The Devolution of Russian Federalism

Regions of the Russian Federation. Green: Republics. Orange: Krais. Blue: Autonomous Okrugs. Yellow: Oblasts. Red: Federal Cities. Purple: Autonomous Oblast. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty-five years ago, on March 31, 1992, the Federative Treaty on the division of powers between the federal center and the Russian regions was signed in Moscow. This event was considered state-forming at that time. However, in Russia today, almost nobody remembers it.

Three months after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Russian leadership was preoccupied with the structural basis on which new statehood would be built. Nominally, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was also called a federation in Soviet times, but its subjects did not possess any true self-governing powers—all of the regional authorities were appointed from Moscow.

In the summer of 1990, while on a visit to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, then-president of the RSFSR, Boris Yeltsin, delivered his famous appeal: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow” (, August 6, 2015). The reason for this treatment of the regions by the center was the economic crisis of those years—the Russian government wanted to shift a considerable part of the problem to the regions themselves. However, only autonomous republics were able to gain sovereignty, not the oblasts and krays, which made up the majority of the Russian regions.

Nevertheless, over the course of that year, all the Russian autonomies, which then numbered 16, adopted declarations of sovereignty. Unlike in the case of the union republics of the USSR, these declarations reflected the desire not for state independence, but precisely for a full-fledged federalism in which sovereign republics voluntarily delegate a number of strategic powers to the federal center. This difference also reflected the fact that Russian autonomies were much more economically interconnected and interdependent than the union republics.

The 1992 Federative Treaty was concluded on the basis of these republican declarations. However, in this very document there was an ineradicable semantic and structural contradiction that indicated the continuation of the Russian imperial tradition. The Treaty was signed not among all the regions, but directly between the regions and the center. It was radically different from the historical experience of most world federations—for example, the United States was established by representatives of all the colonies that existed at the time, which later formed the federal government. In Russia, the center’s interests were initially primary and self-sufficient.

But even though the Federative Treaty was sharply skewed toward centralism, it nevertheless only lasted a year and a half. The Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, abolished the treaty principle of the federation as such. No references to the sovereignty of the Russian republics made it into the new document.

Henceforth, the federation was considered to be established “from above,” and its subjects were simply “appointed”—a necessary legal step on the way to further state centralization and unitarization. After a brief period of gubernatorial elections, the government of the Russian Federation today has practically returned to the state of the pre-Perestroika Soviet Union, with a Kremlin “politburo” and regional “first secretaries” everywhere.

In 2004, after the Beslan tragedy, President Vladimir Putin said that as of that point, he would personally appoint the heads of the regions. His decision was supposedly motivated by the need to ensure a “common fight against terrorism” across the country (, September 13, 2004). Even political scientists friendly to the government were at a loss to explain this logic: what “terrorist threats” can emerge out of free elections, for example, the direct election of the governors of Kaliningrad or Primorye? In fact, Putin’s declaration meant the total elimination of federative relations in Russia, substituted by a “vertical of power.”

In 2011, following the wave of mass protests against the falsification of the Duma elections, then-president Dmitry Medvedev promised to restore the direct election of governors (, December 22, 2011). However, this “restoration,” according to the resulting law of 2012, took on a much more limited form. First, only officially registered parties can nominate candidates for governors—self-nomination in most regions was banned. Second, the candidates have to pass a “municipal filter,” collecting up to 10 percent of the signatures of local deputies. Given that almost all regional legislative assemblies and city councils are now dominated by the ruling United Russia party, connected to President Putin, the nomination of opposition candidates to governors’ races has become nearly impossible.

Today, in Russia, it is generally difficult to fight for real federalism and the rights of regions. The authorities are prone to characterizing such sentiment as dangerous separatism. The law on “Appeals to Violate the Territorial Integrity of the Russian Federation,” adopted in 2014, has already resulted in a number of criminal cases (, March 3).

A new “equal rights” Federative Treaty, according to which the regions would be allowed to direct their own development, could be a decisive tool for overcoming the Kremlin’s neo-imperial policies and propaganda. But the idea of concluding such a document under Russia’s current “vertical of power” is not only remote but even viewed in hostile terms by the government. Strangely enough, this topic is not too popular among the Russian opposition either, whose Moscow-connected leaders also, in many ways, harbor a centralist mentality (see EDM, March 20).

Still the latest protest actions, held in a hundred Russian cities across the country on March 26, have made the topic of federal relations relevant again. More than 100,000 people took part in demonstrations against high-level government corruption. Over a thousand people were detained (, March 27). Citizens of the Russian Federation’s various regions are against both “all-Russian” and local corrupt officials in power. As these calls build in intensity and insistence, the protests will almost inevitably force politicians to take into account the entire federative diversity of Russia and could begin to push them to seek new, contractual solutions for the Russian state.