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Volume VI, No 3 (January-February 1996)

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The Crossroads of Russian Federalism
Moscow News

Since the system of local soviets was abolished in 1993, the power struggle between the Kremlin and the Russian provinces on one hand, and the local executive and legislative branches on the other, can be characterized as open conflict, occasionally interrupted by armed neutrality.

Issues concerning the rights of the "Federation Subjects" (Russia's 89 provinces and republics) emerged five years ago. The reasons for complicated interactions between the organs of state power are to be found in President Boris Yel'tsin's federal policy. Its direction was formulated in 1991 when the president stated that "every Subject of the Federation will try to assume as much sovereignty as it can." In a short period of time, the national-territorial entities, the republics, acquired some attributes of sovereignty after signing treaties concerning delimitation of power with the Kremlin. The republics managed to obtain agreements under which their contributions to the federal budget were lowered. As a result, 21 republics, 12 of which are subsidized by the center (e.g., 90 percent of Ingushetia's budget comes from federal subsidies, 92 percent in the case of the Adygei republic, while Komi and Karelia are subsidized to the tune of some 52 percent), were granted economic privileges at the expense of the rest of the 68 Russian territorial-administrative formations such as krais, oblasts, and okrugs .(1)

Since then, the largest Russian regions, (Sverdlovsk oblast', which is economically more powerful than the republic of Tatarstan, Leningrad Oblast', (2) Maritime and Krasnodar krais, the five regions of Siberia,(3) and Kaliningrad oblast') have embarked on a permanent struggle for economic equity with the republics. Between 1993 and 1994 the regions lost the first battle. This was a period of regional separatism, when the oblasts were trying to consolidate into republics following the Tatarstan, Chechnya, or Yakutia models. The proclamation of Ural, Siberian, and Far Eastern republics was a provocative move vis-a-vis the Kremlin. However, these amorphous entities, with a mere paper legitimacy, had a single objective -- redistribution of the federal budget.

Under these circumstances, Moscow initiated treaties on delimitation of power with individual administrative entities, marking a new stage in the struggle of krais and oblast for equal rights with the republics. In 1995 the federal government signed a treaty "On Delimitation of Power With Orenburg Oblast '." Subsequently, in January 1996, similar treaties were signed between the Kremlin and Sverdlovsk, as well as between the center and Kaliningrad. The difference in status between these oblasts and the republics was narrowed, and it was clear that the government had provided the basis for favoritism in its federal policy. The preferential treatment Orenburg and Sverdlovsk received was not accidental: Orenburg and Sverdlovsk, respectively, are Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's and President Yel'tsin's hometowns. The establishment of direct bilateral relations between the Kremlin and Sverdlovsk encouraged the Far East, Tyumen, Krasnodar, and Kuzbass to solicit for special status.

There is no doubt that certain regions should be granted prerogatives: the isolated enclave location of Kaliningrad and the territorial remoteness of the Far Eastern Maritime province dictate a different level of relations with the center than the "inner" regions. It is easier for Kaliningrad to maintain trade relations with neighboring Poland, Lithuania or Scandinavia, and it is more sensible for the Far Eastern Maritime region to trade with China, Japan, and Korea, than for either to deal with Central Russia. Tyumen is also insisting on a special status, since it provides 69 percent of Russia's oil production, but is allowed to use the profits of only one percent. Today Moscow views the signing of bilateral treaties with the leading regions as a continuation of the trend started with the republics.

Federation Council experts analyzed the treaties on delimitation of power that were signed with Yakutia and Tatarstan and concluded that, initially, the preferential treatment in taxation allowed these republics to maintain lower prices in comparison with the neighboring regions. However, as these analysts discovered, eventually such a policy resulted in the disappearance of some products and price increases of others. According to the experts, such an outcome, stimulated by the Kremlin, is resulting in a type of economic separatism. A similar tendency in Orenburg and Sverdlovsk demonstrated the futility of the federal center trying to appease the largest and most developed Subjects of the Federation. In other words, delimitation of powers in bilateral agreements inevitably entails recarving the federal budget, which is doomed to become leaner with more regions in line for a piece of the federal pie.

It is clear that the "special relations" and "bilateral agreements" between the regions and the center have only a symbolic character. The best solution, according to the former Minister on Nationality Issues, Valeri Tishkov, derives not from "special status," but from "regionalization," in other words, the unification of oblasts , krais , and republics into economic groups. For example, Bashkortostan, Sverdlovsk, Perm, Orenburg could unify into a large Ural region; the Siberian krais, oblasts and national entities into a Siberia region, etc. In proposing this model Tishkov suggests a departure from ethnic territorial entities as distinct economic areas. His idea is supported by the governors of Nizhny Novgorod (Boris Nemtsov) and Orel (Egor Stroev). However, the presidents of the ethnic republics do not welcome this idea.

The Kremlin, so far, is aiming to preserve the status quo, while giving favorite treatment to certain regions. At the same time, the central government is trying to preserve maximum control over all Federation Subjects. The roots of such a policy are seen in Moscow's interference in the balance of power between the two branches of regional power. It is clear that elections have become an effective tool for the center to manipulate the regions. According to federal law, the heads of local administrations (i.e., the governors), and the chairmen of regional parliaments, soviets, or zemstvos (4)(the representative branch) should be elected to office.

The results of such a supposedly democratic system were demonstrated on December 17, 1995, when elections to the Federal Duma coincided with gubernatorial elections in 12 Russian regions. Yel'tsin succeeded again in placing "his" people in the periphery.

The gubernatorial elections were conducted in the absence of electoral law and were based instead on a 1993 presidential edict. In 1993, under a similar edict, an experimental set of elections was conducted in nine regions. As a result, the newly elected local executives, (representing a typical Yel'tsin electorate in cities like Yekaterinburg, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk) usurped all functions of power. The distribution of power became even more uneven after the legislative functions of the local soviets were deprived of substance. In a period of two years regional legislatures gradually lost their authority, which was transferred into the hands of the governors.

These heads of administration became enamored with their widened "responsibilities," performing executive and legislative tasks at the same time. Since 1993, both chambers of the Russian parliament have considered four versions of electoral law for gubernatorial elections. Each met its demise in the Duma over the issue of defining the limits of executive power. In the contest between the branches the 17 December 1995 elections mark yet another victory for the executive. In general, the results are also to Moscow's advantage; incumbents, who were originally appointed by Yel'tsin, won in nine of the 12 regions holding gubernatorial elections. Moreover, these regions had substantially higher voter participation; with 60% to 70% turnout in regions holding simultaneous gubernatorial elections as compared to 58% to 62% in other parts of Russia. The nine incumbent victors confirm the formation of a vertical flow of power, from a powerful executive to a legislature dependent upon him.

Only three regions elected new governors; a communist in Novosibirsk and two former party apparatchiks in Tambov and Tver. This development should not be viewed as simply a restoration of the nomenklatura. Rather, it poses a more complicated problem; namely, that communists candidates were victorious in precisely those regions where the legislative branch was completely trampled by the executive. Over the last couple of years, not a single piece of legislation enacted by the regional parliament has been signed into law in Tambov and Novosibirsk.

This "cold war" between the branches illuminates a rather interesting alliance; nowadays, former CPSU obkom secretaries do not rely solely on fellow communists. They have found new partners among the motley composition of the powerless legislative branch. "Offended" and "discouraged," local legislative representatives, either Communists, members of the Congress of Russian Communities or representatives of Zhirinovsky's LDPR, nominated gubernatorial candidates in all 12 regions. A month after the elections in Tver, Novosibirsk, and Tambov, where the united opposition proved victorious, the rival branches have declared a truce.

This truce is an unwelcome development for Moscow, which has lost its levers in the periphery. The democratic parties originated in the capital and have little influence or organizational strength outside Moscow. The Communist party, on the other hand, is the only party which maintained and developed its infrastructure in the provinces. With this strategic disadvantage in mind, Moscow based the elections on a presidential edict rather than electoral law and forbade the most unreliable regions to hold elections. Such as Kuzbass, where 51 percent of the electorate voted for the Communists in the federal elections; Chita, where none of the laws of the local Duma was approved by the head of their administration; Volgograd, where the local soviet is constantly demanding the resignation of the governor; and Saratov, where the oblast ' Duma is in conflict with the city mayor. For four years all of these regions have been demanding the right to hold gubernatorial elections. If the new Duma passes legislation concerning gubernatorial elections, a return of the far left-leaning legislatures is predestined.

In this context, Yel'tsin recently stated that those regions which had been forbidden to hold elections in December would be allowed to hold gubernatorial elections this spring. Such a move would constitute a serious challenge by Moscow to the rebellious regional elites. The Kremlin is giving assurances that such elections will not be held on the basis of a presidential edict, but in accordance with a to-be-adopted new law. If such legislation is passed by the Duma and signed by the president, it would reflect Moscow's new political course toward the regions, i.e., a shift from authoritarianism to real federalism. However, this policy also reveals a paradox; more federalism will legitimize the domination of Communists in the political life of the regions.


1. Republic -- territory with a non-Russian titular nationality; Krai --large region which contains smaller ethnic territorial formations, such as okrugs; Oblast' -- administrative entity without specific ethnic characteristics; Okrug - subdivision of a krai or oblast' -- Ed.
2. Although the city of Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg, the name of the oblast' remains unchanged. -- Ed.
3. Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Chitinsk oblasts, and Krasnodar Krai. --Ed.
4. Zemstvo -- elected district council in pre-revolutionary Russia (the name has been re-adopted today) --Ed.

Copyright ISCIP 1996
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially for

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