Staunton, December 7 – Moscow currently is trying to run Russia as if it were a unitary state while leaving it federation “on paper,” thereby re-creating the conditions which led to the collapse of the USSR when Gorbachev’s attempts at modernization and reform caused those federal institutions to take on a life of their own, according to a leading expert on federalism.
On the one hand, Vladimir Gelman says, that means that any plans to modernize or liberalize the country will be resolutely opposed by those who fear that such changes will tear the Russian Federation to pieces a la Gorbachev, something few in the center are prepared to see happen (www.saltt.ru/node/5975).
And on the other, he continues, the awareness of these tensions means that Moscow is likely in the near term to continue to seek to reduce the vestigial powers of federal institutions such as republics and even the Federation Council, even though that too will make the situation untenable because a country as large as Russia can only be effective as a federal state.
That danger is pushing some among the powers that be to try to find ways to destroy the last vestigial institutions of federalism, but each such step, Gelman argues, entails its own risk because a country as large and diverse as Russia needs some form of federalism if it is to survive and flourish.
A decade ago, he says, Russia was “both formally and in fact a federation,” with a division of power between the center and the subjects of the federation. Moscow has “very few possibilities to influence the decisions taken [by the regions] within the competence of the latter.” And even though the regions varied in these powers, the country “was a federation.”
But over the past ten years, the situation has changed with Vladimir Putin and now Putin together with Dmitry Medvedev pursuing a course intended to create a tight “hierarchy” in which each level is subordinate in all things to the one above it” and thus one in which the regions, while having some space for maneuver, are not able to make decisions Moscow can’t reverse.
This system, Gelman continues, is not so much “the power vertical” everyone talks about but rather “a chain of hierarchical commands and mixed mechanisms of control,” mechanisms that involve giving people access to wealth even more than putting them at risk of punishment, as long as they do what Moscow wants or at least proclaim loyalty.
Prior to the last presidential elections, he argues, the center was “extremely interested” that all governors attach themselves to United Russia … in order to minimize all political risks connected with the conclusion of the presidential cycle of Putin.” And to that end, Moscow was prepared to crack the whip.
That is because “the federal powers that be [remembered and remember to this day] the experience of the 1990s when the republics” sought an expansion of their powers when they saw that Moscow was weakening. In 2007 and 2008, Moscow replaced numerous republic heads in order to “reduce to zero” the risks for the regime.
Since that time, Moscow has continued that approach and expanded it as well, creating institutions that have drained even more content from the federal system and undermining others. Thus, Gelman says, the Presidential plenipotentiaries first sought to rein in the regional governments but that task became less meaningful with the end of elections for regional heads.
As a result, Gelman continues, he does “not exclude that at some time, in the final analysis, the plenipotentiaries may be disbanded because the federal powers that be have not given them any other tasks.” And other “federation” institutions, like the Federation Council, may follow because it no longer plays even the limited role envisaged for it.
Consequently, he suggests, “if tomorrow the Federation Council were shut down and its members sent off to some resort for the remainder of their terms, for certain, no one except journalists would take note of it.”
“In the Kremlin,” Gelman continues, many people would like to have fewer federal subjects than the current 83. No one can easily know all the leaders. But doing anything about that, he says, is “not a simple task” because there are “natural limitations:” the existence of ethnic republics and the inequality of the resources of the various regions.
As a result, the push to cut the number of federation subjects down has slowed, but that has not ended Moscow’s interest in finding some way to reduce them. That explains, Gelman says, Medvedev’s recent proposal to organize 20 agglomerations in place of the existing structures.
But Gelman points out that “it is impossible to create agglomerations from above. They are created or not created regardless of what Putin, Medvedev or someone else wants.” Moreover, Russia can’t do this because there are simply too few major urban centers that could serve as the nuclei of such entities.
Eventually people will understand that for their country, federalism “is something inevitable simply because Russia is a large and varied country. Without the mechanisms which allow the regions themselves to solve their own problems, it will be extremely difficult to secure the development of the country and, more than that, to preserve it into the future.”
And Russians today should reflect on the Soviet experience at the end> “There was the Soviet experience of federalism, when on paper the country was a federation, but in fact was deeply unitary and highly centralized. When political liberalization began, all these contradictions came into view and the country ceased its existence.”