Staunton, October 5 – Russian opposition leaders are as opposed as the Kremlin to genuine federalism in Russia, with both the one and the other viewing a federal systemas a threat to the territorial integrity of the state. But in fact, Irina Pavlova argues, federalism is the only long-term protection the country has against disintegration.
In an essay on Rufabula.com, Pavlova, one of the most thoughtful commentators on Russian politics, notes that at present, all conversations about the future of Russia take place “within a single paradigm, a vision of Russia as a unitary state” with renewed ties to its neighbors (rufabula.com/articles/2013/08/28/federation-as-survival).
That is the way “not only the supporters of the present-day power think but also how its opponents do,” Pavlova says. She notes that many in the ruling United Russia part want the non-Russian elites to give up their ethno-territorial autonomy despite what the Russian Constitution provides for (grani.ru/opinion/m.187367.html).
And she cites the words of Konstantin Remchukov, the editor of “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” who argues that “it seems to me that without the adoption by referendum of a new Constitution, which transforms Russia into a unitary state, in the long-term or even medium-term, it will be difficult to preserve the unity of the country” (ng.ru/politics/2008-09-05/2_pandorrasbox.html?mthree=1).
“One can talk as much as one likes,” Pavlova says, “about the need for honest competitive elections, an independent court system, free television, the rooting out of corruption,, and even the election of governors, but in the traditional frameworks of a Russian unitary state, they all will remain only a fiction.”
The alternative to the current hyper-centralism is “a rejection of great power chauvinism and the reformation of the country according to the federalist principle of national-state construction with all the consequences for domestic and foreign policy such changes would entail.”
Such a process should begin with an insistence that Russia live up to the federalist ideas enshrined in its constitution, that the power of the central government be defined and thus limited, that governors should be elected, that the regions should have independent taxation powers, and that entrepreneurialism and private property should be respected.
A federalist agenda, she continues, “does not mean a call for the disintegration of the country. Just the reverse: the realization of this principle presupposes the presence of a strong center to which the regions will delegate authority for the representation of their interests in the international arena and the definition of the basic directions of the development of the country.”
If it were pursued, that would “immediately change the occupation nature of Russian statehood” and open the way for the country to become truly great by combining the interests of the people and those of the state into a sustainable unity.
This transformation could have been affected in 1991, but that “historic chance was missed,” Pavlova says, adding that she does not share the optimistic assessment of what Boris Yeltsin and his entourage wanted to do that has been offered most recently by Russian regionalist Aleksey Shiropayev (rufabula.com/articles/2013/08/14/regionalization-and-identity).
Unfortunately, she continues, the prospects for Russia to move toward federalism are now far dimmer given the centralizing approach of Vladimir Putin and his regime and the fact that even his opponents share his Moscow-centric approach and his opposition to any devolution of power to the republics and regions.
Yet another factor that makes a transition to federalism so difficult in Russia is that there has been only a single serious public debate about federalism. That took place in 1922-23 and ended with the defeat of those who backed federalism and the victory of Stalin who was committed to centralization above all else.
In many ways, Pavlova says, “if as a result of the October turnover of power was made the first step toward Asia (instead of a step toward Europe), then the next step was made by the creation of the USSR. Having a single Central Committee, a single Politburo, a unified GPU, local leaders appointed by the center, directed by secret decrees from Moscow, the party hierarchy was able without any obstacles to carry out [Stalin’s] policy of strengthening and making more harsh a dictatorship of an Asiatic type.”
As a result, when the USSR was formed by a union treaty on December 30, 1922, a mine was laid under the entire system that finally blew up in1991. And it is that history, one that ignores the alternatives laid out by Stalin’s opponents in 1922-23, that shapes the views of both the Kremlin and its opponents today.
“Today,” Pavlova concludes, “the question of the federalist future of Russia is already the question of the survival of its national identity.” Will great power chauvinism continue to shape Russian politics and lead to “the final degradation” of the country, or will Russia, by transforming itself into a genuinely federal state, have the better future its peoples deserve?