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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soros: Strong Regions Good for Democracy

The future of Russia's fragile democracy depends on whether its regions manage to capture more power from Moscow, American financier and philanthropist George Soros said Tuesday.

"Russia is such a big country that I think it will become democratic only through decentralization," Soros said at a conference of educators.

Russia's rulers have for centuries kept a tight hold on the regions, but Moscow's power has faded with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the drying up of federal coffers.

"Power is really strong if it treats its citizens not as mute subordinates - our history is unfortunately full of that and it is still often the case - but as partners in solving common tasks," Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said at a meeting on regional government on Tuesday.

"And that is only possible if there are strong municipal organs, strong subjects of the federation," he said.

Just how much power the 89 regions, which span 11 time zones, should have remains a moot point, and some local authorities have considered steps that could tear the country of 147 million people apart.

Many regions ban exports to neighbors in order to hoard food while some have considered printing their own currency.

The Hungarian-born Soros, who turned philanthropist after earning billions on global financial markets, told Tuesday's conference that the regions should see Moscow's weakness as an opportunity to strengthen their own institutions.

Moscow and St Petersburg enjoyed a virtual monopoly on higher education in Soviet days, with some 80 percent of all universities and post-secondary schools, he said.

Now, students in the regions could no longer afford the trip to Moscow to pursue their studies.

"That may be a good thing if the capacity of the regional universities is built up," Soros said.

His Open Society Institute, with a $90 million budget for Russia this year, will devote about $20 million over three years to two new high school and university programs.

Soros, waxing philosophical, said the purpose of his philanthropy was to build nations in which individuals thought for themselves, and, it was hoped, came to similar conclusions about what they wanted - though he said that was not always possible.

But Soros said such thinking was crucial for Russia. Asked if totalitarianism threatened Russia today, he said: "If not today then tomorrow. I think that all 'irreversible' changes are reversible."