Tuesday, August 31, 2021

‘A Real Federation Must have Only One Restriction – None of Its Parts Can Withdraw,’ Shevchenko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 30 – One of the biggest hurtles advocates of federalism in Russia have to overcome is the belief cultivated by the Kremlin on the basis of what happened in 1991 and widely believed by Russians that federalism is a halfway house to secession, that the USSR was a federation, and that its federal system opened the way to the disintegration of the country.

But at a roundtable discussion in Kazan, Maksim Shevchenko, a commentator who heads a party committed to federalism – the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice -- says that legally the USSR was not a federation but a confederation and that Moscow has never taken ethnicity seriously (business-gazeta.ru/article/520515).Most critically, he adds, “in a real federation, there must be only one clear prohibition: none of its component parts can leave.”

That is obviously good tactics politically – many Russians bridle at any political arrangement that would open the way to disintegration – but it is also important in principle: few federations grant their component parts the right to leave; and federalism with that as the only thing banned can make it possible to deal with the diversity of its components.

At the same time, of course, if Russia were to move in the direction of a real federation with that as the underlying rule, at least some parts of it would likely elect not to join; but those which did could be confident that they would be participating in a system which would be robust and which would be prepared to adapt to their needs rather than insist on uniformity.

And that in turn would mean something else that might matter even more. As Shevchenko points out, neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union took nationality seriously, the former rejected it as a principle and the latter largely ignored it after using it to reassemble the empire and build a launch pad for a hoped-for world revolution.

Instead, both defined themselves in economic terms, with the state exploiting the natural wealth and the economy to feed itself rather than to develop the peoples within its borders. Federalism in Shevhcenko’s understanding would break from that and make the ethnic communities, including Russian regions, the focus of political life.

As a result, the country would be protected against the hyper-centralization that has always plagued it up to now but would not face any threat of disintegration because decentralization would take place within a system from which the exit of any component part would be excluded.

            Other participants in this roundtable unanimously stressed that the strengthening of the regions will not lead to separatism but is instead a guard against it and that those who fear federalism need to recognize that “the fate of democracy in Russia is directly linked to federalism.” If there is no real federalism, there won’t be democracy.

            Two of the speakers made particularly noteworthy observations. Tatar historian Damir Iskhakov said that however difficult it may be to achieve, Russia has no choice but to move in the direction of asymmetrical federalism where some component parts have more powers than others.

            And Ruslan Kurbanov, a Lezgin orientalist, says that no one talking about federalism should ignore the way two larger forces are contesting with each other. On the one hand, populations want greater control of their lives. They are not like regional elites who are simply Moscow in miniature in many cases.

            And on the other, as the pandemic has made clear, any reorganization of Russia domestically must recognize that the larger world is changing and that individual countries must be alive to the way its parts are increasingly interconnected and must be capable of responding to changes beyond state borders.

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