Thursday, July 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Federalism Could Return to Russia with a Vengeance, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 8 – Andrey Zakharov, editor of “Neprikosnovenny zapas” and one of Russia’s most prominent specialists on federal systems, argues that Russian federalism is “a ‘sleeping’ institution” that could re-awaken as Soviet federalism did in the 1980s and potentially drive political change in Russia in much the same way its predecessor did.
In a length essay in the current issue of “Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye,” Zakharov, who has written two highly regarded books on federalism in Russia, argues that federal arrangements there however much ignored or even gutted by Moscow now, nonetheless continue to inform Russian politics (
Over the last decade, Zakharov writes, “Russian federalism has remained a ‘sleeping’ institution,’” on that neither politicians nor scholars talk much about. Some legal specialists do because it remains part of the constitutional system, but political scientists generally have ignored the implications of that reality, despite Soviet and international experience.
Indeed, the Moscow scholar continues, “the example of Soviet federalism” is especially instructive because it existed “in a latent form” up to a certain point in time “and then suddenly emerged out from under the control of people who had stimulated its reawakening,” leading to the demise of the USSR.
In today’s Russia, he notes, there are some curious parallels with the Soviet past: “on paper, that is in the constitution and other legal acts,” federalism is very much part of the country’s political system, “but at the same time, in political practice, at least in the last ten years,” it has been absent,” allowing one to call Russia “a federation without federalism.’”
Moreover, Zakharov points out, “the consistent ignoring of federalist approaches and methods by the leadership of the country has not been accompanied by what would seem to be the natural striving to eliminate federalism from the legal sphere by revising the constitutional bases of Russian statehood.”
And that divergence, he suggests, leaves federalism in a “’gray’ zone” in which its “legal foundations “permit considering it more alive than dead” and suggests that “under certain definite conditions, this institution will revive,” possibly in dramatic ways that those who are currently ignoring it do not suspect.
The future of federalism in Russia, Zakharov says, is “intertwined in the closest way with the prospects for political competition,” given that federal politics is “a space of uninterrupted trade involving capital and local elites,” something that is lacking in contemporary Russia given the absence of elected leaders in the regions but could re-emerge.
“The artificial fusion of elites” and the destruction of the manifestation of the variety of their interests have “radically devalued the principles of federalism” in Russia, Zakharov says. But that situation could change, he continues, with “the fall of world prices for energy,” a possibility that he says it is entirely reasonable to expect.
If that occurred and if Russian federalism was thus revived, the heads of the subjects of the federation would be people who would not understand nearly as well as their predecessors what “democratic legitimacy” entails. Indeed, they would be in many cases like their Soviet predecessors of three decades ago.
And consequently, “having suddenly landed in a situation with it would be possible and necessary to trade and argue with the former Kremlin bosses, they would inevitably approach that trade as a bureaucratic, elite and closed action,” rather than as part of an open and responsive political system.
Such an “executive” federalism, as Canadian researcher Ronald Watson has pointed out, might lead either to “a continuing conference” of the heads of regions as a kind of “closed club” in which the various officials would resolve disputes. But in the case of Russia, that could lead to a repetition of what happened at the end of the Soviet period.
“In other words,” Zakharov writes, “if one presupposes that political modernization in Russia will all the same take place and federalism from a figure of speech will be converted into a living reality, then there is no basis for expecting perfection from this reality.” Instead, he says, there would be a game “without rules.”
And “for a federal union, there is nothing more dangerous than that,” a kind of politics not constrained by a stable system of competitive parties or an understanding of the need to keep things within bounds, lest the entire system be put at risk or even collapse, with the center incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities, Zakharov continues.
That could lead to secession by one or another component, he suggests, and this is something that Russia’s current leaders need to take into consideration. If it were not for the ethnic basis of the federal system, they might eliminate federalism as a formality, but if Moscow tried to do that, such a step could lead to another kind of explosion.
Because that is the case, the expert says, “it is impermissible to eliminate Russian federalism, it is possible either to come to terms with it … or to perfect it, by achieving a more precise realization of its political purposes.” But if neither happens, the future of the country could be bleak indeed.
These reflections, Zakharov concludes, lead to four conclusions. First, “the current authoritarian regime cannot disband Russian federalism de jure because it is demanded by national minorities who form approximately 20 percent of the population” of the Russian Federation.
Second, he writes, “federal institutions … will inevitably ‘wake up’ but the Russian state [as currently constituted] is not prepared for this.” Third, “responsibility for this lies on the current political elite, whose pursuit of self-interests has sacrificed the future of the [Russian] state.”
And finally, a continuing return to a vicious circle of “a parade of sovereignties” will continue “until the ruling class comes to terms with the inevitability of the federal scenario for Russia and learns to play by its rules.” There are “no alternatives,” Zakharov says,” if Russia is to remain for long “in its current borders.”

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