Staunton, April 2 – The demonstrations in 100 Russian cities last Sunday “are making the theme of federalism important again,” Vadim Shtepa says, because their participants spoke out against not only “’all-Russian’” corruption but also “local corrupt figures” as well, even if their overall leader Aleksey Navalny remains as Moscow-centric as Vladimir Putin.
That protests occurred so many places and raised so many different issues, the Russian regionalist says, “will inevitably force politicians to consider all the federative multiplicity of Russia and to search for new agreed-upon solutions for future government arrangements” (spektr.press/igra-v-federaciyu-mozhet-li-navalnyj-izmenit-ustrojstvo-rossii/).
Shtepa, who now lives in Estonian exile where he edits the AfterEmpire portal, posted his essay on Friday, the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Russian Federative Treaty in 1992, a document that “nominally” made Russia a federation but that was so centralist in its implications that two republics, Tatarstan and Chechnya refused to sign.
He then surveys the gutting of even the limited rights of the regions and republics and argues that it is now possible to “classify the present state system of Russia as “’post-federalism,’” that is, “nominally the country continues to be called a federation but in reality, it is a much more unitary state than, for example, Ukraine.”
Nearly all backers of the Putin regime and many of its opponents believe that allowing the federal subjects to have more power would only lead to a recrudescence of the regional barons who ran things in the 1990s. But the solution to that shortcoming in the nominally federal system was and is not less federalism but more.
Regional legislatures need to be strengthened rather than reduced to the status of appendages of the heads of the federal subjects, and regional parties, which exist throughout Europe but which are banned in Putin’s Russia, need to be encouraged to compete and serve as a check on the governors.
Unfortunately, Shtepa continues, “today in Russia it is difficult to struggle for the rights of regions and real federalism,” given “the criminalization” not only of political actions “but even academic discussions” on these subjects as somehow inevitably involving threats to “the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,” as the 2014 law puts it.
But there is an even larger problem for the future of federalism in Russia, he argues. “This theme is not too popular even among the Russian opposition which also on many points thinks in an extremely centralist manner,” even though a new federal treaty “could become a decisive instrument for overcoming the Kremlin’s neo-imperial policy and propaganda.”
Aleksey Navalny, despite his success in organizing demonstrations across the country, has routinely shown his lack of understanding not only of Russia’s diversity but of the reasons why a democratic Russia requires a new birth of federalism. Earlier this month, for example, he denounced the idea of a new sovereign Urals Republic as “something extreme.”
And he has repeatedly said that he wants taxes and earnings to flow from the regions to Moscow and then be redistributed there rather than allowing more of these funds to remain in the federal subjects which produce them. His ideas on federal arrangements, Shtepa concludes, involve “only a certain financial and tax decentralization,” not real power for the regions.
In the words of Artur Khaziyev, the leader of the European Tatarstan movement, “Navalny like many other Moscow politicians doesn’t have an understanding of what federalism is. Federalism is a union of subjects which delegate authority to the federal center and not one in which the center delegates something to the subjects” (idelreal.org/a/28352660.html).