‘No Regions, No Problems’ – Putin Downgrades Regional and Ethnic Issues

September 9, 2014
"The Ministry for Regional Development of the Russian Federation," that has been disbanded. Photo: fedpress.ru

Staunton, September 9 – In his latest update on Stalinism as “effective management,” Vladimir Putin has disbanded Russia’s Regional Affairs Ministry, yet another sign of his drive to further centralize the country, eliminate any serious discussion of Russia’s regions and their problems, and thus undermine any chance that Moscow will have an effective nationality policy.

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin disbanded the Russian ministry for regional affairs and two other bodies responsible for overseeing Moscow’s relations with its regions and with the non-Russian nations who populate many of them.

At one level, of course, his move is nothing more than the latest indication of a problem Moscow has faced since the dawn of Soviet times: Were the Kremlin to give any one agency enough power to deal with the multi-faceted nature of regional and ethnic issues, it would be creating a monster that could threaten itself.

Consequently, the Soviet and Russian governments have been reluctant to allow “nationalities ministries” to function for very long – Stalin headed the first one from 1917 to 1922 and Putin disbanded the post-Soviet one at the start of his rein – and have frequently shifted responsibility from one region to another.

But this Putin initiative appears to many to be more than that, to be instead an effort to downgrade regions and non-Russian nations even further than he already has. As Vadim Shtepa bitterly commented on Facebook: What Putin has done is “correct” because “in Russia there are no regions; the slavishly obedient provinces are unworthy” of this term.

And soon, the prominent regionalist writer said, the Kremlin will ban “the term ‘regionalism’” as well as the agencies responsible for dealing with regions and nationalities. That would be consistent with Putin’s Stalinist and Orwellian dispositions: no region or nationality – no problem.

Or as Kavkazskaya Politika’s Anton Chablin put it, “the dissolution of the federal ministry marks a turning away from a clearly defined nationality policy” toward a situation in which the regions and non-Russians will be affected by general policies but will have fewer chances to ensure that these policies take their needs into account.

According to Chablin, the dissolution of the regional affairs ministry and the distribution of its functions to other ministries whose primary responsibilities are to other larger issues or only to specific regions as in the case of the ministries overseeing the Far East, the North Caucasus and occupied Crimea end hopes of creating a nationalities ministry under Putin.

Instead, they suggest, Chablin argues, that Russia is shifting from the “Brazilian” to the “Canadian” model of regional policies and is likely to carve out additional ministries for particular regions rather than for all regions of the country as a whole. Russia now has three such regional ministries; Canada has five.

Despite Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s promise that all the functions of the regional affairs ministry will continue to be met, albeit by offices in other ministries, many are skeptical about that. This is not only because the focus of these other ministries is different and regional and national issues are thus going to be treated at a lower level but also because of the loss of expertise.

Preserving that expertise is a major concern of those working in the area. As Vladimir Zorin, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology told Nazaccent.ru, however one assesses the quality of the work of the now disbanded ministry, it contained “a literate collective of professionals who knew well the ethno-political realities of the country.”

In the new set of structures, these professionals are likely to be cut out and with them the knowledge needed to guide Moscow through the complexities of regional and ethnic affairs, a development that almost certainly guarantees more errors will be made and many regional and ethnic problems that might have been “solved” will now grow into bigger and more threatening ones.