One autonomous oblast, ten autonomous okrugs, twenty-one republics, forty-nine oblasts, six krais, and two cities, according to Article 65 of the 1993 constitution, constitute the Russian Federation. The situation of these federal subjects, their role in the state, and the character of the state's federalism and democracy, are the confused result of the Soviet Union's dissolution. While it may be outside the scope of this work to properly treat the historical basis of today's federal Russia, some treatment is unavoidable and necessary. In particular, the ethnofederal system is grounded is the korenizatsiya policies of the Twelfth Party Congress, and it waxed and waned in influence with the vagaries of the Soviet perspectives towards nationalism. Over the course of the Soviet years, ostensibly nationalist groups in autonomous regions and autonomous republics sought Union republic status, and when the Union finally dissolved in 1991, the RSFSR and other Union republics held that only Union republics had a right to self-determination and that further decomposition of the successor states was not an option (Sakwa, p. 204; Filippov et al., p. 99). Thus, even the territorial basis of Russian federalism is contentious, a weakness only heightened by the instability of the federal institutions. So as to pare down the topic at hand, the present work addresses the strengths and weaknesses of Russian federalism insofar as the federal system enables a stable and democratic state. While there may be arguments to be made regarding the strength and weakness of federal institutions, or perhaps an identification of centralization or decentralization with strong or weak federalism, the term federalism is sufficiently broad to render moot any argument not grounded in its effects.
The motivation for federalism, despite the center-region and region-region conflicts it may provoke, is traditionally five-fold: a sense of military insecurity, desire for independence from foreign powers, prior political association, geographic proximity, and political similarity (Wheare, pp. 40-44). In the Russian case, these motivations are clearly in place, in no small part because the Russian Federation's predecessor in the Soviet Union, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), was itself nominally federal. Prior to the late 1980s, however, the federal institutions of the RSFSR were untested, as the KPSS had held the real power, so the negotiations that established the post-1991 relationship between the federal subjects ended up being largely outside the formal federal institutions. In their analysis, Filippov et al. argue 'the primary purpose of federal design must be to keep [negotiating and renegotiating] in check' (Filippov et al., p. 33), as the moment that the institutional structure of the federal system is negotiable, the subject states will be driven apart by centrifugal forces as elites undermine the federal contract in pursuit of fleeting gains. The necessity of controlling negotiation is made quite clear by the Soviet case, where an attempt to re-form the Union as a 'voluntary creation in which each participant has the right to determine the terms of its association and the extent of its sovereignty ... the glue that would hold the federation together and thwart secession would be the public benefits of union' (Filippov et al., p. 91). Similarly, Czechoslovakia dissolved, despite the economic benefits of union, when Slovak political elites renegotiated the federal treaty frequently from 1990 to 1992, pushing for the popular goal of more Slovak autonomy, only to have Czech leaders push for centralization in 1992, when they found themselves up for election. Despite the lack of popular support for ending their union, the sum of short-sighted renegotiation of fundamental institutions was precisely that (Filippov et al., p. 86).
Apart from limiting negotiation of its basic tenets, a federal system serves democratic interests if it 'motivate[s] political elites to be imperfect agents of their constituents and motivate[s] citizens to reward said imperfection' (p. 40). As both political elites and citizens are presumed to work in their own rational self-interest, a stable and democratic system must provide incentives both for serving (regional) constituencies and for making the center-region compromises necessary in federalism. In the case of the Russian Federation, these incentives do not align. While in many cases the political party system encourages this 'imperfect agency', Russia's immature party system is not sufficiently powerful to provide incentives to representatives who serve federal-level interests, as the parties lack the party discipline to provide 'pork-barrel spending' or the resources and stability to provide campaign support in return for cooperation. Particularly after the May 2005 electoral reforms and the elimination of SMPD seats in the federal Duma, the Duma no longer, if it ever did, seems able to act as a forum for bargaining between the center and regions. (CSPP/Levada, http://www.russiavotes.org/electoralawchange3.htm). In the Russian Federation's bicameral arrangement, the weakness of the Duma might have been counterbalanced by a Federation Council that could pursue regional initiatives. The members of the Federation Council, since 2001 no longer regional executives and legislators ex officio, are still appointed by the regional legislatures, and the regional executive's appointee must be approved by the legislature, so they should have incentives to pursue regional interests (Sakwa p. 134; Filippov et al., p. 309). Even so, the weakness of the Federation Council and the Duma's veto over it may promote extra-institutional bargaining between the center and regions, as the regions have been given little or no real influence on the institutions of power. This is the second major flaw that Filippov et al. identify as a threat to poorly constructed federal systems, occurring when federal subjects resort to extra-institutional bargaining for either special status in the federation, or, more likely, preferential tax treatment or financial transfers (Filippov et al., p. 117). Yeltsin's bilateralism in the early 1990s exhibited precisely this character, a system that cannot stabilize, as every subject will demand a little bit more than the previous best deal, threatening to withhold tax revenues, or even to secede (Filippov et al., p. 120).
Thus far, the present analysis has focused on the structure of the federalist contract, largely ignoring the specifics of the participating regions and republics. The Russian arrangement is called an ethnofederalist system, and it includes twenty-one republics, each with a nominally ethnic character, and a president. In contrast, the regions (krais, oblasts, okrugs) have governors, and most are purely geographic. The distinction, as previously noted, is in some sense an arbitrary fixation that arose not from an organic national identity, but rather from Soviet nationality policy. While the republics tend to be more supportive of decentralization, and, most notably in Chechnya and Bashkortostan, sometimes in favor of secession, they (unsurprisingly) favor ethnofederalism, and see the region as 'morally superior to the national state', but submit to the federal center (Gallo, p. 24). Since the election of Putin in 2000, the bilateral agreements signed under Yeltsin have lost most legal standing, and now the distinction between the various categories is merely a formality (Petrov and Slider, p. 248).
To the extent that a political party system is necessary for the success of a democracy, the Russian Federation's federal institutions inhibit democratic progress by inhibiting the development of such a system. The Duma elections, taking place a few months before the presidential elections, are often seen as a analogous to the American primary elections, effectively weeding out weak candidates. In addition, the regional elections are not linked to the federal. This has generally been presented as a positive role, but the temporal separation undermines the synergistic 'coat-tail' effect that can encourage parties as a means to competing effectively across all levels (Filippov et al., p. 304). The weakness of parties is not only a result of the weakness of the federal institutions; party weakness further disables federalism. The concept of 'imperfect agency' previously presented is exactly the behavior of party-affiliated representatives, to wit, 'the incentives we need to engender in order to secure a stable federal state are primarily the product of a 'properly developed' political party system' (Filippov et al., p. 39).
Having considered the necessary characteristics for a federal system to be stable and to promote democracy, to what extent the Russian Federation can be seen as such a system is still unclear. The salient question regards Putin's apparent moves to to consolidate power in the federal center, especially through executive oversight of regional and local governments; in essence, is it still accurate to treat the center and regions as players in a political system, or have the political and legal developments of the past five years established a unitary government with impotent federal structures, in some ways comparable to the Soviet federalism?
Putin can remove any governor who he asserts is acting counter to federal or constitutional law, or whom the (Putin-appointed) procurator accuses of a crime. In addition, Putin can dissolve any regional legislature and call for new elections, with some legal acrobatics (Filippov et al., p. 309). While this may be sufficiently explained as a reasonable response to the Yeltsin-era tendency for regions to flout federal authority, Putin has also acted to make regional power redundant, through the establishment of seven federal districts. Via the apparatus of these districts and their heads, the polpreds, the central government is establishing itself as the preeminent power across the country. The polpreds are entrusted with oversight of the federal agencies' actions in their districts, and their actions as intermediaries between the federal executive and regional and local authorities could 'create a kind of web of cadres in the district that could reduce governors' room for maneuver' (Petrov and Slider, p. 251). None of these actions is individually sufficient to claim that the Russian Federation has become unitary, but they combine to call into question whether we can realistically treat the regions as somehow autonomous players.
It seems that Putin is succeeding in his stated goal of 'restoring effective vertical power in the country', and thereby undermining the federalist nature of his government (Petrov and Slider, p. 238). Beyond Putin's acts, however, the structure of Russian federalism has prevented the development of a viable party system and mature democracy. As Filippov et al. note, the framers of the Russian Constitution operated in a piecemeal fashion, leading to federal institutions that are not self-sustainable, despite a superficial similarity to the federal systems of other, successful, states (Filippov et al., p. 312).
Consitution of the Russian Federation, December 13, 1993, from <http:/www.departments.bucknell.edurussianconst>, accessed October 12, 2005.
Filippov, Michael, Peter Ordeshook, Olga Shvetsova. 2004. Designing federalism: a theory of self-sustainable federal institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Gallo, Carlo. 'The impact of center-regional relations on party development in transitional Russia' 36th AAASS Annual Convention (4-7 December 2004).
Petrov, Nikolai and Darrell Slider. 2005. 'Putin and the Regions', in Dale Herspring, ed. Putin's Russia. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
RussiaVotes.org, Center for Studies in Public Policy, Levada Center.
Sakwa, Richard. 2002. Russian politics and society. London: Routledge.
Wheare, K.C. 1980. Federal government. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.