Russia is a federation of a special sort – a so-called ethno-federation, whose boundaries are based on ethno-national divisions within the country. Moreover, Russian federalism is often referred to as Soviet federalism. These enigmatic concepts have important implications and require, if not force, the Russian authorities to conduct a “flexible” regional policy, often conflicting with international standards and the basic constitutional rules upon which the Russian state is founded. In consequence, it deems the Russian federalism anachronistic. Arguably, even democratisation of the state would not solve the issue.
How Russia became a federation
Russian federalism did not develop organically, as was the case in Germany and the United States. It was forcefully imposed after the 1917 October Revolution. Bolshevik propaganda used slogans of decentralisation and the right of nations to self-determination. The Bolsheviks had a special interest in it: first, they wanted to gain the support of the various groups and nations of the Russian Empire, often repressed by the tsardom. Second, they aimed to speed up the process of decay of the old public system, which was meant to ease the creation of the state almost from scratch, based on the new rules. This was mostly achieved.
The Bolsheviks used federalism as a tool of governance. However, paradoxically, this did not lead to decentralisation, but helped to concentrate power in the hands of a few top-level Communist Party officials. Neither the Soviet Union, nor the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic broke away with the absolutism of the previous era that they widely condemned, and did not convey real power to the people.
For almost all of the 20th century, the Soviet Union remained a federation, although only on paper. This lasted until 1991 when the thaw came and the ice conserving the old, rigid system melted. Changes were so rapid that there was no time for a deeper legal-systemic reflection. Russia, therefore, inherited the federal system from the Soviet Union, but in the new quasi-democratic reality it has largely failed. In the turmoil of the 1990s it became a tool of the almost unconstrained power of local elites allied with the criminal underworld.
In some regions, and especially in north Caucasus, separatist forces rose in prominence, which resulted in two Chechen wars. Only the rise to power by Vladimir Putin and the following centralisation reforms ended the free-riding of the local cliques. At the same time, however, the reforms distorted the idea of federalism based on the decentralisation of power.
The shape of Russian federalism
Federations can be generally classified as symmetric and asymmetric. In case of the former, the subjects are equal in their relations with the centre, which means that each has the same rights and obligations. The US is an example of such a federation. On the contrary, in asymmetrical federations, some regions have wider competences, such as the Halabdja region of Iraq dominated by Kurds, which has bigger powers than the other 18 regions and is the only one to possess its own government.
Formally, Russia is a symmetrical federation – despite the existence of several types of territorial units (such as republics, kraie, oblasti) they are all equal in mutual relations and in relations with the central authority. Similarly, the constitution of the Russian Federation from 1993 divides competences between the central and local governments equally without privileging any region. The differences remain only on the symbolic level – for example only republics have their own constitutions, while other units have ustavy.
However, from the beginning of the 1990s, Russia’s domestic policy did not reflect this arrangement. For instance, Moscow has had a special approach towards north Caucasus. The same has been the case with other regions dominated by one national, ethnic or religious group, such as Tuva and Tatarstan, where local particularities naturally call for such a policy. Because of the lack of formal tools, the Kremlin has been forced to resort to informal or ever extralegal solutions. It has been especially visible in its relationship with Chechnya.
Russia and Chechnya
The subjugation of Chechnya in the 19th century took several dozens of years. However, it has never ceased to be a flash point. Chechen society, mainly due to its tribal structure, ethnic distinctness, adherence to a special Sufi version of Islam, the Chechen language and the rule of customary law called adat, has been particularly alienated within Russia. Public opinion polls suggest that Russia’s inhabitants would rather consider a Ukrainian or a Belarusian as “their own” rather than a person from the Caucasus.
To understand the special relationship between Russia and Chechnya, it is worth looking at the specific nature of the north-Caucasian republic. Importantly, it has to be stressed that there is no one single legal order in place, as next to the official Russian state law, people adhere to Islamic law (of the Hanafi school, the most liberal and accepting customary law) and adat, which is firmly based on the tradition and which was in place before the region’s conversion to Islam.
On the one hand, the three legal systems are contradictory and in competition with one another, but on the other, they are complementary. They are spelled out in three different languages, Russian, Arabic and Chechen, and they have become the bases for different institutions. For instance, the recently created body with the aim of overseeing adherence to rules related to marriage ceremonies, which has invoked many controversies, does not originate in the Islamic tradition, but in adat, where family law and customs play an extremely significant role.
The current regime of Ramzan Kadyrov treats each legal source instrumentally and uses them interchangeably depending on the situation and its particular interests. As both the Sharia law and adat have been in operation in Chechnya several times longer than the Russian law, it is unlikely that the latter will sideline or even dominate the other two anytime soon.
Chechen society adheres to the Sufi version of Islam, far from Middle Eastern legalism, based on brotherhoods passing on knowledge verbally from generation to generation. Sufism has no generally accepted theology and every order (tariqa) has a wide independence. This has been accompanied by a complicated tribal structure, which makes governing Chechnya from the centre extremely difficult.
Informal relations and agreements, often based on ties of blood, play an important role. Although Ramzan Kadyrov has tried to forcefully break the traditional dependencies in order to strengthen his power, over the course of history, no one has yet succeeded in the task. Nevertheless, such a distinct organisation of Chechen society calls for a special approach.
The tackling of the Chechen crisis from the 1990s, accompanied by two wars and the existence of an independent Chechen state for nearly three years, ruled by Islamic fundamentalists, was ended after the Russian intervention with the Putin-Kadyrov agreement in 1999. It provided that the Russians will grant Chechnya a high level of independence in return for loyalty and dealing with the problem of Islamic extremism.
After the assassination of Akhmat Kadyrov, he was replaced by his son Ramzan, who meticulously fulfills the decisions of the agreement, at the same time fully enjoying the rights it has guaranteed him. It is worth noting that the arrangement is based on the personal relationship and has no formal basis. Moreover, the current Chechen leader more often refers to his personal loyalty towards Putin, rather than the Russian state.
The head of Chechnya also controls the power structures in the republic, which formally are answerable to the central federal resorts. One of the most scandalous cases in point was when the police from the Stavropol krai conducted an action on Chechnya’s territory and Kadyrov urged his people to shoot the “foreign” officers if such a situation repeats in the future. It was met with strong criticism from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, but no legal consequences followed.
The free riding of Kadyrov’s regime is visible also in his nearly independent foreign policy. In particular, he maintains relations with the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf. He also declared that he will conduct his own fight against the Islamic State. Kadyrov receives funds not only from Moscow, but also from abroad, from the above-mentioned states, and directly from his citizens, who, as human rights defenders report, are forced to pay a certain percentage of their salaries a month to the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation. It is therefore a de facto unofficial tax imposed on the inhabitants of Chechnya, which has been tolerated by the central authorities.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in other republics in the North Caucasus, as well as in Tatarstan, Bashkiria and Tuva. Back in the day, separatist movements were also visible in Siberia, which too has a distinct identity from the traditional Russian one. Such a diversity requires a distinct philosophy of the state’s territorial organisation.
What is the solution?
Centralised management of Russia seems impossible. Moreover, the development of unofficial channels of cooperation between Moscow and the regions, as it is the case with Chechnya, does not facilitate the building of stability, trust for the law and the state, and therefore a democratic system. Currently, communication is largely conducted through the ruling party – United Russia. Both in Chechnya and in the majority of other regions, paradoxically, no strong regional political forces were formed.
In the former, Kadyrov’s regime, in return for a nearly unlimited stream of funds coming from the federal centre, makes sure that the ruling party maintains almost 100 per cent of support in the republic. United Russia has dominated not only in the Chechen parliament, but also in legislative bodies of the other regions. The strong position of the ruling party in most of the country, regardless of any national or religious divisions, somehow ensures the cohesion of state policy and is a one-off remedy for the ills of the Russian territorial system.
An alternative to the current situation could be the remodeling of the federal system into an asymmetric one, which would grant different regions more freedom or, depending on local conditions, reshaping of relations between the core and the region on an individual basis. A similar process was taking place in the 1990s, when Moscow signed bilateral agreements with the regions, however, at the time it was dictated by the need of the moment and the attempt to keep territorial integrity of the state. It was understood that these were only short-term, ad hoc solutions.
Understandably, such a change would be connected with certain threats and risks. Above all, those regions which aspired or aspire to independence, would surely try to use the opportunity and claim more independence, which in a long run could turn out to be a first step to secession. For it should not be forgotten that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many republics have formally declared state sovereignty or created their own citizenships, existing in parallel with the Russian one.
The central authorities deemed such acts to be illegal and the position has been backed by the rulings of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. Acknowledging the sovereignty of some regions or the existence of a parallel citizenship would be an entry point to the development of their own national identity and therefore the strengthening of separatist tendencies. These tendencies would be only reinforced by the pro-secession stance of regional leaders.
It should be remembered that those threats have not been curtailed thanks to structural systemic reforms. On the contrary, they were possible because of the firm rule of Vladimir Putin, who does not lead the country towards democratisation. It can be argued that the current stability is the result of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian governing style. And it does not refer to Chechnya alone. For instance, although on the symbolic level Tatarstan did not comply with the federal law requesting the change of the title of republic’s leaders from “president” to something else, Tatarstan is still headed by a president.
Vladimir Putin was asked about the issue during the yearly “direct line” in 2015 (a call-in show with Russian president, where he answers preselected questions from citizens on live television) by the representatives of the republic, and said: “You decide for yourself there, okay?” This shows that there are extralegal relations between Putin and regional leaders. It also shows that the word “rulers” is still more important than the letter of law.
There are a number of similar examples, but it is important to point to a yet another relationship. The consequence of the lack of thorough reform of the federal system in Russia will be the impossibility of implementing democracy and the rule of law in the country. Governing such a diverse state within the existing legal framework will be simply impossible, as the current regulations will not provide any appropriate tools. Moreover, they are not flexible enough to respond to the real needs of the various communities.
Undeniably, a serious public debate about the state system would be needed. However, it is unlikely that it will take place under current conditions. The leaders in the Kremlin will not allow for democratisation and real decentralisation because of the state’s weakness and the related risk of disintegration. A reform based on granting a wider autonomy to the regions could prove effective, and bring positive results, only if it provided the nations and religious groups with better conditions for the development of their traditions, culture and identity.
However, at the same time, they would have to be encouraged to stay within the federation. Factors such as participation in the common Russian market, security issues, implementing good regulations, attractive tax regimes and so on could be used to potentially encourage loyalty. Such conditions, however, can only be met in the case of serious reforms and democratisation efforts in Russia, which are nowhere in sight.
Moreover, paradoxically, democratisation would also act as a guarantor of the country’s territorial integrity, stability and internal security. As research indicates, so far no single democratic country in the world has faced a secession through use of force. Therefore, the common belief in Russia that democracy is the source of chaos and instability has proven wrong.
Importantly, democratisation in Russia should be parallel and complementary to the reform of the federal system. Without a real democracy, federalism will not function and at the same time, effective governance of such a diverse country is extremely difficult without the far-fetched possibility of decentralisation.
Translated by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
This article originally appeared in “Meanwhile in the Baltics…“, a collection of articles written by the graduates of 2016 Solidarity Academy – Baltic Sea Youth Dialogue, organised by the European Solidarity Centre in partnership with the Council of the Baltic Sea States.