An indicator of whether President Vladimir Putin's policies will strengthen or weaken Russia's fragile semidemocracy is his reform of federal-regional relations. On assuming the Russian presidency in May 2000, Putin placed at the top of his agenda a policy of strengthening the Russian state's "executive vertical" and reintegrating the Russia Federation's economic and legal space. Many Russian and Western analysts interpret Putin's federal reforms as a course that, intentionally or not, will re-establish a tsarist-style unitary state, even Soviet-style centralization. Nikolai Petrov has argued that although Putin's goal is not the dismantling of either Russian semidemocracy or federalism, his policies are leading to just such an outcome. (1) Leonid Smirnyagin has argued the very opposite: that although Putin's federal reforms have been intentionally "antifederalist," they have functioned to strengthen Russian federalism. (2) In reality, the policy appears to have a sophisticated and yet ambiguous intent and inspiration.
Federal authorities have documented thousands of violations of the Russian Constitution in various regional constitutions and laws. According to Russian democrat Vladimir Lysenko, a third of Russia's regions are authoritarian, with constitutions and laws that violate the Russian Constitution and its provisions on democracy and civil rights. (3) For example, in Tatarstan, Komi, and several other regions, laws allow the local government to appoint, sometimes with the legislature's approval, mayors and district (raion) heads. Federal law requires that such officials be elected by popular vote. Thus, re-establishing central control over the wayward regions and re-establishing the unity of Russia's legal space are to a certain extent necessary for the stability of the Russian state and the consolidation of its weak democracy. The same may be true for the consolidation of Russia's bureaucratized, kleptocratic capitalism. Republican leaders frequently argue that regional law is often more progressive than federal law, but the fact is that regional law constrains market development as much as it does democratic development. As Minister for Economic Development and Trade German Gref notes, regional authorities have constrained business development by carrying out exclusively federal functions like licensing. Although the federal government requires the licensing of some five hundred types of commercial activity (soon to be reduced to ninety-one), regional authorities required the licensing of another 1,500 types. (4) If such are the goals of Putin's federal reforms, then the concerns expressed about them are misplaced.
Putin's federal reforms appear to be a concerted effort to eliminate a form of federal "asymmetry" that is particularly malignant for the development of the rule of law and therefore for the development of democracy and markets. Asymmetry--that is, inequality between some regions' relations with the federal authorities--may come in two forms. Formal or institutionalized asymmetry is found in all but one (Switzerland) of the other multinational democratic federal states (India, Belgium, Canada, and Spain). (5) Nor is Russia unique in developing asymmetry through constitutional-treaty (or "contract") federalism based on bilateral federal-regional treaties. India and Spain have constitutional statutes providing special autonomy and rights to more than ten of their respective federations' subjects. Russia's federation problems are rooted in its noninstitutionalized asymmetry. Much of Russia's asymmetry is the result of open violations of the federal constitution and of regional constitutions and laws not institutionalized by formal federal-regional agreements.
To determine whether Putin's federal reforms are moving in the direction of centralization for centralization's sake and limiting the formation of stable federalism and law-based democracy, we must address two issues: the methods he uses to reintegrate Russia's legal space by attacking noninstitutionalized asymmetry and his moves to eliminate institutionalized asymmetries that protect the rights of national minorities and their autonomous formations. …