Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Federal Reforms in Russia: Putin's Challenge to the Republics

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Federal Reforms in Russia: Putin's Challenge to the Republics

Article excerpt

The development of the Russian federal system has been marked by conflict, co-optation, and consensus. Emerging from the generally unitary Russian republic within a formally federal but largely unitary Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia began its development as a federal system with little experience and few institutional structures salvageable from the earlier system. The patchwork Soviet-era constitution adapted to the newly independent political system was insufficiently clear to structure adequately political interactions across levels of society. The construction of a functioning federal system also began with the regime already at a disadvantage: In struggling for power with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian president Boris Yeltsin advised all of Russia's regions to take as much sovereignty as they could swallow. Ultimately, although this recommendation helped Yeltsin win Russia's independence, it hampered the future development of federalism, for the regions had become mindful of their autonomy and willing to ignore central laws and edicts.

The most independent category of regions in Russia under the Soviets and after are the republics, which have historical basis in Lenin's nationalities policy that was instrumental in the formation of the Soviet Union. Built on a legacy of advantage that was perhaps more de jure than de facto, the republics have been more independence minded. During his tenure as post-Soviet Russia's leader, Yeltsin worked to re-establish central authority, however. This process followed four basic stages. First, the 1992 Federation Treaty between Russia's regions and the central government stopped centrifugal forces that threatened the disintegration of the state and established Russia's republics as virtual state entities. second, the 1993 Russian constitution began the process of re-integrating an inchoate political system following the president's victory over the Soviet-era legislature, the Supreme Soviet. The constitution eliminated almost all privileges allocated to the republics, with the exception of rights to write a constitution and maintain a local state language in addition to Russian.

Third, the Yeltsin government returned some of the de jure powers it had taken away in the constitution. In some ways, Yeltsin recognized that new constitutional strictures could not be enforced, and instead threatened a resumption of centrifugal forces. Through a series of bilateral agreements signed with more than half of the Russian regions from 1994 to 1998, de facto powers held by a number of regions were selectively enshrined in law beyond constitutional guidelines. This third period was typical of Russia's tentative movement (two steps forward, one step backward) toward a more centralized, albeit still federal, political system. The bargaining process between the center and the regions favored certain republics early. Following the economic crash of 1998, still a de jure federation with strong central powers, Russia had de facto moved dramatically in the direction of a confederation, with a number of strong regions and a weak center.

Fourth, in spring 2000, newly elected president Vladimir Putin began a push for political centralization. Putin formed seven federal districts guided by presidential representatives, reconfigured the selection processes for deputies to the upper house of parliament (the Federation Council), and strove to enhance the institution of local self-government nationwide. Putin's administration also has worked to bring regional laws and constitutions in accord with the Russian constitution and federal laws.1 This last initiative has been bolstered by fiscal reform designed to raise the center's control of regionally collected revenue. To varying degrees, all of these reforms were designed to reduce the strength of regional executives. These acts and reforms guide my analysis in this article.

More specifically, I examine how new political institutions and a more aggressive federal government have influenced Russia's twenty-one ethnic republics,2 which have frequently possessed certain advantages leading to asymmetry in Russian federalism. …

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