Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Past, Present, and Future of the Russian Federal State

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Past, Present, and Future of the Russian Federal State

Article excerpt

Where did Russia's federal state come from, where has it been, where is it going, and why does it matter beyond a small circle of Russia specialists? Taking the last question first, the success or failure of Russia's transformation into a stable market democracy will determine the degree of stability throughout Eurasia. For such a large multinational state, successful political and economic development depends on building an efficient democratic federal system. Indeed, one of the main institutional factors leading to the demise of the Soviet partocratic regime and state was the considerably noninstitutionalized status of the RSFSR (Russian Republic) in the Soviet Union's pseudofederal, national-territorial administrative structure. Only a democratic federal system can hold together and effectively manage Russia's vast territory, the awkward administrative structure inherited from the failed USSR, and hundreds of divergent ethnic, linguistic, and religious interests. Dissolution or even any further weakening of Russia's federal state could have dire consequences for Russian national and international security by weakening control over its means of mass destruction.

Russia's challenge is historically unprecedented. No state of Russia's size and complexity has ever needed to develop national identity, democratize, marketize, and state-build simultaneously. Moreover, no empire has ever reformed itself into a federal democracy. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Imperial Russian, and Soviet cases are a few of the failures. The Soviet collapse can be considered the first stage of Russia's effort to transform the legacy of empire and unitary rule into a functioning federal state. Its failure might be a harbinger of things to come. Russia, like the USSR, is a uniquely unwieldy entity territorially, ethnically, and confessionally. Its square mileage and border lengths dwarf those of other states, and its multitude of nationalities is rivaled by few. Demographically, non-Russians, in particular "ethnic Muslims," have higher birth rates than do ethnic Russians. The national identity of non-Russians is growing, and as a consequence Russians will feel, if they do not already, that they are less welcome in the national republics than hitherto. Russia incorporates almost every religion and is the only state that borders the Confucian, European, Arab, and Islamic civilizations simultaneously. The "border" between the increasingly troublesome Islamic world and Russia's Orthodox civilization runs through Russia. For those reasons, the challenge that Russia faces in building a democratic federal system is unparalleled. Succeeding is of the utmost importance for the Russian state's preservation and transformation into a market democracy. However, the temptation of a unitary state is strong for leaders whose Russian volkstaat is a large majority of the population (80 percent) spread across a tenuously interconnected supercontinent. This instinct is reinforced by the recent time of troubles, emerging threats along its borders, and a growing gap between its economy and the globalizing international economy. In short, much in Russia works against an impulse to federalize.

Moreover, Vladimir Putin inherited from Yeltsin a Russian state that was poorly institutionalized--a chaotic, mixed, quasi-federal/quasi-confederate state barely able to negotiate its multitude of interethnic and interconfessional relationships or to establish a market, democracy, or the rule of law. There have been persistent danger signs regarding the federation's cohesion. The Yeltsin era of "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow" allowed many regions to maneuver into a relationship with Moscow that was highly attenuated, ranging from de facto independence in post-Khasavyurt Chechnya (1996-99) to loose, treaty-based federative relations for a majority of the national republics, and even confederate relations for Tatarstan. The ability and willingness of the center to continue to buy off the national republics with budgetary handouts are limited by a shortfall of financial resources and a Russian ethnic state wary of militant Chechens and potential Tatar, Bashkir, or other separatists. …

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