Power Vertical ‘No Panacea’ Against Russia’s Disintegration – Analysis


Despite the claims of Vladimir Putin and his supporters, the creation of a power vertical is “no panacea” against the possible disintegration of the Russian State, according to a legal specialist at the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Indeed, Mekhti Sharifov argues, the idea that unitarism will save Russia and ensure its greatness reflects a failure to understand that neither the Russian Empire northe USSR were ever “unitary states in the classical sense” (www.peoples-rights.info/2011/03/rossiya-i-nadnacionalnoe-setevoe-federativnoe-soobshhestvo/).

And in fact, the legal scholar suggests, the untrammelled pursuit of a unitary state to prevent the disintegration of the Russian Federation may by ignoring the diversity of the country and the need for horizontal as well as vertical ties create conditions that will lead to precisely the opposite outcome that its backers hope for.

“Ever more frequently,” Sharifov writes in a heavily footnoted, 5300-word article, “the question about the fate of the federation in Russia is being raised,” with “the crisis in federative relationsgiving many a basis to advance demans for the transformation of the country into a unitary republic.”

The supporters of this view, the Moscow scholar points out, “assert that periods of the greatest glory of Russia were those when the country had a unitary form of state structure. However, history testifies to the reverse: the Russian Empire and the USSR were never unitary states in the classical sense.”

Before 1917, autonomy was “a form of the effective administration” of many non-Russian borderlands in the Russian Empire, a form adopted because “the autocracy recognized htat it is impossible to ‘administer in one and the same ways’ peoples as different as the Turkmens, Finns, and Poles, Sharifov says.

Such arrangements did not make the Russian Empire a federal state, but “one must not ignore the elements of federalism” which did exist, and the same thing is true, the Institute of State and Law expert argues, with regard to the USSR, “which was formed as a confederation but with time was transformed into a federative state.”

Paying attention to this aspect is important, he continues, because “excessive centralization of power and the unjustified unification of the system of state administration undermined the foundations of the state by provoking crises (the revolutions of 1905-06, 1917, and the Brezhnev ‘stagnation’) and the breaking away of national borderlands (Poland and Finland at the start of the 20th century and the republics of the USSR at its end).”

Efforts over the last decade to strengthen “the vertical of power” have “led to the deformationof the federal system,” creating a system which is “formally a federation but de facto a unitary state.” Nevertheless, these efforts have not had solved the problem – separatism — that their authors pointed to as the reason for moving in that direction.

“The problem of separatism in the North Caucasus” in fact, Shafirov argues, “has entered a new stage.” Separatist challenges by the Chechens and Ingush remain “unresolved,” and they have been joined now by a new separatism challenge from the Circassians, at least in part in response to the growth of the power vertical.

Russia’s “federative structure is a weakly hierarchical structure which in the early stages of its establishment has not given visible results and requires significant resources,” again at least in part because the powers that be have failed to understand the nature of the challenge before them and have preferred to focus on separatism or “’the parade of sovereignties.’”

The “harsh” power vertical they have put in place, that is “a harshly hierarchical system of administration, is not effective as a long-term strategy since it requires significant resource support for its functioning,” and thus prevents Russia from addressing its most pressing problems domestically and internationally.

Federalism can provide a way out of this dilemma, Sharifov argues, by giving “a politicaland legal opportunity” to the regions for “participation in the adoption and realization of state-wide issues,” allowing both citizens and the subjects of the federation to play a role in both cases.

Unfortunately, he continues, “existing Russian legislation does not contain the institutional instruments through which the subject of the federation could participate in the formation of the state-wide expression of will,” thus limiting the utility of these structures for the state and indeed transforming them into a threat to it.

“The main cause of the failure of the course of strengthening the vertical of power lies in its lack of correspondence with the tendencies of the development of the state as a social-political institution,” Sharifov says, tendencies that require both vertical and horizontal “redistribution” of authority.

“The vertical redistribution of authorities presupposes the transfer of sovereign rights to super-national (international organizations) and subnational levels (civil society),” Sharifov argues, while “the horizontal redistribution requires the transfer of rights to regional and municipal organs of power.”

These two “vectors,” he suggests “can be combined in one term – federalism,” a concept which is “much broader than the term ‘federation.’” Federalism may exist even “without a federation.” Indeed, Sharifov shows in a survey of various countries, including the US, Israel, the European Union and China, it is a precondition of modernity in the post-industrial world.

Indeed, Sharifov insists, “democratization and the development of civil society on the one hand and the broadening of the authority of international organizations on the other is a manifestation of federalization respectively at the national and super-national levels” in the post-Cold War environment.

But in addition to federalism, there is a need for an ideological self-definition, he suggests, something Russia also lacks, thus putting it at a disadvantage domestically and internationally because “federalism and an ideological imperative are the two foundations of the formation of the basic players on the international arena of the 21st century.”

To get out of its current difficulties, ones that have left Russia at the level of many failed or failing states, Russia’s leaders must show the kind of political courage that has not been much in evidence and change directions both domestically and in their approach to international affairs.

Among the steps these leaders need to take domestically, Sharifov argues is the conclusion of a new federal treaty, the elimination of the ethnic basis of federal units while reducing the number of the federal structures, and the provision of a clear definition of the competence of all levels of the state.

Internationally, he says, Moscow must “distance itself from the political elites in post-Soviet republics who are inclined toward authoritarianism,” focus on improving the standard of human life, create firm ties “with the civil societies of the post-Soviet republics, and create its own analogues to the Euroregions with the CIS countries.

Sharifov does not hold out much hope that anyone in Moscow will take these steps anytime soon, but he suggests that if the leadership does not take them, the power vertical won’t save the country and Russia will fall further and further behind the rest of the world which is moving toward federalism and democracy domestically and internationally.

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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