Anatoly Guzhvin, the governor of Astrakhan Oblast, thinks that federal authorities have shown little interest in the Caspian Sea since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the region, which borders the Caspian, has gone ahead and set its own strategic development course. Guzhvin, born in 1946, has been involved in the regions leadership for 20 years, making his way up from Soviet era district first secretary to governor. He is now in his second term as governor, and has received a number of state and government awards. He talked to TRJ about Astrakhan Oblast and its achievements.
The Russia Journal: You led the region in the Soviet era and then were elected governor for two terms in a row. What has the region achieved over recent years and how has it reached its successes?
Anatoly Guzhvin:Astrakhan Oblast today is one of Russias major industrial and cultural centers. To see how far the region has come, you need to keep in mind the times we have gone through and the state of society and the problems we have all encountered over these years.
What is most important is that the region has preserved and built on its economic potential. It was one of the first regions to exhibit industrial growth after the 1998 financial crisis and has maintained growth of 8 to 9 percent per year over recent years. Inter-ethnic strife, which could have been a real threat at various times, has not been permitted to develop and get out of control.
We have created a new economic infrastructure in the region and all the forecasts predict strong growth over the next five to seven years. The potential the region has today will stimulate economic and production growth. A stable middle class and local business community have emerged over recent years.
We do not have oligarchs in the region and have attempted to limit the presence of notorious figures in order to maintain an atmosphere of equal partnership. I think we very much need people who work in business and bring profits to the region, and we support such people and will continue to do so.
TRJ: It has been said that the Caucasus is Russias health resort region, and the Kuban is Russias breadbasket. What about Astrakhan Oblast?
A.G.:I would say that Astrakhan Oblast is both those things and much more.
The region has excellent sanatoriums, holiday homes, and camping sites and facilities. We are successfully implementing our tourism development program, and this is not surprising given that the region has vast resources such as mineral waters and curative mud. We receive around 200,000 tourists a year now.
We are one of Russias leading regions for fruit and vegetable harvests. Here, we are perhaps even ahead of, or at least aligned with, the Caucasus and Kuban. We do a lot to help resolve problems for budget-funded workers and people in the rural areas. We help sell agricultural products. The agribusiness sector is the regions economic backbone. We have large cooperatives and joint stock companies acting as agricultural product suppliers to federal and regional state funds. They supply 80 percent of our vegetables, practically all rice, 98 percent of milk, 97 percent of meat, and 100 percent of eggs.
Do not forget also that Astrakhan Oblast is Russias major post in the south, on the Caspian and Volga. Our region is at the crux of the countrys strategic interests. Almost all kinds of transport are present here railways, roads, sea and river transport, air transport, electrical and pipeline systems. Astrakhan Oblast has gained importance as a major transport hub in the southern part of the country as trade has increased with the Caspian region countries, the Middle East and the Central Asian countries. The federal government has decided to establish a state border control point in the Astrakhan sea port.
We are successfully developing the sectors that bring in budget revenue in the region hydrocarbons, shipbuilding, ship repair and machine building. Shipbuilding and ship repair are an important part of the machine-building and metal processing sectors in the region, with demand coming mostly from the fishing and oil and gas industries. We also have companies producing machines for metal pressing, cutting, pumping and drilling technology, painting and plumbing equipment, compressors for refrigerators and platforms for underwater oil production. Oil and gas exploration in the Astrakhan region is one of the main areas of operation in the fuel and energy sector.
TRJ: What is the situation in the social sphere?
A.G.:Almost the entire region, including remote areas, is now connected to the gas supply. Just six or seven years ago, only 20 percent of the region had gas, while this figure is now 72 percent. If we carry out the agreements we reached with Gazprom, the entire region should be connected to the gas supply by 2006. We are also moving ahead in terms of communications, road construction and improving the quality of drinking water.
Unfortunately, the average wage in the public sector is only 3,500 rubles. Of course, the people who work for large multinational companies and in shipping and shipbuilding earn more, but these are top-class specialists. Public sector workers wages were not indexed for a long time and are low. This is a problem throughout the country, and I do not think we can separate the regions social problems from those that affect the country as a whole.
You cannot take a school in Moscow or a major city and forget about ordinary district schools. There have to be national parameters set for wages and conditions in place for the regional authorities to be able to pay these wages and keep them at a decent level for everyone working for the state, be they doctors, teachers or civil servants.
TRJ: For many people, Astrakhan is above all associated with caviar and sturgeons. There has been a lot of talk about poaching of late. How is the fight against poaching going?
A.G.:This is a problem not just for Astrakhan but for the entire country. We in Astrakhan were the first to really turn to our attention to it and constantly remind Moscow of these issues. The federal authorities were paying less attention to the Caspian Sea and the Volga-Caspian Basin over the last decade. But fortunately, we have caught the attention of the countrys leadership and of President Vladimir Putin over the last two years and efforts to combat poaching have now intensified.
One of the most important steps in this fight was definitely the decision to unite the efforts of the Federal Border Guards Service, the State Fisheries Committee and the Interior Ministry and create a single coordinating organization. You could say that we have now had a breakthrough in our fight against poachers. If we continue these efforts, we will be able to rebuild the kind of effective system we had to protect biological resources from poaching 10 to 15 years ago.
I think, though, that we urgently need to pass a national law on sturgeons and fishing in the Caspian Basin. This is a very particular region, and so it needs specific laws to protect it. We think, for one, that the state monopoly on catching and selling sturgeons should be restored.
All poaching started after the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing down with it a unified fisheries protection organization that had its branches in the Caspian regions of Astrakhan Oblast, Dagestan, Kalmykia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Just look at how well-equipped the poachers are today. They use powerful engines and satellite communications. Poaching today is not about ordinary people just trying to get their crust of bread, it is a well-organized criminal business that turns large profits.
TRJ: How large a problem is corruption in the region?
A.G.:What exactly is corruption? Where is the definition? Where is the law? Why is there no law on corruption in a country where, as you suggest, corruption is such a problem? Who is stopping such a law from being passed? Before we start talking about corruption, we first need legislation so that people will know that they could, say, lose their job if they take bribes, or that they could lose the right to work in state agencies for a certain time or even spend some time in prison.
So long as there is no such law, corruption is just a word. Where does corruption begin? Is it a bottle of vodka, a jar of caviar, or $10,000? Yes, there is corruption, and we have it here too. But rather than talking about corruption, lets start thinking about what we need to do to eradicate it.
TRJ: What is the budget revenue and tax collection situation like in the region? You supported abolishing the Federal Tax Police. Do you think they did more harm than good?
A.G.:I think the country has already left behind that period when dodging taxes was cool and the more you did it, the cooler you were. More and more businesspeople are now bringing their businesses into the open and work legally, as long as they get some guarantees that inspectors will not trouble them as much as in the past. We need to create an environment in which businesspeople are not having their time taken up with constant inspections that are sometimes not even authorized at all.
This practice, incidentally, has been one of the largest sources of corruption. Even if they found no problems, the inspectors would always leave with some sausage, a bottle of vodka, or pot of caviar. That is why it was a good idea to liquidate the tax police.
Otherwise, what we end up with is a situation where the state decreases the pressure on businesses, while at the same time increasing the number of inspection organizations. The state is following a justified policy of reducing the tax burden, but if it and business have chosen to follow this path then the state should inspect less and learn to have more trust in businesses that pay their taxes and observe the laws.
TRJ: What success have you had at protecting businesses from the arbitrariness of state officials? What is your recipe as governor?
A.G.:In order to reduce the flood of unauthorized inspections, I ordered all companies in the region to start keeping a log of inspections. This was a legal measure, though it was protested by some. Now there are more protests. Each entrepreneur now keeps this log, set out in the approved way, and notes who, when and with what aim inspected the company or its facilities. When inspectors come, the entrepreneurs explain to them that in accordance with the governors order, the company has to note the name of the inspecting agency, the reason for the inspection and also the name of the inspector. The number of inspections fell by half after this logbook was introduced.
TRJ: What do you think about the increasing influence the federal authorities have in the regions?
A.G.:I think that the only explanation for the growing apparatus in the presidents regional representative offices is that the federal government is generous towards some and forgetful of others, namely, old people and other low income groups in the regions. We used to distribute the money from the budget for these people ourselves, but now the representative office does it, and there is less money to go round.
I think that the presidents representative office definitely does have its role to play in coordinating work in the regions and ensuring a sound personnel policy, but I do not think it is right for it to attempt to manage the regions internal affairs. Each region has its own development strategy and the state should not meddle in this process but should encourage it, including business development. But I must say that I have good working relations with Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential representative in the Southern Federal District, and we manage to deal with the problems that come up quickly and effectively.
TRJ: What is the situation with inter-ethnic conflict in your region?
A.G.:I cannot recall any such conflicts in our region. Of course, people here do have some concerns about the growing number of people coming in from other countries, but there have not been any conflicts. Certainly, there are cases of fights breaking out, but these are more likely caused by alcohol or rivalry over a girl. I do not see how we could possibly restrict peoples movement around the country, and in any case, the Constitution prohibits it. I am completely opposed to talking along the lines of "the darkies are taking over the whole country." We are open to anyone who comes to us in a spirit of peace and friendship.
Our region today has more than 150 different nationalities. Out of our population of 1 million people, we have 120,000 Kazakhs, 85,000 Astrakhan Tatars, and 80,000 people from the Caucasus. We have ethnic and cultural community groups operating, and they pursue a sound policy and do a lot of responsible work. They do a lot to ensure that people obey the laws and moral codes of behavior. I meet with their representatives twice a year, they tell me about their needs, and we resolve problems together. Astrakhan television broadcasts in three languages the languages of the three main ethnic groups here.
We now celebrate the holidays of the different ethnic groups as holidays for the entire region. Many people opposed this at first, but they are gradually coming to realize that we live in a multiethnic country and it is better to prevent problems from arising rather than trying to deal with them later. We do not have a registration system of the kind that exists in Moscow. I think that it is a violation of human and constitutional rights. It is not just wrong to grab someone for having dark skin or a long moustache and deport them, it is immoral.