Incomplete Centralization
№3 2008 July/September

Russia’s political and administrative structure and its
relationship with the rise of a nation-state identity have been
discussed more than once in articles in Russia in Global Affairs.
These problems continue to be very relevant today, as the country
is going through a complicated period of consolidation into a new
type of state power. On the other hand, like all other countries,
Russia has found itself subject to an increasing influence of
multifarious external factors in the age of globalization.

Swiss geographer Claude Raffestin wrote fifteen years ago that
borders are social analogs of biological membranes regulating a
metabolic substance exchange between a territory – ethnic or
sovereign – and the world around it. It is obvious that the
efficiency of this “metabolism;” i.e. the involvement of a state in
global, political, economic and civilizational processes and its
simultaneous protection from undesirable impacts, depends to a
large extent on the condition of the membrane – the state border –
and of the adjoining territories. History proves that the bigger
the unification of the political and administrative structure of
the border periphery is, the greater its efficiency.

Moreover, Russia’s border periphery has never been homogeneous.
In the Russian Empire, state unification embraced only those border
provinces that had formed as products of a spontaneous popular
colonization – first during the reign of Peter the Great and then
during the reign of Catherine II. As for ethnic provinces,
beginning with the annexation of the Kazan khanate, the degree of
their integration into the country’s political space and,
correspondingly, their status in the administrative system has
varied considerably.

As a result, by the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian
Empire emerged as an agglomeration of administrative entities. It
had a mixed, unsystematic and rather loose organization on the
political, administrative and legal plane. The regional and ethnic
separatism was somewhat counterbalanced by the idea of a united and
indivisible centralized state; and the military and civilian
administrations in the provinces relied on that. This idea would
often take the form of talk about “a common destiny” of peoples
living in Russia, as a reflection of their awareness of a common
external threat and economic space.

The combination of these concepts became an important factor
behind the formation of the Soviet Union and the political
mobilization of its people, especially in the 1930s and the 1940s.
However, external threats, common economic space and
Marxist-Leninist ideology could not secure the political and
administrative unification of the border periphery. Nationalistic
and separatist moods among Communists in the former ethnic
provinces forced the Soviet leaders to make concessions; Leninist
and Stalinist nationalities policy only worked toward a
conservation of regionalism and ethnic separatism. The policy of
the self-determination of nations also fostered them.

To understand the logical antecedence of the Soviet Union’s law
On the Resolution of Issues Pertaining to the Secession of a Union
Republic from the USSR, which was passed on April 3, 1990 and which
guaranteed unconditional self-determination of the autonomies of
all levels, it is sufficient to open Volume 14 of Joseph Stalin’s
Collected Works.

The text of Stalin’s report on the draft constitution passed in
1936 says the following on promoting the autonomous republics to
the status of Union ones: “First, it is essential that a republic
be a border province […] because, if a Union republic retains the
right to secession, it should have a logical and practical
opportunity to raise the issue of its withdrawal from the USSR. And
that right can be enjoyed only by the republics that have, say, a
border with some foreign countries and are not surrounded by the
territories of the USSR  […] So, if a Union republic has the
right to secede, we should create conditions that would prevent
this right from turning into a senseless scrap of paper […] Second,
it is necessary that ethnic people, who give their name to the
title of the republic, represent a more or less compact majority on
its territory […] Third, this republic […] should have a
population, say, of no less than a million people. Why? Because it
would be wrong to suppose that a small Soviet republic with a
minimal population and a minimal army could count on its existence
as an independent state.” These provisions stayed in effect even
after the dismantling of Stalin’s personality cult.

The inviolability of the Soviet borders was ensured by the Iron
Curtain and the state’s integrity hinged on the principles of
Communist Party construction in line with Article 6 of the Soviet
Union’s Constitution. The abolition of this article meant not only
a loosening of ideology at the Union center, but also a loss of the
sole mechanism of internal political integration.

As for Boris Yeltsin’s proposal to “take as much sovereignty as
you can swallow,” it would be strange if the constituent
territories of the Federation located along the border (and
elsewhere) decided not to use it in such a situation. The result
was that – although Russia maintained formal unity – it turned into
a conglomerate of territorial entities that ignored the supremacy
of federal law and the common economic space de facto and de jure.
“We have a decentralized state,” President Vladimir Putin had to
admit in his state-of-the-nation address to both houses of
parliament on July 8, 2000.
In spite of the course toward centralization that the Russian
leaders embarked on at the beginning of this decade, today’s
Russian Federation still preserves the legislative base of regional
and ethno-political disintegration in the border areas. This has
the following backbone elements: the 1993 Constitution of the
Russian Federation; the major laws and regulations of Russia’s
constituent regions located along the state border; Presidential
Decree No. 773 of July 2, 2005, On Interaction Between and
Coordination of Activity by the Agencies of Executive Power in
Constituent Regions of the Russian Federation and Regional Branches
of the Federal Agencies of Executive Power; federal laws On
Amendments to Separate Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation
in Connection with Improvements in the Distribution of Powers (No.
199, signed December 31, 2005) and On Languages of the Peoples of
the Russian Federation (No. 165-FZ, signed December 11,
It may look at first glance that the effective Constitution lays
the foundations for a centralized model of federalism: it declares
Russia’s sovereignty over its entire territory; the supremacy of
federal law; unity of the legal and economic space, as well as of
the system of state power.

Still, Vladimir Putin said at a session of the Council of
Legislators in March 2006 that work on aligning territorial
legislative acts with federal ones had been completed in only ten
constituent territories of the Russian Federation. Also, Clause 2
of Article 5 of the constitution treats the constituent republics
as statehoods, while Article 73 affirms their right to enjoy the
full scope of state power. These provisions, in turn, are fixed in
the basic laws of all the constituent republics, with Kalmykia and
the Republic of Altai being the only exceptions.

Buryatia, Ingushetia, Karelia, North Ossetia, Tyva,
Sakha-Yakutia and the Chukotka Autonomous District are the only
constituent territories that mention the federal constitution as a
document determining their state and legal status along with their
regional constitutions. However, the latest edition of
Sakha-Yakutia’s constitution lists the issues pertaining to the
state structure, status and territory as the prerogatives of the
republic. Along with it, “the people of the Republic of
Sakha-Yakutia retain the right to self-determination (hereinafter
italicized by the author – Ed.) on the basis of the expression of
the will by its citizens.” A number of Russia’s constituent regions
– the Volgograd, Omsk and Sakhalin – define themselves as “state
territorial entities.”

Only three of all the national constituents –
Karachai-Cherkessia, Republic of Altai and Kalmykia – recognize in
their constitutions that their territories are inalienable parts of
the Russian Federation, and only the Chukotka Autonomous District
has a provision in its regulations that affirms Russia’s
sovereignty over its territory. However, Article 1 of the
regulations says that the area “enjoys the social, economic and
political autonomy inherent in a constituent of the

It is noteworthy that most of the constituent territories
located along the borders have the right to maintain international
and foreign economic relations, although neither they themselves
nor the agencies of local self-government are subjects of
international law. Constitutional changes over the past few years
have mostly embraced ethnic territorial entities – and only

Kabardino-Balkaria and Sakha-Yakutia continue to position
themselves as de facto independent subjects of international
relations with a status standing on a par with the Russian
Federation, since they coordinate their foreign relations and trade
with it. Karachai-Cherkessia, North Ossetia and Kalmykia fully
manage international relations on their own without any
constrictive provisions in their laws. The same can be said of the
Astrakhan, Belgorod, Kurgan, Omsk, Samara, and Smolensk regions.
The regulations of the Pskov Region mention a single provision
concerning international relations: “The Governor of the Pskov
Region acts as the Region’s representative in international and
foreign economic relations.”

Russia’s constitution does not envision any forms of the federal
government’s legal interference in the affairs of constituent
regions. More than that, Paragraph 6 of Article 76 says: “Should a
contradiction emerge between a federal law and a legal act of a
constituent territory […], the legal act of the constituent
territory shall prevail.”  This provision has been carried
over to the most recent editions of constitutions and regulations
of absolutely all the constituent territories.

Generally speaking, the constitutional acts of the constituents
place the main accent on their own territorial integrity, and not
the Russian Federation’s territorial integrity. Only
Karachai-Cherkessia says in its constitution that its border with a
foreign state is also Russia’s state border and that its status is
stipulated by federal law.

Meanwhile, some of the political and administrative powers of
constituent border regions bear an overt threat to Russia’s
territorial integrity. For instance, they make decisions on their
administrative and territorial composition. Karelia and
Sakha-Yakutia have reserved for themselves the right to set up
ethnic municipal entities (and Yakutia can even decide on their
status). More than that, the Sakha constitution gives the head of
the republic the power to introduce and lift a state of

All of this means that courtesies toward the supremacy of the
federal laws and the unity of the system of state power are nothing
more than camouflage. Any weakening of the federal center will
prompt the constituents to ignore the principles if they find it

One more document that reduces to nothing the supremacy of
federal laws and the unity of the system of state power is
Presidential Decree No. 773 issued on July 2, 2005. It empowered
the constituents to control the performance of top officials of
regional branches of federal agencies who are appointed by the
federal center. The decree embraces the heads of regional
departments of the Interior Ministry, Emergency Situations and
Civil Defense Ministry and Justice Ministry. The Federal Security
Service and the Defense Ministry are the only two agencies it
leaves out. This document expanded the opportunities for regional
leaders to have a say in the appointment of territorial Interior
ministers and heads of major departments at the Interior Ministry
as compared with provisions of the 2001 federal law On the Police.
It is worth remembering that an effort to replace Kalmykia’s
Interior Minister in the fall of 2003 barely stopped short of
turning into a large-scale army operation.

Federal law No. 199 handed still more power from the center to
the constituents in sectors like land tenure, ecology, protection
of historical and cultural monuments, education, science, and
housing laws. It has thus provided the infrastructure capability to
further build up sovereignty of the border regions.

The federal law On Languages of the Peoples of the Russian
Federation also has provisions fraught with a deplorable aftermath.
One of them says: “The state shall facilitate the development of
languages, bilingualism and multilingualism on the entire territory
of the Russian Federation.” As a result, we have a broad use of
ethnonyms, or a name applied to a given ethnic group, in the
official political vocabulary (El Kurultai, Il Tumen, the People’s
– or Great – Khural) and in the official titles of constituent
republics, like the Republic of Sakha instead of Yakutia or Tyva
instead of Tuva. Linguistic separatism of this kind once served as
a springboard for the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Another provision of the same law says that “the [constituent]
republics have the power to adopt their own state languages in line
with the Constitution of the Russian Federation.”  It is not
surprising therefore that Karelia’s constitution stipulates the
right “to establish other state languages on the basis of a direct
expression of the will of the people of the Republic of Karelia
through a referendum.” Quite emblematic is the fact that the basic
laws of the border constituents where small ethnic groups reside
also guarantee development of ethnic languages and culture.
Patriotism and nurturing an all-Russia consciousness are mentioned
only in the regulations of the Krasnodar Territory, the Omsk,
Novosibirsk and Orenburg Regions.

These legal provisions and practices pose threats to Russia’s
common information and cultural space and lay the cultural and
ideological basis for its collapse. It is language that shapes
cultural paradigms; in the meantime, this law guarantees “the right
to obtain general education in the native language and to choose
the language of education within the scope of opportunities offered
by the educational system.” This is how the law permits the
destruction of the common space in education, to say nothing of the
fact that, not infrequently, education in ethnic languages is
defective, as they do not have the stock of terminology for a whole
number of disciplines. Add to this that the ethnic constituent
republics actively build up and promulgate myths about their own
political history.
The above-said highlights the importance of looking closely at
international experience in that sphere.

First, the majority of multi-ethnic states are
not federations, while the majority of federations were not built
along the ethnic principle.

Second, poly-ethnic federations have smaller
chances for survival. Will Kymlicka, a classic figure of
contemporary political philosophy, pointed out that territorial
autonomy is simultaneously an insufficient and excessively
representative method of defending the interests of ethnic
minorities. So one should seek some non-territorial mechanisms. It
is also true, though, that the same author was skeptical about the
outcome of this search. In reality, ritual invocations of a
non-territorial autonomy seldom produce a clear idea of how this
should be done in practice and instances of a successful
implementation of such autonomy are but few, he wrote.

This reveals two ways for political consolidation.

Number one suggests consolidation of ethnic
Russians in the face of the “ever-present external foe” and the
“fifth column” that this foe has allegedly set up inside Russia.
The most frequently named foes are Western civilization, the
“Golden Billion,” the “global government,” the “global backstage
milieu,” and the “global shadow organizations.”

However, this strategy actually aims to form priorities of
ethnic and – quite often – religious identity, but not political
ones. In this sense, national identity of ethnic Russians can only
be viewed in terms of identity with the Russian state in the
context of gathering lands and peoples around them. In all other
cases the consolidation of the ethnic core would pose a serious
threat to the unity of the state. Consolidation of this kind more
often than not comes as a response to national humiliation. It has
always followed the formula of the “ladder” specified by Russian
philosopher Vladimir Solovyov – “from national self-consciousness
to national complacency to national self-admiration to national

Path number two, which is gaining popularity
among political scientists in Russia, suggests the development of
unitarianist concepts based on the belief that genuine federalism
is inorganic to Russia and that it is necessary to abolish the
constituent territories’ unbounded rights and freedoms along with
this country’s simultaneous transformation into a “federated
empire” or “an imperial federation.”

But whatever the lures of these models, they remain the abodes
of researchers while the interests of the political elite, which
continues to take steps toward “pulling the state pegs” out of the
political, economic, social, and cultural life, stay far away from
the tasks of imperial construction.

The above-said leads us to the following conclusion. The federal
authorities have certainly done much in recent years to strengthen
the unity and territorial stability of the Russian Federation. This
was achieved largely through the centralization of Russia’s
political space and an unprecedented ideological and political
consolidation around a popular national leader. However, the
institutional and legislative guarantees for the country’s
territorial integrity are quite unreliable. If an unforeseen
political weakening of the federal center occurs, there is a high
likelihood that the country’s federative structure will be