January 1999

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The North West in Russian regional politics

by Martin Nicholson

The Russian Federation is made up of 89 entities. Four of these regions -- Murmansk, the Republic of Karelia, Leningrad (which includes most of former Finnish Karelia), and St. Petersburg City – border on Finland. At 1,300 km long, this is the European Union's only border with Russia and also marks the steepest income gap of any of the EU's external borders.

These four regions, together with six others, comprise Russia's North-west. Although all of these regions have always had their own peculiar historical, geographical, social and ethnic characteristics, to the outside world they were for many decades part of the amorphous mass of the Soviet Union, closed to foreigners of accessible only through Moscow and with Moscow's approval. Now they live their own lives, competing with each other for the attention of Moscow and the world, particularly that rich part of Northern Europe immediately to the West of them.

The Russian Federation of today has three problems. The first is to contain its national minorities. When Russia became a state independent of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 its internal administrative divisions were still much as Stalin had planned them in pursuit of his nationalities policy. This meant that the Russian Federation consisted not only of territorial units, but also of ethnically-based republics (of which the Karelian Republic is one). The Yeltsin administration has performed a balancing act, persuading the 21 republics that they are best off enjoying their privileged position within the Russian Federation, while reassuring the far more numerous and often economically more significant ordinary regions (oblasts) that they are not being discriminated against.

Secondly, the current Russian constitution of 1993 is deliberately vague about the division of powers between the centre and the regions. Each regional leadership therefore routinely indulges in trials of strength with the centre to determine how much freedom of manoeuvre it has. The problem for the centre has been compounded by a phenomenon previously unknown in Russia: popularly elected regional leaders. The result has been a series of bilateral agreements between the republics and regions on the one hand and centre on the other. It is these agreements rather than the provisions of the constitution that determine the nature of the Federation, and they are subject to constant revision.

Thirdly, there are the economic realities. The overwhelming majority of the regions get more out of the federal budget that they put in it and could not survive independently. Furthermore, regional leaders are currently testing their strength not only against the centre, but also against each other. They aim to consolidate their local political base and maximise their control over local resources. They also aim to maximise the amount of tax revenue that goes directly to the region and is not redistributed from the centre. And finally, they wish to attract foreign direct investment.

What are the prospects, then, for Russia's north-western regions in general and for the North-west in particular? Murmansk oblast remains a nuclear wasteland in need of massive aid. St. Petersburg, on the other hand, has gained from its 'gateway' position, as has the surrounding Leningrad oblast, to some extent. Karelia, however, is a very depressed region. It has not exploited the potential of its privileged status as a Republic.

One factor favouring Russia's North-west is its proximity to Finland and the other Nordic countries. Many regional arrangements are in place, or in mind, that will encourage independent initiative by these regions without carrying any threat of separatism. Among these is the 'Northern Dimension' initiative launched by Finland in the European Union. Instant well-being for the depressed regions of north-west Russia is not in sight, but the fact of the initiative, the concern for the area that it reflects, and the dialogue with individual regions that it will stimulate, can only be beneficial.

Martin Nicholson from the International Institute for Strategic Studies was one of the speakers on the Finnish Institute's Study Day on Karelia on 12 December. He is a senior analyst with over 30 years' experience in monitoring and reporting on political developments in Russia and the former Soviet Union for policy makers at the highest level in the Government. Recently retired from H M Diplomatic Service, Martin Nicholson is now writing on the changing relationship between the regions and the centre in Russia.

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