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Number 4(8), autumn, 2003
Number 8 of the journal «Kazan Federalist» (in english)
/ Kazan Center of Federalism and Public Policy / Publications / Journal «Kazan Federalist» / 2003 / Number 4(8), autumn, 2003 / Recent administrative reforms and their effect on ethnopolitical processes in Russia return to homepage
Recent administrative reforms and their effect on ethnopolitical processes in Russia

  • Emil Pain
The current Russian power structure and numerous political analysts have spread the idea that in the times of the Yeltsin administration, Russia was disintegrating, while with the beginning of Putin’s era, the country’s integrity became more solid. I seriously doubt the validity of such assertions. Overly pessimistic evaluations of our recent past and excessive optimism in regard to the present and past of our Federation seem equally arguable to me.

I. Trends of the Russian federalism development


Emil Pain*

Recent administrative reforms and their effect on ethnopolitical processes in Russia


The current Russian power structure and numerous political analysts have spread the idea that in the times of the Yeltsin administration, Russia was disintegrating, while with the beginning of Putin’s era, the country’s integrity became more solid. I seriously doubt the validity of such assertions. Overly pessimistic evaluations of our recent past and excessive optimism in regard to the present and past of our Federation seem equally arguable to me.

Only the mostly illiterate peoples of some developing countries in Asia and Africa, who record the history in form of oral legends, can compete with the Russians’ ability to mythologize their recent history. As is well-known, Russia is a country with universal literacy, but even here we have a number of rumors, legends and myths on the political aspects of, let’s say, the Federal treaty (1992) or the treaties on distribution of powers between federal and regional bodies. Yeltsin’s phrase of 1991: “Take as much sovereignty, as you can swallow” reportedly led to disintegration in Russia. But are there any proofs or examples to support the assertion? In my opinion, the situation developed in quite the opposite way: it started with the disintegration of the Russian Federation in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991-1993) and proceeded to subsequent stabilization and to the improvement of federal relations.


Disintegration or decentralization?


I will remind you that in 1990-1991, a “parade of sovereignties” rolled through Russia: almost all subjects of the Federation adopted resolutions of sovereignty similar to those adopted by the union republics, soon-to-be independent states. The “pioneers” in the struggle for sovereignty were Tatarstan, Yakutiya and Checheno-Ingushetiya. Legislative acts passed in those republics witnessed the seriousness of their intentions to gain full independence. For instance, the constitution of Tatarstan defined the “republic” as “a sovereign state, a subject of international law”; the constitutional provision “On natural resources” proclaimed all state property and natural resources to belong exclusively to the republic; the resolution “On the military obligation and service of the citizens of the republic of Tatarstan” compelled the citizens to do their military service only within the republic of Tatarstan. [1] In 1992 the Chechen Republic (Ichkeriia) declared its withdrawal from the Federation. At the same time, there emerged the threat of the compulsory withdrawal of Kabardino-Balkaria. After the Russian republics had demonstrated their “parade of sovereignties,” Russian regions and oblasts also started having an irresistible desire to raise their status. First Vologodskaya and Sverdlovskaya Oblasts, and then a number of other Russian regions, declared their intention of proclaiming themselves republics. In October 1993 Sverdlovskaya Oblast brought its threat to life and adopted the Constitution of the Ural Republic, which was disavowed by the federal government soon afterwards. Even some administrative districts in certain cities declared their sovereignty. In this way, in the end of 1991 Oktyabrskii District of Moscow declared the sovereignty of its jurisdiction and even banned planes from flying over it. The inertia of the Soviet collapse was gaining strength, and nobody knew at the time when or at which territorial level it would stop.

However, in addition to inertia, there existed objective reasons for a rise in tension between the center and the regions. In early 1990s Russia was called a federation, but it essentially continued to be a unitary state. The vast country was still governed by one center. The funds earned by the most developed oblasts of the Central region – the Ural and Volga regions, as well as super-earnings of the oil industry in Western Siberia – entered the federal treasury. Only a minuscule part of those earnings, too small to adequately reflect the results of industrial activity in the region, came back to the regions. The actual recipients of government subsidies were the parade “window glasses” of socialism – the capitals of Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). This inefficiency of management demonstrated itself back in Soviet times and became an anachronism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The federal budget inefficiently distributed about 10% of GNP among the regions.[2] Old economic ties between the territories were destroyed; the centralized government system weakened; the sphere of economic management was centered around local bodies of power in spite of the fact that the law still had not given them any authority. The discontent of the regions was growing. Not only the republics but also Russian regions and oblasts (mostly those rich in natural resources) were claiming more independence, especially in regard to external economic issues.

It should be noted that the sovereignty of Russian regions did not constitute a real danger to the integrity of Russia. For instance, the Constitution of the Ural Republic differed from the constitutions of republics within Russia by the fact that it recognized the unconditional supremacy of federal laws and federal government on its territory.[3] Moreover, the idea of republican sovereignty was not based on popular support – the people were completely indifferent to all the fuss over the issue started by their local governments. It is interesting that on the day when Governor E. Rossel’s presentation of key statements of the new constitution was broadcast on the local TV station, the phones in the studio were ringing non-stop receiving calls from indignant TV viewers. They resented that the uninteresting “Rossel’s show” delayed the broadcasting of an interesting football game. When the Constitution of the Ural Republic was disapproved by Moscow, there were no demonstrations or other mass protest actions to defend it.

The situation in the ethnic republics was completely different. Mass national movements were developing here, and the leaders of such movements could draw thousands of republican sovereignty supporters into the streets. The energy of these movements was first saddled up by republican leaders. The former Soviet nomenklatura (most regional leaders came out of that environment) used that energy to preserve their power, while some political neophytes, like the leader of the Chechen national movement general Dzhokhar Dudaev, used it to come to power.

In the first years of the new Russia’s existence, the powers interested in preservation of its integrity were extremely weak. Leaders of non-Russian national movements were soliciting sovereignty for “their” republics, while the Russian nationalists, dreaming of the reconstitution of the USSR, did not promote all-Russian integrity. The leader of Russian communists and the so-called “national-patriotic forces” Gennadii Zyuganov did not get tired of repeating that “today’s Russian Federation is not quite Russia yet, but more like a limb bleeding from torn ties.” [4] Vladimir Zhirinovsky had an even more definite opinion on the topic: “Russia is a country of at least the USSR or the Russian range”.[5]

The struggle for power between the two centers of power (the parliament and the president) in 1992-1993 weakened the Federation significantly. Both struggling sides tried to gain the support of regional leaders while the latter demanded even greater privileges for their regions. But by the end of 1993, the situation started changing. First of all, the national movements which had at first come out with open separatist slogans became less active. The regional elections of 1994 and following years demonstrated that both national movements and their slogans lost the population’s support.

These changes were noticed by Russian public opinion. The masses became more conscious and confident of the fact that Russia’s integrity was being strengthened and, most importantly, the threat of military conflict – the inevitable companion of the country’s breakdown – lessened. This was irrefutably demonstrated by sociological research. (See Table 1).


Table 1. “In your opinion, what is the probability of a military conflict in the next few months in Russia?”*


Answer choices







Probable (to a certain extent)




Not probable





*quotes from the materials of VTsIOM (Vserossiiskii tsentr izucheniia obshchestvennogo mneniia – All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research – transl.).


As we can tell from the data in the table, there was a turning point in the mass consciousness of Russians. In the first two years of post-Soviet Russia, more than half of respondents were living in fear of military conflicts in the next few months, while by the end of 1993 the majority demonstrated a certain optimism.

What had happened by that time in Russia? First of all, the period of shared power had come to an end. The tragic events of October 1993, when the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation was dissolved with the help of military action, can be evaluated in many different ways, but for the sake of justice we have to admit that the end of shared power gave rise to the start of governability in Russia. At the same time, the vast majority of regional leaders began changing their political orientation, too. By that time, they had gained a stable position in their republics and no longer needed the support of national movements, which now seemed more like potential rivals than allies. The regional leaders began to rely on the federal government to get the national movements out of the political arena. They also understood whom to bet on in Moscow once the period of shared power was over. Some of the national movements’ leaders were appointed to regional bodies of power, others gained big chunks of private property, and a third group, having lost the financial and, most importantly, the informational support of the regional power, started losing its influence quickly.

It is also important to note that in October 1993, President Yeltsin put out a statement which said that it was necessary to revise the approach to the implementation of economic reform and move the center of gravity of reforms to the regions. At the same time, the share of regional budgets in the consolidated Russian budget was increased (from 28% in 1992 to 40% in 1993), and the regions gained broader rights in external economic matters.[6] By the end of the 1990s, the proportions of regional and federal funds in the consolidated budget became practically equal.

However, generally, the negative tendencies in federal relations were overcome because of an extensive negotiation process, compromising, and mutual concessions given by both federal authorities and republican leaders.

For instance, the agreement between the federal government and Tatarstan, which is still condemned by the most conservative statesmen, was actually quite beneficial to the republic and the federation as a whole. It seriously weakened the influence of radical nationalist forces in the republic who capitalized on their influence on people’s fear of the “imperial enemy.” The agreement between Moscow and Kazan significantly “extinguished” this image in the consciousness of the Tatars. The agreement did not abolish any of the republic’s earlier legislative acts, but it practically made them safe for preserving the country’s integrity. For instance, Tatarstan is a subject of international law according to the republic’s constitution, but it turned out that foreign investors would not invest a ruble in Tatarstan’s economy without guarantees from Moscow. According to local laws, the mineral resources belong to the republic; however, their main riches – oil – are transported through a federal pipeline; so, after the agreement had been signed in 1994, the volume of Tatarstan’s oil sales even dropped because of the overload in the all-Russian pipeline (an example of how technical means can fulfill political functions). The republican law requires that all citizens of the republic do their military service within Tatarstan, but its territory is also a part of the Volga Region military okrug which sends its new soldiers to many parts of the country, including Chechnya.

Thus, the limits of concessions that the federal government will give to federal leaders depends on the federal government’s ability to keep the main instruments of influence under control: e.g., the financial system, transport, the main pipelines and, obviously, military structures.

Agreements between the federal center and power organs of federal subjects, as well as the Agreement on Societal Peace (1994), signed by all subjects of Federation except Chechnya, significantly limited the ability of any of the republics, regions or oblasts to leave the Federation, since they all admitted that “the realization of subjects’ rights is only possible if all-Russian state, political, economic and legal integrity is preserved”.[7]

Since the end of 1993, a new political order, based on both formal and oral informal agreements between President Yeltsin and republican leaders, was established in Russia. In return for their increased rights on the federal level, regional leaders promised to pacify the most radical national movements. Since then, a single case of ethnic separatism has not been observed, except for the conflict with the Chechen republic, which had not participated in any agreements with Russia at that time.

The fundamental strength of the Russian federal system was tested at the time of the economic crisis in 1998, even though it first appeared as a push to the inevitable collapse of the Federation. After the federal government announced default, almost all regions started taking measures of economic self-defense, which imposed a real threat on the country’s economic integrity and strongly contradicted the constitutional principle of the unbound movement of capital, goods and services across the territory of Russia. For instance, according to the data of the State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat), by September of 1998, 79 regions introduced administrative price management on groceries and banned (or limited) their export beyond a respective region. The press started saying that “food separatism is stronger than political separatism.”[8] The most threatening were some regions’ financial segregation actions and their refusal to transfer taxes into the federal budget. (See table 2).


Table 2. Examples of financial autarchy of the regions during financial crisis (August-September 1998)*


Autonomous actions


1) Creation of a regional banks’ pool, limiting areas of influence of Muscovite banks

2) Segregation of oblast’s payment system.

Samarskaya oblast

Introduction of “an economic emergency regime”

Kaliningradskaya oblast

Formation of the oblast’s gold fund.

Kemerovskaya oblast

Suspension of taxes to the federal budget

Bashkiriia, Kalmykia, Tatariia, Tomskaya oblast, Khabarovskii krai

Federal taxes were single-handedly written off into the republic’s budget



*According to the reports of Russian press in August-September 1998.


Such actions led to noted Russian politicians talking about Russia’s collapse as an almost accomplished fact. The executive secretary of the CIS, Boris Berezovskii, made a statement about the real danger of “losing” Russia on September 2, 1998.[9] Krasnoiarsk region’s governor Aleksandr Lebed’ admitted the same danger and claimed that “it would be difficult to prevent Russia from break-up in current complicated situation”.[10] A week later, the leader of the pro-government Duma faction NDR, Aleksander Shokhin, directly blamed the government leader for “not having preserved the financial-economic and, therefore, political integrity of Russia”.[11] As for publicists and researchers, their forecasts about Russia’s break-up were entirely. For instance, journalist A. Venediktov treated his break-up presumption as an act which would occur in one moment and called August 17 the day when “Russia’s territories and regions start living their lives independently from Moscow and federal power,”[12] while historian V. Loginov, admitting the inevitability of Russia’s break-up, gave the process a whole epoch to happen.[13]

During the same period of time, it became very wide-spread to use force-majeur administrative measures in order to normalize a situation. The governor of Sakhalin, Igor Farkhutdinov, proposed eliminating the republics and introducing provincial government instead.[14] The governor of Iaroslavskaia oblast, Anatoly Lisitsyn, suggested that the power vacuum be filled with an increase in economic collaboration among eight regional associations that would help the Russian state, government and presidential administration form a working and mutually bound vertical of power.[15] This idea resembles very much the one brought to life by President Putin in 2000. It involves the same concept of “vertical of power” and rests on the federal government’s communication with the leaders of several regional okrugs, but not with the 89 leaders of the federal subjects. However, instead of the proposed eight okrugs, Putin created only seven, tracing the borders of military divisions rather than economic associations. Lisitsyn’s idea about mutual obligations between center and regions was not realized either and was substituted for by the system of direct submission of the lower links to the higher ones. But that is not the point.

Neither at that time, nor later, was there a need for force-majeur administrative measures, as in Russia there had already formed the usual, I would even say classical, mechanisms that made sure federal integrity was preserved.

Three weeks after the default and shock that temporarily paralyzed the whole governmental system, the federal government turned to legal mechanisms to fight economic autarchy. Those mechanisms have quickly proven to be unexpectedly successful. On September 23, 1998, Procurator General Yurii Skuratov ordered that all procurators in federal subjects check the legality of their local government suspending federal taxes and other payments to the federal budget. Skuratov called these actions “separatist and grossly violative of federal laws.”[16] The next day, the actions of regional governments were appealed against. Criminal proceedings were instituted against many office-holders (not the main ones but executive officers). Even earlier, (October 10) Russia’s Central Bank revoked the license of the Bank of Kalmykia, or, in other words, liquidated it. The republic paid a high price for attempting to withhold monies designated for federal tax payments. Having lost its bank for awhile, it had to conduct all of its financial operations through the banking systems of neighboring regions, which was quite difficult.

Market laws took care of “agricultural separatism” rather quickly and harshly. Regions that limited exportation of their foods were refused gasoline along with fuel and lubricants (in September, during harvesting time), so they had to change their decisions. Experimental administrative price control failed in all of the regions. By October 1998, there not a single trace of economic separatism was left in Russia, and these days, only analytic experts remember the episode. The idea that I have been repeating since 1994 that “Russia cannot break up; in the worst case, one Chechen edge might be chipped off,” was then proved experimentally. It is another matter that, at that difficult time, the center had to meet the regions halfway and give them a share of authority. However, decentralization does not mean break-up, and a certain level of power decentralization was inevitable and quite justifiable.

Russian authorities started using agreements between the center and regions as a mechanism of coordinating their interests. They did not suspect that many countries, called federations for a reason, used similar mechanisms. Many Western theoreticians even consider federalism to be a mechanism of coordinating interests between the center and regions rather than a once and for all set order of distribution of responsibilities between them. One of the classic theorists on Canadian federalism, Senator Eugene Forsey, says: “Canadian federalism is first of all debate.”[17] Federalism in Spain is organized in a similar way. It is an ethnoterritorial federation, and they have a mechanism of coordinating interests in which the Constitutional Court plays the main part. There exists another ethnoterritorial federation that does not show any signs of break-up: Switzerland. Its stability is also preserved because of the action of the system of coordinating interests between the federation and cantons, which includes court, parliament and strategic negotiations between the organs of executive power on different levels. All of these mechanisms differ from the ones in Russia only by the fact that they are well-ordered and formalized. At the time of Yeltsin, the agreements were more like a conspiracy between one master, from the capital, with the ones from the regions, so over the course of time, there emerged the necessity of the formal ordering of democratic relations between the center and the regions, as in Europe. Instead, the system of coordinating interests was simply destroyed during the rebuilding of “the power hierarchy”.


Power hierarchy or corridor of controversies?


President Putin’s administrative reforms are usually associated with creating the federal okrugs. However, to analyze our topic we should take a look at the whole complex of changes in the federal relations sphere.

For instance, the reform of the Federation Council, first of all the exclusion of regional leaders from it, eliminates the possibility of using this organ as a mechanism of coordinating interests between the center and regions. The Russian Senate today is either a place for once important but currently inactive personas of the federal nomenklatura to sit till their retirement or an instrument for the so-called “oligarchs,” which they use to lobby for their mercenary interests. In both cases, such a Senate cannot positively affect the federal relations. The appearance of the St. Petersburg duo Liudmila Narusova and Sergei Pugachev as representatives of the Tuva Republic in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament give it a noticeable farcical character.

Another element of the new administrative reform, directed toward building one hierarchy of power, is the creation of seven administrative okrugs headed by delegated presidential representatives. This method is seen in the regions as a method of direct administrative pressure of the federal center on the regional elite.

The main function of delegated representatives in okrugs, to my mind, is reduced to keeping an eye on the loyalty of the regional elite towards the federal center. They insist on changing only those elements of regional legislation that might impinge on the center’s rights or interests. Laws impinging on human rights get much less attention. For instance, in the Southern Okrug, where the problem of interethnic relations was especially acute at the time of Polpred V. Kazantsev, regional leaders, especially those from Krasnodarskii region, adopted an unprecedented number of normative documents violating the constitutional rights of ethnic minorities. I do not even mention the speeches of regional leaders which ran afoul of the laws on raising national tension and counteracting extremism. [18]

One of the main functions of presidential delegates in the federal okrugs is the use of administrative resources to elect regional leaders according to scenarios favorable to Kremlin. An almost demonstrative removal of presidential candidates Mikhail Nikolaev in Yakutia and Khamzat Gutsiriev in Ingushetiia during the respective regional election in early 2002 shows that regional polpreds accomplish their mission successfully. However, the fact that this function is not declared officially indicates that the federal government admits its illegitimacy and is kind of ashamed of it. Besides, the political practicality of such activity is quite doubtful. It would seem that the ability to influence regional elections in a certain way would give more importance to the presidential representatives and put regional leaders in awe of the delegates. However, it also causes a negative consolidation of the regional elite and induces elites toward direct or hidden confrontation with polpreds.

Initially, regional leaders were overwhelmed with fear, and most of them avoided expressing their negative attitude toward administrative changes in an open manner, preferring to use oppositional representatives of national movements instead. However, soon, enough republican leaders started openly doubting the purposefulness of the Federation Council reform and of the creation of the seven administrative okrugs.[19] It is even more significant that under the new conditions, many regional leaders do not pay as much attention to the new revitalization of national movements which will use any administrative actions of the Kremlin in regard to their republic to energize and give more sense to their activity “in defense of their peoples.”

However, federal okrugs and their leaders have much more powerful opponents than Russian regional leaders. Federal ministers directly and indirectly express their concern about the presidential delegates’ attempts to control financial flows directed from the center to the regions. They also factually refuse to admit the role of the presidential delegates – that is, to control the activity of federal ministerial offices in the regions. Officers of the presidential administration are naturally unhappy about the attempts of okrugs’ bosses to influence the distribution of ranks and awards to federal employees in the regions. We have to say that the federal officers do have an opportunity to block the activity of presidential representatives in the spheres that concern them. A similar form of competition also existed during the Soviet period, during the government of Nikita Khrushchev, and led to a total collapse of his favorite “child” Sovnarkhoz, predecessor of today’s administrative okrugs. Besides, each Sovnarkhoz included 3-4 regions, so they were too big and difficult to manage. However, the administrative okrugs are even bigger (they include 12-13 regions), and, therefore, are even more difficult to manage. In addition, we have to note that party discipline, which was the base of administrative management back then, ceased to exist, and that alone will make the idea of the federal okrugs doomed to fail. Today the polpredy, or, as they are called in colloquial speech, “governors-general” have almost no financial, administrative, or, symbolic resources to carry out their functions. They have gradually turned into lobbyists of regional interests on the federal level.

Nobody argues that the rights of federal employees should be protected from the claims of regional leaders. However, the whole world solves this problem not by creating the institution of deputies but by strengthening the role and increasing the independence of the judiciary.

The portion of administrative reforms that deals with the change in proportions and the distribution of taxes going to federal and regional budgets can produce the biggest effect on the development of the republics of the Russian Federation. As has already been mentioned, the regions achieved equal tax proportions by the end of 1990s: 51% went to the center and 49% to the regions, while today, the federal share has grown to 63 percent; the regional reduced to 37 percent.[20]

This innovation was caused the decrease in the number of donor regions (those who gave more taxes to the federal budget than money transfers received from it). In 2000, their number reached a record of 18, but in the beginning of 2001, it was reduced to five to seven.[21] The vast majority of federal subjects moved back to the subsidized category.

Obviously, the power of regional leaders or, as they are otherwise called, regional barons should be limited. However, it should be done not from above, not at the cost of greater centralization, but from below, through the development of local self-government. The main disadvantage of the new reforms, to my mind, is that they caused the weakening of already weak-enough local self-government in Russia. There are several reasons for this phenomenon. First of all, regional leaders received unlimited power in their relations with municipalities and other forms of local self-government as a form of compensation for their loss of authority on the federal level. Secondly, the problem of local self-government became acute because of changes in tax distribution between the federal and regional budgets, with the municipal part of the regional budget the biggest loser in the equation, having been reduced from 32 percent to 17 percent.[22] In the meanwhile, municipal expenses have not decreased; therefore, the budget deficits of cities and villages have increased. Thus, many cities and villages suffered from unstable power and heat coverage during the winter of 2000-2001.

The federal authorities delude themselves with illusions that the growing number of regions depending on them financially will make the regional elite more obedient. In reality, the situation is quite the opposite: the less money there is in regional and municipal budgets, the less responsible their leaders are, and the less can be expected of them. Therefore, in the nearest future, people from cities and villages will quite justifiably address their content to the Kremlin rather than to their local governors.

This tendency may cause the growth of anti-Russian feelings and phobias in areas with predominantly non-Russian populations. In such areas, the federal power is perceived as Russian; therefore, trouble coming from it will often be looked at as purposeful discrimination against non-Russian peoples.

Thus, instead of a “hierarchy of power” there is being built a pipe-like construction. Its bottom is pressured with demands, suspicions and phobias, while the top, with its weak regional filters, produces faulty management decisions. For instance, the State Duma, along with, obviously, the Federation Council, approved the Kremlin’s amendments to the law “About the Languages of the Peoples of the Russian Federation,” which required that all alphabets of republics’ state languages be based on the Cyrillic alphabet. After this law had been adopted, national movements were animated even in most peaceful Karelia. The representatives of republics’ nationalist political organizations opposed the project in December 2002 because it “discredits the perspective of future development and recognition of national languages in Karelia.”[23] The state council of Tatarstan addressed the president of Russia and then the Constitutional court of the Russian Federation, and called the law unconstitutional. Sociological research in the republic recorded a significant growth in people’s interest to the national language problem, and even those Tatars who had earlier been indifferent to the idea of transferring their language into the Latin script now felt that their rights had been violated by the fact that Moscow had decided which alphabet they would be required to use.[24] One of the leaders of the Tatar radical nationalist movement mentioned not without pleasure during our conversation: “You kept saying that federalism would be sufficient to protect national culture. Now you see how wrong you were. Only full independence can save us”.

Such quotes illustrate the conclusion that ethnic separatism, significantly weakened by the mid-1990s, might come back to life and has already started reviving.

According to VTsIOM, it is interethnic relations that are perceived as worsened by Russians, while other aspects of their lives are perceived as improved since Putin’s ascension to the presidency.[25] Such an evaluation cannot only be attributed to the generic managerial decisions of a particular administration. There also exists an inertia of ethnopolitical processes that demonstrates itself at a certain time. Thus, numerous sociological findings indicate a general growth of ethnic consciousness in practically all of the peoples of post-Soviet Russia. It is greatly connected with the so-called “social-political identity crisis” which is characteristic of times of significant historic transformations, similar to those suffered by the peoples of the former Soviet Union who had to change their political regimes, economic systems, and state-ethnic organization in very short terms. The famous Polish sociologist Petr Shtompka calls such periods “traumatic transformation.” A desire to overcome an identity crisis produces a number of effects that might cause the deterioration of inter-ethnic relations, like people’s desire to consolidate in their primary, natural, or “primordial” communities (ethnic and confessional) is being revived; traditionalism strengthens, and xenophobic signs become more frequent. The consolidation process itself can cause ethnic tension in primordial communities, as it is based on an opposition between different primordial communities, “we” vs. “they.” In transition periods, a negative evaluation of “strangers” is usually added to such an opposition (“they” are worse than “us,” “we” are the victims of “their” “plots”), as it is almost inevitable to look for an outside enemy who is responsible for “our” trouble in the times of discomfort that accompany historical change. But can we assert that the prerequisites for the potential growth of inter-ethnic tension and ethnic separatism coincided with the change in the Russian government only accidentally? I do not think so, since the new authorities invade a complex sphere of inter-ethnic relations even more carelessly than the previous ones.

For instance, inter-ethnic tension has demonstrated itself since the early 1990s in the Northern Caucasus, especially Chechnya, but two Chechen campaigns have aggravated the situation to an extreme.

Ethno-sociological research conducted in the republics of Siberia (Iakutia, Tuva, and Buriatia) in the 1990s recorded high ethnic solidarization and, higher than in other regions (except for the Northern Caucasus), “readiness for any actions in the name of their people’s interests.” The Iakuts, for instance, demonstrated a great need for ethnic consolidation (up to 80%) and one of the strongest expressions of feeling that their rights were violated because of their ethnic background (up to 20 percent). By comparison, in Tatarstan only 5 percent feel discriminated against for the same reason.[26] These facts demonstrate a high negative ethnic consolidation by Iakuts. However, all of this has not been taken into consideration by the federal government, whose actions only intensified the heat of the ethnopolitical situation in the region. For instance, extraordinary Kremlin intrusion in Iakutia’s presidential elections in early 2002 did not pass unnoticed and left a negative trace in the consciousness of Iakuts.

In spite of the fact that Tatarstan and Bashkortostan were perceived as republics with inter-ethnic conflict, they have enjoyed quite friendly inter-ethnic relations. No more than 5-13 percent of Tatars, Bashkirs, and Russians “felt that their rights had been violated because of their ethnicity”. In their evaluation of inter-ethnic relations progress in the recent years, up to 70 percent of Tatars and Russians in Tatarstan, as well as more than 60 percent of Bashkirs and 70 percent of Russians and Tatars in Bashkortostan thought that “inter-ethnic relations in the republic have not changed,” and 7-14 percent of respondents in those republics thought that they had even improved. Only 6-12 percent considered them to have deteriorated.[27] These evaluations are much more positive than the national average. Relative inter-ethnic harmony in the region is supported not only by systematic polls but by other data as well, such as, for instance, by a positive balance of Russian immigration to these republics in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, previously mentioned actions of the federal government with regard to such highly important national symbols as language can change ethnopolitical situations in republics for the worse.

Religion is also an important factor responsible for preserving and even intensifying inter-ethnic suspicion in a number of Russia’s regions. The relations between Orthodox and Muslims have developed in a most complex way. Mutual suspiciousness of both confessions’ supporters is caused by a history of opposition as well as by many modern political events. The majority of Russians know little of Islam, and information on the subject becomes more and more inadequate. The Afghan and Chechen wars, as well as a mass-media produced image of radical Islamic Wahabbist organizations supporting Chechen terrorists, formed the image of Muslims as a dangerous extremist movement. At the same time, Islamic believers dislike Orthodoxy first of all because it is a “dominating religion supported by the federal government,” and believe that just that fact violates the interests of other religions.

The general growth of negative inter-ethnic perceptions in modern Russia is mostly connected with the beginning of the second Chechen war. The Russian authorities explained the necessity of the second Chechen war with the fact that the victory over Chechen separatism will prevent Russia’s break-up. We do not agree with this statement in many aspects. If at the time, Russia had excluded Chechnya from its federation, it would not have by any means caused the domino effect, i.e. it would not have made other republics leave the federation as well, as the example of poverty-stricken and criminalized Chechnya was not all that attractive. Moreover, Chechnya’s relations with neighboring regions deteriorated in the period between the two wars, but since the beginning of the second Chechen war the following ethnic groups started feeling solidarity with it: 1) Islamic (especially new) radical organizations; 2) the majority of non-Russian nationalist movements; 3) the so-called “persons of Caucasian ethnicities.” Since the beginning of the war, many people from the Caucasus, including representatives of ethnic groups which were not traditionally on good terms with Chechnya, started feeling the same pressure in Russian cities as had been earlier experienced by Chechens, as, to a militia man from Stavropol or Rostov “they all look the same, like potential terrorists”.

Anti-Caucasian attitudes started intensifying in the mid-1990s, when 50-60 percent of population already possessed such attitudes (according to the data of VTsIOM, the Institute of Sociology in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Ethnology in Russian Academy of Sciences). These days such moods are characteristic of the Russian population. The Chechen war strongly influences the development of such feelings. The longer it lasts, the more its supporters need an explanation as to why the Russian army cannot win decisively, as it is now insufficient to declare all Chechens terrorists and attribute all problems to the search for international Islamic radicals. The war encourages finding new enemies, both internal and external, and therefore increases the growth of ethnic phobias.

We have to add that the second Chechen war, which surpassed the first one by its length, its number of victims and the economic damage it caused, has not yet led (and doubtfully ever will) to the suppression of Chechen separatism. It has instead exacerbated the problem of the separated Lezgin people (caused by the tightening of border security with Azerbaijan) and the problem of Chechens-Akins in Dagestan (caused by the military concentration in their ethnic settlement area). Thus, the war destroys the federation more than the mere existence of the rebellious republic does.

The Chechen war requires a special analysis, and in the context of this article, we would only like to note that it is the most painful and complicated problem of national politics and federal relations in Russia. However, in the long-term perspective, the growth of Russian nationalism as political domination of the ethnic majority can become the number one danger for the democratic development of Russia.

The level of ethnic self-consciousness of Russians is still lower than that of smaller ethnic groups, though it is growing at a faster rate. In the 1980s, less than 20 percent of Russians mentioned that “they always remembered that they were Russian,” and there were even fewer of those willing “to sacrifice their life for the Russian people.” These days, the share of respondents providing such answers has doubled. The growth is especially noticeable in the most emotionally aroused, ready for sacrifice group.

As ethnic self-identification continues to grow, smaller ethnic groups develop their regional self-identifications, while Russians develop an all-Russian one. However, can we indeed judge on that basis that the Russians with such beliefs are, as some of my colleagues say, “the cement of the Russian society?” I strongly disagree with such an opinion, as nationalism (any kind, and Russian is not an exception) has a so-called “exclusive” (or excluding) character, or, in other words, it pushes away other people according to the principle “only Russians are a state-forming nation” and, finally, “Russia is for Russians.”

The development of mass attitudes which evaluate Yeltsin’s era as a “lost and gone decade” at best and as a time of “national shame” at worst constitutes an important factor for the growth of radical Russian nationalism. The most negative phenomena of that time include the collapse of the USSR and the federalization of Russia, which resulted in “too much freedom” for regions of Russia. It is the Russian community that feels that Russia’s loss of superpower status and the growth of regions’ (especially national republics’) political independence injures their pride. The phenomena mentioned above are more and more frequently perceived not as consequences of a certain historical process but as a conscious intent or external conspiracy: “Russians are being pushed out,” “the USSR was broken apart, and now the same is being done to Russia.”

It is well known that a similar ideology stimulated the growth of nationalism among representatives of ethnic majorities at all times in various countries. That is why it is not surprising that a similar tendency is being recorded by sociologists in Russia.

It is a quite painful process for a certain ethnic community to lose its status as the ethnic majority. Such a perspective is still just potential, and it is unlikely in the nearest decades for the Russians. Nonetheless, nationalistic groups actively exploit the idea of the decreasing number and share of Russians in the country’s population mix, claiming that it is another plot of enemies of the Russian nation.

The increased participation of the army and of security forces in the political life of the country also produces a significant effect on the growth of nationalism. It is also a world-wide pattern that demonstrated itself, for example, in the France in the beginning of the last century in connection with the Dreifuss case.

Another support structure of Russian nationalism (chauvinism) is the part of the Soviet nomenklatura (usually of the second and third level) who are coming back to government organs today or, still being in power since 1991, who no longer feel ashamed of their nationalistic views and therefore declare them openly.

These groups do not only support Soviet stereotypes and prejudices (anti-Western attitudes, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, etc.), but also have a pragmatic interest in the increase of nationalist attitudes in the society. It permits them, first of all, to hold their predecessors, Yeltsin era politicians, responsible for their own faults and blame them for betraying Russia’s national interests. Secondly, they can lobby the interests of business groups that are interested in state protectionism, explaining it with the excuse of protecting the “genuinely Russian” business from the West. Thirdly, they will protect themselves from possible competition, from claims on their spot in the governmental system, and sometimes from criticism, using the excuse that they are being criticized for the “faithfulness to the national idea”.

Today Russia is floating in a current of stereotypes which is taking over the society. In addition to that, a great number of political figures are trying to play on negative ethnic stereotypes. Therefore, the biggest threat to the society comes not as much from the fanatic extremism of the masses as much as from the pragmatic extremism of elites. Nationalism, masking under the cover of political respectability, is especially dangerous. The slogan of a skinhead leader to drive all “darks” out of Russia will probably not attract great attention, or, at least, will not make the news headlines. It is a completely different business if a similar phrase is used by a Duma deputy. Such kind of news will be discussed on all TV-programs and in the top newspapers.

This tendency not only poses a threat for inter-ethnic relations in Russia but also hides the danger of forming a social-cultural climate which would be unfavorable for Russia’s modernization. People who are tired of failures and losses (real or make-believe) use their memories of a (necessarily heroic) past as tranquillizers. But there is another kind of tranquillizer – “imaginary fast victories.” The federal government, trying to satisfy the moods of the majority, imitates an appearance of fast victories. It moves societal reforms along the easiest path – the path of increasing the state establishment’s role. The effects of such processes include an increase of government bureaucracy and the general growth of the level of corruption in the country as well as decreased popular participation in the country’s development. The only thing that grows in such a climate is the mythologizing of mass consciousness, belief in miracle and in a kind tsar who will perform the miracle. In the best case, it is a road to stagnation.

If Russian nationalism, understood as the political domination of an ethnic majority, is established as a state ideology, it will be harmful for Russia’s integrity, as it will be accompanied by the growth of nationalism of other ethnicities and, therefore, the growth of ethnic separatism.


Federalism or separatism: in the nearest future


We can confidently assert that the level of ethnic separatism as the only real threat to Russia’s integrity was higher in the first years of Russia’s existence than now. These days, separatism is massively supported only in Chechnya. Only there is the presence of Russian authorities on the republic’s territory not deemed legitimate in the mass consciousness of the people.

The general decline of national movements in Russia was mostly caused by inertia. By the mid-1990s, the inertia of the collapse of the USSR had exhausted itself. Most active national leaders joined the all-Russian business elite or became parts of government systems of different levels. The leaders of Russian republics stopped flirting with national movements, viewing them as the only threat to keeping their power. The governmental elite in the republics moved toward union with the federal power, while the latter managed to use the agreement process to stabilize the political situation in the country.

Decentralization in Russia was compulsory, while Russian federalism was spontaneous and imperfect. However, as a whole, both national and federal politics were adequately formed at that political moment, and we cannot seriously criticize Yeltsin’s national politics with the exception of the first Chechen war.

Thus, ethnic separatism is weak in Russia now, but can we say the country is insured against its growth? I have already shown examples of how short-sighted political actions can revive ethnic separatism if the tendencies of ethnopolitical processes are not taken into consideration. I would like to support this idea with several other examples, touching on some important aspects of the problem.

One of the objective factors determining the territorial stability of the federation is the internal ethnic heterogeneity of its republics. It is especially characteristic of the northern Caucasus. Most republican leaders in the region are well aware of the potential dangerous increase of internal conflicts if their regions leave the Federation. However, the influence of radical Islamic organizations, who aim at dissolving ethnic borders and uniting Muslims in a single state community opposing Russia, has grown during the Chechen war. It had already occurred during the Caucasus war of the 19th Century. The war stimulated the alliance of mountain ethnicities and promoted the fast spread and establishment of Islam, especially the Sufi forms new to the region. All of this provided an ideological base for many years of military antagonism with Russia and a consolidation of earlier separate and opposing each other mountain tribes and ethnic groups.

Imam Shamil, who first started a state union of the Chechens, Ingushes, Avars and other ethnicities of the region, led the opposition (1834-1859) with the appeal of jihad (war against non-Muslims) in the name of Islam.

Many analysts tie the perspectives of preserving Russian integrity with the peculiarities of its ethnic composition. The Russian Federation, unlike the USSR, is quite homogeneous in its ethnic distribution: Russians comprise more than 80 percent of the Federation’s population and constitute an ethnic majority in most federal republics. However, the demographic situation is changing, and the share of Russian and Slavic population in Russia has been decreasing for the last 40 years, while the share of peoples who can be statistically classified as “Muslim ethnicities” is growing fast.[28]

Russians already constitute an ethnic minority in most republics of the northern Caucasus (except the republic of Adygeia). Their exodus started in those republics back in the 1970s, and the military conflicts in the region, especially the Chechen war of 1994-1996 made the process irreversible. The continuing exodus of Russians not only from Chechnya, but from most republics of the region demonstrates this trend. 3,000-4,000 Russians a year were leaving Dagestan in 1997-1998. Severnaia Osetiia – Alania, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria gained a number of migrants of their titular ethnicity but lost a share of Russians, and in Karachaevo-Chircassia, the share of departing Russians greatly exceeded the share of emigrants of the titular ethnicity[29].

A similar migration situation has become established in the Siberian republics of Sakha (Yakutia), Tuva and Buryatia. In Yakutia and Buryatia the main stimulus for Russian emigration is caused by economic problems: the closing of factories, the non-payment of northern subsidies in addition to salary and the loss of other bonuses, long-lasting salary nonpayment and other factors. However, Russian emigration from Tuva was caused not only by a disadvantageous economic situation (primarily, massive unemployment), but also by complex inter-ethnic relations. After a group conflict between the Russians and the Tuvans in 1990, 10,000 Russians left Tuva.

In the Siberian republics, Russians are a minority only in the Tuva republic, but their share is decreasing in Buryatia and Yakutia as well.

Russians were also a minority in the Chuvash republic according to the census of 1989. In Bashkortostan, they comprised 42 percent in 1989, which made them the largest single group, but they were not as large as the Bashkirs and the Tatars combined. The decline in the proportion of Russians in the population of this republic became noticeable in the results of the micro-census of 1994, and according to this trend, they will lose the status of the largest ethnic group by the time of the next census. In Tatarstan, the proportion of population of Russian ethnicity was declining in the 1990s, while the Tatar share was growing, and the census of 2002 will most probably indicate that the Russians in Tatarstan comprise less than half of its entire population.

If the proportion of Russians actually declines in the Volga region and in Siberia as is expected, in the nearest future, the Russians will comprise a minority in a large part of the Russian Federation, mostly in areas in which the population of titular ethnicities is going through a period of growth of ethnic self-consciousness accompanied by intensified regional self-identification.

This very important tendency will exercise an increasing influence on a number of very significant ethnopolitical processes. First of all, it should be taken into consideration by those politicians and analysts who consider the ethnic factor to be insignificant in Russia, where Russians comprise the absolute majority of the population. Such statements initially were politically incorrect, and now they become even more doubtful if we take into account the decline of the Russian population and the fact that the geographic area where they used to live has decreased.

I would also like to mention that the sheer numerical domination of one ethnicity does not strengthen territorial integrity. Moreover, in some situations, it may become a disintegration factor, since smaller ethnic groups might be worried that their cultures might not be preserved, or as they say: “Mice are scared next to an elephant.” That is why ethnic majorities in democratic countries are trying to develop techniques to gain the trust of smaller ethnicities. In fact, most democratic states are also multiethnic. And they did find ways to reconcile the unified norms of a democratic state with creating a number of guarantees for ethnic minorities and specific ethnoterritorial groups. In democratic conditions, ethnoterritorial federations (Spain and Switzerland) turn out to be quite viable. Unitary states often have separate ethnoterritorial regions with significant autonomy (for example, in Finland). The tendency of recent US presidents to have a variety of ethnic, religious and racial groups represented in their administrations (all other qualifications of the statesmen being equal) is also an example of inter-ethnic collaboration.

Russia is still at the crossroads in this respect. There are some signs that federal power is coming back to the model established back in the times of the Russian empire, which was oriented towards the domination of Russians and Orthodoxy. At the same time, the Russian authorities have undertaken steps in a different direction – toward the creation of a multicultural and multiethnic society based on equality and partnership: President Putin visits the republics and attends national holidays while his government develops a program which includes the development of tolerance, including tolerance in regard to interethnic relations.

The new Russia is searching for a direction of national and federal politics, and the future of the Federation will in many aspects depend on this choice.

* Emil Abramovich Pain, Candidate of Science (history), director of the Center for Extremism Prevention in the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[1] More detail in E. Pain “Tatarstanskii dogovor” na fone “chechenskogo krizisa” problemy stanovleniya federalizma v Rossii. – God planety. Politika. Ekonomika. Biznes. Kul’tura. Vyp. 1995g. /Russian Academy of Sciences. Institute of World Economy and International Relations. Moscow: Pespublika, 1995, pp. 163-168.

[2] S. Pavlenko. Novyi federalism: intriga i kontrintriga. – Pro et Contra. 1997, v. 2, p. 34.

[3] Konstitutsiia Uralskoi respubliki. – “Oblastnaia gazeta”. Ekaterinburg. October 30, 1993.

[4] G. Zyuganov. Drama vlasti. – M., “Paleia”, 1994, p.202.

[5] V. Zhirinovskii. Chto my predlagaem. Predvybornaia programma LDPR. – “Iuridicheskaia gazeta”, # 40-41, 1993, p.4.

[6] Regionalizm kak novaia mirovaia tendentsiia. //Sbornik nauchnykh trudov instituta Mirovykh ekonomicheskikh i politicheskikh issledovanii RAN. Moskva. 1993. pp. 35-36.

[7] “Dogovor ob obshchestvennom soglasii”. – Moskva: 1994.

[8] Konovalov, Valerii. Gubernatory peregorazhivaiut stranu. Izvestiia, 22.09.1998, p.1.

[9] Ekho Moskvy, GOST’ DNIA. (Guest of the day – transl.), 03.09.98; 14:17.

[10] NTV, “Geroi dnia” (The hero of the day – transl.), 03.09.98.

[11] Moscow. September 9. INTERFAKS.

[12] Ekho Moskvy. INTERV’IU. (The interview. – transl.), 28.09.98, 15:35.

[13] REN-TV, NOVOSTI. (The news – transl.) 06.09.98; 17:45.

[14] MOSKVA. September 23. / Corresp. of RIA “Novosti”.

[15] TV channel NTV, Bol’shie den’gi (Big money – translator). 29.09.98, 08:35.

[16] TACC-Novosti vlastnykh struktur Rossii ( News of Russia’s power structures – transl.) from 23.09.98.

[17] Cited in V.A. Tishkov . Pro et contra etnicheskogo federalizma v Rossii. //Federalizm v Rossii. Kazan, 2001, pp. 24-25.

[18] More details in, e.g.: “Kubanskaia pressa lidiruet po chislu natsionalisticheskikh vyskazyvanii” (“Kuban’ press leads on the number of nationalistic statements” – transl.) 21/12/2002 http://kavkaz.memo.ru/newstext/news/id/543257.html.

[19] Marina Kalashnikova: “Putin khochet imet’ sil’nuiu vlast’, kak v Tatarstane”. President Shaimiev predlagaet al’ternativu institutu polpredov. (“Putin wants to have strong power, like in Tatarstan”. President Shaimiev suggests an alternative to the institute of polpreds”) – “Nezavisimaia gazeta”. 02.12.2000.

[20] Aleksandr Ivanchenko, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Aleksei Salmin: VPERED, V PROSHLOE, ILI NAZAD, V BUDUSHCHEE? (Forward to the past, back in the future? – transl.) – “Nezavisimaia gazeta”. 18.01.2001.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Obshchestvennost’ Karelii vystupila protiv perekhoda na kirillitsu. (Karelia’s people opposed cyrillicization.) // Izvestia.ru 11.12.2002.

[24] Tatarskaia azbuka: kirillitsa ili latinitsa? Diskussii vyshli na novuiu stadiiu (Tatar alphabet: Cyrillic or Latin? The discussions have reached a new stage. - transl. ) // Tatnews.Ru 12.01.2003.

[25] Vserossiiskii tsentr izucheniia obshchestvennogo mneniia (VTsIOM) (All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research – transl.). Press-vypusk, #3, January 30, 2001.

[26] Quoted data was received in course of completion of the research project “Ethnic and administrative borders: stability and conflict factor”. 1993-1999. Project started and directed by L.M.Drobizheva.

[27] “Ethnic and administrative borders: stability and conflict factors”. 1993-1999.

[28] See Dmitrii Bogoiavlenskii. Etnicheskii sostav naseleniia Rossii // Naseleniie i obshchestvo, #41, November 1999.

[29] Demograficheskii ezhegodnik Rossii. (Demographic yearbook of Russia – transl.) M. 1999. pp. 366-371.

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