VACUUM OF STATE POWER: RUSSIA’S MAIN WEAKNESS
Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 19
VACUUM OF STATE POWER: RUSSIA’S MAIN WEAKNESS
By Elizabeth Teague
[Paper delivered at the National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Boca Raton, Florida, on September 26, 1998.]
The Russian federal government was clearly alarmed by the way Russia’s eighty-nine regions reacted to the financial crisis into which the country was plunged on August 17. All over Russia, regional leaders scrambled to protect their populations from hardship, conjuring up visions in Moscow of rampant regional separatism and secession. Yevgeny Primakov’s government responded with a series of measures aimed at re-asserting the center’s control. An important role is envisioned in this process for Russia’s eight interregional economic associations (IREAs).. If all goes according to plan, they are slated in future to play a more important role than most of them have played so far.
Since the break-up of the USSR, Russia’s regions have grouped themselves into eight IREAs, loosely based on the economic regions into which Russia was divided in Soviet times.(1). The first and most successful association was Siberian Agreement.(2). Set up in the summer of 1991, the Siberian Agreement wrested a number of economic concessions from the federal government. These put the association’s member-regions at such an advantage vis-a-vis the federal government that other regions soon followed suite. Now all are members of one or other of eight IREAs, the only exceptions being Chechnya and Buryatia. Chechnya belongs to none, while Buryatia has signed up for both the Far East and Siberian Agreement.
Siberian Agreement aside, the IREAs have not yet carved out an effective economic or political role. Despite grandiose predictions, they have not turned into “super-regions.” Neither have they served as the seedbeds for provincial political parties. Most do not function as cohesive economic units but instead merely as lobbying groups that represent the interests of their members to the federal government.
The “Great Volga” IREA is a case in point. Consisting of twelve republics and oblasts, “Great Volga” was set up without a clear idea on the part of its members about what role they wanted it to play. According to local journalist Ilya Malyakin, the Volga region has never perceived itself as an entity.
The association has been riven with feuds and animosities, such as those between the ambitious governors of Samara and Saratov Oblasts. It has no mechanism enabling it to mediate such interregional conflicts. No attempt has been made, therefore, to resolve the ongoing territorial dispute between Kalmykia and Astrakhan Oblast.(3).
During the financial crisis of the past six weeks, governors in many regions took extraordinary measures to try to shield their populations and, in particular, to make sure that they were fed adequately. Governors in Belgorod, Chuvashia, Moscow, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Yaroslavl all introduced price controls on staple goods such as meat, milk, pasta and flour. Some governors banned the export of foodstuffs from their territories. Others tried to protect local producers by slapping tariffs on goods imported from outside their borders. The first people hurt by these measures were, of course, the populations of neighboring regions. Because many of these would have been members of the same IREA, it was clear that regional loyalties do not yet extend much further than the borders of individual krais, oblasts or republics. Some regional leaders made plans for local surrogate currencies and food rationing. Other governors–including those in Astrakhan, Kaliningrad, Kalmykia, Khakassia and Omsk–threatened to withhold taxes from the federal budget by asserting control over their local branch of the Federal Treasury.(4). Since at least 1997, IREAs have been used by the federal government on a fairly regular basis as a convenient mechanism for taking the pulse of the country as a whole. Now they are to be offered a greater and more institutionalized voice. On September 22, President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree inviting the leaders of the eight IREAs to participate ex officio in the work of the federal government.
Sverdlovsk’s Governor Eduard Rossel explained that IREA leaders would travel to Moscow each week to attend cabinet meetings. He said he thought it would be tiring and time-consuming, but well worth the effort. It seemed clear that the move represented the Kremlin’s reaction to the perceived danger of separatism on the part of the increasingly self-reliant regions.
Two issues are at stake here. One is that the present system of eighty-nine regions is unwieldy and inefficient. Administrative divisions are often political in origin, and make no particular economic sense. For example, the borders that divide the Republic of Buryatia from the Aga Buryat Autonomous Okrug (part of Chita Oblast). and the Ust Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug (part of Irkutsk Oblast). were drawn by Stalin in 1937–specifically to ensure that the Kremlin would retain control of the strategically important Trans-Baikal area. Allowing the Buryat-populated areas to unite under the umbrella of a “super-region” might help to satisfy the Buryats’ aspirations for unification.
A separate factor is anxiety that the Russian Federation may be about to disintegrate. This fear has haunted Russian leaders since the Soviet collapse of 1991. For a while in the early 1990s, it did indeed appear a likely scenario. Efforts to rebuild the Russian Federation from the bottom up produced a series of ground-breaking, power-sharing treaties between the federal center and the regions, the first being the treaty of February 1994 between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan. To date, forty-six such treaties have been signed. The most recent is that between the center and the city of Moscow, signed in June this year. This unorthodox mechanism has kept the Russian Federation together, but at a high cost. The treaties not only freeze the regions into their present (sometimes, as in the case of North Ossetia and Ingushetia, manifestly unjust). borders. They also serve as a breeding ground of interregional jealousies and rivalries. Every region feels obliged to try to both leapfrog its neighbor and negotiate more favorable conditions for itself. Each treaty is accordingly accompanied by a raft of subsidiary agreements on crucial issues such as taxation–the details of which are rarely if ever published. The federal government has recently made efforts to standardize the treaties, but so far to no avail. Leaders at the nationalist end of the spectrum such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov have long been agitating for their renegotiation and for Russia’s re-division into some twelve to thirty “super-regions,” each to have identical rights and duties vis-a-vis the center.
In recent weeks, this idea has attracted increasing support. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov (formerly, Governor of Leningrad Oblast). are the latest enthusiasts. There are plans to start the ball rolling by uniting the city of St. Petersburg with the surrounding Leningrad Oblast. Moscow’s Luzhkov may be dreaming of his city’s swallowing up several adjoining regions. The campaign appears to be being orchestrated from the center and to be inspired by the fears that, otherwise, Russia’s regions will inevitably want to go their own ways.
Are these fears well founded? Clearly, the root of Russia’s present malaise is the weakness of the state and the almost complete vacuum of power crippling the central government, This has made itself evident with increasing insistence over the past two years. Yet we also need to ask not what will tear Russia apart, but what has kept it together until now. Clearly there are strong ethnic, religious and regional identities, especially in republics such as Tatarstan, Dagestan or Tyva, as well as in the Urals and parts of Siberia. At the same time, there appears still to be an awareness among many inhabitants of an overarching Russian identity. So far and in most places, the two have not proved incompatible. The only place where this appears not to be the case is the North Caucasus–a region that may well eventually decide to split away from Russia and from which ethnic Russian inhabitants are already moving out.
It also seems important to stress that, during Russia’s latest economic crisis, regional leaders scrambled to protect their populations from hunger and unrest. Many of them appear to have acted not so much to grab power from the center but to try to cope with problems delivered to their doorsteps through–as they see it–the incompetence and irresponsibility of the federal government. These actions were ad hoc and temporary. The governor of Kaliningrad, for example, was at pains to insist that while he was alarmed at developments, he had not, as originally reported, declared emergency rule in his region–a prerogative reserved for the president. Tatarstan’s government hurried out a statement that it did not intend to withhold taxes permanently. It would do so only for the duration of the crisis, and to ensure that workers in federal aviation factories on Tatarstani territory and their families did not starve.
A question mark hangs over the future of the North Caucasus republics. As for the other regions of Russia, however, there appear–so far at least–to be convincing economic reasons for remaining inside the Federation. The majority of Russia’s regions are net recipients of federal transfers. It is clear enough, for example, why the Republic of Tyva, which is dependent on subsidies from Moscow for 90 percent of its budget, has not yet thought seriously about leaving the Russian Federation, despite the existence of a strong independence movement within its borders. The same is equally true of Ingushetia. Chechnya is, so far, the exception.
Russia’s “donor” regions–Krasnoyarsk, Moscow, Sakha, Samara, Sverdlovsk, Tatarstan and Tyumen–could, on the other hand, presumably afford to contemplate going it alone. It is striking, therefore, that all of them at present say they do not want to leave. One possible explanation is that all the major donor regions also happen to be net importers of food. They stand to lose if the food-producing regions erect barriers to interregional trade. The donors could accordingly be described as dependent on the food-producing regions.
Food-producing regions, by contrast, are typically poor. Given the present state of Russia’s farms, they are dependent on the federal government for agricultural subsidies. While the poor regions are not directly dependent on the rich ones, therefore, they do need the federal center. Likewise dependent on the center are those unfortunate regions that are both poor and food-deficient. In this way, rich and poor regions may be seen as interdependent.
Moscow city is a prime example. Mayor Luzhkov has over the past few years signed at least sixty-five treaties with regions all over Russia. Most of them export food to the capital in return for a variety of goods such as hospital treatment for the sick or places in higher education for the young.(5). This kind of reciprocity may militate against the break-up of the Russian Federation about which so much is currently written. At the root of Russia’s problem, however, is the weakness of the state. If that weakness is not adjusted, centrifugal forces will remain a potent force.
1.). The eight IREAs are: Siberian Agreement, Far East and Eastern Siberia, Great Volga, Central Russia, the Association for Cooperation between North Caucasus Republics, Black Earth, Urals, and Northwest (Moskovskie novosti, December 22-29, 1996).
2.). For more on Siberian Agreement, see James Hughes, “Regionalism in Russia: The Rise and Fall of Siberian Agreement,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 7, 1994, pp. 1133-1161
3.). Ilya Malyakin, “The ‘Great Volga’ Association: Another Fine-Sounding Myth?” Jamestown Foundation Prism, Vol. IV, No 3, February 6, 1998
4.). IEWS Russian Regional Report, Vol. 3, No. 35, September 1, 1998
5.). Kommersant daily, December 21, 1996
6.). Moskovskaya pravda, February 8, 1997
Elizabeth Teague is a Senior Analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.