The Power Vertical and the Nation’s Self-Consciousness

15 june 2008

Ivan Sukhov

Resume: 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. 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 clashes.

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 door.

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 Chechnya.

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 acts.

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 Moscow.

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 Rosneft.

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 abroad.

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 move.


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 Ossetia.

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 inadmissible.

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 2006-2007.

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 rights.”

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 clashes.

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.

Last updated 15 june 2008, 13:51

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