The issue of unification of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region has once again gotten into the agenda. Local residents are promised a unified transport system, solution of the problem of garbage, the equalizing of the tariffs and social discounts in the city and in the region, as well as many other advantages. However, the talk about unification began in 2008 but things are still where they started. So what is it – an eventual real-action plan or just another pre-election activity without any effective consequences?
This time, Valery Shinkarenko, head of the Leningrad Region branch of the Rodina party (or Motherland-National Patriotic Union), spoke about the necessity of merging these two regions together. He put forward this idea at a news conference held on January 23. Shinkarenko substantiated his opinion with three the arguments.
The first one is economic fairness. Many residents of towns in the Leningrad region work St. Petersburg pay taxes there. Therefore, the Leningrad region does not have enough money to build roads, hospitals and schools. At the same time, it is impossible to ask a richer neighboring city for money -- this is contrary to the budgetary code of Russia.
Secondly, it is social needs. Unification of the regions will make it possible to transfer a number of manufacturing plants and enterprises into the region and create new jobs there. This will reduce the number of people forced to commute daily between their towns and city, which is known as Russia’s northern capital. In addition, social payments and benefits will reach parity with St. Petersburg, all this will significantly improve the welfare of the residents of the Leningrad region.
Thirdly, it concerns the integrity issue. According to Shinkarenko, the Leningrad region runs a risk of falling apart, as some of its townships will sooner be incorporated in St. Petersburg, while the rest will be included in the neighboring regions -- Pskov, Novgorod, Vologda, as well as in the Republic of Karelia.
At the end of his speech, the leader of the Leningrad branch of Rodina announced the setting-up of the Unification Committee. The Committee is open to specialized professionals -- economists, lawyers, political scientists, and public activists.
However, many experts pass rather skeptical notes on this initiative and believe that it is nothing more than an attempt to get some limelight and capture the electorate’s attention. The topic of unification has been always popular with the grassroots and has caused heated discussions. Therefore, it is the easiest way to attract attention.
Social technologist Ekaterina Kolesnikova commented on the situation in an interview with wek.ru:
"Talk about a possible merging of the two regions has been on more than 10 years. In order to gain scores, politicians of the Leningrad region and our international partners, who are eager to break up the integrity of Russia, have been speculating on this topic from time to time.
“For example, in January, one of the local politicians made a statement that the Leningrad region "can only be saved by merging with St. Petersburg." He decided to start his election campaign (in September 2020, regular elections for the governor of the Leningrad Region are scheduled) this way.
Since the Leningrad region is doing well as regards the economy and investments, the statements of this kind are nothing more than a populist pitch. Moreover, in terms of many basic indicators the region is among Russia’s frontrunners. In other words, the need to "save" the Leningrad Region is out of the question.
Alexander Drozdenko. For integration, but against unification
Alexander Drozdenko, the current governor of the Leningrad region, took advantage of the situation and promptly addressed this powerful information attack. He said the merger of the two constituent entities of the Russian Federation was imminent but in the form of integration, not unification.
"When it comes to the interests of residents, we should not talk about the division of the Leningrad region or unification. It is just a shift of borders which will not bring any economic, social or political effect. We need to talk about other things. I am saying it with conviction that it is necessary to raise questions -- and this year I am going to offer to sign an agreement with St. Petersburg on full economic, social and transport integration," said Drozdenko.
Moreover, he also couldn't resist the pleasure of gibing at his political opponent:
"Let's ask a different question. Do we need just to change the map because we want to redraw the borders, or do we need to improve people’s living standards and to give these two constituent entities motivation for economic development? This is not about borders. This is about people. We have to think about people, but not about the borders or political hype."
Unlike those who are demanding to "save the region," Drozdenko believes that this will not be an improvement of the region, but cooperation on equal terms. In November, he said in an interview with the Novy Prospekt newspaper that the Leningrad region had caught up with St. Petersburg on many indicators. Therefore, it can even make lucrative proposals that will be definitely of interest for businesses and officials in the northern capital.
Drozdenko has several concrete projects that he expects to implement through integration: reconstruction and expansion of the Koltushш highway (the highway 41K-079 St. Petersburg - Koltushi), the Murino bypass near Piskarevka, an area to the north-east of St. Petersburg, the Murino junction with the ring road, and construction of a metro line to the town of Kudrovo. In addition, it is planned to unify the transport fee discounts in the city and the region and increase social benefits.
Ekaterina Kolesnikova comments on the situation:
"In fact, the integration plan is an improvement of the existing social system. The borders between the two regions have been always quite symbolic, and the residents of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region are one people. However, those who live in St. Petersburg still have more social guarantees, since our city has the status of a federal city. Drozdenko and governor of St. Petersburg Beglov understand that certainly, it is possible to redraw the borders on the maps but this action will not bring any benefits. Especially since no one wants to destroy the Leningrad region.
When discussing integration, it is important to remember about the maintenance of the existing political and governance systems. In the process of integration, all key positions are preserved along with established duties and tasks. With the unification of the regions, the system will be destroyed: the shift of “tectonic plates” will entail both a change of governors and an outburst of indignation among the residents, and, as a result, the derailing of all that has been achieved. In the current conditions of the notorious transit of power no one will think fit to do it. I emphasize that integration is not a political issue, but a social measure.
It should be noted that the integration promoted by Drozdenko is indeed an ideal scenario for him. On the one hand, it does not contradict general expectations and allows playing the pre-election card. On the other hand, it does not entail any risks for his position. After all, if two constituent entities of the Russian Federation were united, one administrative structure would have to be abolished, and this is clearly not in the cards for today’s officials.
Igor Baysha, a political technologist and head of the FullPublic agency for political and business communications, drew attention to the other side of the issue in his interview to wek.ru:
"The unification of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region will create a center of power will counterbalance the Moscow agglomeration. The need to balance Moscow's political influence has arisen quite a long time ago, but recently this influence has been drastically increasing and becoming more visible. Marat Khusnullin's appointment as first deputy prime minister in the new Russian government is a striking example of this. The establishment of an agglomeration on the territory of St. Petersburg will make it possible to demonopolize the position of Moscow not as a capital but as a region of the Russian Federation."
However, it is still difficult to say whether the newly unveiled plans to create a common space between St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region will result in anything. Chances are that after gathering the whole hype, the topic will again go into cold storage until the next elections.