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Tatarstan's Model For Developing Russian Federalism.

  • Raphael Khakimov
Centre and Periphery in Russian Politics. The Development of Russian Federalism. Nr.235, September 1998, pp.43-52.

Tatarstan's Model For Developing Russian Federalism.

Russia is going through a constitutional crisis, and the main reason for this is the fact that the question of the organisation of the state has not been solved. Today the struggle for democracy takes place mainly within the field of federalism. In Russia, democracy can only exist if it is based on federalism, and it has to be supported by distinct federal principles. The attempts to combine a rigid centralism with democracy, particularly at the time of the war in Chechnya, led to a weakening of state power and to the commencement of the constitutional crisis. Russia will either fall apart or become a federal state.

The historical context: The struggle between the unitary and the federal tendencies

Historically, Russia has been a conglomerate of different khanats, territories and peoples. Today, the peoples who were once conquered by the Russians, or who (according to the official version) voluntarily joined the Russian state, are living compactly in their historical homelands, and they have kept the memories of their former statehood. Their behaviour is in many ways determined by ethnic interests, and this is expressed through demands for federalisation and the adoption of a distinct national policy.

After the 1917 revolution it was precisely the non-Russian peoples who initiated a restructuring of the Russian state on federalist principles. Formally federalism was proclaimed, but to all intents and purposes both the Soviet Union and the RSFSR remained unitary states where all structures were rigidly centralised. With this inheritance perestroika commenced. Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to exert enormous efforts to preserve the integrity of the country, but he was to late in starting the process of federalisation, and consequently the Soviet Union fell apart and the old imperial inheritance was left to the RSFSR. As a result of this Mikhail Gorbachev lost both the power and the state.

The dramatic prehistory of the conflicts between the centre and the regions explains many of todays problems in Russia. In 1990 RSFSR declared state sovereignty. In doing this it provoked analogous declarations in the former autonomous republics. In August 1990 Tatarstan proclaimed the declaration of state sovereignty of the republic of Tatarstan. The motive for this was that Tatarstan was in a hurry to sign the Union Treaty as an independent subject, in alphabetical order, so to say, i.e. not as a part of the RSFSR delegation but as a union republic.1 Tatarstan raised the question of status as union republic on several occasions, starting in the 1930s at the time when the Constitution of 19362 was adopted, then in 1951,3 in 1954,4 in 1964,5 and in 1977.6

Following Tatarstans example all the other republics of the RSFSR declared state sovereignty. This phenomenon was named the parade of sovereignities and was based upon the non-Russian populations resentment with their lack of legal recognition within the state, and with the lack of mechanisms for the fulfilment of their ethnic interests.

The parade of sovereignties caused a situation characterised by a lack of legal regulations of the new relations between the centre and the subjects. In April 1992 the central authorities and the subjects signed the Federation Treaty (FT), or rather - three federation treaties regarding three types of subjects. Only Tatarstan and Checheno-Ingushetiya refrained from signing the treaties, and Bashkortostan signed on the condition that the FT would be complemented with bilateral treaties. The reasons why Tatarstan refrained form signing the treaty were as follows:

1) It granted the republics lesser rights than they actually enjoyed at this moment;

2) In reality it was only an agreement between the federal government and the subjects of the delimitation of power, the federal nature of Russia was not defined in the treaty. Consequently there was no guaranty as to the preservation of the sovereignty of the republic.

With time it became evident that the interpretation of this document would fluctuate with the political situation. In reality Moscow did not intend to surrender its power to the regions. Moscow needed a political breathing space in order to be able to re-establish its rigid control over the republics. The central authorities did not offer, and indeed they did not even intend to offer, a mechanism for the realisation of the FT.7 At the time of the preparation of the new Constitution of the Russian Federation they actually excluded the FT from the constitutional process.

The Federation Treaty could not become a founding document, as it was based, not upon the will of the peoples, but upon the will of the centre, which was not interested in the decentralisation of power. Consequently, Russia for all purposes remained a unitary state. The Constitutional Assembly of 1993 could have been a real opportunity for the founding of a federation. Several politicians suggested to change the assembly into a founding meeting. However, the initiators of the assembly were not interested in this, and they exerted great efforts in order to exclude from the draft constitution many of the suggestions which potentially could have become a basis for federalisation. Distinctively, the word sovereignity, which the republics insisted to include, disappeared from the final text of the Constitution.

At the assembly the suggestions of Tatarstan which were put forward as legislative initiatives in the name of the Supreme Soviet and the President, were not considered. Tatarstans suggestions were based on the result of the referendum which was held on the 31st of March 1992 and on the Constitution of Tatarstan, which was adopted on the 5th of November 1992. To demonstrate its protest Tatarstans delegation left the Constitutional Assembly.8

The referendum on the Constitution of the Russian Federation on the 12th of December 1993, showed the discontent of many of the subjects with the suggested draft. If we include Tatarstan, where the vast majority of the electorate boycotted the referendum, and Chechnya, where no referendum was held, 32 subjects voted against the Constitution. Thus, already from the moment it was officially adopted, the Constitution of the Russian Federation lacked full legitimacy.

The ensuing political moves of the centre were directed at strengthening the unitary tendency. The treaty with Tatarstan was considered a purely opportunistic and temporary document, even as a kind of misunderstanding. A number of ideologists who were close to Boris Yeltsin9 put forward a thesis concerning the necessity of gubernisation of Russia, i.e. the elimination of national state formations and the transition to a purely territorial principle for organising the state. This provoked a distinctively negative reaction from the republics.10 This opposition peaked with the beginning of the war in Chechnya. The republics condemned11 the war, as they considered it an attempt at the restoration of the empire.

In 1996 the republics, and then a number of the oblasts and krais, being dissatisfied with their status, demanded that bilateral treaties be concluded. Before the presidential elections of 1996, in order to strengthen his staggering position in the regions, Boris Yeltsin was forced to start a process of concluding treaties not only with the republics, but also with oblasts, krais and cities. Thus the struggle between the unitary and federal tendencies came to its conclusion by the end of 1996 with the victory of the federalist forces. But federalism was not consolidated within the legislation.

The political consequences of the war in Chechnya

The war in Chechnya provoked a political crisis in Russia. The population on the whole resented the consequences of the war, because of the deaths of many young soldiers. The economy could not sustain the enormous expenditures to maintain the army and the dubious infusions to restore the economy. In the army demoralisation set in. The international community condemned Russia and demanded the termination of military operations.

The war in Chechnya, lost by Moscow, further complicated the relations between the centre and the regions. Firstly, the war caused distrust in the leadership of Russia, not only among the Chechens but among practically all of the non-Russian peoples. It became difficult to appeal to the democratic attitudes of the Russian leadership - this was no longer an argument. The historical distrust in Moscow, which had existed for centuries, once again became a political factor. Secondly, a solution of the Chechen problem demands that the republics be granted special status. Obviously, Tatarstans model will not work in this case, and consequently any Treaty on the status of Chechnya will lead to harsh contradictions with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Thirdly, Chechnya is activating its international efforts in order to receive security guaranties and financing of the reconstruction. This may become another destabilising factor in Russia and the Caucasus.

Symptoms of a constitutional crisis in Russia

The commencement of the withdrawal of the military forces from Chechnya and the activation of the treaty process created a new political and legal situation. Russia approached a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution could no longer meet the requirements of the new political reality.

One has to admit that the Parade of the Treaties, which included one third of the federal subjects, destroyed the old constitutional order. What happened was actually a deviation, not only from the nominally existing Federal Treaty, but also from the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Today it is difficult for Moscow to demand that the constitutions of a series of republics be brought in accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. As a matter of fact it might be a more appropriate question whether the Constitution of the Russian Federation should not be brought in accordance with the new political situation.

The constitutional crisis was provoked by the contradictions within the Constitution itself. In particular, in article 5, paragraph 1, the equality of the subjects is proclaimed, but the same article consolidates the distinction between republics (states) which have their own constitution and other subjects which only have charters (ustavy).12

The Constitution of the Russian Federation defines three types of subjects with different status: Nation-states (republics), administrative-territorial units (krais, oblasts, Moscow and St Petersburg),and national-territorial units (the autonomous oblast and autonomous okrug). Thus, the Constitution by way of its nature stipulates asymmetrical relations. In addition to the legal asymmetries one has to consider the natural asymmetries resulting from the ethnic, geographic and economic diversity of the subjects.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation proclaims the supremacy of the basic law, and simultaneously allows for relations to be regulated in separate agreements, without specifying the nature of such agreements.

We notice one more significant contradiction which continually creates internal tension in the country. The Constitution of the Russian Federation starts with the words: We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation,... Still it does not suggest any mechanisms for the implementation of the rights of the non-Russian peoples. The Parliament has no procedure for considering the interests of the minorities. The legitimacy of the Federal Assembly is also very dubious in the eyes of the non-Russian peoples, because the subjects did not participate in the elaboration of the regulations concerning the representative bodies of Russia.

For many of its peoples Russia is the only territory where they can develop their culture. They are the indigenous population, as they lived on their territories long before the Russians appeared. Thus, naturally they have claims to the role of state building ethnoses on a level with the Russians. Russian federalism must be based upon the interests of all the countrys peoples. Any other approach would integrate inter-ethnic tensions into the foundation of the state.

The specific character of Russia is reflected in the fact that democratic laws have seldom been adopted. And in the instances when they have been adopted, they have not been implemented. Two factors are significant in order to understand the political situation in Russia: 1) the traditional anti-democratic nature of the Russian society, and 2) the tendency to ignore the Constitution and the adopted laws. Every new head of state in Russia considers it a necessity to adopt his own constitution, but does not consider it necessary to follow it. The whole history of Russia testifies to how her leaders have preferred the power of arms to political methods as their means of communication with the people and ethnic groups. The war in Chechnya is in line with Russias traditions, while the treaty with Tatarstan contradicts them. If in Europe a problem is solved by the adoption of a constitution and legislation, then in Russia such a practice is nothing more than a good prerequisite for political struggle for ones rights - human rights and the rights of peoples.

Approaches to the federalisation of Russia

There are two main approaches to the federalisation of Russia: 1) the constitution-agreement variety, where the centre defines all the processes and delegates powers to the regions, and 2) the agreement-constitution variety, where the relations are built from below and upwards by a voluntary delegation of power to the centre.

Advocates of the constitution-agreement approach maintain that the sovereignisation of the republics, which was initiated by Tatarstan, may lead to Russia falling apart, like the Soviet Union did; thus, it is necessary to apply a policy of rigid control over the subjects, and to grant them minimal powers. Therefore, they consider bilateral agreements to be temporary and anomalous (to reassure Tatarstan); as a matter of fact they strive for the preservation of the unitary state. Specifically this attitude has been expressed through the attempts in the State Duma to adopt the law concerning the delimitation of power between the federal bodies of state power and the subjects bodies of power. The war in Chechnya was an integral part of this policy.

Advocates of the agreement-constitution approach do not consider Russia to be a genuine federation, and they adhere to the principle whereby relations with the centre are formed from below and upwards, i.e. by a voluntary transfer of power with the aid of bilateral agreements. In this context sovereignty becomes a necessary legal basis for the self-determination of the federal subjects.

The source of power in a democratic federation is the people. Thus, the foundations of the state, the functions of the central bodies etc. must be defined by the federal subjects. In post-imperial Russia reformation of the state from the top was impossible, as it was in the interest of the centre to preserve the unitary state and not to decentralise the system of government.

Where the advocates of the first approach continue to insist that the constitutions of the republics must be in accordance with the Constitution of Russia, their opponents, and Tatarstan in particular, maintain that, quite to the contrary, the Constitution of Russia must be in accordance with the constitutions of the republics, and the centre must be controlled by the subjects. Furthermore, the functions of the federal bodies should be defined by the powers which the subjects have voluntarily transferred to them, while each subject independently decides upon the enumeration of these powers and has the right to withdraw them whenever they like.

Tatarstan has always regarded the decentralisation and federalisation of Russia as a way to eliminate the imperial structures and progress to a genuinely democratic society. Additionally, federalism will allow for a strengthening of the control with the keeping and illegal sale of weapons, and the struggle against crime will become more effective within each separate territory. This is extremely important, as the sheer spaciousness of a Russia without borders or customs makes it easy to transport weapons, drugs and other illegal goods from the Far East all the way to the Baltic. A strengthening of local authorities resulting from a redistribution of power between the centre and the subjects would increase the general security of Europe.

The federalisation of Russia can and should be based upon two principles: the ethno-territorial and the territorial. Deviations from the ethno-territorial principle in the organisation of the Russian state can result in great political turmoil, as the war in Chechnya has already demonstrated.

The multiethnic nature of Russia has an influence on all political processes in the country. Politicians and scientists usually operate with summarised figures of the ethnic composition of Russia. When this approach is used, Russia looks like a monoethnic state, with Russians constituting 82% of the population. However, it would be a great mistake to draw political conclusions from this picture. Without a consideration of the quantity of non-Russian ethnoses in compactly populated areas, it is impossible to imagine the actual weight of their influence on society. Apart from this, one has to take into consideration the dynamics of the demographic growth of non-Russian ethnic groups. For instance, the number of Moslems in Russia is approximately 20 million, but within three decades - says Jurij Kobishanov - the Moslem population must be expected to reach 30 to 40 million.13 In many regions of Russia the numbers of the Moslem and the orthodox Christian populations will gradually converge over the next few years. This is happening precisely in those regions where they have been living from time immemorial - they are indigenous peoples. In a vast country like Russia, with an extremely varied landscape, a significant part of the non-Russian ethnoses living in separate territories is becoming an important political factor.

At the same time, it is also important to define the status of the Russian subjects. The dimensions of the country are so large that government from a single centre is rendered ineffective - the geographic, economic and cultural diversity of the country is too great.

The asymmetry of the relations between the subjects and the centre in Russia is a fact which it is impossible to ignore and extremely difficult to eliminate. The differences in status between the republics, oblasts, krais and autonomous okrugs is evident. There are also differences between Tatarstan and the other republics regarding the extent of their powers.

These differences of status between the subjects are obviously unjust. It seems that over the next few yeas there will be a process of equalisation in regard to the extent of the powers of the republics versus the administrative territories. Many Heads of oblasts and krais directly pose the question of expanding the rights of their territories to the level of Tatarstans powers. Such sentiments are becoming increasingly popular.

Tatarstan speaks in favour of a flexible policy on the part of the centre. In its relations with the subjects, the centre should not pay too much attention to abstract principles of equalisation; instead it should concentrate on the specific ethnic and historical features of each particular region. In a statement from the three presidents of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Sakha-Yakutiya it is said that The policy of the centre concerning its relations with the subjects should be flexible, and it should take into consideration the political reality. There are, and there will continue to be, differences between the federal subjects. This is due to the natural diversity of life itself. Integrity and stability within a state is not reached by unification and the mechanical adjustment of all to a single standard, but, on the contrary, by the consideration of the particular features and requirements of each subject.14 The strength of a federation is not defined by whether relations are symmetrical, but by whether each subject will receive support for its particular interests from the federal centre, provided, naturally, that such support is not granted at the expense of other subjects.

Tatarstans Model

In august 1991 negotiations were opened between Moscow and Kazan, and on the 15th of February 1994 they were concluded with the signing of a Treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan On the delimitation of authority and the reciprocal delegation of powers between the bodies of state power of the Russian Federation and the bodies of state power of the Republic of Tatarstan. Simultaneously, the governments of Russia and Tatarstan signed a package of agreements regulating their relations in the spheres of trade, property, budgets, finance, banking, military installations, the military-industrial complex, customs, matters of foreign economy and the preservation of law and order.15 This package of 12 inter-governmental agreements, signed at the same time as the Treaty, became a mechanism for the implementation of the articles of the Treaty.

This method for political regulation of the relations between the centre and the regions was named Tatarstans model. Naturally, the model can not be applied to all such cases - the situation in Russia is too complex, but the fact remains that to this day no other sensible model has come into existence.

The Treaty is, above all, a mechanism for solving the conflict between Kazan and Moscow, which has developed as a result of two profound tendencies: on the one hand the demands for the decentralisation of power and a transition to a genuine federalisation of Russia; on the other hand the striving on the part of the centre to preserve for itself as many as possible of the functions of power which have remained from the time of the Soviet Empire. When Moscow made this move, her actions were based not on strategic but on tactical considerations, and in the hope that she would, in due course, be able to force Tatarstan and the other republics to follow the orders issued by the centre. For Tatarstan, on the contrary, its relations with Moscow should as a matter of principle be based on agreements. This policy is reflected in several documents. The historical significance of the treaty consists in the fact that it reflects Moscows renunciation of the application of force against Tatarstan.

As to the legal implications of the Treaty, it is intended to act as a kind of buffer between the Constitution of Russia and that of Tatarstan. As a matter of fact the Treaty signifies that Moscow does not demand of Tatarstan that its Constitution be brought in accordance with the Constitution of Russia. Thus, the supremacy of Tatarstani laws over Russian laws is also acknowledged - and significant distinctions do exist between the two units in the field of legislation. For instance, Tatarstan is declared a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, and the republic is oriented towards a demilitarisation of the economy. This contradicts the general military doctrine of Russia. In Tatarstan laws concerning the right to private ownership of land have been adopted, and certain privileges are granted to foreign investors, while this is not the case in Russia.

In compliance with the Treaty, Tatarstans right to introduce its own citizenship on a level with the common Russian one has been recognised, and the same applies to Tatarstans right to participate (albeit not to full extent) in international and foreign economy relations.

The nature of the political situation makes it impossible for Tatarstan to voluntarily adjust its Constitution to accord with the Constitution of Russia. In this matter the leadership of the Republic enjoys the full support of the population. There might be a question of bringing the two constitutions in accordance with each other, but in any case the centre would have to initiate this.

What is to be expected?

The conclusions of bilateral Treaties and the elections of oblast governors will result in an expansion of the sovereignty of the federal subjects, and the subjects will demand further rights, above all in the field of the economy. Budget federalism will be one of the most dramatic topics of the next political season.

The fact that the national problem remains unsolved will make the non-Russian peoples strive for an increase of the status of the republics and for the introduction of changes in the composition and functions of the central bodies of power (legislative as well as executive).

In Russia there is also the problem of ethnic groups which have been cut loose from the main massive, but which actively demand the fulfilment of their claims. As an example, only 25% of all Tatars live in Tatarstan; while the rest are settled compactly or dispersed in almost all parts of Russia. They demand that a Peoples Assembly of Russia be created as a special chamber of the Federal Assembly. The proposition of the creation of a Peoples Assembly of Russia entered into the Conception of the national policy of Russia. Naturally, the central authorities are not concerning themselves with the implementation of the national policy, nor have they any intentions of doing so. Consequently, these matters will be dealt with by the public organisations and the republics. Next year an enlivening of political activity in connection with these questions must be expected.

Conclusion: without constitutional reforms political stability can not be expected to prevail in Russia.

1 In the Declaration it is stated that it is the basis for republic's participation in "preparation for their inclusion in the Union Treaty, treaties with the RSFSR and other republics...".
2 As an answer to the republic's demands Stalin told Vyshinskiy to elaborate the criteria for becoming a union republic so as to prevent Tatarstan from gaining such a status.
3 Officials from the republic raised the question of an expansion of the republic's economic rights.
4 A group consisting of members of the creative intelligentsia raised the question of the republic's status.
5 A group consisting of members of the creative intelligentsia in agreement with the leaders of the republic raised the question of the republic's status, and a draft constitution for Tatarstan as a union republic was also prepared.
6 A proposal was included in the draft for a new constitution for the USSR.
7 At this time the author was an expert at the Council of Heads of Republics, and witnessed how in the course of one and a half years the representatives of the republics tried to suggest a mechanism for the realisation of the FT, but its contradictions did not allow for the elaboration of realistic approaches. In addition the executive power openly ignored the existence of the Federation Treaty.
8 In the "Declaration of the President and the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Tatarstan" it is stated: "In the draft which was prepared during the initial phase by the Constitutional Assembly there was an urge to belittle and discredit the very idea of the establishment of a qualitatively new type of federal relations. The legislative initiative from the Republic of Tatarstan of a new vision of federalism in Russia, and of the possibility of integrating into the country's Constitution the propositions of treaty-constitutional relations between the republic of Tatarstan and the Russian Federation - Russia has been ignored." See "Belaya kniga" pp. 26-27.
9 See S. Shakhraj "Poslanie prezidentu RF", Panorama-Forum, nr. 1 1995, pp. 7-9.
10 See "Poslanie M. Shaymieva, M. Rakhimova, M. Nikolaeva Prezidenty Rossiskoy Federatsii B. Yeltsinu: Za posledovatelnuju demokratizatsiju i federalizatsiju Rosii", Panorama-Forum, nr. 1 1995, pp. 3-6.
11 See "Zayavlenie semi respublik ot 5 yanvarya 1995 goda", Respublika Tatarstan 6 yanvarya 1995.
12 On the constitutional meeting a conflict (in many ways artificial) was provoked between the republics and the oblasts. The oblasts demanded that they be granted the same rights as the republics. The republics agreed to the introduction of equal rights - not by a reduction of the rights of the republics, but by an expansion of the rights of the oblasts and other subjects. Ten republics elaborated an official position in this regard. The author addressed the meeting, suggesting that the oblasts and krays be granted the right to have constitutions instead of charters. The presidium refused to let the meeting vote over this question. In the final text the inequality was increased, which was considered a purely political move on the part of the centre, which feared the development of a united "front" of federal subjects against the centre.
13 Ju. Kobishchanov "Izlamskaya tsivilizatsiya i severnaya Evraziya", Nezavisimaya gazeta 9 aprelya 1996, p. 5.
14 Panorama-Forum, nr 1. 1995, p. 7.
15 The text of the Treaty and the twelve agreements were published in the book "Belaya kniga Tatarstana...; Collected documents of Tatarstan. The Path to Sovereignty. (Official collection of documents). 1990-93. Kazan 1996; Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Vol XVIII, nr. 1, fall 1994.

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