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29 July 2015

Who is leading Russia towards disintegration?

Federalization as a vaccine for dissolution  

Politics by contradiction

Apart from other definitions, Russia’s ‘special way’ also lies in the fact that – unlike anywhere else in the world – there is a fear of ‘disintegration of the country’. Many decisions are taken precisely in line with the principle ‘by contradiction’ – not for the sake of modernization and development of the country, but in order to prevent its ‘disintegration’.

Of course, all states are concerned about maintaining their territorial integrity. However, in Russia, this maintenance in itself has become the purposeful essence of state policy. This is even reflected in the name of the ruling party – ‘United Russia’.

The historical trauma of Russian officials could be considered to be a reason for this state of affairs. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 is widely regarded amongst them as ‘the largest ever geopolitical catastrophe’. However, a paradox exists in that —back then, the majority of them, starting with Putin, were supporters of Russian reforms. But today, the conservative tendency has prevailed. Russia has become the legal successor of the USSR, and it has also become its successor in terms of its world view. That’s why officials have started to fear a similar demise.

Today, there seem to be no indications of that happening. There is not even a semblance of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (‘Rukh’) or Lithuanian ‘Sajudis’ of yesteryear in any of Russia’s regions. Chechnya, the only separatist exception of the 1990s, has now been successfully ‘compelled to make peace’ not so much through military force, as through colossal subsidies. However, in the field of domestic policy and propaganda, the idée fixe of ‘territorial integrity’ still remains the dominant state task prevailing over all others.

In 2000, Vladimir Putin became President under the slogans ‘the dictatorship of law’ and ‘the vertical of power’. This immediately led to rigid centralization and the unification of Russian legislation. In the summer of the same year, the Constitutional Court overturned all the declarations concerning republican sovereignty adopted by Russian autonomies in 1990-1991. Although they also had the status of laws, supporters of ‘dictatorship of law’ paid no heed to that.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Beslan in 2004, Putin announced the cancellation of elections of all the heads of the regions motivated by the need to wage ‘a unified war on terrorism’. Thus, under the pretext of this war, a de facto return to the Soviet model of state power has taken place, under which the ‘first secretaries’ of all the regions and republics were appointed by the Kremlin’s Politbureau. A year later, the then head of the presidential administration Dmitry Medvedev set out the main task of Russian politics: ‘preserving effective statehood within the existing borders’. And he emphasized: ‘All the remaining ideologies are secondary’.

Thus, maintaining territory as such has been declared the strategic goal of the state in itself. As history has taught, conservative-imperial logic inevitably loses, since there is no space for modern development in it. States which are concerned only with self-preservation cease to think about the future.

During his term in office, Mr Medvedev uttered many beautiful words about the necessity for the modernization of Russia. However, it turned out that he attached a very specific meaning to this process. For example, he urged ‘not to over promote regional brands’, as, in his opinion, this is fraught with the dangers of ‘separatism’.

On the contrary, any expert knows that developed and diverse brands of different cities and regions play and integrating role by encouraging inter-regional economic ties along with tourism. Regions of European countries actively and creatively promote their uniqueness today. Therefore, mutual interest develops among them. In Russia, for some reason, uniformity and the lack of identity of different regions are considered a guarantee of ‘unity’, which actually serves to bring about mutual estrangement in practice.

Unitarian logic makes the Russian authorities sense ‘separatism’ in any projects aimed at contemporary regional development. Since the early 2000s, the establishment of regional political parties has been banned in Russia. These parties could be elected as members of local parliaments and promote the interests of the areas they represent. In many European countries such parties operate legally – even in the unitary states of France, Italy and Poland. In Russia, this ban is clearly contrary to the constitutional principle of federalism. Therefore, all current regional parliaments are not centers of socio-political life in their respective regions or republics, yet merely diminished clones of the State Duma.

Incidentally, the State Duma adopted the law ‘On Fighting Separatism’ in 2013. It made even historical discussions or future projects risky, if they are found to contain ‘calls to undermine territorial integrity’. Instead of solving the country’s real and pressing problems, the Russian authorities have opted for an Orwellian clampdown on ‘thought crimes’. 

Opposites attract

Due to the success of official propaganda in Russia, a certain stereotype gained popularity: Russia can either be a centralized country with a ‘strong leader’, or be threatened by disintegration. In reality, these ‘opposites’ are logically intertwined. World history has given us a multitude of examples of authoritarian dictatorships which have crumbled, leading to social chaos and vice versa when mass anarchy has created demand for a ‘chieftain’.

Indeed, total centralization of power creates prerequisites for separatist sentiments in the regions. The history of the end of the USSR era is exemplary. In the beginning, the Baltic republics demanded economic independence. However, when the Kremlin refused, they demanded state independence. And after the attempts to crush civil unrest in Vilnius and Tbilisi using tanks, it became abundantly clear that this Union would not last long.

The well-known case of Kosovo followed a similar scenario. Until the late 1980s, this country was quite satisfied with its status as an autonomy within Serbia. The extent of the demands put forward by local politicians was to raise its status to that equal to a republic within the federal state of Yugoslavia. However, the chauvinist Milosevic who came to power in Belgrade, on the contrary, abolished the autonomous status of the country in 1989 and dissolved its parliament. This imperial politics led to the radicalization of the Kosovans; it was at this time that they started to demand full independence which they did ultimately obtain.

In today’s Russia, the country’s integrity is directly linked to the political regime and even to the activity of the highest official. The head of the Kremlin’s administration Vyacheslav Volodin asserts: ‘No Putin – no Russia’. Such a statement (no Obama – no America, no Merkel – no Germany, no Hollande – no France) would seem utterly absurd to a citizen of any modern country. However, this Russian identification may indeed lead to a situation in which the country ‘disappears’ along with the regime.

How to restore a federation?

Indeed, the federal system can provide integrity for such a vast and diverse country as Russia. However, despite the fact that federalism is stipulated in the Constitution, the real state model is much closer to the principles of unitary states and not federal ones.

The political and economic systems in Russia are highly centralized, which clearly contrasts with famous world federations – the USA and FRG, for example. The federal model implies large-scale inter-regional cooperation. In other words, it is characterized by ‘horizontal’ ties in a society and not the inherently valued ‘vertical of power’.

Many renowned political scientists are writing about the crisis of federalism in Russia. Recently, Vladislav Inozemtsev offered a detailed analysis of this issue, with a focus on the discernible economic disparities between the regions. However, without a doubt, this state of affairs has not emerged in recent years. The crisis of Russian federalism has spanned almost a century and is related to the fact that authorities of different eras opted to reinstate the model of imperial centralism.

In January 1918, the Constituent Assembly managed to proclaim the Russian Democratic Federative Republic. But it was immediately dispersed by the Bolsheviks. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the USSR also called themselves federations, but this name was purely putative and fictitious under the conditions of party dictatorship. A new hope to restore Russian federalism dawned again in March 1992 when the Federation Treaty was signed between the federal government and the regions. Alas, its historical fate, too, turned out to be sad - the statutory principle of federation as such was abolished in the Russian Constitution of the following year.

The annexation of Crimea brought about the phenomenon of imperial federalism – in the sense that it is not a model of internal development of the country and regional self-government but rather a tool for territorial expansion.

A return to federalism in its true sense is possible only in the case of the adoption of a new Federal Treaty in Russia which will hand back a multitude of political and economic powers, seized in the era of ‘the vertical of power’, to the regions. However, currently such a scenario seems unlikely as it is not entirely clear who shall be the subject of this treaty. Today, the regional authorities, mainly consisting of appointed governors, possess quite contestable legitimacy in the eyes of society. And this tendency has even been aggravated recently with elected mayors being replaced by ‘city-managers’.

Perhaps, today’s Russia is approaching its next historical dilemma. If it is not allowed to become a modern federation, it will progressively transform into an archaic empire – as usual, at enmity with the surrounding world and heading for inevitable disintegration. Furthermore, those who elucidate about their ‘patriotism’ most vociferously are the ones leading the country down this very path. 

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