Moscow participants debate Russian diversity

Russian roundtable coordinator Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, centre, moderates lively discussion in Moscow on the state of pluralism in Russia. He is flanked by Vladimir Streletskii, left; Irina Busygina, right and Ildar Gabdrafikov (further right).

A Russian roundtable on the theme of diversity in federal systems brought together renowned experts from Moscow and various ethnic regions including North Caucasus, the Volga region and Siberia.

The event was co-sponsored by Forum of Federations and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation

Participants made fourteen presentations on four major issues: (1) the constitutional and legal framework of Russia, (2) changes in the ethnic composition of Russia and national identifications among non-Russians, (3) inter-governmental relations as well as political systems in the ethnic regions, and (4) specific conflict regulation mechanisms (for example, asymmetry, the role of parties, and re-distributional politics).

The seminar’s lively discussions focused on the lessons learned on federalism during the tenures of former presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, the actual workings of intergovernmental relations, and the efficiency and sustainability of Putin’s highly centralized system of government.

Participants said that federalism is viewed as an inherently unstable regime that constantly has to find a new balance between centralist and regional incentives.

In contrast to the official image, promoted during the Putin administration, of a functioning administrative hierarchy, the presentations highlighted:

1. the lack of communication between the central and regional levels of government,
2. the huge socio-economic disparities between the regions,
3. the lack of transparency,
4. the incidence of corruption, individualism, and the potential for Islamic activism in the North Caucasus.

Many participants agreed that the introduction of seven federal districts by the last Putin administration has served only to add another layer of bureaucratic hierarchy without improving administrative efficiency. The regional governors, now appointed and no longer elected, have been reduced to administrators of the central government, who, however, are required to promote the interests of regional business groups.

Participants were not optimistic about the Russian Constitution, which they said is no longer viewed as an authoritative and enforceable document, and that It is not clear what function the Constitution still fulfills in present political circumstances. Putin’s popularity is widely attributed to the expectation that a strong centre will provide subsidies to the regions, and not upon a preference among Russians for authoritarianism.

With regard to Russia’s diversity, the most recent census of 2002 indicates that while the relative weight of Russia’s ethnic communities has slightly decreased, the overall composition and configuration of ethnic groups remained quite stable. Participants concurred that the last census data of 2002 was unreliable because results in many ethnic regions were deliberately distorted for political purposes, for example to justify a privileged position of members of a particular ethnic group at the expense of another group. With respect to religious differences the picture is less clear: the number of Muslims is growing, but their political identifications are diverse.

Compared to the North Caucasus, religious diversity plays a less prominent role in the Volga region. Among non-Russians in the North Caucasus, distrust and estrangement vis-à -vis the centre is growing while ethnic Russians are leaving the area. Currently, the government is particularly suppressing Salafi, Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims in the North Caucasus.

In general, the ethnic regions still have the least democratic regimes, but the original “ethnicization” of the regimes in favor of certain ethnic groups has been slightly reversed. During the Putin administration, there were appointments of non-indigenous politicians who were veterans of the old security and military services, from the so-called “power ministries.” Most of the ethno-nationalist groups of the first half of the 1990s have splintered along factional lines while regional identities have gained in importance. However, the electoral behavior of non-Russians still follows discernable ethnic lines. Under the Putin administration, economic conditions also improved in the poorer ethnic regions. The ethnic republics, however, no longer enjoy privileges as they did under the Yeltsin administration.

In the context of centralizing political trends during the Putin years, it was discussed to what degree hierarchical authority is compatible with federalism and whether the power of the Russian presidency is especially prone to centralization. In the current system, politicians and (highly centralist) political parties do not need federalism to gain power and as such, there are no electoral incentives for taking the interest of minorities into account. One of the overarching conclusions of the discussions consisted in the assertion that for federalism to function, other tenets must also prevail such as democracy, rule of law, protection of basic rights, as well as reliable conflict regulation mechanisms. The prospects under President Dmitri Medvedev were viewed with mixed expectations, as most expressed their frustration with the re-establishment of the Soviet form of federalism. Some expressed hope for a thaw as occurred under Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964.

The roundtable was part of the Global Dialogue on Federalism organized by the Forum and the International Association of Centres for Federal Studies. The co-coordinators were Andreas Heinemann-Grüder and Irina Busygina. The event was held Feb. 28, 2008 at the MGIMO Institute in Moscow.

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