Staunton, May 5 – The federalism which Russia began to put in place in the 1990s was “sacrificed first of all to the task of strengthening the position of President [Vladimir Putin] and second to the implementation of his understanding of federalism as nothing more than a framework for the technocratic implementation of the center’s decisions,” Irina Busygina says.
Such an approach, the regional specialist at St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics says, “in principle does not view the regions as partners of the center with which the center must reach agreements.” And as a result, Russia now lacks the most important quality of federalism: “the interweaving of mutual dependencies” between the central government and the regions.
That means of course, Busygina says, that “reforms can be made quickly and with negotiations or agreements. It is possible to do almost everything; but this freedom in no way leads us toward genuine federalism,” rather in exactly the opposite direction (afterempire.info/2018/05/05/ru-federalism/).
Federalism requires mutuality, with the center, on the one hand, and the regions and republics, on the other, recognizing the rights and powers of each, sharing some but also having their own which the other accepts, the scholar says. Achieving that is hard and a continuing process, and thus requires continuing adjustments, flexibility, and reform.
“In 1993,” Busygina says, “Russia made a constitutional, that is, strategic choice in favor of a federation,” a reflection of a specific congeries of circumstances including “the weakness of the national center” and “the increasingly chaotic nature of decentralization.” Many felt Russia was on its way toward the kind of disintegration that tore the USSR apart.
Because of that prospect, Boris Yeltsin organized the signing of agreements with the regions “which to a certain extent could guarantee their loyalty” as well as a federative treaty which was signed in March 1992.
At that time, “in fact, federalism in Russia was ‘a choice without a choice,’ and discussions among the elite groups were not about the choice between a federal Russia and a unitary one but about the model of federalism most ‘suitable’ for Russia,” on that would “in particular” include the preservation of ethnic regions, the republics.
These discussions were cut short by the October 1993 clash between Yeltsin and the Russian Supreme Soviet, after which time Yeltsin had to “adopt a constitution as quickly as possible” to enshrine the complicated and even internally inconsistent situation in the country in its basic law.
Not surprisingly given the situation out of which it emerged, Buzygina says, “federalism in Russia quite quickly became the object of serious criticism from both practical workers and experts. But was what criticized was not the choice of the federative model but more often its incorrect interpretation.”
That is because, she says, “federalism ‘Yeltsin-style’ really developed under conditions of growing pressure of the regions on the center’ and the weak center with an unpopular president was not in a position to stand up to this pressure.” That is how things continued until Vladimir Putin came to power.
“With Putin, the situation was changed in a radical way: the federal center sharply increased its positions, and at that moment arose, at least theoretically, a window of opportunity for reforms which could have led the relations of the center and the regions into a situation described by the slogan, ‘a strong center and strong regions.’” That is, to real federalism.
Instead, however, “Putin proceeded along the path of destroying the federalism of the 1990s” because he wanted to remove from the ruling coalition regional elites “by the sharp reduction of the level of their political autonomy.” That strengthened his hand, strengthened Moscow, and reduced the status of the regions and republics.
When he first ran for president, Putin signaled what he intended: according to him “super-centralization is part of the genetic code of Russia” and reflects “its traditions and the mentality of the population.” Very quickly, he began to act on that: introducing federal districts and ultimately giving himself the power to name governors rather than allow them to be elected.
These actions, Buzygina continues, as many experts have pointed out, “transformed the governors from independent politicians into bureaucrats completely dependent on Moscow’s disposition.” Putin’s subsequent actions, she says, only pushed this process even further.
Among them were his program of regional amalgamation, perhaps justifiable to eliminate the matryoshka autonomous districts but undertaken in ways that reflected not negotiations between the center and the regions but the imposition by fiat of the Kremlin’s decisions. Significantly, this system stalled in the face of more economically well-off non-Russian areas.
Now, the question arises: how much further will Putin go in the direction of a completely unitary state? Will he abolish the non-Russian republics and reduce the territories outside of Moscow to little more than branch offices of the center? Or will he, however much he wants to take those steps, be forced once again to go slow lest he provoke massive resistance?