Path Forward for the Russian Federation.
After four years of debate and inconclusive results, the problems of regional
policy and ethnic relations have now come to the fore of the political agenda in the
Russian Federation. The 1993 Constitution left the issue of state structure far from
resolved. There has been no effective institution for implementing ethnic and regional
policy (the Russian Ministry for Nationalities and Regional Policy has had four different
heads in three years). The leadership in Moscow has declared a clear commitment to
federalism. In the current situation, however, ill-conceived attempts in the area of
regional and ethnic policy might result in a backtrack to unitarism and a compromise of
democratic values in an effort to strengthen central state control.
There is a dilemma at the heart of the problem: the current Russian Federation was
constituted on the basis of a mix of some ethnically-based and some purely administrative
territories. In the modem world, from the point of view of protecting the right of all
citizens regardless of their race or ethnic affiliation, it is in principle more desirable
for a state to replace the ethno-territorial principle with the concept of
"co-citizenship," as was mentioned in President Yeltsin's annual address.
A multitude of ethnic problems have been engendered by the contradictory nature of two
principles which, from the very beginning, were established as the basis of the structure
of the Russian Federation: the ethno-territorial principle and the
administrative-territorial principle. This becomes clear today as a redistribution of
functions and powers is taking place between the federal government and subjects of the
Federation. Under present conditions, a historical necessity for both principles to
co-exist persists. At the same time the contradiction between them will diminish on the
basis of a new notion of the nation as co-citizenship (sograzhdanstvo). which is
enshrined in the Constitution.1
If the Russian Federation had states (US), or Lands (Germany), or governorships
(Tsarist Russia) instead of ethnic republics, the argument goes, then the federal
government would be in a better position to protect the civil and political rights of all
citizens regardless of their ethnicity.
But the current state structure of the Russian federation is - like it or not - a
historical reality. On the face of it, the current structure seems absurd in many ways:
there are some ethnic republics that have a majority of the local ethnic group and a
strong sense of national identity (Tatarstan), while others, such as the Republic of
Sakha-Yakutia which have a majority of Russians (50% of the population) and a minority of
the titular ethnic group (33%). The creation of many of these ethnic republics was part of
a Stalinist policy of dividing and co-opting local and national elites. There are also
some non-ethnic subjects of the Federation, such as Lipetsk Oblast, which relative to
others is small and economically less significant.
Even if it were in principle desirable to move toward "co-citizenship" as the
key principle for organizing the complex state structure of the Russian Federation, what
strategy would produce this outcome and over how much time? Over what period must this be
done in order not to threaten overall political stability? How can existing ethnic groups
be accommodated ?
Some regions pose a particular challenge. Though the Russian Federation is 82% Russian,
there are a few regions with a majority non-Russian population and a history of their own
governing structures. These regions were incorporated into the Russian empire by conquest
(Tatarstan, North Caucasus). These regions might be compared to Quebec, a French-speaking
region conquered by the English in the eighteenth century. In the Volga-Ural region today,
Russians account for 44% of the population, while the share made up by indigenous ethnic
groups is growing. The peoples of the North Caucasus are not only an ethnic mosaic but
they differ dramatically from other groups in Russia in terms of worldview, value systems
and social structures, particularly in the persistence of clan identities. The religious
factor is also important: against the background of the Chechen conflict, Islam as the
dominant religion in the North Caucasus currently reinforces existing ethnic cleavages
with the traditionally Orthodox Russians. Islam is also the dominant religion of
Tatarstan, though it has not been a significant factor in political developments to date.
It was precisely in these two regions that Moscow has had the greatest difficulty in
its efforts to build a new Federation. Tatarstan and Chechnya were the only two republics
that refused to sign the Federation Treaty of March 1992, which the leadership in Moscow
saw as an effort to preserve the integrity - and stem the possible breakdown - of the
Russian Federation in the face of the "parade of sovereignties." Bashkortostan,
a Republic bordering Tatarstan that has more Tatars and Russians than Bashkirs, signed
with specific reservations. There are other areas with special historical circumstances
such as Tyva (an independent state until 1944). They signed the Federation Treaty but
still represent problematic cases.
In order to clarify the relations of Tatarstan and Chechnya with the federal center,
Moscow proposed to sign treaties with these two regions that did not sign the Federation
Treaty. Vice Premier Sergei Shakhrai has recently stated that the following principles
guided their actions:
To sign framework treaties only with those subjects of the Russian Federation that
were not party to the 1992 Federation Treaty;
To sign in advance concrete agreements on critical questions of social and economic
To rely on the results of a legal analysis of the corresponding constitutions, laws
and other normative acts of the Federal Constitution and laws of Russia;
Not to allow any specific subject of the Federation to obtain any
"special" status not envisaged by the Constitution of the Russian Federation or
leading to infringement of the rights of other subjects of the Federation.2
In actual fact, the federal leadership was so preoccupied with critical problems of
economic and political reform, as well as internal power struggles (where regional support
in the form of the Council of Heads of the Republics was used by President Yeltsin in his
battle with the old parliament), that some actions may have been more improvisations or
dictated by Realpolitik than by the above listed principles stated ex post
In practice, Moscow in large part signed treaties with those regions that were
well-organized and powerful - politically and economically - and where the internal
political situation was particularly complex, involving a risk of destabilization or
separatism. Tatarstan was a case of a powerful and well-organized republic where
accommodation of President Shaimiev could guarantee internal stability and the moderation
of extreme nationalist groups within Tatarstan. Moreover, Tatarstan possessed significant
oil resources, developed industry and trained personnel. Republics and regions that were
net contributors to the federal budget were in a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis
Moscow and many managed to stray farther and exercise a greater degree of independence.
On the other hand, subsidized regions sought to garner more resources from the Center
by "behaving themselves" to a greater degree.
After three years of serious negotiations and the signing of twelve specific
agreements, Moscow signed a Treaty with Tatarstan in February 1994. At that time (in
contrast to his current position), Sergei Shakhrai stated that Moscow was ready to sign
similar treaties with any subject of the Federation that was willing to follow the same
process. He specifically mentioned Chechnya, but negotiations with General Dudayev, a
nationalist leader, failed and resulted in the current tragic outcome.
Subsequently, Moscow did sign a treaty with Bashkortostan in the Volga region (August
1994). In the North Caucasus, though no agreement was reached with General Dudayev in
Chechnya, Moscow did sign a treaty with Kabardino-Balkaria (November 1994) and North
Ossetia (March 1995). President Yeltsin personally supported these cases, but Sergei
Shakhrai, representing the government Commission on Preparation of Intra-State Treaties,
sent a memorandum to President Yeltsin right afterwards recommending that the process of
signing treaties be stopped immediately. Those standing in line to sign a treaty include
Udmurtia in the Volga region; Dagestan; Ingushetia and Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the North
Caucasus; the Republic of Sakha-Yakutia (Far East) and the Kaliningrad Oblast.
Again, we see a dilemma for the federal leadership. What if all 89 subjects of the
Russian Federation want to sign a separate treaty with Moscow? This would seem to threaten
the very basis of a coherent federation. Some experts argue that a federation can be
asymmetrical and give special status to a few select subjects, but not all subjects.
Moreover, businessmen do not want to have special laws in each region that might
contradict federal legislation. There is a need for a standard legal framework for market
relations to develop effectively.
At the same time, federal authorities cannot simply abolish the existing state
structure without serious risk of destabilization. Shakhrai has proposed that
"territorial-administrative reforms be conducted before the June 1996
elections." The most influential republican leader. President Shaimiev, has been
highly critical of this proposal and has warned publicly that altering the situation with
the Treaty would "result in long-term destabilization of the Russian Federation.
Citizens of the Republic of Tatarstan would most definitely boycott elections to the
Federal Assembly as well as the Russian Presidency, as they did once already."3
The challenge, then, relates to finding a strategy to achieve over time a coherent
centralized government with a healthy degree of decentralization and accommodation of
ethnic groups. What is an appropriate degree of devolution of power in the Russian
Federation? We must keep in mind that the degree of local autonomy that obtained by
Tatarstan, the leader in the effort to devolve power to the local regions, is still on all
counts less than any US state such as California or Montana.4 From the
perspective of the traditionally highly centralized Soviet/Russian state, however, the
degree of local sovereignty obtained by Tatarstan may seem significant.
Though there are some common principles of federal relations, every federative country
has its unique experience such that the German model differs substantially from the
Canadian model. The experience of the United States or Switzerland cannot be mechanically
transplanted to Russian soil. At the same time it would be misguided not to glean valuable
lessons from the experience of other countries, m doing so one has to bear in mind such
peculiarities of Russia as its vast size, economic capacity and ethnic and cultural
diversity. Russia has a particularly complex historical legacy as a result of its imperial
conquests and the arbitrary territorial divisions and deportations of the totalitarian
Soviet period. As noted, there is also a complex political process underway in Russian
Federation today as it undergoes a political and economic transition of unprecedented
proportions. Any approach would need to take into account the mentality and political
culture of Russian society, the nature and character of existing and evolving
institutions, as well as their current capacity to grow and develop democratically.
In an effort to summarize the challenge, the following two primary goals can be stated.
First, there is a need to achieve a federation in Russia that is ultimately coherent,
stable and democratic, providing equal rights for all subjects. Simply put, this can
be achieved either by pushing down those regions - like Tatarstan - that have already
achieved some local decision-making power, or else by raising the status of other
subjects, the oblasts and krais, to the level of republics like Tatarstan. President
Shaimiev has supported the latter position and sees the status of Tatarstan as a step in
the direction of a normal, democratic Russian Federation.
The second main goal is to find ways to accommodate those particularly complex
regions where there is a genuinely challenging ethnic situation with special historical
circumstances, such as Tatarstan, the North Caucasus, and Tyva. These regions may have
a claim to some special arrangement or status, at least in the short-term. Any political
plan to eliminate the republics is fraught with destabilizing consequences. For some
ethnic groups that were forcibly deported under Soviet rule, the issue of preserving their
republics has an existential dimension: it represents a safeguard against the possible
recurrence of such tragedies in the future.
There is also the fact that behind the existing republics stand entrenched interests
and inertia formed over decades of Soviet rule. There are also new interests formed in the
post-Soviet period of redistribution of economic wealth controlled by local authority
figures. For all these reasons, any attempt at massive political restructuring entails
unpredictable and destabilizing elements.
In order to achieve these two aims, we elaborate an approach below, a step-by-step
strategy over five years:
1) Refrain from efforts to cancel the current infra-state treaties, which are pragmatic
responses to complex relationships needed to maintain stability in the process of building
a new Russian Federation. For the time being, there is a need to give special treatment to
particularly difficult cases to allow voluntary integration into the Federation. This is a
complex challenge for federal authorities throughout the world. As Donald Horowitz has
argued, central government authorities generally believe that devolution of power to
regions will lead to secession and the breakdown of the central state, hi fact, however,
such devolution can work in favor of moderate leaders and ultimately contribute to a
strong federation and preempt secession.
This analysis clearly holds for the case of Tatarstan, where early devolution of power
strengthened a moderate leader and basically eliminated the danger of secession, m the
case of Chechnya, however, the particular leader who took power. General Dudayev, refused
to accept less than total independence; his personal power in Chechen domestic politics
depended upon taking an extreme nationalist position. Had a more moderate political leader
been in power in Chechnya, Moscow might have succeeded in its effort to sign a
Tatarstan-like treaty and thus avoid the current tragedy. The Russian government should
make new efforts to sign such a treaty with a representative body of Chechens as a way of
ending the current violence and beginning the difficult path of bringing the Chechen
Republic back into the Russian Federation.
2) Declare a policy of raising over five years the status of all subjects of the
Federation to the level of current republics like Tatarstan, which allows for a local
constitution and symbols, election of local leader, and reasonable local decision-making
power. These are powers that are normally given to local regions in any modem federation.
Some oblasts, such as Nizhny Novgorod and Ekaterinburg, have unilaterally decided to elect
their leaders; most heads of administrations are still appointed from Moscow.
3) Over time it is possible to imagine that some existing subjects of the Federation
will voluntarily merge and form new subjects through regional economic associations. The
principle stimulus should be economic as opposed to political. Rather than endeavoring to
destroy old forms, new forms should be created in parallel to the old, allowing the latter
to fade away gradually.
1 Boris Yeltsin, "Federalizm I mezhnatsional'noe soglasie" in
"Ob ukreplenii Rossiiskogo gosudarstva" Rossiiskaya gazeta. 25 February,
2 Sergei M. Shakhrai, Official Memorandum to President Boris N. Yeltsin No.
1576 (March 1995).
3 Izvestia Tatarstana. December 23, 1994, p.l.
4 The only exception is possibly the area of military service, where Tatarstan
is claiming the right for its young men to serve on the territory of Tatarstan and not to
be involved in ethnic conflicts within the Federation. In principle, Tatarstan has
declared itself a neutral and nuclear-free zone. As an enclave Tatarstan may be able to
maintain some such rights that would be impossible for a border region to claim (federal
troops must defend the border), but this is not clear.