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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 / The practice of territorial-political construction in Spain and Russia return to homepage
The practice of territorial-political construction in Spain and Russia

  • Irina Busygina
Models of territorial organization are highly nation-specific. I will attempt to conduct a comparative analysis of the territorial-political organization models in Spain and Russia. During the last 25 years, Spain has transformed itself from being one of the most centralized European states to forming and securing its own model of a decentralized state; in Russia, the construction of federalism is also still in progress.

Irina Busygina*

The practice of territorial-political construction in Spain and Russia

Models of territorial organization are highly nation-specific. I will attempt to conduct a comparative analysis of the territorial-political organization models in Spain and Russia. During the last 25 years, Spain has transformed itself from being one of the most centralized European states to forming and securing its own model of a decentralized state; in Russia, the construction of federalism is also still in progress. Nevertheless, both countries have progressed and gained experience. The main question in this context is that of which factors determined the institutional design of federalism in Russia and of state autonomies in Spain. It is important to note that the process of territorial-political construction is not over in either country, which is why we will compare certain phases and stages of the developments in both countries. Each countrys differing circumstances form natural limits in the comparison of the two models.

On the surface, the models of territorial-political organization in Spain and Russia are a lot alike. The constitutions of both states define the character of relations between the center and the regions, and both Spain and Russia have two-chamber parliaments where the top chamber represents the interests of the territories. Regions in both countries have their own constitutions and elected organs of power. Finally (and this circumstance seems highly important to me), the relations between the center and the regions are asymmetrical both in Russia and in Spain; in other words, different regions have different degrees of power and autonomy. The federation in Russia has a very complicated structure, several different types of subjects being present in its composition. In the Russian Federation, republics have a special, privileged status, while in Spain, a number of regions the historical regions of the country that have been fighting for their unique character for centuries, such as Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia, have special relations with the center. The leaders of these regions were unhappy with the status of their territories and pleaded for the creation of the federal Spanish state or proposed separatist slogans. For instance, one of the fathers of Catalonian nationalism, Enrique Prat de la Riba, pleaded for the creation of the Iberian federation which would include, along with Catalonia, Castile, Portugal, Valencia and the Balearic islands.

The development of relations between center and regions in both countries was similar in many ways. I shall enumerate a number of them here; however, this listing is not exhaustive. First of all, the initiative to change relations between center and regions originated from the regions from below in both cases. The center formed a new model of relations under pressure from the regions. Secondly, the process of decentralization developed against the background of a democratic transition in both states.

Nevertheless, all these similar institutions and characteristics do not determine the internal similarities of two models; on the contrary, it is surprising how different the results gained in both countries are. I suppose that two important factors influenced the character of the results: their histories and the nature of the democratic transition.

1. Historical context

As far as Russia is concerned, it is presupposed that the historical context was not too favorable for the formation and development of federal relations. There was no previous experience of a federal style of relations. Even though the Russian Empire permitted quite significant autonomy for different territories (it is sufficient to mention Poland and Finland), the political system itself was nevertheless built upon a unitary base. Discussions about the necessity to change the character of relations between the center and the territories which had begun earlier were interrupted by the revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks in power obviously supported the centralized unitary state but admitted by necessity that there existed significant inter-territorial differences, as well as territories densely inhabited by various ethnicities and thus having their own peculiarities. Thus, the RSFSR was constituted as a federation of Soviet socialist national republics, while other regions were not even mentioned as subjects. This quasi-federalism was characteristic of the whole history of the Soviet state. The USSR Constitution of 1977 secured the principle of democratic centralism as the organizational and functional base of the Soviet state. Its first chapter, dealing with the character of the political system, did not mention the federal character of the state and the principles of federalism.[1] I suppose that the quasi-federalism of the Soviet period did not help establish the new Russian federalism and, moreover, complicated it significantly by adding congenital handicaps to the sum of newly emerging problems.

The actual countdown to new federal statehood started from the ratification of the Federal Agreement in 1992 and the adoption of the Constitution in December 1993. We have been building our federalism for only 10 years, and we do not have an opportunity to rely on historical memory.

History took a different turn in Spain: the country was not established historically as a centralized state and had always had a character of legal, political and cultural pluralism. Spanish history has had periods of strengthened and weakened centralization. For instance, the first modern Spanish Constitution of 1812 put an end (at least temporarily) to the regionalism which had historically existed: it established a unitary territorial organization and initiated a unitary government which divided the country into fifty provinces. The constitution of the first Spanish republic of 1873, on the contrary, created a federal state consisting of seventeen states (estados), including Cuba and Puerto Rico. The federal Spanish state consisted of three levels of constituent parts: municipalities, states-regions, and the federation itself the republic.

According to the experts opinions, the first republic did not last long partly because the its means of solving territorial problems were too radical. The new Constitution of 1876 re-established a unitary state.

The first Constitution to satisfy at least some demands of the historical Spanish regions was the Constitution of the Second Republic, which was adopted in 1931. According to this document, the so-called integral state was formed. It generally had a unitary character but enabled Catalonian, Basque and Galician territories to develop some autonomy. Thus, the next year, the Statute of Catalonia was adopted, and in five more years, the Statutes of Basque Country and Galicia were enacted. The latter never came in effect because of the intervention of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). After the end of the civil war, General Francos regime established itself on the basis of the unitary, centralized state.[2] The Constitution of 1931 was essentially a compromise between the traditional centralized state and some parts of the country which desired autonomy. The state of Francisco Franco was defined as a community of fate, the unity of the state was recognized as the highest priority, and in accordance with that the state power hierarchy was strictly organized from the bottom up.

The transition to democracy in Spain started in 1976. The Constitution of 1978 tried to meet the challenges of regionalism, while the countrys Basic Law permitted access to legislative and institutional autonomy not only to some, but to all territories.[3] The new model of state organization was named the State of Autonomies. It is important to highlight the fact that the Constitution of Spain does not limit the autonomous communities by number or by name, but it specifies ways for separate provinces or their unions to create such communities (this right has been realized by all provinces, and Spain now has 17 autonomous communities). The Constitution does not define the level of authority of each autonomous community. Instead, it presents a list of powers and defines two ways to achieve autonomy: a faster one, designed for historical regions and permitting to gain the maximum level of powers right away, and a slower one, designed for regions to expand their authority slowly, as their growing readiness for it permits.

Thus, we can state that a certain degree of political and cultural pluralism has always existed in Spain, as did special historical territories. The history of the country is in this case a history of modulations, movements between centralism and regionalism.

2. Peculiarities of democratic transition

In my opinion, the uniquely peculiar character of the democratic transition in each state exercised a colossal effect on the territorial organization of both countries.

The impulse coming from political consensus and the support of the main political forces, as well as from representatives of both the state and non-state spheres, promoted the development of the Spanish model of territorial organization. Democratic transition was realized through a treaty between the reformers and the conservatives. The Pact Moncloa has already become a textbook example of successful transition in political science, as the model has proven its efficiency in the pace and results of the transition. The main political forces have reached an agreement regarding their common project Spain and national unity, which came up as the highest priority. Article 2 of the countrys Constitution provides that the Basic Law is based upon the indestructible unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible motherland of all Spanish people In other words, the question of national unity was solved from the very beginning.

The transition in Russia had a totally different character. Unlike the situation in Spain, there were no prerequisites for fast and successful transition, i.e. there was no guaranteed state integrity or national identity. As A.Iu. Melvil brilliantly pointed out in his work, despite some analogies, Russian democratic transition stands apart from classic southern European transitions from authoritarianism to democracy (in this article, I primarily discuss that of Spain). The national identity crisis challenged the government to provide national unity in the country, and this problem has still not been completely solved, even though its solution is a supposed precondition of democratization. This circumstance distinguishes Russia from all kinds of democratic transition which include national unity as a prerequisite.[4]

Spain and Russia had different sequences of reform during the transition. The tasks of the Spanish reformers were solved progressively (decentralization took place in several stages, in a progressive manner), while in Russia, transition went in several directions simultaneously and did not have the main prerequisite the guarantee of national unity.

3. Territorial organization models: what we have constructed

Is Russia a federal state? To my mind, the answer to this question is yes, at least from the normative viewpoint. According to the Basic Law of 1993, the Russian Federation is a federal republic. In reality, however, as opposed to norms, Russia is apparently doomed for some transient, hybrid form of organization, since present-day Russian statehood includes elements each of federal, unitary and confederate character.

First of all, let us remember the main occurrences in the construction of federalism in the Russian Federation. It is important to note that in early 1990s, before the Constitution was adopted, slogans of federalism were used to justify spontaneous decentralization, i.e. massive assumptions of federal functions and authorities by the regional governments. For a number of years (during the period of democratic activism), the president was balancing between regional and central interests, usually conceding to the regions. The Federal Agreement of 1992 was more a process than a result and therefore was not able to change the essential nature of the situation. This document, however, cannot be given a single estimate of value. On the one hand, it soothed the tense situation and eliminated the threat to the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, the Agreement extended federal relations into all regions and established the status of each as a subject of the Federation. On the other hand, the document established the asymmetric character of the Federation: its subjects were divided into classes and placed in different categories as far as privileges, taxes, tariffs, etc. were concerned. The largest volume of rights was granted to the republics, a lesser volume to the regions and oblasts, and the least to the autonomous okrugs.

After the 1993 forced, extraconstitutional solution of the problem of dual power, the federal center (read: the President) strengthened his power. In December 1993, in the course of the referendum, the new Constitution of Russia was adopted, which laid the bases of federal relations but did not resolve (and, apparently, could not resolve, since it had been written in a hurry) a number of pre-existing problems.

In the development of federal relations in Russia, the Yeltsin period included the following key features:

First, while federal relations were externally institutionalized and legally established, they remained immature and unstable. This instability was rooted in at least three basic problems: the highly complicated hierarchical structure of the Russian Federation and its asymmetrical character; large disparities among regions in their GNPs, territorial size, population, business profile (compare, say, Moscow and Kalmykia: they are not only on different levels, but in different stages of historical development!); and finally, the weakness of the federal center, which had completely exhausted means of influencing the situation in the regions. The federalism of the Yeltsin period was inconsistent, and it was only a matter of time before it would be transformed into a highly centralized union or a loose confederation.

Second. In the development of federal relations, President Yeltsin relied upon a system of exclusive relations with the regions and on a political favoritism which implied that informal institutions and rules began to substitute for unstable formal institutions and fill in the existing institutional vacuum.

Third and probably most importantly, Russian federalism did not take on a character of public ownership. It remained forced given from above and resembled a piece of design whose elements depend on the political environment. The population did not perceive federalism as a public good.

The administrative reforms of President Putin were launched in 2000 and had an administrative, rather than a constitutional character (though an agreement was reached between the three branches of the federal government regarding the permanence of the Constitution). Nevertheless, it became clear that even an administrative reform presented a broad range of opportunities. Many things had been accomplished: the reforms kept some former institutions as bureaus but changed their composition, the rules of the game, and their relationship to other actors and institutions on the political stage. The reform demonstrated that even though institutions in Russia are externally stable, their contents and configuration can still remain a target for experimentation.

It is difficult to evaluate Putins reforms one-sidedly: they include elements which are neutral though perhaps positive in prospect, dubious elements, and conceptually unacceptable elements (like the reform of local self-government). Nevertheless, it is important to understand that all of these elements (as well as the reforms as a whole) are not targeted toward the reinforcement of centralization but rather toward dismantling the system of federal relations that was introduced by President Yeltsin. The former model of relations between center and regions had been altered. The former federalism did not have almost any supporters. Neither political parties, regional elites nor society as a whole reacted to its being taken apart.

The objective of the reforms is to weaken regional elites and concentrate resources (both administrative and financial) in the hands of the federal bureaucracy. But this is only part of the task. The other part is the following: the federal bureaucracy (considered by President Putin to be a sign of a strong and effective state) should become the locomotive which will provide economic growth at any price. Yeltsins federalism was a victim of the goal of reaching economic growth, which is why the administrative reform of President Putin should not be examined on its own but rather as a means to create a frame for the growth of the economy. If the task of reaching economic growth at any price is made the cornerstone, other values, such as democratization, federalism, etc. which were at least articulated during Yeltsins period of democratic activism, will be inevitably moved to the back burner. Societys indifferent (and often positive) reaction to such transformations means that after ten years of reforms, these values have not gained a real value for the people of Russia.

Spain is not a federation, in my opinion (even though foreign classifications often include this country in the list of worlds federal states), and the refusal of the Spanish people themselves to characterize their country as federal is not accidental. In 1983, the countrys Constitutional Court officially called Spain a state of autonomies, and this title, though not unique, has been used in literature ever since. For instance, Thomas Ramon Fernandez Rodriguez called his country a unitary regional state. This characterization clearly reflects the compromise which has been achieved between the concept of a unitary state and the political ambitions of the regions in Spain.

Why isnt Spain a federation? I suppose, to prove this point of view, it is necessary to present at least three arguments.

The first argument is connected with the place of the Senate in the countrys political system and the problem of representation. Theoretically, according to Article 69.1 of the Constitution, the Senate is bound to provide territorial representation and thus be a collective voice of the regions. The Senate indeed provides territorial representation; however, this representation covers the provinces but not the autonomous communities (regions). Every province (regardless of its size and population) elects four senators (in addition to that, large islands elect three senators and small islands, one senator each). Other senators are appointed (!) by the parliaments of autonomous communities one senator per region and one senator added per each million people. These senators do not really represent the territory in the national parliament they rather reflect the partisan political profile of each autonomous community. In the countrys political system, the Senate is not the prototype of a chamber to represent subjects, as it would be the case in federations; at most, it represents provinces, which reflects a traditional division inherited from a centralized unitary state. At least, it reflects only partisan political life in the regions.

Spanish politicians and lawmakers have discussed different ways of reforming the Senate for several years, but experts believe that a full-fledged reform of the institution will be worthwhile only in the case that the country embarks on the venture of federalism being fully aware of the consequences of its territorial organization.[5]

In Russia, the representation of federal subjects in the federal parliament and the principle of the formation of the Federation Council are also being harshly and deservedly discussed. It is enough to say that since 1995, i.e. during the last decade, the principle of the formation of this most crucial institution has been changed three times. Such a situation became possible because Article 95 of 1993 Constitution does not give a precise description of its composition. For instance, in 1993, the deputies of the Federation Council were directly elected by the population, while in 1995 the procedure was changed after a long debate, and the deputies seats were appointed by the executive and legislative heads of each region rather than by election. Finally, in July 2000, a federal law was adopted which stated that the Federation Council should include two representatives from each federal subject one chosen each by each states legislative and executive branches. The legislative representative is elected from among the deputies in the regional legislature, while the executive representative is appointed by the head of the regions executive authority (the appointment comes into effect if two thirds of the deputies in the regional legislature do not veto the appointment).

In the context of this paper, we probably should not dwell on the place of the Federation Council in Russias political system. We should just mention that the general attitude of the Council has been pointed pragmatism and support of consensus rather than confrontation. Besides, the Council has become a platform for regional leaders to move to the national level.

On the basis of all of this, we cannot discard the question of whether reform was actually necessary. Its supporters argue that the deputies of the Federal Council work on an irregular basis, the technical mechanism of the Council is greatly exaggerated and, finally (and most importantly), that half of its deputies are the heads of executive power in the regions, which is absurd. Another argument: the Federation Council is occupied not by representatives of the regions, but by representatives of regional elites.

These arguments seem sufficiently valid, and the composition of the Federation Council does indeed not seem to be optimal. Reform was necessary. But what kind of reform? It seems obvious that the optimal way to form the Council would be to elect deputies directly in the regions. Such a proposal, by the way, was put forward by the Dumas deputy E. Mizulina, but was not passed. In the meanwhile, it is vitally important for the Federation Council to include some members who are not regional executives.[6]

Nevertheless, in Russia a different path of reforming the Federation Council was chosen which seems rather dubious. The political weight of the Councils deputies is incongruous with its constitutional authority. The reform significantly damaged the authority of the Federation Council and the Russian parliament as a whole.

Nevertheless, however it is composed, the Federation Council in Russia, unlike the Spanish Senate, provides representation of the federal subjects and not of some other territories.

The second basic peculiarity of the Spanish territorial model is tied with Spains sovereignty problem and the character of the distribution of rights and authorities between the center and the territories. In Russia, as in any other federation, sovereignty is divided according to the Constitution. It is the Basic Law of the country that regulates powers delegated to the federal government, those reserved to the subjects, and those which are to be exercised concurrently. The federal subjects are thus sovereign as far as their reserved powers go. On the contrary, Spain has a unitary system. However, the division of authority between central government and subunits in Spains Constitution lacks clarity. Moreover and more importantly, the transfer of authorities to the autonomous units was carried out not by Constitution but by so-called autonomy pacts. Thus, following long negotiations, the governing Socialist Party entered into the second autonomy pact with the Peoples Party in 1992, which provided that 33 new delegations of power be given to autonomous units that chose the long path to gain autonomy. The pact stipulated a gradual transfer of power during a five-year period.[7]

In conjunction with this, it is appropriate to emphasize two peculiarities. First, Spains loyalty to pacts is a political-cultural peculiarity of the country. The Montcloa Pact, autonomy pacts and finally, the statutes of autonomous communities, which also are a kind of treaty between the center and the regions, all prove that the achievement of goals of the earlier treaties drawn between the main political players will be an essential condition, if not a guarantee, of its success.

Secondly, Spain is now going through decentralization caused by a demand to move the decision- making process closer to the citizens and aimed to support the lower level of territorial organization, i.e., local governments. In 1998, the so called Local Pact started this second round of decentralization. Now, the autonomous communities must define the functions and authorities that should be transferred to their local governments and encourage the enactment of local pacts in their localities, provided consensus exists.

The third difference between the Spanish model and a truly federal form of government is connected to the organization of the executive power. The central government has a representative in each autonomous community, and that representative fulfils the functions of both coordination and inspection. In a similar way, each region has a representative in each of its provinces. Such a vertical hierarchy of executive power is not characteristic of federations in general.

4. Some conclusions

First of all, it is important to mention that both the Spanish and Russian models of relations between center and territories reflect the processes going on in their respective countries. Nevertheless, these processes are different from each other in terms of their meaning and direction. In terms of meaning, Russia has initially declared itself a federal state, with processes of federalization developing in the country. Spain chose its own unique path, creating a model of decentralization and regionalization.

Directions are also different in both countries. In Russia, there was a sudden effort to construct a decentralized federation in the early and mid-1990s, but neither the elites (either federal or regional) nor the society were ready for it. Besides, federalism was carved out of the general progress of reforms, being ahead of other directions which were unable to create a base for their development. We got a federalism that we could not use because it was too big for us. Therefore, the sudden effort created a countermovement, which strengthened centralization and closer correlation between the degree of federalism and the speed of movement toward it.

The construction of Spains model of territorial organization can be described differently: it started with a consensus on national unity, followed by gradual, progressive and sequential decentralization, i.e. transfer of power from the center to the autonomous communities.

Generalizing the experience of territorial construction of Russia and Spain during their democratic transitions, we can formulate a general theory: federalization and/or regionalization processes are important vectors of democratic transition, as their character and speed correspond with the general progress of transition and the condition of national statehood.

* Irina Markovna Busygina, Doctor of Science (jurisprudence), professor at MGIMO (U), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.

[1] Abdulatipov R.G., Boltenkova L.F., Iarov Iu.F. Federalizm v istorii Rossii. Book two. M., Respublika, 1993, p.9.

[2] Pisarik G.E. Ispanskaia model territorialnogo ustroistva: gosudarstvo avtonomii. In the book: Sistema avtonomii kak model ukrepleniia institutov. M: MShPI, 2003, p.46.

[3] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[4] Melvil A.Iu. Demokraticheskiie tranzity: teoretiko-metodologicheskiie i prikladnye aspekty. M., 1999, pp. 49-51.

[5] Glagow R. Der Foederalismus in Spanien. In: Krise und Reform des Foederalismus. Meier-Walser R., Hirscher G. (Hg.), Muenchen, 1999, S.275.

[6] See I. Busygina. Sovet Federatsii v politicheskoi sisteme Rossii. Rossiiskii regionalnyi biulleten. Vol. 1 #2, February 1999, pp. 8-10.

[7] Ibid., p. 285.

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