Monday, May 26, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Crimean Anschluss Undercuts Putin’s Promise of Common Legal Space in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 26 – Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the special arrangements it has made for it mean underscores the fact that the federal subjects of the Russian Federation are far from equal, a reality that undercuts Vladimir Putin’s pledge to create a common legal space in his country and one sure to set off new tensions between the and Moscow.

            In “Vedomosti” today, Kirill Yankov says that after Crimea, “it is time to stop acting as if Tambov oblast, Sevastopol and Chechnya are equal in status” and instead formalize the differences in these statuses by law (

            Yankov, an economist at the Moscow Center for Strategic Plans, says that Moscow had included Crimea and Sevastopol as to “subjects with a special status” that not even Tatarstan and Bashkortostan had in the 1990s, that this is no short-term affair, and that it is certain to spark tensions and discussions inside the Russian Federation.

            Unlike all the other federal subjects, the two new ones are intended to live “without Gazprom, without Rostelekom, without the Federal Network and other Russian monopolies.” In short, he says, “it turns out that one can govern without them,” something other federal subjects are certain to notice and want.

“If this is possible in Crimea, then why not in Sakha or Chechnya?” Yankov asks rhetorically.  “And if it is possible for a republic then why not for an oblast?”  That was the logic of the parade of sovereignties in the past and it has been against this logic that Vladimir Putin has fought to create a highly centralized state with a common legal space.

In Soviet times, the RSFSR was federal by name but not by content or form, the economist says.  Republics and national districts had some additional institutions, but they had no real powers. But in the 1990s, Russia developed in a unique way so that all the units became direct components of the country as defined by the constitution.

The oblasts and krays increased their powers, although “this did not please the elites of certain republics which wanted to have a higher status than the krays,” and that in turn set off a competition in which “the republics tried to seize as much power as they could” and then the krays and oblasts “rose up” in opposition.

As a result, all of them received additional rights, at least on paper.  “Formally all are equal but in fact certain ones are ‘more equal’ than the others.”

As a result of the annexation of Crimea, this “status quo” has been challenged. “In the state haveappeared two subjects of the Federation which are not equalto all of the others not only by content but by form.”  And that raises the question: “If this is possible in Simferopol, then why isn’t it in Kazan or Grozny?”        

Such questions – and they will be asked behind the scenes if not in public – introduce a serious “risk factor which will inevitably manifest itself at the first signs of instability.”  Indeed, Yankov suggests, such a system may not survives the transfer of power from Putin to a hand-picked successor let alone to “a more democratic form of the replacement of the leader.”

Consequently, unless the authorities are guided by the principle of “après moi, le deluge,” the economist continues, “the reform of Russian federative arrangements must be put on the agenda and become the subject of public discussion,” even if the Kremlin is the place where the decisions about it will ultimately be made.

Asymmetrical federalism is possible: it existed in a fashion in the Russian Empire in which Finland, Khiva and Bukhara had “completely separate legal systems,” and it exists elsewhere in the world today – Hong Kong and Macao, for example. And perhaps it can be formally restored in the Russian Federation.

“Of course,” Yankov says, “the most important and base principles of the state system and the most important rights and freedoms of citizens must not be subject to revision. But probably it is time to recognize that various parts of the state can tone or another extent live by various laws, if this promotes the development and unity of the country.”

The unspoken issue to which Yankov’s last sentence unintentionally but ineluctably attracts attention is this: if the component parts of the Russian Federation live according to different laws and rules, why should they not at the end of the day live in different countries altogether?

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