Friday, July 19, 2019

For Third Time, Possibility of Federalism in Russia ‘Caught Between Two Fires,’ Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 15 – For the third time since the collapse of tsarism, the possibility that Russia could move toward genuine federalism, a contract among its component parts that is the basis for a modern society in any large and diverse country, is currently “caught between two fires,” each of which opposes such an evolution, Vadim Shtepa says.

            The Russian regionalist argues that the idea of a contract state among territorial units was rejected in Russia by both tsarist and communist groups in 1917, by the old nomenklatura and the new “Russian democrats” in 1991, and by the Putinist state and the Russian democratic opposition now (

                The 1918 Constituent Assembly, which met for only one day before being closed down by the Bolsheviks, did manage to proclaim the Russian Democratic Federative Republic; but the Bolsheviks having dispersed it imposed a system which was “much more totalitarian” and much less federal in practice than even the tsarist empire. 

            (For those who find any reference to federalism in the tsarist past entirely inappropriate and thus view Bolshevism as far as federalism is concerned simply an extension of tsarist practice, see Georg von Rauch’s underappreciated book, Russland: Staatliche Einheit und Nationale Vielvalt (Munich, 1953).)

            “It is interesting,” Shtepa continues, “that in 1991, the situation to a certain extent repeated itself.” In opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for a confederal state, two otherwise opposed groups, the party nomenklatura, and “’the Russian democrats,’” aligned themselves against that possibility, the first via the putsch and the second by a whole series of actions.

            In March 1992, Boris Yeltsin did in fact proclaim “’a federative treaty,’” but in contrast to Gorbachev’s ideas, it was “limited to the territory of the Russian Federation,” but more than that it was federal only in name because of two features that ensured it would never become federal in fact.

            On the one hand, and in contrast to Gorbachev’s new union treaty, Yeltsin’s federative state was based not on an agreement among the subjects but rather on an agreement between them “with the Kremlin ‘center,’ which graciously shared with them certain particular authorities.”

“In fact,” as Shetpa observes, “this was not a federation but rather an agreement of the metropolitan center with its colonies.”

And on the other, Yeltsin’s federative state was not based on the equality of its components but rather offered the republics within the Russian Federation “essentially greater rights and authorities than the krays and oblasts.” That arrangement “undermined the federation from within by introducing national privileges which in reality made a treaty state impossible.”

“But even from such an internally contradictory agreement, the Kremlin soon turned away,” Shtepa continues.  “The 1993 Constitution in general abolished the treaty principle of statehood as such.  The republic declarations about sovereignty were no longer mentioned’ from now on the federation was considered to be something created ‘from the top down.’” 

That is where Putin’s “’power vertical’” had its origins.

For a time, it looked as if the Federation Council could become the seedbed of federalism in Russia because its members elected by the population and delegated to the center actively participated in the formation of state policy. Between 1996 and 2001, it “recalled a real Senate;” but that was too much for the Kremlin – and it has been reduced to a vestigial fifth wheel.

Today, of course, Shtepa says, no discussion about a treaty state is possible as long as there are no free regional elections, something the center is not willing to consider.  But even if one speaks about the possibility of federalism in the future, the idea is again caught “’between two fires.’” 

Genuine, contract-based federalism is equally unacceptable “both for the powers that be and for the ‘federal’ opposition.  That the authorities should think this way is no surprise, but that their views should be reflected with “mirror-like exactitude” by the opposition which views sometimes with regret to be sure federalism as inconsistent with the Russian tradition.

In almost all cases, the federal opposition doesn’t want federalism; it simply wants to be in charge of its own empire, replacing what they view as a bad tsar who opposes their agendas with a good one from among their own ranks.

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