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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 East Siberian Regions Agree to Merge in a Landslide Vote

Voters in two Siberian provinces overwhelmingly approved a merger that is part of an effort by the Kremlin to consolidate control over the vast nation, electoral authorities said Monday.

Nearly 90 percent of voters in the Irkutsk region and just under 98 percent in the much smaller Ust-Ordinsky Buryatsky autonomous district supported reunification of the two administrative areas in a referendum Sunday, the election commission in Irkutsk said on its web site, citing preliminary figures.

The autonomous district, with a population of 134,000 -- more than one-third of them ethnic Buryats -- was part of the sprawling Irkutsk region, with 2.5 million people, until 1993.

Opponents of the Irkutsk merger said that it would weaken the ethnic and cultural identity of Buryats in the region, and that criticism was quashed by the authorities.

The Irkutsk merger plan needed the backing of a majority of voters in both regions. Turnout was about 69 percent in the Irkutsk region and more than 99 percent in Ust-Ordinsky Buryatsky, the election commission said. The merger is to take effect Jan. 1, 2008.

Sunday's referendum was the fourth of its kind, all involving large provinces swallowing smaller regions with high concentrations of indigenous groups.

The Ural Mountains' Perm region merged with the neighboring Komi-Permyak autonomous district after a 2003 referendum, and last year regional plebiscites endorsed the reunification of the Krasnoyarsk region with the Evenkia and Taimyr autonomous districts in Siberia and the Far East region of Kamchatka's merger with the Koryak autonomous district. Russia had 89 regions before the mergers began.