1. MEETING THE NEW NEIGHBOUR: THE NORTH WEST FEDERAL DISTRICT
ON EUROPE’S DOORSTEP
The purpose of the new territorial division of Russia into federal districts has been greatly contested. One way of thinking is well described by Irina Busygina, who argues that the idea of the federal districts extends far beyond a pure technological rationalization aimed at increasing the effectiveness of Russia's territorial management. «Federal districts are probably too large in scale to produce within their borders one definitive regional identity, but at least they present a better framework for such attempts than the huge national one»286.
Nikolai Petrov has a different view. He has forecast that Putin’s territorial reform of 2000 «may eventually lead to the disappearance of Russian federalism», since democracy and regionalism are not among major principles the Russian President adheres to287. Petrov believes that Putin’s territorial reform is designed to introduce a semi-military system into Russia. This implies a reduction in public control over the authorities, a return to the old system of appointments, and an almost total severing of connections between the emerging civil society and the state, and an end to all elements of federalism in Russia288.
Offering a third perspective, Graeme Herd argues that Russia might go through a period of «soft, controlled disintegration»289. Should this scenario come true, federal districts might well be treated as nodal points of the country’s confederalization.
Through the prism of these highly contradictory appraisals, how are we to view the NWFD? The political contexts of region-building in this federal district are controversial. On the one hand, some of the provinces of the NWFD are considered to be »hotbeds» of Russia’s liberal/reformist forces290. No Communist governor has yet been elected in the provinces forming the NWFD. Historically, most of the North West provinces have had more or less strong democratic credentials. Not only did serfdom fail to become fully established in this part of the Russian empire, but long before the 1917 revolution public educational institutions were founded here, whilst the Soviet regime also met strong resistance from the local population291.
On the other hand, in some of the subjects of the federation (Murmansk and Pskov oblasts) nationalist voting is very strong. Similarly, today’s political milieu in most of the regions of the NWFD hardly seems to be consonant with democratic expectations. For example, the subjects of the federation are economically heavily dependent on the good will of the federal authorities, the institutions of civil society are immature, the parties are weak, political participation is limited and irregular, the civic culture of the population is low, the public's confidence in elected authorities is falling, and the demand for social and political patronage is high292. Local observers describe the political perspectives of the regions as »uncertain»293. Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Right-Wing Forces Union, has compared Karelia with Northern Korea in terms of the state of political freedoms294. Corruption is also an issue. For example, the mayor of Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital, is presently on trial for financial mismanagement295.
Moreover, it is not only that the NWFD's constituent units are very different in terms of their political perspectives, interpretations of the nature of economic matters are also very dissimilar. The table below, for example, has two columns. The first column replicates the hierarchical ordering of regions in terms of investment attractiveness offered by the authoritative «Expert» magazine296. The second column presents the regions according to indicators proposed by the Center for Strategic Research «North – West»297. It is easy to understand that these two ratings based on expert assessments substantially diverge from each other: