Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia Must Federalize or Face Disintegration, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, August 20 – The Russian Federation is “again showing the world its ‘special way,’” Vadim Shtepa says. It is a country which “despite its name” has prohibited “federal principles” or even the call for them, a situation which threatens that state with the same end that the Soviet Union came to.


            “Imagine,” the Russian federalist says, “that the US president suddenly eliminated direct elections of governors and the German chancellor declared that the resources of all the lander now will be controlled by Berlin bureaucrats.” That would be absurd and impossible in these federal states (


            But Russia under Putin has gone further than that. It is not enough that the Kremlin has refused to live up to the provisions of the country’s name and constitution. Instead, the Putin regime has decided that even calling for a discussion of this issue is something that needs to be suppressed, as happened on Sunday when it blocked the March for the Federalization of Siberia.


            Moscow’s effort to block the march, however, had exactly the opposite effect the authorities intended. What had been at most a local action attracted the attention of “global information agencies” and activists in Kalinigrad, Yekaterinburg, and Krasnodar came up with the idea of holding marches and meetings in support of the Siberians.


            The Siberian March thus took place, if not on the ground than in the information space, and thus provoked a number of “sharp and uncomfortable questions about the nature of contemporary Russian statehood.” The chief one is: “can one call a country a federation where civic actions on behalf of federalism generate such panic among the authorities?”


            The slogans that participants planned to carry were in no way outside the normal bounds of a federal state. They did raise one issue in a provocative way.  Organizers decided to see whether Moscow would be as welcoming of supporters of federalization inside Russia as it has been in Ukraine.


            In doing so, Shtepa says, they failed to take into consideration “the cardinal degeneration of Russian Federalism … from a principle of the internal development of the country into one involving external imperial expansion.” 


            According to Shtepa, this problem has arisen because of the way the 1992 Federal Treaty was drawn up, not among the subjects of the federation but between “the center” and “the provinces. Had Russia acted on the basis of the sovereignty declarations of 1990, it would have been in a better position to withstand the attacks against federalism by Yeltsin and Putin.


            “Today’s ‘power vertical’ has made ‘the preservation of territorial integrity’ an end in itself,” Shtepa says, using it to expand the country’s borders and to visit repression at home lest the country fall apart. But disintegration is not the normal course of development in federal systems.


            That has been forgotten as have discussions about modernization and development, all in the name of defending the country’s “territorial integrity.” Dmitry Medvedev has even banned the development of regional brands arguing that they are not something useful for tourism but the first steps toward “’regional separatism.’”


            The Russian authorities are seeking to secure the territorial integrity of the country with “archaic force methods,” obviously forgetting what those led to at the end of Soviet times.  Instead, fearful of the same outcomes, the current powers that be are using the same methods that did not work 25 years ago.


            A recent book on federalism in the late Soviet period, Steppa says, notes that “the leadership of the Baltic republics in 1988-1989 did not advance slogans more radical than republic economic control and an increase in the level of political self-administration. That is, they sought only the renewal of ‘Soviet federalism.’”


            But the Kremlin wouldn’t meet them part way, and “real economic and political self-administration of the republics was frozen.” In the end, Moscow sought to suppress even the powers these republics already had, something that “led only to the opposite effect – loyal federalist slogans were replaced by demands of unqualified independence.”


            “If the current Russian authorities do not want to make their country into a real federation,” Sheppa concludes, “they themselves are opening the way to a repetition of history…”


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