Staunton, April 2 — Moscow now runs the federal subjects in much the same hyper-centralized way the Soviet Politburo did before Gorbachev’s perestroika, despite the name of the country now being the Russian Federation and Moscow routinely insisting that Ukraine which is less centralized than Russia, must “federalize,” according to Vadim Shtepa.
After the USSR disintegrated, he writes, Moscow dropped the references to “soviet” and “socialist” that were part of the Soviet-era RSFSR but continued to include the term “federation” in the name of the country.
But despite the hopes of many, the center worked hard to strip that term of any real content. The way in which that happened deserves to be remembered, the Russian regionalist says, especially this week on the 23 anniversary of the Federal Treaty between Moscow and 19 of the 21 non-Russian republics — neither Tatarstan nor Chechnya signed — that the latter hoped would mark the end of Russia’s imperial traditions.
The reason they were disappointed, he suggests, lies not only in the attitudes of the country’s rulers in Moscow who still wanted to control everything but also in the diverse status of the republics and regions in Russia, something that had not been and did not become “a mark of [genuine] federalism,” even though the adjective remained in the name of the country.
The March 1992 Federal Treaty gave the non-Russian republics “much more authority than the [predominantly ethnic Russian] oblasts and krays,” a reflection of Boris Yeltsin’s suggestion two years earlier that the republics should take “as much sovereignty as they could swallow,” something he never said to the oblasts and krays.
That meant, Shtepa points out, that there was always a constituency for gutting the Federation Treaty and that when Vladimir Putin began to construct his “power vertical,” “the representatives of the oblasts in the Federation Council (where they were the majority) easily voted for doing away with republic sovereignties and for the appointment of regional heads.”
In 1992, however, the Federal Treaty represented an effort to “synthesize” republic sovereignty declarations with “all-Russian interests.” But it was fundamentally flaws in at least two respects.
On the one hand, it violated the federal principle of subsidiarity with its voluntary delegation of power by the regions to the center.
And on the other, the agreement itself reflected Russia’s imperial tradition in what it “was concluded not among the regions directly but between them and the center,” an arrangement that “contradicts the historical experience of federations” in other countries. In Russia as before, “the interests of the center were primary and sufficient on to themselves.”
Had Russia’s constituent subjects concluded a treaty among themselves, Stepa says, they would “have acquired the status of state-forming” institutions and “this would have marked the birth of a new federation.” But that did not happen, and as a result, many have “continued to live with the illusion” that the empire disappeared with the USSR.
“The supporters of imperial centralism typically insist that in the event of such a governmental transformation, Russia would have shared the fate of the USSR.”
But there is no basis for that assumption, Shtepa says, noting that in their declarations of sovereignty in 1990–1991, the non-Russian republics indicated that they were prepared for “a single Russian space” to continue as long as their interests were recognized.
Today, their interests, economic as well as political, are less respected than they were in the last two or three years of Soviet times, something they certainly could have seen was a threat as early as the adoption of the Russian Constitution in 1993 which rejected in principle the notion that the federation was to be based on agreement rather than centralized force.
At the present time, Shtepa notes, “it is not fashionable to recall the republic declarations of sovereignty.” Indeed, it may even be dangerous given the new laws “’about the struggle with separatism,’” although some republics such as Tatarstan continue to mark as national holidays the anniversary of their adoption of a sovereignty declaration.
“To overcome the imperial tradition in Russia,” he concludes, could occur were there to be “a new federal treaty. But here the main problem is that today, in contrast to 1992, there are no legitimate subjects to sign it. Governors entirely dependent on the center do not need any [such] reforms.”