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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Case of Forgotten Identity

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The merger of the Evenkia and Taimyr ethnic autonomous regions with Krasnoyarsk is being billed as part of yet another plan to strengthen the power vertical, this time by reducing the number of regions. But what it does instead is dismantle the guarantees of ethnic autonomy established in the 1920s without replacing them with any other concept of ethnic identity or any national ideology at all.

During and after the Civil War, the Bolsheviks rallied ethnic elites to their cause by granting them limited autonomy in certain geographical areas. In the decades since these regions were established, the people living in them -- and especially those belonging to titular ethnic groups -- incorporated autonomous status into their sense of identity.

While the idea of an autonomous Sakha or Khakasia might not inspire many in Moscow, it is precious to many non-Russians in the regions. When a region is gobbled up by a bigger neighbor, these people may feel they have lost something intangible but significant. The government, furthermore, is offering nothing in its stead, except the promise that loyal elites will get political kickbacks and the stubborn conviction that the Russian Federation is a mono-cultural country at best, an old-school empire at worst.

The high turnout and high "yes" vote in Sunday's referendum should come as no surprise. Administrative resources were effectively marshaled, and in some reindeer herder villages, authorities managed to get every single eligible voter to the polls.

What will come next is another thing. After ignoring issues of ethnicity and identity and avoiding open debate and genuine elections, Moscow politicians and regional leaders will have a tough time managing an ideological bait-and-switch because they will not know what people actually think.

The Kremlin needs an ideology. Protecting the state for its own sake, despite what Kremlin chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev seems to think, is less than inspiring, particularly for those closed out of the Kremlin's privileged ranks.

The stated goal of the mergers is to turn an unwieldy 89 regions into a more manageable 35 to 40. The result is likely to be the disenfranchisement of local elites in favor of the Kremlin select. Some of the regions slated for eventual merger, in particular in the North Caucasus where non-Russians make up the majority, will demand far more political finesse than Evenkia and Taimyr. But the Kremlin has shown surprisingly little ideological astuteness during other recent attempts at major reform. The authorities do not seem to understand that sometimes only democracy and public debate, not centrally managed shows of power, can keep a country together.