MOSCOW – President Dmitri Medvedev hasn't enjoyed much success in efforts to reform Russia's top-heavy political system since he entered the Kremlin more than a year ago, but he might have better luck at tweaking the laws of nature.
Russians can't seem to stop buzzing about a seemingly oddball idea tossed out by Mr. Medvedev in his recent State of the Nation address, in which he suggested that major political and economic benefits could be achieved by slashing the number of time zones that delineate Russia's vast expanse from the current 11 to as few as four.
"It has been customary for Russians to take pride in the number of our time zones, which seem to us a vivid symbol of our country's greatness," Medvedev said. "But have we ever stopped to think seriously about whether dividing our country this way makes it harder to manage it effectively?.... We should examine the possibility of reducing the number of time zones."
The proposal has drawn praise from some, mainly government officials who view time differences as an obstacle to smooth administration. Others hoot with derision, including many scientists who say they can't see why a politician should try meddling with timekeeping.
"The Earth rotates and the sun rises and sets" according to astronomical laws, says Nikolai Kasimov, dean of the geography faculty at Moscow State University. "We've been living with this system for some time, and I haven't heard anyone complaining about it. There is no public movement demanding that time zones be changed."
Russia, the world's largest country, sprawls around nearly half the Earth's circumference. That strongly suggests that its gluttonous portion of time zones is deserved on geographical grounds.
"Our time zones respond to our needs," Mr. Kasimov says. "This isn't some kind of mechanical construction project; changes here could have lots of unforeseen social, economic, cultural, and biological consequences."
But supporters of the idea argue that Medvedev isn't trying to be a modern version of King Canute – the medieval English monarch who tried to command the waves to cease – but that he merely wants to streamline an unwieldy system.
They point out that while it might sound logical for the world to have 24 time zones, it actually has 40 of them, and the diversity is almost everywhere the result of political choices. China, for example, lived within five time zones before the Communists came to power but today the entire immense nation operates in just one bracket, known as Beijing time.
Russian advocates of time-zone reform make a similar case.
"It will prove far easier to manage the country once the number of time zones is cut," writes Gennady Lazarev, head of a working group at Vladivostok State University that authored the proposal Medvedev picked up. It advocates returning to the pre-1917 Russian setup of just four time zones for the entire country.
Mr. Lazarev argues that the time lag between Moscow and Russia's far-flung regions creates major bureaucratic difficulties that could be relieved if officials were functioning closer together in time. Reduced logistical and travel expenses, energy savings, and streamlined TV news operations are among the benefits he claims would flow if the number of daily working hours that regions have in common could be increased.
Many officials agree.
"It is extremely hard to get things done in Buryatia, due to the five-hour time difference with Moscow," Vyacheslav Nogovitsyn, head of the Siberian republic of Buryatia, told journalists last week. "You just can't coordinate decisions. When Moscow's working day is in full swing, we've already gone home for the day."
But political analysts say that changing time zones is a strange way to go about making the bureaucracy function better, even in a country where almost all local decisionmaking must pass through the national power center in Moscow.
"This is the sort of idea that comes into the mind of officials who want to strengthen government authority but not to tamper with the political system," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "It's a very technocratic approach."
Some scientists agree with Medvedev that time zones are not carved in stone, and say a few useful fixes might be introduced.
"We could optimize the system, but there needs to be a lot of careful thought given to any changes," says Arkady Tishkov, deputy director of the official Institute of Geography in Moscow. "A lot of things are affected by time changes, especially human health and natural rhythms. . .
"If you ask me, given all the unsolved problems in this country, I don't know why we're discussing time zones at all."