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Number 4(8), autumn, 2003
Number 8 of the journal Kazan Federalist (in english)
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Nation and State-Building in Post-Soviet Russia

  • Gail W. Lapidus
The Commonwealth agreement which was ultimately signed by the leaders of 11 republics in Almaty on December 21, 1991 had two key features: it rejected the creation of any supranational institutions, and it committed the signatories to recognise and respect each others territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders. The agreement thus created a fait accompli which smoothed the way for the speedy and universal international recognition of the new states, which in turn solidified and legitimised the agreed-upon arrangements and deterred or prevented destabilizing challenges to them.

Gail W. Lapidus*

Nation and State-Building in Post-Soviet Russia**

From Union to Commonwealth: the demise of the USSR

The Commonwealth agreement which was ultimately signed by the leaders of 11 republics in Almaty on December 21, 1991 had two key features: it rejected the creation of any supranational institutions, and it committed the signatories to recognise and respect each others territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders. The agreement thus created a fait accompli which smoothed the way for the speedy and universal international recognition of the new states, which in turn solidified and legitimised the agreed-upon arrangements and deterred or prevented destabilizing challenges to them. It also avoided a situation in which international actors could be blamed for imposing a particular set of arrangements, Versailles or Dayton-style. In short, despite the understandable criticism it provoked, the commonwealth agreement, and Gorbachevs statesmanlike, albeit reluctant acquiescence in it, made a significant contribution to conflict-prevention, stability and regional security at a moment of considerable danger.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these momentous developments was the relatively peaceful way in which the USSRs dissolution took place, particularly in comparison with the experience of Yugoslavia. Notwithstanding apocalyptic predictions by Gorbachev himself, and by countless analysts and political figures in the region and in the West, that the breakup of the Soviet state would profoundly disrupt the international system, provoke dangerous interstate and interethnic conflicts over borders and territory, including the threat of nuclear conflict among the successor states, and unleash floods of refugees, the Belovezhsky agreements facilitated a constructive process of mutual accommodation among the successor states and contributed to the striking degree of statesmanship and restraint demonstrated by their leaderships in managing potentially explosive issues. While the region has not escaped without violence, most of the conflicts with the exception of the civil war in Tajikistan have involved secessionist efforts by autonomous regions within the former republics which antedated the dissolution of the USSR. Republic borders have been largely observed, Soviet troops were withdrawn from the Baltic states, the peaceful and cooperative denuclearization of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan was successfully implemented, and the noisy territorial claims emanating from nationalist politicians have not been endorsed by top leaders and have been delegitimated by international organizations. Indeed, in view of all the unresolved conflicts in the region, and the long accumulation of historical grievances and perceived injustices, the very haste and secrecy in which the Belovezhsky agreements were concluded played a decisive role in forestalling protracted, open-ended, and inflammatory public wrangling over borders, territories and minority rights. It also averted the potential danger of large numbers of contending actors simultaneously competing for domestic political advantage in each of the republics, all of which might well have exacerbated internal political conflicts and poisoned relationships among the republics while depriving them of the protection of the international community.

The efforts of the Gorbachev leadership to shed deeply-ingrained ideological assumptions and define a new approach to the national question, to transform a highly centralised state into a genuine federation, and to deal with a variety of movements for national self-determination involved challenges of a complexity that would have been difficult to conceptualise, let alone to manage, under the best of circumstances. But the effort to define the foundations of a new political community while confronting the simultaneous challenges of economic crisis and transformation, a breakdown of political institutions and authority, and a revolution in foreign and security policy, all contributed to a massive overload of demands on a divided political leadership under constant attack from both ends of an increasingly polarised political spectrum.

Gorbachev and his associates, as has already been noted, acknowledged that they had been slow to recognise the nature of the national challenge to the Soviet system. Given the rhetoric and the insistence throughout their political lives that nationalism was a reactionary phenomenon and that the national question had been solved, it is not surprising that to learn otherwise took time and some bitter experiences. What they failed to recognise was the way in which the very reforms that they were introducing in the Soviet Union, and the revisions that they were prepared to introduce in the classic Marxist-Leninist verities, albeit in the name of a return to true Leninism, helped undermine the legitimacy of the existing Soviet state. Once the process of reform was under way, however, the problems they confronted had no easy answers. A generation ago, the American political scientist Dankwart Rustow made the important observation that a fundamental and necessary prerequisite for the development of democratic institutions is prior agreement on the boundaries of the state and on membership in the political community.[1] There is no democratic procedure, he noted, by which these could be determined. When the process of democratization set in motion by Gorbachev catalysed dramatic shifts in attitudes and identities, and coalesced into political movements which called into question the existence of a single Soviet community and demanded that its constituent Union republics be recognised as sovereign states, it created dilemmas that no contemporary states have found easy to resolve. It is arguable that had the Baltic states been treated as an exception early on, as a case of restoration of independence rather than of secession, it would have deprived other national movements of a heretical model and radically altered the political dynamics. In addition, the unwillingness of the leadership to elaborate reasonable criteria for secession, and to create high barriers but not impossible ones, contributed to the process of radicalization. But even if Gorbachev and his advisors had been prepared to adopt such a strategy, deepening cleavages within the Soviet leadership, exacerbated by the revolutions in Eastern Europe, placed severe constraints on their freedom of maneuver.

Moreover, the considerable confidence of Gorbachev and many of his associates that the renewal of socialism would avert potential crises and elicit widespread popular approbation, that in effect a revolution from above would forestall a revolution from below, led to an overestimation of public support for the system.[2] Particularly in a situation in which attitudes and identities were being rapidly transformed, and demands were escalating with each passing day, even a less sclerotic decision-making process would have been challenged to keep pace with the extreme dynamism of the situation. If in March 1991 the Kremlin could take the results of the referendum as a distinct, if not unambiguous, endorsement of the search for a new and more perfect union, by December 1 after the August coup and the recognition of Baltic independence sentiments in Ukraine had shifted decisively in favour of independence.

There are many including Gorbachev and some of his staff who have argued that (to cite the title of a voluminous and valuable collection of documents and memoirs) the Union could have been preserved. In essence, they blame Yeltsin for precipitating the collapse of the USSR in his ambition to replace Gorbachev rather than to share power with him. While Yeltsins actions were indeed decisive in the final stages, this chapter contends that the whole sequence of contingent events cumulatively undermined that possibility. It is by no means clear, as we have argued, that the Union treaty in the form agreed upon in August was really workable, that it would have been ratified by a significant number of republic parliaments, or that it would have provided more than a breathing spell. Gorbachev also appears to have had no workable solution to the challenge posed by the secession not only of the Baltic states but of Georgia, Armenia and Moldova as well. Nor was he prepared, as Yeltsin was, to acknowledge the changed political situation in Ukraine and to deal with it creatively.[3] Above all, the failure of the leadership to develop a coherent programme of economic reform that would arrest and reverse the continued collapse of the Soviet economy was a major factor propelling the demands for republic sovereignty and ultimately in destroying the possibility of a unified economic space.

But what it would have taken, particularly after the August coup, to preserve the Soviet Union was a willingness to use force and potentially on a massive scale. There are indeed a number of analysts and political actors, in Russia and in the West, who blame Gorbachev for failing to do so, even invoking the image of Abraham Lincoln fighting a long and bloody civil war to save the American Union.[4] It is worth noting that the use of force, albeit on a modest scale and not necessarily with Gorbachevs support, had already been attempted in Tbilisi, Baku and Vilnius and had been demonstrably counterproductive, intensifying the hostility toward Moscow in the republics, discrediting Gorbachev among reformers, and threatening his support among Western leaders and publics. Even assuming that Soviet military forces would have been prepared to obey orders to turn on the civilian population in major Russian cities, the danger of plunging the country into civil war was sufficiently alarming even to conservative figures to deter the coup plotters themselves. But the decisive factor was the fact that the use (or threat) of massive force would have been fundamentally in conflict with everything Mikhail Gorbachev stood for, both domestically where he believed deeply in a renewed and democratic socialism capable of eliciting broad public support and internationally, where he sought to create an environment which would permit a reordering of domestic priorities and return the USSR to Europe.

If Gorbachevs refusal to use force to preserve the Union was one of the key factors in averting a Yugoslav scenario in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the other was the historic role of Boris Yeltsin in redefining Russian identity in non-imperial and non-ethnic terms. In stark contrast to Milosevics manipulation of an aggressive Serbian nationalism, which brought massive violence and bloodshed to Yugoslavias dissolution, by re-imagining a Russian statehood in liberal and democratic terms, repudiating key features of the Soviet imperial legacy, and supporting the creation of a commonwealth of independent states, Yeltsin created the foundation for constructive cooperation among the former Soviet republics and helped facilitate their peaceful integration into the international community.

Nation and State-building in post-communist Russia

Ironically, it was Russias role in accelerating the demise of the Soviet Union that created the daunting challenges to nation and state-building that Russia itself faced after 1991. The dissolution of the Soviet Union left in its wake a massive ideological and political void and a Russian state lacking any clear and coherent conception of its national and state identity, as well as of its novel borders, populations, internal structure, relations with neighbours, and its place in the international system. Moreover, the centrifugal forces that had contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union were not confined to the 15 Union republics, but extended to the ethno-territorial units within them as well. In leading the struggle for Russian sovereignty during 1990-1991 Yeltsin had not only challenged the overcentralised and unitary features of the Soviet state; he had championed a doctrine of sovereignty from the ground up, supporting an expansion of the rights of local and regional units and encouraging local elites to take all the sovereignty you can swallow.[5] In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, political weakness and economic chaos were contributing to a snowballing process of state-formation by ever-smaller ethnic groups and regions, and threatened in the view of many observers to bring about the disintegration of Russia itself. The widespread, if exaggerated, anxiety about Russias own future was well captured by the title of an article by a leading Russian specialist on nationality issues: Will Russia Repeat the Path of the Union?[6].

Broadly speaking, Yeltsin sought to navigate the uncertainty and instability of the early years by adopting a relatively conciliatory stance toward assertions of local autonomy. The Federation Treaty, signed by all but two republics (Tatarstan and Chechnya) represented the high tide of the process of sovereignization and federalization. It officially acknowledged republican sovereignty and was premised on the principle that all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government remained the prerogative of constituent units. While the Treaty was initially intended to be incorporated into the new Constitution, by the time the Constitution was adopted in 1993 a more centralised conception of Russian statehood was already gaining ascendancy.

Indeed, by the mid-1990s a growing reaction against many of the trends set in motion by perestroika was visible among Russian political and intellectual elites. The dissolution of the USSR, increasingly blamed on national movements and on ethno-territorial federalism and sovereignization, and continuing anxieties about the possible disintegration of Russia itself, contributed to the rising hostility toward various manifestations of federalism and nationalism. The conception of the RSFSR as a voluntary federation largely disappeared from view, references to republican sovereignty were dropped from the new Constitution, no provisions were made for any right of secession, and constituent units were granted only those powers not assigned to the federal government. Moreover, efforts were made to minimise the distinction between ethnic republics and purely territorial regions by enhancing the status and rights of the regions.

Nonetheless, the outcome did not represent a full victory for the advocates of a highly centralised government or a purely territorial federation. Significant powers were to be exercised jointly by the central and republic (and regional) governments, including the protection of human rights and the rights of ethnic minorities, ownership of land and mineral resources, and environmental protection within the republics territory. In addition, the republics (and regions) were awarded limited powers of independent legislation and taxation, and the right to establish state languages, to mention just two of the most important. But the adoption of the constitution could not and did not provide a definitive and final resolution of a whole range of key issues, all of which remained subject to continuous renegotiation and to behind-the-scenes bargaining between central and local authorities. In practice, Yeltsin pursued a strategy of selective appeasement, seeking to conciliate and co-opt republican and regional elites by striking a series of informal and often secret bilateral deals over budgetary and tax issues and other prerogatives which supplemented, and in many cases ignored, federal legislation.[7]

The most critical issues of both nationalism and federalism faced by the Yeltsin government during this period involved policy toward Tatarstan and Chechnya, which were the focal point of resistance to the new centralizing trends. The peaceful resolution of the conflict with Tatarstan was the Yeltsin governments most singular achievement, and the failure to similarly resolve the conflict with Chechnya its greatest failure. Following difficult and protracted negotiations with Kazan a treaty was finally signed in February 1994 that recognised Tatarstan as a sovereign republic and granted Tatarstan considerably broader competencies and rights than had been granted to other subjects of the federation, including significant economic concessions and the right to its own economic relations with foreign states. This agreement was criticised from opposite positions both in the republic and in Moscow, but the process of mutual accommodation through negotiations served to defuse separatist sentiments, enhance the loyalty of republic elites, and avoid the deadly use of force. The failure to reach a political solution over the status of Chechnya, and the resort to military force to bring the republic to heel, was not only a product of institutional weakness and intra-elite conflicts in both Moscow and Grozny but also a testimony to the fragility of Russian federalism itself.[8]

The agreement with Tatarstan was the first of a long series of bilateral treaties that were negotiated between Moscow and the republics and regions in subsequent years with differing terms corresponding to the distinctive features of each case. Admittedly this process was not without its serious problems; the proliferation of bilateral treaties conferring different rights on different constituent units arguably weakened the development of a single and uniform legal order and economic space for the Federation as a whole. Yet on balance this asymmetrical federalism in Russia represented a constructive and flexible response in a period of great fluidity to a Soviet legacy that created aspirations, expectations and institutional arrangements that could not readily be dismantled without risking destabilizing consequences. It tailored center-periphery relations to the varying needs and demands of different subjects of the federation, allowing for a useful degree of diversity and experimentation in a country as large and diverse as the Russian Federation. It also created a framework for satisfying the aspirations of major ethnic groups for recognition, security, and meaningful political participation, and opportunities for the preservation or enhancement of ethnolinguistic and cultural diversity, thereby defusing the potentially separatist connotations of republic sovereignty and transforming it into a legitimate form of regionalism. It located decision-making on some key issues closer to the ground, and facilitated cooperation between moderates and pragmatists in Moscow and their counterparts in the regions and republics, while helping to marginalise or isolate extremists on both sides. Proposals to abolish the ethnic republics and replace them with purely territorial administrative units along the lines of the Czarist guberniyas an approach endorsed by former Prime Minister Primakov was widely perceived, by the general population as well as by republic elites, as both unrealistic and needlessly provocative.

But mounting criticism of the Yeltsin government, and growing concern about the weakness of the Russian state, was accompanied by growing support for circumscribing the rights and powers of regional and republic authorities. The financial crisis of 1998 had compelled regional authorities to adopt a series of autarchic measures in an attempt to shield their own populations from its consequences, although it also highlighted the ultimate dependence of regional authorities on Moscow.[9] With the appointment and subsequent election of Vladimir Putin as President, Russian policy moved sharply toward the reassertion of central power.

A renewal of the war in Chechnya, this time framed as a struggle against terrorism, played an important role in propelling Putin to the Presidency and reflected his preoccupation with curtailing centrifugal trends and restoring and strengthening Russian state power.[10] Indeed the new war has been pursued with greater determination and brutality, with even less regard for civilian casualties, and with a more sophisticated military and public relations strategy designed to minimize media access and forestall public criticism.

Although President Putin has thus far stopped short of actually abolishing existing regions and republics, he has also taken a number of steps which weaken significantly the federal arrangements created in the first years of Russias independence and sharply circumscribe the political, juridical and economic powers of regional and republic authorities.[11] Seven federal super-districts corresponding to the existing military districts were superimposed on the existing federal structure, each headed by a Presidential representative charged with enforcing the primacy of federal laws and coordinating the activities of federal agencies. Five of Putins seven appointees were generals drawn from the armed forces or security services. The Federation Council barely escaped dissolution but was radically restructured to eliminate governors and republic presidents from its membership, and the President was given the right to dismiss elected regional and local officials who failed to bring their laws into conformity with federal legislation, or who were the objects of a criminal investigation. A massive campaign was launched to compel recalcitrant republics to bring their laws and constitutions into conformity with federal legislation. In addition, the status of existing bilateral treaties was called into question, and the central government announced a new plan for budgetary allocations which would increase the share of tax revenues controlled by the centre at the expense of regional authorities.

As republic and regional elites were compelled to acquiesce one after another to the new demands emanating from Moscow, Tatarstan remained a focal point of resistance to centralizing trends and its leadership mounted an energetic defence of federal arrangements. What many in Moscow viewed as an aggressive and separatist strategy was perceived in Kazan as defensive and protective: an effort to preserve a degree of local control in the context of a Russian-dominated state and culture.[12] But the fact that the republics of the RSFSR were relatively small and isolated islands in a larger Russian sea, rather than as in the case of the USSR the constituent units of a federal state, sharply distinguished the situation of Russia after 1991 from the Soviet Union and limited the prospects for broader resistance to these centralizing trends.

Putins effort to strengthen the central state at the expense of republics and regions, and to enhance the powers of the presidency, was accompanied by the creation of a new political movement, Unity, subsequently merged into United Russia, which sought to unite a broad spectrum of political orientations under the banner of a single pro-government party. At the symbolic level as well, Putins nation-building strategy in Russia sought to synthesise Communist, Russian nationalist and traditional statist ideologies.

Whether in he adoption of a new Russian national anthem that was largely based on the Soviet anthem, or in the design of new flags or in the increasingly prominent role accorded the Orthodox Church Russian symbols and policies have moved away from an earlier emphasis on the multinational and federal character of the Russian Federation to an increasingly unitary stance based on the conception of Russians as a state-forming people and the Orthodox Church as the foundation of its civilization.

The early years of Russian state-building after the demise of the USSR were marked by both the general weakness of state institutions as well the influence of liberal, pluralist and democratic values. Over time, however, Russian political and intellectual elites have become increasingly preoccupied with rebuilding the power and authority of the Russian state and increasingly hostile to expressions of nationalism, federalism and sovereignty emanating from non-Russian republics and nationalities, which increasingly tend to be equated with separatism. . The growing influence of statist mentalities, and the assault on pluralism in ever more arenas of Russian political life, has been given additional force by the attitudes and policies of the Putin administration. At the same time, as the legacy of Marxist-Leninist ideology has weakened, and many of its tenets explicitly rejected, so too have the constraints on expressions of Russian chauvinism and xenophobia. A rising tide of hate crimes and violence against minorities and foreigners reached such alarming proportions as to prompt the government to introduce new legislation to combat extremism.

Even prior to Putins presidency, Russian federalism remained embryonic and incomplete, and lacked the key legal and institutional underpinnings of genuinely democratic federal institutions.[13] A constitutionally-based division of powers between federal and local authorities, and credible guarantees that these arrangements would be respected, was largely absent. Also absent was a clear consensus on what are in fact the constituent units of the Russian federation and how they should be represented at the federal level. Most importantly, republics and regions lacked an independent financial base of their own as well as significant independent spending authority. They remained dependent on decisions taken in Moscow, and on the patronage of government officials, for the allocation of tax revenues and mandated expenditures on social services.

The ability of President Putin to unilaterally initiate far-reaching changes in federal arrangements, and to abrogate earlier agreements and treaties with republic leaders, is a clear indication that the institutional and attitudinal underpinning of Russias embryonic federalism remained weakly developed and highly vulnerable to a concerted assault by the central government. A return to the high degree of centralization and uniformity characteristic of the Soviet period is unrealizable under todays conditions, but it remains unclear how far current trends toward recentralization are likely to go. Leading figures in the Putin administration, including Vladimir Zorin, the minister responsible for nationality affairs, have made no secret of their desire to eliminate the existing ethno-federal arrangements completely and to offer national minorities no more than the opportunity for cultural expression. The combination of an increasingly authoritarian political system with a statist and Russocentric conception of Russias identity represent a departure not only from key elements of Marxism-Leninism but also from the liberal, pluralist and democratic values that came to prominence in the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years.

* Gail W. Lapidus, Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford Institute for International Studies, USA.

** Two last sections of the paper Transforming the "National Question": New Approaches to Nationalism, Federalism and Sovereignty, The Demise of Marxism-Leninism in Russia, edited by Archie Brown, Palgrave publishers. Forthcoming.

[1] Dunkwart Rustow, Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model, Comparative Politics, 2/3 (April 1970), pp. 337-363.

[2] In his insightful study of Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe Lvesque comes to a similar conclusion, pointing out that even after the victory of Solidarity in the Polish elections Gorbachev failed to recognise that the Polish Workers Party was a spent political force; Jacques Lvesque, The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 126-127.

[3] Perhaps the most telling evidence of Gorbachevs difficulty in acknowledging the power of national sentiments was his reluctance, even after the dissolution of the USSR, to acknowledge that Ukraine and Russia were not organically inseparable, as in his image of a family, and that close ties between Ukraine and Russia did not necessarily require their membership in a single state. Conversation with the author, Stanford University, June 1992.

[4] See, for example, Jerry Hough, Democratization and Revolution in the USSR (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1997), pp. 21, 498-499.

[5] New York Times, September 2, 1990. Yeltsin also suggested he was willing to give the autonomous republics ownership of the natural resources in their territories. (Bill Keller, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 23, 1990.)

[6] Leokadiya Drobizheva, Povtorit li Rossiya put Soyuza? in Lilia Shevtsova, ed., Rossiya segodnya: Trudnye poiski svobody (Moscow: 1993).

[7] See Daniel Treisman, After the Deluge: Regional Crises and Political Consolidation in Russia, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999); Steve Solnick, Stealing the State, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998), and Solnicks Federal Bargaining in Russia, East European Constitutional Review, 4:4 (Fall 1995).

[8] For a more extensive treatment of the causes and consequences of the first war in Chechnya, from 1994-1996, see the authors Contested Sovereignty: The Tragedy of Chechnya, International Security, vol. 23, no. 1, (Summer 1998).

[9] Gail W. Lapidus, Asymmetrical Federalism and State Breakdown in Russia, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 15, vol. 1, (January-March 1999).

[10] For a discussion of the second war in Chechnya, see Gail W. Lapidus, Putins War on Terrorism: Lessons from Chechnya, in Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 18, no. 2 (April-June 2002); and Ten Assumptions in Search of a Policy: Russias Second Chechen War, Central Asia and the Caucasus, 4, August 2000.

[11] For a more detailed account of these changes, see Eugene Huskey, Overcoming the Yeltsin Legacy: Vladimir Putin and Russian Political Reform, Jeff Kahn, What is the New Russian Federalism?, both in Archie Brown, ed., Contemporary Russian Politics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Peter Reddaway, Is Putins Power More Formal Than Real?, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, (January-March 2002); Eugene Huskey, Political Leadership and the Center-Periphery Struggle: Putins Administrative Reforms, in Archie Brown and Lilia Shevtsova, eds., Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin: Political Leadership in Russias Transition (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2001).

[12] Among the issues in dispute were the division of tax revenues between the centre and the republic, the republics right to establish republic citizenship and to determine its own language and educational policies, as well as the use of Latin script, the role of Islamic religious instruction in state schools, and the preservation of the term sovereignty in the republics constitution. Under pressure from Moscow the republics constitution was substantially amended, but as of this writing some 50 provisions were still considered to be in violation of federal laws.

[13] For an insightful treatment, see Alfred Stepan, Russian Federalism in Comparative Perspective, Post-Soviet Affairs, 16:2 (April-June 2000), pp. 133-176.

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