New Regional Policy Draft Pushing Russia Toward Hyper-Centralized ‘Post-Federalism,’ Shtepa Says

June 1, 2015
REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Staunton, June 1 Vladimir Putin is launching a new regional policy, one so deeply centralist that “the regions will in fact lose their title of subjects of the Federation and be converted into only objects of administration from the center,” according to Vadim Shtepa, one of Russia’s leading regionalist writers.

In today’s Gazeta, Shtepa says that this new approach to Russia’s regions contained in a draft paper on “Foundations of State Policy on the Regional Development of the Russian Federation” that replaces a 1996 document can best be described as “’post-federalism.’”

In the 1990s, Moscow routinely ignored the Federation Treaty and the federal principles in the Russian Constitution, Shtepa says, but “the new document replaces the federation not only de facto but also de jure.” The word “federation” remains in the new document “but only as something entirely nominal, a polite reference to the constitutional past.”

Indeed, the Russian regional writer argues, “by analogy with post-modernism, one can characterize” what Putin is proposing “as ‘post-federalism,’ as one and the same words suddenly acquire different meanings and interpretations.” Thus, while federalism is typically about the delegation of powers from the regions to the center, Putin’s new version does just the reverse.

“It is extremely indicative,” Shtepa continues, “that unlike the 1996 document, in the new draft are completely absence such fundamental federalism terms as ‘decentralization of power’ and ‘equality of subjects.’” Instead, it specifies that regional policy is all about promoting “the national interests of the Russian Federation.”

The new document says that Moscow will pursue its regional policy “’selectively.’” That obviously means that “some regions will have more rights and authority than others.” Whether that will strengthen the state as a whole as the document claims is, Shtepa suggests, “extremely doubtful.”

There is another “interesting distinction” between the 1996 document and the 2015 draft: The earlier document calls for creating conditions for the formation of free economic zones; the new one makes no reference to that. Moreover, the new one calls for the development of “mysterious ‘macro-regions,’” an apparent bow to Putin’s stalled regional amalgamation effort.

At present, the Russian Federation in words copies successful federal systems like those in the United States and elsewhere, but in reality, it guts these words of any meaning by Moscow’s control over tax revenues, forcing regions to depend on the center, and its control over candidates for gubernatorial office, thus limiting the role of the regions still further.

The new draft simply scraps the words and thus makes it even more likely that the country will move ever further away from federalism toward a hyper-centralized regime. Indeed, Shtepa says, about the only area where regions are to have any autonomy is in the intellectual sphere, where the new document says they should try to come up with new ideas.

But under current conditions, any such efforts would be extremely “risky,” he continues, because Moscow has in place a variety of supervisory organs which are always prepared to charge anything they don’t like coming from the regions as a manifestation of a dangerous “’separatism.’”

“In a word,” Shtepa says, “Russian regional policies under conditions of post-federalism will ever more recall the story about the empty pool.” The coach will tell his charges: “’Learn to swim!’” To which the latter will respond, “’Fill the pool with water.’” To which the coach in turn will respond, “’Learn to swim and then we’ll fill it up.’”