Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Russian Federalism Under Attack Not Only from Above but from Below, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 27 – Vladimir Putin’s efforts to destroy the remaining elements of federalism in Russia via “preventive democracy” in his de facto appointment of governors and his attacks on the rights of non-Russian republics to maintain their own languages through a requirement that pupils there study them in schools are well known.

            Indeed, Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the After Empire portal and perhaps the most prominent Russian federalist active today, has taken the lead in describing these processes. (See his essay on the subject at and

            But in a new essay, the federalist writer says that federalism in Russia is under attack not only from above but also from below, a development that has attracted far less attention but one that is especially serious because it makes the triumph of Putin’s centralist and unitary views all that more likely (

            Remarkably this attack has emerged most prominently in Tataarstan, the republic which for many years “considered itself to be in a privileged position in comparison with other republics in Russia” and which between 2002 and 2012 issued the Kazansky federalist, an academic journal devoted to federal issues (
            But in the last year, Kazan has suffered two key defeats: Moscow refused to extend the power-sharing treaty that had defined relations between Moscow and the republic and it has successfully stripped Tatarstan of the right to require all pupils in its school to study Tatar as the state language of Tatarstan. 

            Many Tatars are outraged and ready to do what they can to fight back, but others are adopting approaches that eviscerate what is left of federalism for Tatarstan and the other republics and at the very least represent a retreat from the positions that were regularly espoused by Kazansky federalist and the republic leadership in the past.

            This conflict broke out in earnest at a roundtable in Kazan earlier this month nominally devoted to the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution but in fact about the fate of federalism and centralism in Russia now (, and

            Shtepa says that far too many of the participants in this meeting reduced federalism to an ethnic question by insisting as Indus Tagirov did that “federalism secures the rights of nationalities,” even though federalism as a system exists not in the first instance to do that but rather to keep power closer to the people.

            That reflects the heritage of Soviet times when the RSFSR was “initially formed as an asymmetric federation in which national republics had more rights and authority than ‘ordinary’ oblasts.”  That notion remains in place but it has not ensured that federalism as constitutionally protected power sharing does.

            The meeting ended by calling for the convention of “a democratic congress of the peoples of Russia,” an idea that at first glance may seem a good one but that has nothing to do with promoting federalism because there is no clear definition of how delegates to such a meeting would be selected.

                And that was followed by a suggestion from Rafael Khakimov, the director of the Kazan Institute of History, a prominent federalist in the past, and an advisor to former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev, that Tatars should organize “an all-Russian Tatar Party” (

            That too sounds fine but there are two problems with it, Shtepa continues. On the one hand, Russian law makes such a party illegal from the outset; and on the other, it has nothing to do with federalism but rather seeks to maintain a privileged position for non-Russians in a system that looks less like federalism than centralism with native reservations.

            “As a result, the strange impression arises that the liquidation of Russian federalism is taking place ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ at one and the same time.  The Kremlin is openly transforming Russia into a unitary centralized stage in which ‘the federation’ remains only on paper.”

            And simultaneously, “Tatar scholars and activists are ready to defend the federation only if it secures ‘special status’ for the national republics and not more rights for all regions,” a position that allows Moscow to play the one against the other and thus succeed in reducing the rights of both.

            Despite this unfortunate trend, Shtepa says, “it is impossible to destroy the idea of federalism in Russia; and sometimes it returns in an unexpected way.” A recent example of this was the Fourth Forum of Free Russia in Vilnius earlier this month which unlike its predecessors made federalism a major focus of the deliberations of Russian democratic activists.

                That meeting’s talk about “de-imperialization and federalization” may “seem somewhat fantastic and far from reality” as Russians prepare to re-elect Vladimir Putin.  But it helps break the assumption that many have that “the current status quo” in Russia is “’eternal’” and not subject to radical change. 

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