Stephen Shenfield makes abundantly clear, at least to me -- in his review/summary of Peter Reddaway and Robert Orttung, eds., Putin's Reform of Federal-Regional Relations -- that the vast bulk of Western comment and advice on issues of Russian federalism have been off base, in several ways. First, in opposing and ridiculing Putin's original 1999 measures to strengthen Federal authority in the regions. Second, in failing to appreciate that Federal authority still needs further strengthening not weakening in order to arrive at anything like a modern federal state. Third, in treating the current reform plan as purely arbitrary and opposing it often on the worst possible grounds.
I hope Mr. Shenfield will not mind if I elaborate on these points.
1. He shows that Putin's original recentralizing measures -- the creation of Federal Districts and appointment of Presidential Representatives -- have been partly effective in restoring the nationwide application of Federal authority and bringing Russia closer to being a normal federal state. Shenfield shows they made for a major, if still incomplete, improvement over the situation prior to 1999, which was not federal but confederal or worse, with features of extreme decentralization and chaos.
The implication seems clear. The sarcasm with which most of us in the West (and I include myself here) greeted this reform, has proved mistaken. It was widely denounced at the time in the West as a move toward extreme centralization sometimes equated with dictatorship, and/or as bound to fail or increase the chaos in Russia. None of this has turned out right.
It didn't help that Putin talked of a "power vertical" and a Russian genetic instinct for hypercentralization. Perhaps some of us were reacting more to this language than to the substance of the policy. But in retrospect, there has been a problem of language on the part of Western commentators as well as of Putin. Many Westerners don't seem to understand the federalism they recommend, and use the term to urge instead upon Russia ever-further decentralization. Putin in turn sometimes seems to suspect that federalism really does mean what these Westerners are urging, and accordingly doesn't seem to trust the idea -- even when he has been bringing the country closer to federalism in practice.
2. He shows that Russia still falls substantially short of a normal federal state. It is still part federal, part confederal or, perhaps more accurately, chaotic, localized, and feudal. The reforms still have a way to go in restoring adequate central authority.
While this seems crystal clear to me from reading Shenfield's account, there may be some mental blocks in the West to understanding its meaning. So, at the risk of being pedantic, let me say that what it means is that Russia is substantially LESS effectively centralized than normal democratic federations like the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, or Australia, not to mention unitary democracies like England and France. And that what is needs is MORE effective centralization.
This does not contradict the probability that there are at the same time some elements of overcentralization. Some of the numerous secondary Federal functions, inherited from Soviet times, might well be better redistributed to provincial control. Effectiveness of Federal authority and scope of Federal functions are not identical subjects.
3. He hints that the current reform plan, i.e. appointment of governors, is in some respects a logical response to the elements of continuing shortfall of central authority after the first round of reform, and to new perversions he points out such as the emergence, among the post-1999 Presidential Representatives, of attachments to regional interests and protectionism. This means that, wise or not, Putin's move is not an arbitrary power grab, as Western journalists have been writing. It has its valid reasons, and needs to be answered -- if it is wrong -- with better reasons and better alternatives.
It does not, of course, mean that the plan for appointment of governors is necessarily wise. I myself think it unwise, for reasons a few analysts have already pointed to -- loss of local accountability to and connection with the people, reduction of democratic participation, concentration in the central government of the blame for everything that goes wrong. And because I think it highly probable that there are better ways of reinforcing Federal authority.
Nevertheless, it is misleading to say, as the American President has done twice, that the plan is anti-democratic because it eliminates the balance of power between local and central authorities, or more broadly eliminates checks and balances. The plan is indeed undemocratic, for the simple reason that it eliminates gubernatorial elections, but not for the reason Mr. Bush gave. No modern democracy maintains local power in a form that can balance central power: that went by the wayside with the Middle Ages, and calling for such a balance in Russia would amount to calling for an end to the modern state and a return to medieval chaos. Fortunately Mr. Bush did not understand the implications of what he, like many Americans, has been saying. But probably Russians cannot help but sense something amiss in the formulation, and amiss in a way that might not sound benevolent to them since it could weaken their country and subject it to dangerous centrifugal forces.
The problem with contemporary American rhetoric is that checks and balances need to be understood, not as a generic slogan for supporting any and every obstacle to the exercise of government authority, but in the more subtle Madisonian sense of constructive balances and appropriate last-resort checks. Thus the Constitution of 1787 eliminated most of the destructive State checks against Federal power, and replaced them with intra-Federal institutional balances.
On the matter of getting federal-provincial balances right, the Putin plan is on the whole an improvement over current realities. It corrects a pre-existing imbalance in the form of provincial powers presently able to exercise destructive checks and vetoes on central government operations. Instead of siding with the forces in Russia that embody the decentralist imbalance and bear a potential for state deconstruction -- which only justifies Putin in dismissing Western advice -- it would make more sense for Westerners to try to think of alternative, more constructive methods of righting the balance and strengthening Federal authority in Russia. I must admit, however, that I am prone to greater caution in these matters than I used to be, after seeing how badly most of us got it wrong on the first round in 1999.
The West has been on more solid ground in calling for maintaining and enhancing constructive democratic balances on the national (Federal) level, such as restoring independent nationwide TV channels. Hopefully in the future, if it pushes for a more independent Duma, it will not be the kind that existed from 1993-1999, when Communist and ultra-nationalist parties predominated and acted as a destructive check not a constructive balance within Federal power.