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RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly
Vol. 4, No. 42, 27 October 2004
By Paul Goble
Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

President Vladimir Putin's plan to reduce the number of territorial units in the Russian Federation and the debate around it reflect the continuing influence of three myths about the nature of Russian federalism. Both individually and collectively, these myths not only have detracted attention from the core problems of the Russian political system but have also made the resolution of these problems even less likely.

That is the conclusion offered by Russian social scientist Mikhail Afanasev in an essay entitled "The Russian Federation: A Weak State and the 'Presidential Vertical.'" His article, posted on polit.ru this week, is featured in a new two-volume collection, "The Country After Communism," issued by Moscow's Institute of Law and Public Policy.

In his wide-ranging essay, Afanasev argues that Russian federalism has been described and defined over time largely in terms of three competing and distorting myths, all of which are the products of "conscious political mythmaking" by self-interested elites.

The first of these myths is that federalism is a means of resolving the country's nationality problems. That myth arose in the Soviet period, but Afanasev says, "In the framework of the Soviet system, ethnic federalism was deprived of its own content and subordinated to the logic of the functioning of the communist nomenklatura."

When the Soviet system collapsed, he continues, local elites attempted "to breathe life into the imaginary forms of a federation of national states." But these efforts simply underscored the absence of any logic of ethnic federalism in Russia.

On the one hand, this myth contributed to the elevation of the idea of national self-determination to a central role in state building, thereby turning the Russian Federation into one where treaty relationships rather than constitutional principles predominated. Not surprisingly, Afanasev says, non-Russian elites used this as a cover to advance their power.

But on the other hand, the asymmetrical quality of the post-Soviet federation not only created tensions between the so-called national republics and the "Russian" oblasts and krais, but also led to a situation in which some constituent elements of the federation were subordinate to other elements in a matryoshka-doll-like fashion.

To a certain extent, this myth began to be dispelled by Moscow's actions beginning with the 1993 constitution and running through the 1996 federal law on national-cultural autonomies. The latter document, Afanasev says, "marked a departure from Soviet ethno-political particularism" and from the "ethnocratic" principle some nationalist elites had attempted to use to build their power.

The second myth, Afanasev says, is that federalism is "a synonym and equivalent of democracy" itself. Two groups propagated that idea in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- the ruling elites of the regions who saw this myth as making a contribution to their power and democratic activists who believed that Russia could only become a democracy if it became a federation.

Afanasev suggests that everyone looking at Russian political development should remember that "the democratic movement in the USSR unified not only liberal elements but also all possible opponents of the central 'imperial' power who were struggling for local 'sovereignty''' -- but not necessarily for democracy.

But it soon became obvious that the arguments about local sovereignty were arguments "not about the rights of citizens but rather about the division of power" between local rulers and Moscow. Consequently, "decentralization and localization of power were not accompanied by the consolidation of civil society," but rather created conditions in which local elites could oppose the institutionalization of democratic norms coming from the center.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Russian government simultaneously began to recognize what was really going on, Afanasev writes, and Moscow moved to counter the trend via legislation that reaffirmed the primacy of central law. Also, at about the same time, Russian liberals recognized that federalism does not necessarily produce democracy and began to support the center against the regions.

The third myth, Afanasev suggests, is that "the primary cause" of the weakness of Russia is "the asymmetric and treaty-character" of its federal relationships. Of course, he continues, neither the existence of asymmetrical relationship nor the treaty-like nature of ties between the center and the regions is entirely a myth.

But, Afanasev insists, the content and meaning of these relationships far more often has been the subject of myth making than of analysis. And this myth making, he suggests, has been part of "the revenge of the central ruling elite" against regional elites whom the former believe have too much power.

From the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovskii in the early 1990s through Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov at the end of that decade to President Putin now, it has been an article of faith in Moscow that asymmetrical federalism weakens the state and that the federal units need to be reduced in number through consolidation.

Afanasev calls attention to one aspect of Putin's biography that he implies may help to explain the vehemence of the current Russian president on this point: Putin is the first ruler in Moscow since the death of Stalin who did not spend at least part of his career in charge of a region or republic.

However that may be, Afanasev continues, "no one has explained" just how the abolition of asymmetrical federalism will contribute to "the development of a democratic federation." What it will do, however, is quite obvious, he says. In addition to creating administrative chaos and political confusion, it will be the occasion for the elimination of elections in the regions.

Putin's proposal to end direct elections of governors has sparked a great deal of controversy, but as Afanasev points out, the link between consolidating regions and ending gubernatorial elections has been a staple of such proposals again from Zhirinovskii through Primakov.

Suggestions that consolidating regions and ending elections will also consolidate democracy should be recognized for what they are, a cover for something else, Afanasev argues. And consequently, he says, "it is better to listen to Zhirinovskii" -- who has linked those two steps to "the restoration of an imperial state system" -- than to others who act as if there is no connection.

Confusion about that, Afanasev concludes, has kept Russians from focusing on what Russian federalism really is and what the reforms now on offer fail to acknowledge.

"Our practical federalism arose as a historical form of the decentralization of the Soviet nomenklatura," he writes. And the myths about it, he says, have had the effect of detracting attention from what Afanasev calls "the unbearable weakness of the state," a weakness rooted not so much in the Soviet past as in Russian cultural traditions.

Consequently, any efforts to overcome the weaknesses now being blamed on the nature of Russian federalism will be do little to help. Indeed, Afanasev concludes, "they will be the equivalent of dousing a fire with kerosene."

Paul Goble, former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government, is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.