The Power Vertical and the Nation’s Self-Consciousness
No. 2 2008 April/June

During Vladimir Putin’s two terms as
president, the Russian federal government focused its efforts
largely on the creation of an efficient administrative ‘power
vertical.’ These efforts have somewhat improved the general level
of government, but have not made the government system faultless.
Moreover, they have not brought Russian citizens any closer to
identifying themselves as a united civil nation.


The word “nation” and its derivatives
have a specific tint in Russia. Although Russians no longer need to
state their ethnicity in questionnaires and Russian passports no
longer specify it either, the notion of “nationality” is still
often associated in Russia with the Soviet-era term natsmen [a
pejorative term abbreviated from the Russian for ‘national
minority’ – Ed.], which was used for all non-ethnic Russians. The
nationality issue arises in connection with ethnic crimes or
skinhead gangs – so-called ‘defenders of the indigenous population’
– in large cities facing immigration problems.

Even experts often use the word
‘nation’ in its Soviet sense; that is, ‘ethnicity.’ It is enough to
recall that the constituent republics within today’s Russia
continue to call themselves ‘national.’ Almost no one in Russia
perceives ‘nation’ as co-citizenship; as united citizens of one
country, regardless of their ethnicity. This factor can in the long
run jeopardize the institutional stability and integrity of the
Russian state.

It is difficult to imagine how a
country that has a huge and ethnically diverse population that does
not feel united can experience stable development. There have been
attempts to form a common self-consciousness, but these have been
haphazard and inconsistent and obviously have not been embraced by
the masses.

When the first Russian President Boris
Yeltsin began to use the term Rossiyane to denote all citizens of
Russia, regardless of their ethnicity, it only annoyed or evoked
ironical smiles among a majority of the population. This word
infringed on the “phantom” great-power identity of the citizens of
the former Soviet Union or looked like a euphemism for ethnicity –
not necessarily Russian, but also Chechen, Tatar, Ukrainian and so
on. However, the term was intended precisely to emphasize the civil
unity of all people in Russia.

Vladimir Putin actively exploited
people’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union. It became a general belief
that the country must consolidate its political unity and build a
‘power vertical’ that would cement the country’s federated
structure, which seemed to be coming apart at the start of Putin’s
eight-year reign, and would improve the ability to govern. However,
the general ideological tone of the efforts to restore the lost
sovereign greatness did not help much to form a unified identity
for people living in different parts of the country or even next

The task of finding an identity was
overshadowed by territorial administration problems – like in the
Soviet Union which, due to the Bolshevik’s nation-building project,
proved to be a fragile set of several dozen “ethnic apartments” by
the time it broke up. A common Soviet identity was intended to
cement the vast country’s structure, but at the critical moment it
turned out that the official ideas about “proletarian
internationalism” and a “multi-ethnic Soviet nation” were merely
empty slogans.

The risks are high today as well. The
government keeps warning – and not without grounds – about the
threat of alienating the country’s predominantly Russian-populated
Far East or the multi-ethnic North Caucasus. At the same time,
Moscow rarely focuses its attention on problems that arise in
central regions and cities, and proposals on how to solve these
problems are expressed even rarer.


Vladimir Putin was appointed prime
minister in 1999 at a critical time. In the second half of 1999,
Russia faced the real threat of territorial losses in the North
Caucasus. Theoretically, that could have triggered a new wave of
separatist movements in constituent republics in the Volga region
and in such regions as Tuva or Yakutia.

The First Chechen War (1994-1996) ended
in an agreement on the so-called ‘delayed status’ – that is, a
decision on Chechnya’s future was to be made in the span of five
years after all Russian troops, law enforcement and administrative
structures were withdrawn from its territory.

In 1999 – two years before the
five-year period expired – Islamic fundamentalists launched
military action in the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan.
They were supported by some field commanders from Chechnya, who
entered Dagestani territory. The Russian government – then headed
by Sergei Stepashin, who had shortly before paid a friendly visit
to enclaves controlled by fundamentalists – was in a state close to
panic. Hostilities in multi-ethnic Dagestan, which has an extremely
difficult terrain, seemed to be much more dangerous than the war in

However, the new Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin did not hesitate to use force against the militants.
In August-September 1999, federal troops carried out three
large-scale operations in Dagestan and began a counter-terrorism
operation in Chechnya. The latter ended with the destruction of the
separatist regime, the establishment of a loyal administration, and
the adoption of a local constitution which proclaimed Chechnya as
part of the Russian Federation.

The idea of consolidating Russia’s
unity became an important element of Putin’s political program. His
administration launched measures to build more rigid links than
ever before between the federal center and regions.

The spring of 2000 saw the emergence of
the unitarian institution of presidential envoys – a kind of
viceroy – to each of the newly established seven federal districts,
into which the whole country was divided. Simultaneously, regional
legislation began to be brought into line with federal laws. The
Justice Ministry, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and the Supreme
and Constitutional Courts of the Russian Federation worked
extensively in 2000-2002 to analyze and correct legislative

The presidential administration came
out with an initiative to merge the Perm Region and the
Komi-Permyak Autonomous District in 2003, thus sending up a trial
balloon for enlarging Russian administrative regions. The
government decided that 89 administrative entities in Russia was
excessive and they needed to be reduced – first, by merging
autonomous enclaves and their “mother” regions.

Putin’s first presidential term also
saw the reform of the Federation Council – the upper house of the
federal parliament – where each region was initially represented by
its governor and the speaker of the local legislature. This way the
chamber, whose approval is required for any important bill, served
as an effective instrument of regional lobbyism. Now, after the
reform, the Federation Council is made up of appointed
representatives of local executive and legislative branches.
Although the Council has still preserved its lobbying function, it
can no longer be an arena for gubernatorial opposition and
increasingly often serves as a “transit” place for regional
politicians and businessmen before they receive a post in

The post of governor lost its
significance in 2004. After the terrorist attack against a school
in Beslan, North Ossetia, the Kremlin announced a set of security
measures, which included appointing regional leaders instead of
their direct election.

Regional government became even more
centralized when the Kremlin came up with the idea of party
membership for governors – preference was now given to persons
nominated by the party that had a majority in the local
legislature. Today, the majority of politicians in all Russian
administrative entities are members of the United Russia party. The
party also dominates the State Duma since it actually determines
the degree of regional representation in the lower house of the
federal parliament. Whereas in the third Duma (1999-2003) regional
groups were still a serious political force capable of competing
with the ruling party, in the present and fifth Duma (elected on
December 2, 2007) the ruling party dictates its own rules to
regional representatives, who were granted deputy’s mandates by
their party leaders.

The latest ‘power vertical’ ideas
include the organization, started last autumn, of a federal super
agency set up at the Regional Development Ministry. Its head –
Dmitry Kozak – has three years of experience in successfully
managing the explosive North Caucasus. He is expected to
concentrate in his agency all the major levers for regulating
center-periphery relations, including economic ones.

The aforementioned measures, which are
of an openly unitary nature, did not require amendments to the
constitution, which attests to a very low legal quality of the
country’s main law. Indeed, the changes that have taken place in
relations between the center and the regions since 2000 are
anything but insignificant.


Over the past eight years, the Kremlin
sought to harmonize federal and regional legislation, make the
process of governing more effective and transparent, and restrict
the political and economic power of regional leaders. All of these
were admirable goals, but the results proved to be a far cry from
such intentions.

The institution of presidential envoys
in an overwhelming majority of cases – except in the South Federal
District, where it worked in almost extreme conditions, especially
from 2004 to 2007 – proved to be a phantom by the end of Putin’s
second term. The functions of the presidential envoys are actually
limited to formal “consultations with the public” about candidates
for governor.

The procedure for appointing heads of
regions has been removed from public politics and has moved into
backroom intrigues. In many cases, it now directly depends on a
governor’s personal relationship with the head of state or with
someone from his inner circle, or on a candidate’s bribing and
lobbying capabilities.

The idea of replacing elections with
appointments that need purely formal approval by the local
legislature emerged after the tragedy in Beslan. Apparently, one of
the motivations behind the idea was to avoid unrest, which had
shaken the North Caucasus in the 1990s-early 2000s each time a
local republic elected its president. In some cases, the required
effect was achieved. In particular, this scenario helped the
Kremlin to replace leaders in four of the seven North Caucasian
republics in 2005-2007. The move has somewhat reduced the
population’s mistrust toward the federal and regional authorities,
which is the main engine of Caucasian instability.

Paradoxically, Chechnya now serves as a
model of center-region relations. In exchange for absolute personal
loyalty to the Russian president, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov –
who comes from a family of former separatists – has received a
carte blanche to govern the region at his own discretion and with
the help of security agencies that are controlled by him and that
only formally are subordinate to the center. Moscow actually does
not interfere in Chechen affairs, except for Chechnya’s economic
backbone – oil production implemented by Kremlin-controlled

Any attempt by Kadyrov to push Rosneft
aside meets with strong resistance from company management and the
federal leadership. So, here we see an exchange of personal loyalty
by a regional leader, coupled with economic resources extracted in
the region, for actually complete internal independence.

Anyone who has been to
Kadyrov-controlled Chechnya knows how much it differs from the rest
of Russia politically, legally and culturally. Actually, it is a
mono-ethnic enclave linked with the Federation only through oil
production and through constant proclamations that Chechnya belongs
to Russia. The argument that budget subsidies from the center are
another link has been called into question as the funds that do
reach Chechnya are incomparable with the huge volume of post-war
reconstruction in the republic.

Of course, this state of affairs is
much better than attempts to create an independent Islamic state in
Chechnya and Dagestan. It is much better than large-scale
hostilities that provoked the proliferation of subversive dangers,
fundamentalist ideas, weapons and combat experience across the
North Caucasus and even beyond. But it hardly attests to the
restoration of law and order in Chechnya that would be in line with
the Russian Constitution.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Moscow
plans to build its relations with other resource-rich regions in
much the same way. For example, the main intrigue in the expected
replacements of the presidents of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan is
the search for loyal candidates that could ensure redistribution of
economic resources controlled by the regional elite in favor of the
center. At the same time, the lack of adequate attention to
conflict-ridden, but poor territories, such as Ingushetia and
Karachay-Cherkessia, has no rational explanation.

Relationships between local leaders and
the president, and regional balances of interests make up a system
of informal accords. However, a governor’s personal loyalty to the
president as a major category of the present system of
center-periphery relations becomes a source of problems when the
head of state is replaced – even if we assume that this replacement
is purely formal. Governors will have to renew their informal
accords with the new boss in the Kremlin and, if Putin decides to
keep his leading role in federal politics, to maintain parallel
ties with him, as well.

In Chechnya, which understandably is an
exceptional case, risks involved in re-establishing center-region
relations are the most obvious. Kadyrov continues to call himself
“Putin’s man,” yet he is ready to cooperate with Dmitry Medvedev,
with whom he has established a working relationship. It is already
clear that Medvedev, as Putin’s successor, will not scare the new
Chechen political elite and will not cause it to resume guerilla
fighting again. However, as Alexei Malashenko, an expert at the
Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote, “it is the orientation of both
Russian leaders (the incumbent and future ones) toward Kadyrov that
makes federal-Chechen relations vulnerable. If, for example, for
one reason or another Kadyrov becomes unable to perform his
functions, the situation in the republic could change in
unpredictable ways and upset the Kremlin, which has already become
accustomed to its protégé.”

The number of reasons that may bring
about malfunctions and the collapse of the system of government –
now reduced to personal unions between governors and the head of
state – is smaller in other regions, compared to Chechnya. But this
does not change the essence of the problem. Re-subordination of
governors to Medvedev or their dual subordination to Putin and
Medvedev will create numerous procedural and managerial problems
and will jeopardize the relative balance of interests that has been
established in the regions. It is no wonder that local elites were
the authors of most of the initiatives intended to cause the head
of state to extend his presidency beyond its legal term. “We must
kneel to Putin and ask him to remain and to continue ruling the
state,” Ramzan Kadyrov said last summer.

The additional instrument of control in
the form of United Russia, which began to play an important role in
regional governance sometime in early 2007, is not institutionally
reliable either.

First, the Duma elections on
December 2, 2007 showed the absence of a well-built mechanism of
regional representation in the lower house of parliament when it is
elected on a purely proportional basis. In December 2007-January
2008, a group of public figures from Ingushetia publicly challenged
the results of the State Duma elections. Not a single expert from
the Central Election Commission was able to formulate the
procedural consequences such a legal case could have.

Second, the Duma elections
showed that United Russia, a political superheavyweight, is
actually a party without a program and is a bureaucratic
association whose configuration can also change at any time – even
up to passing into political nothingness.

Most likely, the new president will
have to build entirely new relations with the regions. The state
will only gain if these relations acquire formal and institutional
frameworks, rather than remain a shaky system of non-public
accords. It is equally important that the legislative system not
end up as a “skeleton without meat,” that is, an attempt to build a
system to govern a multitude of regions, whose population is not
aware of its “supra-regional” unity.


There is not much sociological data on
this issue and what there is indicates that society has not shown
much interest in the federative – or rather unitarian – reforms
conducted by the Putin administration. Ordinary citizens focus on
the solution to their own everyday problems and do not care much
about issues pertaining to the country’s unity or mechanisms for
governing territories. No doubt Putin’s “unifying” rhetoric won him
additional votes in the presidential elections, but real steps made
in this field evoked little enthusiasm in society.

For example, in June 2000, just a few
days after the establishment of the federal districts and the
institution of presidential envoys, more than one-third of people
polled by the FOM Public Opinion Foundation failed to have much to
say about this reform. Twenty-nine percent said they had never
heard about the reform; 42 percent approved of the idea; but 61
percent of those who supported it failed to say anything about the
goals of the reform.

The situation had changed little by
2006: throughout the year, the Russian Public Opinion Research
Center studied people’s attitude toward the activities of
presidential envoys, governors and the heads of local
administrations. Between 23 and 30 percent of the population
expressed favorable views of the envoys’ work; just as many gave
the opposite assessments; and about 40 percent of the respondents
had no answer.

In contrast, governors won approval
from more than a half of those polled. In four out of the 69
regions surveyed in 2005 (Moscow, the Tyumen Region, the Kemerovo
Region and the Khabarovsk Territory), the governors’ work was
assessed even higher than that of the president, who plays an
almost sacred role in today’s Russia. The ratio between assessments
given to the work of governors and the presidential envoys
indicates the presence of steady regional identities that are
different from the federal identity.

An inclination among people to consider
themselves first of all as residents of their own region and only
then as citizens of the entire country inevitably arises in a
situation when large parts of a country – due to economic,
transportation or infrastructure reasons – become isolated in many
respects from other regions, yet they are economically linked with
neighboring countries. In particular, the domination of regional
identity is characteristic of Russia’s Far East. People in that
region “simply cannot afford to travel to the European part of
Russia,” said Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, director of the Center for
Migration Studies.

In some parts of the North Caucasus the
degree of such grassroots – not political – alienation is expressed
by the widely used phrase: “We’re going to Russia.” Any trip from
Dagestan to Stavropol or Astrakhan or Rostov [neighboring regions
in southern Russia – Ed.] is almost equated to a trip

The percentage of respondents who
consider themselves first of all as citizens of Russia rarely
exceeds 50 percent anywhere. The others are dominated by those who
identify themselves with their region or even with their town or
village. Polls conducted in the early 2000s revealed even such an
exotic group as “citizens of the former Soviet Union,” whose number
in some regions reached 30 percent. Now, however, people have
ceased to call themselves Soviet citizens.

Experts from the Zircon Research Group,
who studied regional identity in Russia, came to the conclusion
that this identity is most clearly expressed not only in
constituent republics dominated by a titular ethnic group, but also
in traditionally ethnic Russian regions located far from the center
– for example, the Kaliningrad Region in the northwest or Primorye
in the Far East. In sparsely populated areas, engaged largely in
the extraction of raw materials, people often reveal not their
civil identity with this region or their country, but their
corporate identity with the company they work for – Gazprom,
Rosneft or Alrosa. Sociologically, this identification group may
seem insignificant, but the economic and demographic structure of
Russia makes such attitudes widespread in the vast territories of
the North and the Far East, which are sparsely populated, yet
strategically important in terms of resources.

Of course, regional – not to mention
corporate – identity does not mean a desire for secession. But the
growth of separatist sentiments can be a likely scenario if
interregional and region-center ties, including mental and cultural
ones, weaken. Today, this is an even more alarming factor than the
migration outflow from peripheral regions, which in Russia’s Far
East alone stands at 40,000 to 45,000 people a year.

Meanwhile, the authors of the above
study found several “mechanisms” for regional autonomization of the
public mindset – these include the aforementioned support of local
authorities, the preference for local mass media and the fencing
off from other regions.

The fencing-off tendency – just as a
steady regional identity – is revealed by various studies.
Regionalism shows itself even in the results of polls that are
devoted to entirely different issues and often goes hand in hand
with such an alarming phenomenon as mutual dislike between
different ethnic groups.

In November 2003 – after Moscow
launched its policy for enlarging Russian regions – FOM conducted a
major study among the population, experts and regional political
elites. Some representatives of the elites, who largely supported
this policy, but who were dissatisfied with the difference in
status between constituent republics and other administrative
entities of the Russian Federation, advocated postponing the
enlargement of regions until a national Russian identity prevailed
over ethnic identity.

The study showed that 74 percent of
those polled did not know why enlargement was necessary. FOM’s
polls in May 2002 and November 2005 revealed that not more than 31
percent of respondents approved of regional mergers, and this
figure continued to decrease – it fell to 26 percent in 2005. About
48 percent of respondents did not want their region to merge with a
neighboring region, and only 28 to 29 percent supported such a


Public opinion polls show not only a
reserved attitude toward regional mergers, but also a pronounced
desire to limit immigration. (It should be noted that public
opinion sees no difference between immigrants from other states,
for example from the South Caucasus, and those who are citizens of
the Russian Federation, for example, residents of North Caucasian
republics.) In the spring of 2006, 63 percent of residents of
Russia’s biggest cities, 57 percent of residents of large cities,
61 percent of residents of small towns, and 50 percent of the rural
population favored immigration restrictions.

The most negative attitude toward
immigrants is found among residents of the largest cities, which
differ from the rest of the country in the level and quality of
life and which attract numerous visitors. The cities have to accept
migrant workers because of shortages on the job market. The rate of
immigration to large cities is so high that, even if we assume that
there is a hypothetical possibility of immigrants adopting the
culture and that they are prepared for this, there is simply no
time for this. As in the rest of the world, this kind of situation
results in the emergence of large and closed ethnic communities in
cities. These communities differ culturally from the indigenous
population, which represents a majority, but which is already prone
to frustration.

In many cases, the authorities admit
that they need help to work with immigrants to help them fit in,
but they lack the money and technology for this. Even “advanced”
European democracies have had many problems in acclimatizing their
ethnic minorities.

In one of his first decrees in 2000,
Putin ordered the drafting of a special four-year federal program
called The Formation of Tolerant Attitudes and Prevention of
Extremism in Russian Society. The program, which largely consisted
of educational measures, was intended to at least focus public
attention on inter-ethnic problems in the country. But now the only
thing left of the program is a website and individual educational
projects, in which academic and non-profit organizations try to
selectively involve representatives of isolated segments of society
– for example, police officers who are in permanent contact with
immigrants in large cities.

It follows from regular FOM polls that
the greatest irritation is caused by immigrants from the Caucasus,
followed by gypsies and people from Central Asia. The Caucasian
migrants largely include people from Chechnya, Dagestan,
Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea and

The percentage of those who openly
confessed in polls their dislike for members of other ethnic groups
stood at 32 percent in 2002, 29 percent in 2004, and only 21
percent in 2006. However, this tendency is not a sufficient cause
for optimism. For example, in 2002 – of the 65 percent of those who
said that they did not have anything against members of other
ethnic groups, 49 percent were in favor of restricted entry to
their region. The percentage of people who were in favor of the
complete deportation of other ethnic groups is also constantly
high. In 2006, 42 percent were in favor of deportation. At the same
time, almost as many – 41 percent – consider such a measure

One must give credit to federal
officials who did their best to mitigate the ethnic coloring of
events that could provoke surges of hatred toward certain ethnic
groups – for example, after a series of suicide bombings by Chechen
women in Moscow in 2004. However, these efforts have not helped win
public approval for measures by the authorities to prevent
inter-ethnic tensions. A poll conducted by FOM shortly after ethnic
violence erupted in the Karelian town of Kondopoga in the fall of
2006 produced eloquent results.

Ethnic crimes in Kondopoga sparked mass
protests from local residents who demanded the deportation of all
people from the Caucasus from the town. A week after the crisis in
Karelia, 89 percent of those polled by FOM in various Russian
regions said that there were immigrants in their area; 72 percent
said the number of such immigrants was high; and 30 percent
admitted that there were problems between the local population and
immigrants. Only seven percent said the authorities were taking
measures to alleviate ethnic tensions. Twenty-two percent expressed
apprehensions that Kondopoga-type unrest might take place in their
region as well. These fears were materialized by subsequent
developments in the towns of Salsk, Stavropol and others in

In the same poll, 39 percent of
respondents said Russia’s multi-ethnicity does more harm than good.
In 2002, this figure stood at 34 percent, while 41 percent thought
the opposite. Considering the ethnic and demographic structure of
Russia, where the percentage of ethnic Russians has been steadily
decreasing, this is an alarming tendency.

Characteristically, the first person to
adequately respond to the events in Kondopoga was Chechen President
Ramzan Kadyrov – he wanted the guilty to be punished, regardless of
their ethnicity. His statement, which many people took as a sign
that Chechen security agencies were ready to intervene in a
situation in a different region of Russia, was actually correct.
“We have always lived and must live as one friendly family and
according to Russian laws,” the Chechen leader said commenting on
the events in Karelia. What is alarming is that the function of
defending ethnic minorities was assumed by the leader of a region
where he has largely restricted the effect of “Russian laws.” On
the other hand, as Chechen political analyst Shamil Beno said:
“Russia has convinced the Chechens that they are part of Russia,
and now the Chechens want Russia to respect their

Paradoxically, it is the ethnic regions
of Russia, including Chechnya, that are interested in preserving
the country’s unity and the stability of inter-ethnic relations on
the larger part of Russian territory. Naturally, members of titular
ethnic groups in those regions, who live, work and try to socialize
in large Russian cities, tend to view their own regional leaders as
their institutional support. There is simply no other appropriate
structure – if, of course, we do not want to consider policemen as
such, who are accustomed to earning easy money by checking the
passports of migrant workers.

It is the regional leaders and members
of ethnic diasporas that regularly propose re-establishing the
Nationalities Ministry, which was shut down in 2002. Now
inter-ethnic relations are formally the domain of a department at
the Regional Development Ministry, but the dimension of this
problematic and sometimes even explosive field is too great for the
department’s officials. “The nationalities policy must be the
domain of a special body – within the Regional Development Ministry
or an independent ministry, but it must work on it in a serious and
purposeful way,” Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaymiev said late
last year. In February 2008, the idea of reanimating the
Nationalities Ministry was voiced anew at the first conference of
the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus.

Reviving the ministry or some other
bureaucratic incarnation of a nationalities agency will not remove
the clouds in inter-ethnic relations in Russia overnight. These
relations are very sensitive because of the fresh memory of open
conflicts in the Caucasus and recent clashes in Kondopoga, Salsk,
Stavropol and Moscow. But policymakers and politicians must know
exactly how these relations change and must take part in the
formation of this process. Russia has not been “Soviet” for a long
time and is gradually becoming an increasingly non-Russian country;
however, the governing officials often behave as if they do not see
the tectonic shifts that spark open conflicts and

A new Russia – one in which citizens
would have equal rights and obligations regardless of their
ethnicity, place of birth or religious beliefs and who would live
together and according to real common laws – will only emerge if
officials, ethnic communities and civil organizations make a
focused effort to build it.