Thursday, February 18, 2016

Could Regional Legislatures Save Russia by Implementing ‘Instant Federalization’ After Putin?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Oleg Kashin suggests that in the event that Vladimir Putin’s power vertical begins to weaken, regional legislatures could take the lead in dismantling his system in a bloodless way because they reflect the interests of the population more accurately than do governors and the State Duma which Putin tightly controls.

            In a comment for Deutsche Welle, the independent Russian journalist says that the Putin regime has much in common with authoritarian regimes elsewhere such as Salazar’s in Portugal and Marco’s in the Philippines and thus is likely to have much in common with their end and replacement (

            But, Kashin argues, there is one “very important aspect” of Putin’s regime which sets it apart.  The genuine opposition has been thoroughly marginalized, the church and the army are completely integrated into the power vertical, and there is no effectively organized working class which might challenge the authorities in a serious way.

            Consequently, he says, one must search for “a source of a political alternative” by looking outside the ruling class. Some in the opposition like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Dmitry Gudkov have made comments which suggest that they recognize this reality, but they do not go far enough because they generally fail to look beyond the Moscow ring road, Kashin says.

            To be sure, he continues, “Russia is only formally a federation; in reality, one would have to search for a more centralized state.”  The country’s regions are controlled by the Kremlin especially at the level of governors where “the heavyweights” of the 1990s have been replaced by outsiders but not as tightly as the regime controls ministries and corporations in the capital.

            Many of the governors now keep their positions only by maintaining the closest ties with the Kremlin, Kashin says; and thus they are unlikely to be a source of change even after Putin is gone. But that doesn’t mean that there is no one in the regions who could play that role and whose possibilities are greater.

            Those are the members of the local legislative assemblies, which are made up almost exclusively of “local officials who represent local interests.” Indeed, Kashin says, “as a rule, the regional deputies are the old local elite, the chief doctors of hospitals, the rectors of universities, and the heads and owners of enterprises.”

            As long as the power vertical remains strong, they will be “loyal United Russia followers, forced to smile at and swear loyalty to the latest guest governor, but this is only when the vertical is strong.” But when it weakens, these regional legislators will revert to representing the local interests of the population.

            As a result, Kashin says, “the most reliable way out of any political crisis in Moscow would be instant federalization: if federal pressure disappears, real power will pass to the regions.” And while that wouldn’t be “as romantic as a popular revolution, it would have a greater chance to take place peacefully.”

            Kashin’s argument is important because he points to a group of political actors who are typically ignored by Russian analysts and politicians in Moscow and by students of Russia in the West. But there are three reasons for skepticism about the possibility he outlines.

            First, the Putin regime has already focused its attention and that of its representatives in the regions to the risks that opposition figures in the regional legislatures represent, purging some of them like Lev Shlosberg in Pskov or working to ensure that ever more reliable United Russian loyalists are in firm control as in Karelia.

            Second, while he is certainly right that members of these local assemblies do represent local interests, Kashin does not deal with the obvious problem that any revolutionary change is almost inevitably led by one or a small group of people.  Such assemblies are simply too large to be able to play that role, at least in most cases.

            And third, and most seriously, given Russian traditions, any efforts by regional officials to secure more rights and move toward genuine federalism will be presented by Putin’s successors just as they are by Putin himself as the first steps toward secession and disintegration and thus something that must be nipped in the bud.


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