Staunton, February 14 – Vladimir Putin’s obsession with the possible disintegration of the Russian Federation, an obsession that helps to explain his massive change of governors and his “de-federalization” of the country are making Kremlin policy reactive rather than pro-active and blocking any chance for progress, Vadim Shtepa says.
The Russian regionalist, now living in Estonia, says that Putin’s approach of naming outsiders to be heads of federation marks a return to the system of CPSU obkom secretaries that existed not at the very end of Soviet times but much earlier before centrifugal forces tore the USSR apart (forbes.ru/biznes/339037-pervye-sekretari-nesbyvsheysya-federacii).
There are two big differences from the system as it existed in the 1980s: Now, the governors the Kremlin appoints are representatives not of the CPSU but of United Russia; and now, unlike then but like earlier, those named to these posts are not people who have risen through the ranks in the region they’re to head but outsiders.
None of this has anything to do with real federalism but rather with its suppression, a system in which Moscow thinks it has found a way to make the regional officials completely loyal even though it will blame them for shortcomings but without giving them any powers to take the kind of decisions that might prevent them.
And this takes the form of “a growing contrast between ‘the federals’ and federalism as a political philosophy,” Shtepa continues, one generated he suggests by “the Kremlin’s historical trauma which up to now so painfully experiences the disintegration of the USSR” and its failure to understand the differences between the union republics and the autonomous republics then.
Putin and his associates view “one of the causes of this ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ in ‘the parade of sovereignties’ of the perestroika era,” but in fact, the behavior of the autonomous republics within the RSFSR was very different from that of the union republics. The former sought only to strengthen federalism not to exit from it.
But their progress in that direction in the 1990s was “stopped” after Putin came to office. He began appointing governors in 2004 and then banned the regional parties that opposed the loss of rights by the federal subjects. All this was based on the center’s fear of “separatism,” although “in developed countries, [regions] play on the contrary an integrating role.”
As a result, Shtepa continues, “the varied social and political life characteristic for subjects of other world federations was overthrown in Russia and these ‘subjects’ were converted into ‘objects’ of centralized administration” with few chances to experiment even in ways that would benefit the whole.
“If one judges by Russian news aggregators,” the regionalist says, “all significant events take place either in Moscow or sometimes in St. Petersburg and the remaining regions appear in the news tape only when there is a catastrophe, a crime or other negative developments.” And that means the regions can’t be regions in the usual sense.
Instead, if they remain obedient, they are simply cogs in a machine run from Moscow; if they don’t, they may end by wanting the kind of exit that Putin says he fears most of all. But if they make the latter choice, it will be at least in part because of what the Kremlin leader has done to their federal aspirations.