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Plans to merge three Russian regions spark concerns, protests

Several thousand people gathered in central Moscow on July 29 on a second consecutive day of protest against the Russian government's plan to raise the retirement age. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Plans by Russia’s government to merge the northwestern region of Arkhangelsk, the Nenets Autonomous District, and the Republic of Komi, have sparked protest among residents who fear losing their ethnic identity.

Since leaders of the Arkhangelsk region and the Nenets Autonomous District signed a memorandum on merging their territories into one single administrative unit last week, protests have broken out in Naryan-Mar, the Nenets district capital.

On May 19, the working group on the merger announced a proposal to add the Republic of Komi to the territorial unit as well.

An online petition, which had been signed by almost 1,900 people as of midday on May 21, states that residents of the Nenets region “are categorically against this memorandum, hastily signed at a time when our country is in a difficult epidemiological situation and when its wide public discussion is absolutely impossible.”

Ethnic regions and republics in Russia are very sensitive to any changes of their status, fearing a loss of autonomy, which already has been weakened in recent years by Kremlin policies.

Viktor Uiba, the acting head of the Republic of Komi, said in a video statement late on May 20 that the plan was unacceptable.

“I am against such talks and such thoughtless actions. I believe that such an initiative must come from the people, the local population, and not imposed from above,” Uiba said, adding that the status of republic is much higher than that of just a region.

Some have said they fear a watering down of indigenous languages such as Uralic Komi, which has state-language status along with Russian in the Republic of Komi, a vast region that spans the Arctic circle and includes the frigid former Soviet prison-camp city of Vorkuta.

Yasavei, the association of the Nenets people, issued a statement on May 19 warning the merger would cause economic problems for the oil-rich territory and lead to a weakening of their native language, Nenets — which belongs to the Uralic language stem distantly related to Finish, Estonian, and Hungarian.

All of the Russian Federation’s ethnic republics, except Tatarstan, have changed the titles of their leaders from president to head in recent years, while regional parliaments have lost their independence in adopting laws and regulations.

The Kremlin’s decision to abolish mandatory local language classes at regional schools three years ago was rubber-stamped by a majority of regional parliaments despite protests by residents who fear their languages will fade away without the rules in place.