Putin’s Development Plan for Siberia Driven by Fears of Separatism But May Spark More

September 5, 2014
Krasnoyarsk, located in the south of Siberia. Photo: gelio-msk.livejournal.com

Staunton, September 5 – Vladimir Putin’s plan to move several ministries from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk and to launch a massive investment program there reflects fears in the Kremlin that separatist attitudes in Russia east of the Urals are growing and that only such steps have the potential to quiet them, according to Anton Chablin.

In a commentary on the Kavpolit.com portal this week, the Russian analyst says that it remains unclear whether the president’s plan will have that effect or whether having won these concessions from the center, people in Siberia and the Far East will demand even more in the future.

Russia has a long history of shifting ministries if only from one capital to another and dealing with problems in all other regions not by decentralization of taxation and budgetary powers but by launching mega projects which involve massive shifts in resources from the center to the periphery but without reducing Moscow’s control, Chablin points out.

But such strategies, he continues, will not solve the problems of the Russian Federation as their “unsuccessful” application in the North Caucasus shows. Why then is Putin walking down the same road as he and his predecessors have gone in the past? The answer lies in his fears about Siberian separatism and his own imperial approach.

Putin has responded to the recent upsurge in separatist thinking in Siberia first by using his police powers to block plans for marches in support of federalization within the Russian Federation and then with his proposals to shift ministries and launch a series of mega projects in that region.

The use of coercion worked in the sense that the march did not take place, but Putin’s promises are already being dismissed by “a multitude of commentaries both among Siberian and among [Muscovite] political analysts” as little more than his latest public relations stunt intended to “demonstrate to critics [Moscow’s] flexibility and ability to make a turn to the east.”

The weakness and potentially counterproductive nature of Putin’s proposals was highlighted the day after the Russian president said that Krasnoyarsk would be a good site to which to shift the ministries: its infrastructure. The governor of that region pointed out that what he needed was money to develop “a new airport and new roads and universities and health care.”

“In a super-centralized state, it couldn’t be otherwise,” Chablin says. “Moscow does not expect evolutionary development from the regions arising out of the naturally existing competitive advantages. Instead, the federal bureaucrats choose specific ‘points of growth’ and promote their development by financial subventions.”

“It is evident,” however, the analyst says, that “it is impossible to lower the risks of separatism by doubtful megaprojects like the construction of stadiums and the shifting of major companies and ministries from one megalopolis to another. Instead, the needs need to be given financial self-sufficiency so that they can spend their means for local needs.”

At present, that isn’t happening. About two-thirds of all taxes collected remain in the federal budget even though the needs of the regions and localities are great. And “every fifth ruble in the budget system of Russia goes into transfers either from the federation to the regions or from the regions to the municipalities.”

The experience of the North Caucasus, the analyst says, shows that the use of mega projects won’t “guarantee stable regional development.” Aleksandr Khloponin tried to use that model, and as a recent study concluded, it and he failed – even though the region has “all the competitive advantages” needed to become “an ‘internal Turkey’” for Russia.

“But alas,” Chablin continues, “the imperial consciousness of the current bureaucracy in the North Caucasus is capable” of dealing only with projects bearing the prefix “mega” or “super” and has little interest in smaller issues as important as those may be. The mega projects may even be “toxic” for the region by killing off everything else.

Despite that, Putin seems committed to pursuing the same approach east of the Urals. Consequently, the analyst concludes, “the only effect” this is likely to have is the “increase in the size of bribes for bureaucrats” which will now not travel relatively short distances but have to “fly 4000 kilometers to the border of China.”