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Asymmetrical Federalism Still ‘Lesser Evil’ For Russia – OpEd


Many Russians currently are pushing for the equalization of all the federal subjects and the radical decentralization of power in the country, but there are compelling reasons for concluding that despite the attractions of such an approach, the existing system of “asymmetrical” federalism is “the lesser evil,” Viktoriya Poltoratskya says.

In an essay for the Plan for Change analysis project, the political scientist who was trained at the Central European University in Budapest says that many analysts after 1991 expected the Russian Federation to go the way of the Soviet Union and fall apart on ethnic lines (

But there was an important distinction between the separatism of Soviet republics and the attitudes in the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation, Poltoratskaya says: the former was directed primarily against Soviet power and/or communism while the latter were mobilized on the basis of ethnicity.

At present, one cannot say that separatist challenges will not arise in the Russian Federation, she continues, because “there do not exist in Russia formal institutions capable of resolving potential conflicts with such regions.” Such regions may simply be biding their time until the center weakens as a result of “a period of economic or political turbulence.”

According to Polotoratskaya, “federations experiencing analogous problems have come up with two strategies: a high level of decentralization and asymmetric federalism. There are few examples of the former – Switzerland and Belgium are the most prominent – and they appear to require a small territory in which democratic institutions are already well rooted.

Russia does not meet either of those requirements, and so radical decentralization would likely lead “either to separatism or to ‘regional authoritarianism’ when the regional elite completely takes control of political and financial resources.” The classical example of such a course of events, the analyst continues, is Mexico.

“One of the reasons why in federations in which on the whole democratic processes have occurred, authoritarian regional regimes continue to exist is ‘the tolerance’ of the federal center,” an arrangement that allows the center “to use regional regimes in its own interest’ and also the lack of political resources to promote democracy of the regions.”

“Russia has already passed through a period of establishing regional authoritarianisms in the 1990s and, if it adopted the path of complete decentralization, then this scenario would have every opportunity to be repeated,” Poltoratskaya argues.

The alternative for Russia then is asymmetric federalism, like that in Canada and India where regions based on ethnicity or location have been given certain preferences to keep them within the fold. Many of the other regions feel that this is unjust, but they see it as a lesser evil to open separatism.

At present, Russia would appear to stand before the choice between “construction of a national state based on the titular nation” with the potential for conflicts as a result of its heterogenous population and “the recognition of the variety of nations and their characteristics and the organization of institutional support for territories with a particular ethnic composition.”

The second strategy is not without problems of controversy, but it is preferable to the collapse of the country as a result of separatist challenges.

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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