Paul Goble reports:
Even compared to its Soviet predecessor, the federalism of the Russian Federation as Vladimir Putin understands it has little to do with providing autonomy and protection to minorities and more about creating a procedure for absorbing neighboring countries into the Russian state, according to a leading Moscow expert on federal systems.
In an essay in the new issue of Neprikosnovennyy Zapas, Andrey Zakharov, the journal’s editor and author of “Unitary Federation: Five Studies of Russian Federalism” (Moscow, 2008), offers that disturbing conclusion on the basis of a careful examination of the two.
Both the Soviet Union in the past and the Russian Federation now were called “federative” states only as a result of “some misunderstanding,” Zakharov says. “In both cases, behind the formulas … were concealed a unitary-imperial construction which recognized NO REAL autonomy for its constituent parts.” But what is striking, the Moscow specialist continues, is that the divide between “legal form and political content” is so much larger in Putin’s Russian Federation than it was in Soviet times that Soviet federalism has “unexpectedly” come to appear a “much more sympathetic project than its current Russian analogue.”
While Soviet federalism was a “façade,” it involved more than force, and the “market” exchange between the center and the constituent elements while anything but equal nonetheless allowed some scope for the development of the national communities on which the Soviet federation was built. Indeed, Zakharov notes, in the Soviet case as in others, “federalist principles often are applied in those circumstances when the need arises for reforming an empire into something different, more contemporary and effective.” The multi-national composition of the Soviet population “ did not leave the Bolsheviks with a choice other than accord among ethnic groups.
What mattered in the end was not how “voluntary” these arrangements were but rather the legal forms they took as a union nations voluntarily joined and could ultimately leave. Those forms not only turned out to be “exceptionally vital” but when they were in a position to be “suddenly filled up with living content,” they turned out to be capable of “destroying the USSR.” But Zakharov points out that “the free exit from the USSR was the opposite side of a principled innovation of the Soviet empire, an empire which saw as the chief means of its extension not in territorial conquests … but in the voluntary unification of ever more hearths of ‘the world proletarian revolution’” and one concerned about the procedures to allow that.
The other “most important special feature” of Soviet federalism was that it offered “a multitude of preferences for small peoples who had joined themselves to ‘the socialist family,’” preferences that the Bolsheviks believed were needed to overcome “Great Russian nationalism” even though they used them instrumentally rather than as a matter of principle. The current Russian system of federalism is very different. Because the share of non-Russians in the population is smaller, many in the regime “supposed that in the new conditions a stress on ethnic diversity should give way to a stress on national homogeneity” and ethnic Russian dominance.
Hence, there is no suggestion in the Russian constitution that the nations within the federation have the right of self-determination up to and including exit, and given the current attitudes in Moscow, Zakharov suggests, there is no danger that there will be any “rehabilitation” of that idea. And consequently, even though much of the rest of the world, including the European Union, is moving in the direction of providing ever greater protection for minorities through federalism and other arrangements, Russia is moving in exactly the opposite direction, plumping for majoritarian control. But the powers that be in Moscow, Zakharov continues, remain very interested in backing the other consequence of Soviet federalism, the possibility that its Russian successor can be used to support the inclusion of neighboring territories or states into the Russian Federation “in a completely legal and peaceful way.”
That possibility is clearly on the minds of some in Moscow with respect to Abkhazia and even more South Ossetia, especially now that their recognition by the Russian government as independent states “unblocks” the road to their inclusion in the Russian Federation by granting them rather than Georgia the right to agree to such a step. This “paradoxical” situation in which contemporary Russia has thrown away a “positive” aspect of the Soviet system and held tightly to a “negative” one is unfortunately, the Russian federalism expert says, a “not infrequent” characteristic of Russian life. But in this case in particular, that pattern is fraught with danger. “The misfortune is that such a ‘good’ Soviet Union is fated to complete its life path in exactly the same way as did the previous ‘bad’ one,” Zakharov argues. “And this will happen not because it is ‘insufficiently’ good but because it is like the Soviet Union was” in all too many ways, an example of the current elite using “Soviet recipes for solving post-Soviet problems.”
The reason for that “diagnosis,” he adds, is that “those factors which at one time forced the leadership of the Bolshevik Party to employ federalist rhetoric, despite the passing of a hundred years, remain in force.” As was the case then, “the nationality question in Russia” remains serious, and “no talk about ‘verticals’ and ‘stability’ ought to deceive us.”
“Now, when money for purchasing the loyalty of local elites is rapidly running out, and the establishment of new mechanisms of inter-ethnic accord … has not taken place at all, this theme is becoming extraordinarily important.” And that is why ever more people are going to be talking about giving Russian federalism far more content.
And as these conversations intensify, Zakharov concludes, it will become obvious to ever more people that “’Soviet’ in no way means ‘outstanding,’ especially in that version” which Putin and those about him are now offering the country – and thereby putting it on course toward yet another disaster.