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A hotspot in the Polar Circle Regional unification plans in northern Russia awaken a dormant protest movement

Source: Meduza
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

On May 13, the leaders of two neighboring regions — Arkhangelsk and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) — signed a unification memorandum. In the latter region, the possible merger has provoked major protests, inciting everyone from school children to local elected officials. Residents have picketed against the decision, organized demonstrations, and gathered every evening in Lenin Square to sign the NAO’s anthem. Meduza examines how this sleepy northern region of Russia has transformed almost overnight into one of the country’s most contested political hotspots. 

Forms of protest in the Polar Circle

The protest slogan “I/we = against the unification of the Arkhangelsk region and the NAO” is everywhere in Naryan-Mar, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug’s capital city. People plaster it to their cars and windows, add it to their social media avatars, and even print it on their face masks. Some activists insist that what’s been proposed isn’t a unification but the NAO’s very dissolution.  

Technically speaking, the Arkhangelsk region and the NAO comprise a single “regional nesting doll,” but the latter has enjoyed “federal subject” status since 1993, which makes it a top-tier political entity within the Russian Federation and affords it greater autonomy, as the name suggests. 

The decision to move forward with unification was made apparently without informing the local legislative assemblies. Andrey Ruzhnikov, a deputy from the “Rodina” party and a veteran community leader, told Meduza that NAO acting Governor Yuri Bezdudny and Arkhangelsk acting Governor Alexander Tsybulsky have unwittingly united the region’s disparate political factions. He says deputies found out about the agreement from TV news reports. A local member of United Russia, the country’s ruling political party, told Meduza that nobody in his group got any advance notice.

Activists have staged a motorcade against unification, they’ve picketed in the NAO’s capital and sang the local anthem, and flashmobs have attracted demonstrators of all ages. A petition on VKontakte has drawn more than 10,000 signatures in 10 days, and activists have even managed to collect 5,000 signatures for an offline petition in just a few days.

The ubiquitous signs and grumbling legislators are more than anecdotal: Multiple sources with ties to the governments in Arkhangelsk and the NAO told Meduza that roughly 92 percent of people in the NAO oppose the merger. 

Lawmakers in Arkhangelsk and the NAO currently plan to return from recess on June 10 and appeal formally to President Putin for simultaneous referendums already stipulated in the unification agreement and scheduled preliminarily for September 13. A simple majority will be enough to pass the measure.

Several residents told Meduza that they don’t expect the unification to pass, but they fear the authorities might tamper with the results, especially if election officials permit absentee voting through the mail or the Internet. 

Oil is cheap and the budget ain’t deep

Yuri Bezdudny, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug’s acting governor, has said there simply isn’t enough money in the local economy to remain autonomous. The NAO’s budget balances at oil worth $57 a barrel (at the time of this writing, the price is roughly $35). This revenue relies on property taxes (budgeted to be 5.9 billion rubles, or $83.2 million, in 2020), income taxes, and royalties on oil extracted from the Kharyaginsky Oil Field by foreign companies (budgeted to be 4.6 billion rubles, or $64.9 million). Bezdudny says these revenue targets are now unattainable, however, and his government has simultaneously run up a deficit of 3.2 billion rubles ($45.1 million).

NAO acting Governor Yuri Bezdudny (left) inspects a temporary reception station in the flooded town of Velikovisochnoye
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

Most residents in the NAO apparently do not share Bezdudny’s grim view. Multiple demonstrators told Meduza that they expect the price of oil to rebound eventually. These people point out that the NAO survived the lean years of the 1990s without surrendering their autonomy and are loath to throw in the towel now. “Our choice is simple: either we become a region of beggars or we get through this ourselves somehow,” says assemblyman Andrey Ruzhnikov.

Arkhangelsk has a bad reputation in the NAO, where residents say Arkhangelsk’s quality of life is lower and they worry their neighbor will drain their oil wealth. Outnumbered in the Arkhangelsk legislative assembly, the NAO would also lack the representation needed to maintain the current standard of living, critics say. One woman who moved to the region in 1979 told Meduza that she fears the merger could drive even more residents to move away, aggravating the area’s depopulation. 

“Respectable people are being harassed”

The threat to the NAO’s autonomy has mobilized a sense of local patriotism, including rhetoric Russia frequently uses to describe acts of aggression during the Second World War, such as “blitzkrieg” and “attack.” While the main adversary is clearly Arkhangelsk, there’s plenty of talk about “traitors” at home, as well. Some NAO legislators from United Russia told Meduza that their party’s role in the unification initiative has wrecked their relationships with constituents, friends, and relatives. Deputies and sometimes even their families have been flooded with hate mail.

“Respectable people are being harassed. They’re being insulted directly. This has never happened,” says Andrey Ruzhnikov, who left the working group that helped draft the unification agreement. He told Meduza that United Russia deputies now find themselves caught between grassroots pressure to fight the merger and apparent instructions from on high to push ahead. 

Naryan-Mar resident Viktoria Bobrova pickets the NAO’s administrative building every day
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

A United Russia member and the deputy speaker of the NAO’s legislative assembly, Matvei Chuprov, says legislators will abandon the unification issue for at least a few more years, if residents vote against the initiative.

Anxiety about losing autonomy isn’t a new sensation for people in the NAO. The specter of a merger with its poorer neighbor has haunted the Nenets Autonomous Okrug for many years. Most recently, between 2007 and 2008, Arkhangelsk’s governor refused to renew an agreement that awarded his region a cut of the NAO’s oil wealth in exchange for its autonomy. 

The attempt to wrest self-governance from the NAO was part of a nationwide effort by Moscow in the mid-2000s to consolidate Russia’s regional entities. The process began smoothly enough by folding poorer and smaller regions into richer, larger neighbors, but the campaign stumbled when it came to relatively small, wealthy areas, where residents resisted being swallowed up by more dysfunctional regions. Protests forced Arkhangelsk to return to the negotiating table and the NAO’s autonomy remained mostly intact.

He’s a uniter

Arkhangelsk acting Governor Alexander Tsybulsky isn’t a nobody to the people of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Until just a few months ago, he was actually their governor — a position he held for almost 2.5 years. His name is nearly an obscenity in the area now, but Tsybulsky was actually quite popular during his time in office. 

An outsider appointed by Moscow, he was quick to promise residents that he wouldn’t resurrect efforts to merge with Arkhangelsk. Sources told Meduza that Tsybulsky won over the public and local politicians alike with highly publicized teardowns of bureaucratic inefficiency. One public sector worker told Meduza that he enjoyed an 80-percent approval rating by the time he got his new marching orders.

Today, Alexander Tsybulsky’s erstwhile supporters recall how his administration proposed — cynically, it now seems — 100 projects in December 2019 to be completed before 2029, in honor of the NAO’s centennial. Communist local assemblyman Mikhail Rain told Meduza that he believes Kremlin officials simply decided to burn Tsybulsky’s political capital on another go at unification. 

Alexander Tsybulsky during his time as NAO governor
Sergey Malgavko / TASS

Once again, however, Russia’s authorities are finding it hard to get their way in the NAO. Many of the organizations petitioning against unification are groups that are typically loyal to the authorities, such as the NAO Association of Rural Communities, the Association of the Nenets People, and a local veterans’ council. 

The NAO’s legislative session scheduled for June 10, when deputies are supposed to vote on whether or not to ask Vladimir Putin for a referendum, could prove decisive. Sources told Meduza that many United Russia deputies are considering withholding their support for the initiative, despite a visit earlier this month from the acting secretary of United Russia’s General Council, Andrey Turchak, who reportedly urged party members to support the merger.

History and Economics 101

In Arkhangelsk, the campaign to unify with the NAO has been mostly by the numbers, where local officials stage roundtables with supportive community activists. At these meetings, figures like local youth directors praise the territorial merger as something that’s “already happened” in practice. Meduza witnessed one roundtable participant describe the unification as “getting back to the region’s roots.”

When someone questioned the idea that shared history justifies unification today, Arkhangelsk Youth Policy Director Grigory Kovalev countered with economic logic, arguing that regional consolidation will make Arkhangelsk and the NAO more attractive when competing for major projects. 

Governor Tsybulsky leans hard on the economic justification for unification. He told Meduza that a merged territory would be less dependent on fluctuations in global prices thanks to a more diversified economy, where the NAO has oil and Arkhangelsk has major defense industries, pulp and paper mills, and diamond mining. Tsybulsky says the new Arctic federal subject would wield capabilities currently unknown in Russia, giving it greater leverage over Moscow. “With the creation of a new subject, I think we could very well approach the federal ministries and the country’s leadership to discuss a new financial and economic life for the new territory,” Tsybulsky told Meduza.

Arkhangelsk’s governor says this boosted clout would allow the region to pursue major projects, like building a port in the NAO on the Indiga River, to link it to Arkhangelsk’s cargo base, which is currently viewed as a competitor.

Speaking to Meduza, Tsybulsky repeatedly insisted that “emotional perceptions” are to blame for protests in the NAO against unification. He says worried bureaucrats have led the public to believe the merger will cause disaster and impoverishment, when in fact the NAO’s autonomy is the biggest obstacle to the region’s prosperity, he says. The bean counters have good reason to worry: Tsybulsky wants to lay off more than a few “senior officials” to reduce what he believes is waste.

Even Communist assemblyman Mikhail Rain agrees that the NAO spends too much money on its local bureaucracy, but he says the government could make cutbacks without firing anyone, for instance by reducing the 1.3 billion rubles ($18.3 million) spent annually on business trips. A former official in Arkhangelsk also warned Meduza that the mass dismissal of public servants in a remote locality with high state employment could be disruptive.

Tsybulsky says falling budget revenue threatens the region’s future development more than its social safety net. With a population of just 44,000 people, the region struggles to attract the outside resources needed to develop its economy, he says. Combining resources and power is unassailably rational, he argues. In a single breath, he both dismisses the significance of regional unification and stresses its necessity: “We have just one country and the administrative divisions within it are pretty tenuous. Administrative boundaries are managerial; they ensure that decisions maximize socio-economic benefits.”

Governor Tsybulsky also says voters in the NAO shouldn’t lose any sleep about potential fraud at the polls. The area is so small that everyone basically knows each other, which makes ballot falsification “impossible,” he says. 

The NAO’s administrative building — the only wooden regional administrative headquarters in all of Russia
Anton Parsukov / Shutterstock.com

“Another civilization”

Officials in Arkhangelsk and the NAO seem to have botched this latest attempt to unify the two regions. The authorities have offered mutually exclusive arguments, leading people to feel deceived, says one NAO United Russia member. In Arkhangelsk, officials defend the merger as a means of tapping the NAO’s oil wealth, whereas NAO constituents are told that their oil economy is no longer viable.

Meduza was unable to determine who spearheaded the merger, though multiple sources with ties to the Kremlin attributed the idea to Governor Tsybulsky, who supposedly needs a victory to distract from ongoing protests against a controversial landfill near Shiyes Station. Tsybulsky denies these allegations, saying he simply doesn’t want to miss a historic opportunity for the region’s development.

Despite that commitment to destiny, officials in both regions have already started walking back the unification. Both Arkhangelsk and the NAO canceled legislative hearings on the merger, and Arkhangelsk Working Group Chairman Vitaly Fortygin told Meduza that the June 10 legislative sessions to discuss appeals to the president will likely be postponed. Additionally, both governors Tsybulsky and Yuri Bezdudny now say talk of referendums is “premature,” and Bezdudny has even clarified that any merger will be purely economic without any political integration. 

Update: On May 28, 2020, the acting secretary of United Russia’s General Council, Andrey Turchak, reportedly apologized to governors Tsybulsky and Bezdudny for mismanaging the unification preparations and said no referendums on any merger would take place in 2020.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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