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City news
City Hall Proposes Merger
07.10.2007 16:14

Matvienko_and_Serdyukov By Galina Stolyarova

Staff Writer

Governor Valentina Matviyenko has revived a controversial plan to merge the administration of the city of St.Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad Oblast into a single unit.

The initiative comes in the wake of a series of unification plans that entail combining several regions of Russia with larger regional entities, apparently in an effort to complement the construction of Vladimir Putin’s “vertical of power” and further centralize the government.

The proposal to merge the city and the oblast is not new, having first been proposed by former mayor Anatoly Sobchak nearly fifteen years ago. Carrying out such a merger would require the consent of the federal government and amending the constitution. This blessing has not been given by the Kremlin thus far.

“The Kremlin has made neither encouraging nor discouraging statements on this issue, which may show that Moscow approves of the idea but does not yet know who it thinks should run the combined area,” said Tatyana Protasenko, a researcher with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Similar unification attempts — some of them successful — have mushroomed across the country in the last three years.

In June, the legislative assembly of Krasnoyarsk territory approved Alexander Khloponin, the former governor of the city of Krasnoyarsk as the governor of the territory.

The appointment followed the unification of Krasnoyarsk with the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts, all previously independent areas within the Russian Federation.

The Perm Region merged with the Komi-Permyak Autonomous Area to create the Perm territory. The Irkutsk region has absorbed the Buryat Republic, while the unification of the Kamchatka Oblast and Koryak Autonomous District resulted in formation of the Kamchatka territory.

Unification possibly lies in store for other regions, including the city of Yekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk region.

“With a consistent policy of centralization of power many more unifications are inevitable, regardless of the political or economic expediency of such mergers,” said Maria Matskevich, a political analyst and lead researcher with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The major goal is to further facilitate Kremlin control over the regions.”

Back in St. Petersburg, the most recent public poll about the merger between the city and the oblast was held in 2005.

“Such a plan looks vague and unclear to many locals: approximately every third person who responded could not come up with any opinion at all on the matter,” Matskevich said. “On the other hand, there has not yet been a strong campaign for the merger.”

In 2001, former St. Petersburg governor Vladimir Yakovlev, another enthusiast of unification, proposed holding a referendum on the question but the vote never took place.

“Unifying the city and the oblast is exactly what needs to be done as historically, the two have always formed an integral whole,” Matviyenko said in an interview with Echo Moskvy radio on Friday. “Even now, despite the fact that they are distinct federal entities, the two have much in common.”

“Sooner or later, unification will happen, although, naturally, it cannot happen in a single day,” Matviyenko said adding that shortage of space is hampering city development. “St. Petersburg needs to move some of its large industrial enterprises beyond city limits.”

Matviyenko has not mentioned the possibility of and the need for a popular vote. Leningrad Oblast Governor Valery Serdyukov — whose duties have been extended for another term this month — shows little appetite for the merger.

“The city and the oblast have always had independent budgets, so the talk about the two being a single entity is somewhat far-fetched,” Serdyukov told reporters.

He also speculated that St. Petersburg politicians and businesspeople might be behind the merger talk in an effort to get access to the oblast’s natural resources.

“The real issue to be discussed is not a merger, but a more efficient partnership,” Serdyukov said.

Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the political council of the St. Petersburg branch of democratic party Yabloko, emphasized the difficulties behind the proposal.

“If we are serious about a merger, then we will have to create a unified legislature and executive,” Vishnevsky said on Monday. “These bodies won’t be efficient because oblast lawmakers and officials aren’t familiar enough with the problems of the city and vice versa for St. Petersburg lawmakers and officials.”

Natalia Kudryavtseva, executive director of the St. Petersburg International Business Association, said that the merger — if properly executed — could benefit both regions, making them even more attractive for investors. She said the merger, if it happens, would involve the delicate ask of shaping an attractive investment climate for the new territory.

“St. Petersburg is experiencing an investment boom and has an efficient investment policy but stretching this policy into the oblast would be wrong as those significant foreign investors that already operate in the oblast are comfortable with the existing regime which drew them there,” Kudryavtseva said. “Because the synergetic element is already high — city residents work in the oblast and vice versa — it all comes to the question of how careful and efficient the merger process would be. The city needs the oblast’s land, while the oblast needs the people.”

As Protasenko pointed out, the Leningrad Oblast has very limited capital resources, and therefore its citizens instinctively look to St. Petersburg.

“Also, the higher living standards in St. Petersburg make ordinary citizens of the oblast look to the merger in hope that it would help solve some of their everyday problems, including, for instance, unemployment,” she said.

Vishnevsky sees the merger as nothing more than the Kremlin’s attempt to tighten its grip.

“There is no economic benefit in it, simply because all issues — be it medical insurance or garbage collection on both territories — can be easily sorted out by bilateral agreements,” he said. “If officials cannot make these tools work and develop working schemes now, the merger won’t help.”

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