deal if in fact “in the Kremlin, they have ceased to consider the autonomies as independent subjects.”