Staunton, Apr. 27 – Russians opposed to Putinism are nearly unanimous in believing that for Russia to become genuinely democratic, it must create genuine federalism, Grigory Golosov says. That is undoubtedly true, but most of those who support that idea fail to recognize the problems that must be addressed in the regions, focusing on Moscow alone.
Such people, the St. Petersburg political scientist says, think that if the center expands the autonomy of the regions and guarantees that in the constitution, everything necessary for a democratic federation will have been put in place. But that is not the case (holod.media/2023/04/26/federalizm/).
Instead, there is a great danger that if the problem is approached in that way alone, the regions will once again become seedbeds for a recrudescence of authoritarianism in Russia, just as was the case in the 1990s, leading to something like the “authoritarian” federalism that now exists in Russia in the case of Chechnya.
According to Golosov, “authoritarian tendencies began to emerge in Russia in the 1990s both at the federal center and in the regions. But in the regions, it may be that they were even stronger. Many elected governors effectively usurped power, eliminated all local opposition, and seemed intent on ruling forever.”
It is important to keep this in mind, the political scientist continues, because much of the support Putin received for his recentralization came from people who were angry about the destruction of democracy by regional leaders. “Many of them,” Golosov says, “saw gubernatorial arbitrariness as the greater evil.”
Since the 1990s, of course, a great deal has changed; and both federalism and democracy no longer exist. “All this must be corrected,” he says; adding that he is “certain that it will be corrected in the process of democratization.”
But “the realities of regional political life now ar such that in each of the regions there are now close-knit rulings groups which control all spheres of life and support local authoritarianism.” Their power is limited only by the occasional dispatch from the center of a new governor, although that individual, to be effective, must “find common ground” with them.
It is worth asking “what happens if the demand for ‘deep federalization’ is formulatd and implemented at an early stage to the transition to democracy? Will these ruling groups disappear on their own? Will they leave the country? Or will they arrange to win free elections if such are called?” There are few grounds for optimism about any of the answers.
“The degree of control these groups currently have over the region sis such that their de facto leaders will remain in power, if not personally than through their representatives. And thus a new authoritarian decentralization will become a political fact: do we really want that to be constitutionally guaranteed?”
The answer should and must be no, and that in turn means that “a return to federalism should be preceded by a fairly lengthy transition period during which the central government will retain serious powers regarding the regions.” Golosov suggests that the provisions of the 1993 constitution are fine in that regard, with the only change being a ban on an end to elections.
In a comment at the end of this essay, the St. Petersburg political scientist argues that it was “the lack of effective self-government that was one of the main causes for the lack of democratic government in Russia in the 1990s. But “this problem has nothing to do with federalism.”
“In reality,” he says, “it was the governors who enjoyed federal guarantees who played a rather significant role in reducing local self-government in Russia to its current miserable state.”