Federalism and Electoral Authoritarianism under Putin

By Cameron, Ross | Demokratizatsiya, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Federalism and Electoral Authoritarianism under Putin


Cameron, Ross, Demokratizatsiya


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 slate 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 centurieslong 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. Postcommunisl 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. It is only since Putin came to power that we have witnessed the development of a parliamentary coalition (United Russia) strong enough to command a constitutional majority in the Duma. Putin has used his dominance over the Duma to undermine, rather than defend, federalism.

Russia may have adopted all of the key structural trappings of a federation, but neither the federal authorities nor the federal subjects actually operate according to federal principles. In Russia, as I argue below, we have neither federalism nor democracy. Behind the formal veneer of democracy and constitutionalism, federal and political relations in Russia are dominated by informal, clientalistic, and extraconstitutional practices. …

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