ZOiS Spotlight 39/2021

Is Russia Becoming a Unitary State?

by Stanislav Klimovich 03/11/2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Governor of Moscow Oblast, Andrei Vorobyov in the Kremlin, October 2021. IMAGO / SNA

As for the general possibility of power alternation, then, of course, the President is a supporter, but this should not be an obsession that interferes with work.

Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary to the Kremlin, 27.09.2021

On 27 September 2021, the draft law on the Basic Principles of the Organisation of State Power in the Subjects of the Russian Federation was tabled in the Russian State Duma. The legislation aims to adapt the system of government in the Russian regions to the new constitutional reality resulting from the adoption of constitutional amendments in July 2020. The fundamental consideration behind the law is to ensure the further centralisation of the political system, an objective pursued by the amended constitution. The law is intended to establish a uniform system of state power in which the centre further expands its control over the regions.

The new administrative law

The two co-chairs of the working group tasked with monitoring the implementation of the constitutional amendments of 2020 – Senator Andrey Klishas and Pavel Krasheninnikov, a Member of the State Duma – are the formal initiators of the law, which is intended to replace the old law on the organisation of regional power, dating back to 1999. This older legislation has undergone numerous amendments under President Vladimir Putin and has become progressively more complex and detailed. It was originally intended to serve purely as the basis for the development of the regional power structures, but over the past 20 years, it has become the most important instrument in establishing and maintaining Putin’s power vertical. With the aid of this law, the centre administered the regions, determined who may take over as governor and expanded the President’s control over regional incumbents. Direct election of regional governors was abolished in 2004, and since then, the governors have, in effect, been nominated by the President. After the wave of protests in 2011/2012, direct election was reintroduced into the law, which is now about to be superseded by the new legislation.

The most important elements of the current draft, which reflect a general trend towards stronger centralisation, can be summarised as follows: firstly, the President’s rights of supervision over the governors are strengthened. In cases of misconduct, the President may caution or suspend a governor or, in the event of a loss of confidence, remove him or her from office. In the old legislation, potential grounds for loss of confidence, such as suspected corruption or violations of the law, were defined, but these specific provisions are absent in the new law. The President can, in essence, withdraw his confidence at any time without any obvious reason and can dismiss the regional incumbent. For Moscow, it will thus become significantly easier to remove undesirable or wayward governors from office.

Secondly, the governors will be integrated into the unified system of state power and will function as both regional and federal officials simultaneously. According to the constitution, the regions and their leadership currently form an independent unit within the Russian federal system. However, the new “federal” component of their job description means that the governors will be legally bound by the rules applicable to federal officials and will thus be subordinate to the centre.

Thirdly, the current legislative initiative fosters the standardisation of the political landscape at subnational level in the Russian multiethnic state. At present, the regions have diverse terms for their highest political office, some of which are the product of history. There are governors, chairs of the administration, and heads (glavy in Russian) of oblasts, republics and other subjects of the federation. Tatarstan is the only remaining republic whose leader is officially known as the president. The new law is intended to put an end to this patchwork of terms – from now on, all regional leaders are to be known as heads (glavy). The use of the word “president” is explicitly prohibited. This is intended to complete the process of the full subordination of Tatarstan – once the most influential region in Russia, negotiating special conditions with the centre for many years.

A carrot for governors

How will the regional elites react to the draft law? Large-scale opposition is unlikely at present. Firstly, the regional governors are already strongly integrated into the power vertical, primarily by informal means. The law merely institutionalises the status quo within Putin’s system. And secondly, the federal centre is pursuing the classic “carrot and stick” strategy in its relations with the regions. In order to ensure the governors’ support, Putin has made them an offer they cannot refuse: the governors accept the centre’s initiative to curb the freedoms and powers of the regions and in exchange, their current terms in office will be reset and they will be given the option of remaining in power for additional years. This obnulenije (Russian for “reset”) is a popular tool used by the Kremlin to secure regional power-holders’ loyalty. In the past, these resets coincided with the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections in 2004 and also accompanied the reintroduction of these elections in 2012. This time, the obnulenjie for the governors symbolically follows on the reset of Putin’s own terms in office. A key difference, however, is that no upper limit is envisaged for the governors: they can run for office as often as they like. In addition, a governor’s term of office will be extended to five years nationwide (previously it was “just” four years in many regions).

Those who stand to profit most from the obnulenije are regional governors who have already commenced their second and therefore – under the old legislation – final term in office. Among them are such political heavyweights as Sergey Sobyanin, the Mayor of Moscow, Andrey Vorobyov, the current governor of Moscow oblast, the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, and Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of Tatarstan. By removing the maximum number of times a leader may hold office, Moscow is killing two birds with one stone: it secures the governors’ loyalty for the future and, in light of Putin’s planned re-election in 2024, doesn‘t need to worry about their successors, particularly in the politically complex regions mentioned above.

What happens now?

Will the law be adopted in its current form? That remains to be seen. Tatarstan’s parliament, for example, has already spoken out against the legislation. The regional elites will have the opportunity, during the legislative process, to tinker with the wording here and there, although more radical amendments or even the failure of the law seem unlikely. Laws on the implementation of the constitutional amendments previously introduced by Klishas and Krasheninnikov were always adopted.

In essence, the growing trend towards the centralisation of the Russia state is continuing. Although the federal structure is enshrined in the Russian constitution as a fundamental principle with a perpetuity clause, this principle is massively weakened in reality by informal hierarchical administrative practices and, with that, the formal amendment of regular legislation. In this way, Moscow secures the support of the regional elites by granting targeted concessions. Russia remains a federation without federalism. Even so, despite the centralist and personalistic features of the Putin regime, it is not (yet) a unitary state.

Stanislav Klimovich is a research associate at the Institute for East European Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, and a lecturer in Russian politics at the University of Potsdam.