Political crisis in Russia : the regional dimension / Irina Busygina. - Bonn, 1993 (Studie der Abteilung Außenpolitikforschung im Forschungsinstitut der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung ; 58). - ISBN 3-86077-112-4


3.The Beginning: The Federation Treaty and the Related Debate

Russia was established as a federation in 1918. The first documents which established its federal structure were the „Declaration of the People’s Rights" and the „Declaration of the Rights of the Working People". The latter was incorporated into the constitution of the RSFSR, adopted on 10 July 1918. Chapter 1, item 2 of the constitution said: „The Soviet Russian Republic is established on the basis of a free union of the free nations as a federation of Soviet national republics." In this wording the national emphasis is clear. Administrative units are not mentioned as subjects of the Federation. However, this was not important before Russia acquired its independence in 1991.

The former Russia (RSFSR) was federative only in theory. In reality it was a dependent part of a unitarian state, i.e. the Soviet Union. Russia’s pseudo-federal structure has been revealed only in the past few years.

In 1990-91, the democratic forces in Russia declared the supremacy of republican over union legislation and recognized the sovereign rights of the autonomous republics. The consequences were far-reaching. First the collapse of the Soviet Union, then the accelerating disintegration of Russia itself.

As the legal successor of the USSR and the RSFSR, the Russian Federation should have either retained the documents of 1918 or publicly declined them. However, this choice has been avoided. In the „Declaration of the State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation", adopted 12 June 1990, which marked a turning-point in Russia’s history, nothing is said about the federative structure of the country.

In Russia therefore a so-called „parade of sovereignties" began. The regions began their transformation into more or less independent subjects of the Federation. A month after Russia, in July 1990, North Ossetia adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty. [ North Ossetia was also the first region which unilaterally raised its status to that of a Union Republic within the Russian Federation.] Then the process of gaining sovereignty became an avalanche. During this time (1990-1992), the main participants of the process were national formations, i.e. autonomous republics and regions (Khakassia, Komi, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Udmurtia, Yakutia-Sakha, Adygeya, Buryatia, Karelia, etc.).

It is obvious, however, that there is a tremendous gap between the declaration of sovereignty and its practical realization. In 1991-92, most Russian experts thought that the declarations of sovereignty appeared significant only at first glance. Upon closer inspection they would reveal themselves to be no more than phantoms of a sovereignty which could hardly be realized. [ See, for example, "Russian Regions in the Period of Crises and Reform," Political Monitoring of Russia, American Bureau on Human Rights, Moscow, N3, 1992, p. 40.] Subsequent developments, however, showed this argument to be false. It was an understandable mistake, because at first the only republic which consistently and systematically realized its sovereignty was Tatarstan. [ More detailed information about the position of Tatarstan and Chechnya - see footnote 11.]

At the end of 1991, as a reaction to the „sovereignization" in the autonomous formations, several oblast and kray Soviets (Irkutsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, etc.) adopted a declaration of their status as „independent, enjoying equal rights as subjects of the Federation." No direct reaction from the Supreme Soviet followed. But regional sovereignization continued to develop - primarily in the „rich" regions of Siberia and the Far East. Their key demands were: regional legislative regulation of property terms and the formation of budgets from within. [ In the European part of Russia one notices an interesting but natural phenomenon. "Rich" agricultural or industrial regions (Lipetzk, Belgorod oblast, Krasnodar, Stavropol kray) showed much more independence than the "poor" regions more strictly tied to Moscow. For example, Yaroslav oblast, where the administration is composed entirely of "nomenclatura", nevertheless preserved complete loyalty to the President during the August 1991 putsch. Living on federal subsidies, this region can only survive with the help of the Center. ( Stolitza, N34, 1992, p.8.)]

One must admit that the position of the federal authorities played an active role in reinforcing the trend of disintegration. The Center [ The broad term "Center" means basically Moscow authorities: above all the President and his team, as well as the parliament and the federal government. After the disbanding of the parliament in October 1993, this term implies the President and those most significant statesmen (for example, E. Gaydar, V. Chernomyrdin, S. Filatov, S. Shakhray) who can influence the political decisions and in spite of their discords work in one team.] passively gave up its positions under pressure from regional elites. In fact, it proved to be incapable of creating an active and reasonable policy towards the regions. At this time, the Center chose to either ignore the regional needs or to support selectively the elites in the regions (primarily republics). The Center was unable to foresee that „Center-regions" relations would become the basis and at the same time the main obstacle to the formation of a new Russian statehood.

Work on the Federation Treaty began in Russia in 1990-91 as an analogue to the Union Treaty. But the Union Treaty was overtaken by the events of August 1991 while the Federation Treaty survived. On 31 March 1992 it was signed by the subjects of the Federation (excluding Chechnya and Tatarstan) [ Chechnya, led by General D. Dudaev, insisted on an immediate split from Russia and in effect seceded, but its sovereignty was not recognized by the international community. By contrast, Tatarstan conducted a very profitable policy towards Russia. In fact, it demanded a special type of relationship - "associative" relations. During the referendum held in Tatarstan in March 1992 most of the population voted in favor of independence. Having thus opened the door, it then remained on the threshold and began to bargain with the Russian Federation, trying to get as much as possible for its further presence within Russia. These tactics were at least partially successful: Tatarstan almost stopped contributing to the federal budget but continued to get finances from the central authorities and Western investors, putting an end to the attempts to control the allocation of these finacial resources. (In the past these tactics were also used in Yakutia-Sakha and Bashkortostan.)] and in April was approved by the Sixth Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation.

During the preparation of the Federation Treaty, two fundamentally different concepts of Russia’s federalism were put forward.

First. Russia is a federation of national republics with preferential rights for titular nationalities, with minimal competences of the Center and maximal competences of the local elites.

Second. The return to the pre-revolutionary system of provinces, i.e. the pure territorial approach, taking less account of the ethnic peculiarities of each region.

The second approach, which recognizes the vicious character of a national-territorial model, corresponds much more to the formation of a genuine federation: nationality is separated from statehood. However, in Russia this approach could definitely not be realized. To redefine the physical boundaries would immediately lead to riots in the autonomous federations. It is clear that for the foreseeable future it is absolutely imperative that there will be no change in the physical boundaries of the regions.

In reality, Russia had no real choice between these two concepts. The federation began to be built by „trial and error".

The document called the „Federation Treaty" actually includes three treaties concerning the distribution of competences between the federal government bodies and the government bodies of the three types of subjects (sovereign republics; oblast, kray, cities of federal subordination; autonomous oblast and okrug.)

For some time the Federation Treaty prevented open conflict while each region struggled to make it work.

The Treaty was more a process than a result. It fixed the past, but did not determine the future. Nobody really hoped that the Treaty would be a corrective for regional crises. Basically, the Treaty proved to be incapable of coping with three main problems:

1. It fixed the division of the subjects into three different types - each enjoying unequal rights. The inequality of rights of the subjects prompted regional sovereignization to increase, the regions (oblast, kray, okrug) tried to overtake the republics. This was only natural, as one of the basic principles of federalism („symmetry" - equal rights to all components of the federation) had been disturbed.

Moreover, inequality of rights of the subjects (regions) caused inequality of human rights. Thus, the citizens of the republics enjoyed more rights than the citizens of the other regions.

2. It remained unclear what the nature of the federation was, what its basis could be: constitution or Federation Treaty? One would think that in signing the Treaties not among each other but with the Center, the subjects had recognized the authority of the constitutional source. Not at all. The demand of the republics to include the full texts of the Treaties in the Constitution proved that they considered them to be the basis of the Federation, thus paving the way to the confederation.

3. The Treaty did not clearly define the ownership of the state, of the subjects and the ownership of their joint competence, thus creating chaotic situations.

Let us examine the basis of the claims of national formation. Yes, the republics were the pioneers of Russian federalism, but they stood for the variant of pseudo-federalism which national bolshevism had imposed. By now the political pretensions of autonomies prevent the development of Russian federalism.

The only legal ground for their special status could be found in the notorious right of nations for self-determination. It assumes that every titular nation [ That is, a nation which gives its name to a particular autonomy.] has the formal right to secede from Russia. The republics therefore thought they were doing the Russian state a big favor by remaining inside it. Russia should be most grateful to them and by all means stress their special, honorable status.

In fact, the right for self-determination is not limited to politics and relates first of all to free development of national cultures. Only if this free development is completely unattainable within Russia can the titular nation secede. Secession is not an end in itself.

The second pillar supporting the system of priviledges for autonomies is the definition of „autonomy". A territory populated by a certain (non-Russian) nation, it forms a kind of „cradle" or „nest" of a nation. The other regions do not have such a „sacred" image.

Actually Russia is a multi-ethnic country with dispersed settlements of most of the nations and relatively small ethnically homogeneous areas. Nowadays, the Russian autonomies have around 26 million inhabitants, of which „titular" nations comprise only 10 million, i.e. less than 40%. Within the borders of the autonomies live only 55% of the members of the titular nations, but on the other hand they have 12 million Russians. This simple picture proves that the physical boundaries of the autonomies do not reflect the real settlement of nationalities in Russia.

Having said this, it is no wonder the Federation Treaty failed. The basic documents concerning the principles and mechanisms of its realization were never implemented. [ The heads of republics and the heads of administrations expressed their disappointment with the Federation Treaty in a joint declaration on 9 March 1993, which they put forward on the first day of the Eighth (extraordinary) Congress of the People's Deputies. They stressed that the Treaty had not been implemented in practice, thus rendering elaboration of the new constitution senseless. They demanded the adoption of a special law concerning principles and mechanisms of the realization of the Treaty. This law should have determined the powers of the federal legislative, executive and legal bodies; mechanisms of interaction of federal government bodies and the bodies of the subjects of the Federation in the spheres of their exceptional and joint competence; procedure of property delimitation between the Center and the subjects; guarantees of economic rights of the subjects in the law-making activity of the Supreme Soviet and legislative activity of the subjects; terms and conditions of increasing the efficiency of the Council of Ministers and of the executive bodies in the regions. A special chapter should regulate the agenda for preparation and adoption of the new Constitution. ( Rossijskaya Gazeta, N48, 12 March 1993, p.2)]

In the circumstances where the Center was unable to cope with the regional challenges, the leaders of the political movement „Democratic Russia" called already in 1992 for the formation of a federation from within (from the regional level), to transfer maximal rights to the regions, which should enjoy equal rights. [ Stolitza, N34, 1992, p. 6-7.]

It should be stressed, however, that this principle of the formation of a federation from within must be valid for all the subjects. The autonomous republics put forward a different idea: they (the republics) would choose to transfer certain competences to the Center, while for the administrative units the order would be the opposite: the Center should transfer certain competences to them. [ Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 24 June 1993, p. 1.]

Before the Eighth Congress of Deputies, the autonomous republics received most of the attention of the press and general public. The Center gave them much more consideration than the other regions. [ This trend is proved by the creation of the Council of the Heads of the Republics (Fall 1992), headed by the President. It was supposed to form a kind of counterbalance to the Supreme Soviet, but actually contributed to the further separation of the republics from the other regions.] However, from March 1993 kray and oblast began to develop their own legislative activity. [ The "first swallow" was an elaboration of the Constitution in the Siberian Tomsk oblast ( Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 20 March 1993, p.3).] The Center perceived these first attempts by the regions to reach a balance in rights with the republics as unlawful, separatist, and leading to the split of Russia’s unity. But this was a natural development, as no part of a federation likes to feel inferior. However, the continuous confrontation between the President and the parliament contributed much more to these trends.

In this situation, the President, supported by the majority of the people during the April referendum, turned to the only power which could support him in elaborating and adopting a new constitution - Russia’s regions. [ A majority of voters in 66 of Russia's 87 regions supported President Yeltsin in the April referendum ( Economist, September 25, 1993, p. 34).]

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 9.1. 1998

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