Federalism and Electoral Authoritarianism under Putin

By Ross, Cameron | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Federalism and Electoral Authoritarianism under Putin


Ross, Cameron, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: Throughout its short history, federal relations in Russia have been dominated by extra-legal political and economic relations rather than constitutionalism and the rule of law. The Russian Federation's unique blend of constitutional, socioeconomic, and political asymmetry, far from promoting democracy, has bolstered authoritarian regimes in the regions. Federalism and regional democracy have also been thwarted by the weakness of Russia's civic culture and the lack of a federal and democratic tradition. Regional elites in particular have more often supported authoritarianism than democracy. Under Putin the principles of federalism and democracy have come under attack and electoral authoritarianism is the norm rather the exception, particularly in the ethnic republics.

Key words: democratization, electoral authoritarianism, federalism

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In December 1993, Russia ratified its first postcommunist constitution that, in Article 1, proclaimed that it was "a democratic federative rule of law state with a republican form of government." However, there are now major concerns about the current regime's commitment to the principles of federalism. Since the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as Russian president in May 2000, federalism and democracy have come under attack. We have witnessed a concerted effort to rein in the power of the regional governors and to centralize power under the presidency. As I demonstrate in this article, the major challenge to the Russian state today is not confederalism or the threat of ethnic disintegration, but rather defederalization and the creation of a centralized and authoritarian state under Putin.

The problems of federalization in Russia are rooted in the country's centuries-long history of authoritarian rule and the absence of a federal and democratic tradition. The 1993 constitution provided Russia with all of the major institutional prerequisites necessary for a federation. However, as Elazar stresses, "True federal systems manifest their federalism in culture as well as constitutional and structural ways" and "the viability of federal systems is directly related to the degree to which federalism has been internalized culturally within a particular civil society." (1) Moreover, as Watts stresses, federalism requires a legal democratic culture with "recognition of the supremacy of the constitution over all orders of government." (2)

However, as Kempton notes, "although Russia inherited a federal structure, it did not inherit a federal tradition" (3) The Russian state that emerged out of the ashes of the Soviet Union in January 1992 was bequeathed a highly authoritarian political culture and a weak and inchoate civil society. Nor was there any genuine tradition of federalism that the leadership could call upon to support it in its new statebuilding strategy. Although the USSR was formally a federation, and the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was a "federation within a federation," in reality, Soviet federalism was a sham. As Mikhail Gorbachev (General Secretary of the Communist Party), admitted in 1989, "Up to now our state has existed as a centralized and unitary state and none of us has yet the experience of living in a federation." (4)

Federalism also requires the support of political elites. However, the collapse of communism in 1991 did not lead to a democratic "circulation of elites" in Russia. On the contrary, nomenklatura continuity was the norm, particularly in the ethnic regions where former communist elites were able to utilize the ethnic card to win and hold on to power. Postcommunist elites have used federalism primarily as a smokescreen for the promotion of their own narrow political and economic interests and as a shield behind which to carve out electoral dictatorships.

Russia's weak and fragmented party system has also hindered the development of federalism. Up until the elections of December 2003, only a minority of parties in the lower house of the Russian parliament (the Duma) had nationwide organizations to glue the federation together, and many of the key parties had been hostile to Russia's ethnoterritorial form of federalism. …

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