Local and Regional Government

Local and Regional Government

In the Soviet period, some of Russia's approximately 100 nationalities were granted their own ethnic enclaves, to which varying formal federal rights were attached (see Minority Peoples and Their Territories, ch. 4). Other smaller or more dispersed nationalities did not receive such recognition. In most of these enclaves, ethnic Russians constituted a majority of the population, although the titular nationalities usually enjoyed disproportionate representation in local government bodies. Relations between the central government and the subordinate jurisdictions, and among those jurisdictions, became a political issue in the 1990s.

The Russian Federation has made few changes in the Soviet pattern of regional jurisdictions. The 1993 constitution establishes a federal government and enumerates eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions, including twenty-one ethnic enclaves with the status of republics. There are ten autonomous regions, or okruga (sing., okrug ), and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', also known as Birobidzhan). Besides the ethnically identified jurisdictions, there are six territories (kraya ; sing., kray ) and forty-nine oblasts (provinces). The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are independent of surrounding jurisdictions; termed "cities of federal significance," they have the same status as the oblasts. The ten autonomous regions and Birobidzhan are part of larger jurisdictions, either an oblast or a territory (see fig. 1). As the power and influence of the central government have become diluted, governors and mayors have become the only relevant government authorities in many jurisdictions.

The Federation Treaty and Regional Power

The Federation Treaty was signed in March 1992 by President Yeltsin and most leaders of the autonomous republics and other ethnic and geographical subunits. The treaty consisted of three separate documents, each pertaining to one type of regional jurisdiction. It outlined powers reserved for the central government, shared powers, and residual powers to be exercised primarily by the subunits. Because Russia's new constitution remained in dispute in the Federal Assembly at the time of ratification, the Federation Treaty and provisions based on the treaty were incorporated as amendments to the 1978 constitution. A series of new conditions were established by the 1993 constitution and by bilateral agreements.

Local Jurisdictions under the Constitution

The constitution of 1993 resolved many of the ambiguities and contradictions concerning the degree of decentralization under the much-amended 1978 constitution of the Russian Republic; most such solutions favored the concentration of power in the central government. When the constitution was ratified, the Federation Treaty was demoted to the status of a subconstitutional document. A transitional provision of the constitution provided that in case of discrepancies between the federal constitution and the Federation Treaty, or between the constitution and other treaties involving a subnational jurisdiction, all other documents would defer to the constitution.

The 1993 constitution presents a daunting list of powers reserved to the center. Powers shared jointly between the federal and local authorities are less numerous. Regional jurisdictions are only allocated powers not specifically reserved to the federal government or exercised jointly. Those powers include managing municipal property, establishing and executing regional budgets, establishing and collecting regional taxes, and maintaining law and order (see table 25, Appendix). Some of the boundaries between joint and exclusively federal powers are vaguely prescribed; presumably they would become clearer through the give and take of federal practice or through adjudication, as has occurred in other federal systems. Meanwhile, bilateral power-sharing treaties between the central government and the subunits have become an important means of clarifying the boundaries of shared powers. Many subnational jurisdictions have their own constitutions, however, and often those documents allocate powers to the jurisdiction inconsistent with provisions of the federal constitution. As of 1996, no process had been devised for adjudication of such conflicts.

Under the 1993 constitution, the republics, territories, oblasts, autonomous oblast, autonomous regions, and cities of federal designation are held to be "equal in their relations with the federal agencies of state power"; this language represents an attempt to end the complaints of the nonrepublic jurisdictions about their inferior status. In keeping with this new equality, republics no longer receive the epithet "sovereign," as they did in the 1978 constitution. Equal representation in the Federation Council for all eighty-nine jurisdictions furthers the equalization process by providing them meaningful input into legislative activities, particularly those of special local concern (see The Parliament, this ch.). However, Federation Council officials have criticized the State Duma for failing to represent regional interests adequately. In mid-1995 Vladimir Shumeyko, then speaker of the Federation Council, criticized the current electoral system's party-list provision for allowing some parts of Russia to receive disproportionate representation in the lower house. (In the 1995 elections, Moscow Oblast received nearly 38 percent of the State Duma's seats based on the concentration of party-list candidates in the national capital.) Shumeyko contended that such misallocation fed potentially dangerous popular discontent with the parliament and politicians (see The Elections of 1995, this ch.).

Despite constitutional language equalizing the regional jurisdictions in their relations with the center, vestiges of Soviet-era multitiered federalism remain in a number of provisions, including those allowing for the use of non-Russian languages in the republics but not in other jurisdictions, and in the definitions of the five categories of subunit. On most details of the federal system, the constitution is vague, and clarifying legislation had not been passed by mid-1996. However, some analysts have pointed out that this vagueness facilitates resolution of individual conflicts between the center and the regions.

Power Sharing

Flexibility is a goal of the constitutional provision allowing bilateral treaties or charters between the central government and the regions on power sharing. For instance, in the bilateral treaty signed with the Russian government in February 1994, the Republic of Tatarstan gave up its claim to sovereignty and accepted Russia's taxing authority, in return for Russia's acceptance of Tatar control over oil and other resources and the republic's right to sign economic agreements with other countries. This treaty has particular significance because Tatarstan was one of the two republics that did not sign the Federation Treaty in 1992. By mid-1996 almost one-third of the federal subunits had concluded power-sharing treaties or charters.

The first power-sharing charter negotiated by the central government and an oblast was signed in December 1995 with Orenburg Oblast. The charter divided power in the areas of economic and agricultural policy, natural resources, international economic relations and trade, and military industries. According to Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, the charter gave Orenburg full power over its budget and allowed the oblast to participate in privatization decisions. By early 1996, similar charters had been signed with Krasnodar Territory and Kaliningrad and Sverdlovsk oblasts. In the summer of 1996, Yeltsin wooed potential regional supporters of his reelection by signing charters with Perm', Rostov, Tver', and Leningrad oblasts and with the city of St. Petersburg, among others, granting these regions liberal tax treatment and other economic advantages.

By the mid-1990s, regional jurisdictions also had become bolder in passing local legislation to fill gaps in federation statutes rather than waiting for the Federal Assembly to act. For example, Volgograd Oblast passed laws regulating local pensions, the issuance of promissory notes, and credit unions. The constitution upholds regional legislative authority to pass laws that accord with the constitution and existing federal laws.

Presidential Power in the Regions

The president retains the power to appoint and remove presidential representatives, who act as direct emissaries to the jurisdictions in overseeing local administrations' implementation of presidential policies. The power to appoint these overseers was granted by the Russian Supreme Soviet to Yeltsin in late 1991. The parliament attempted several times during 1992-93 to repeal or curtail the activities of these appointees, whose powers are only alluded to in the constitution. The presence of Yeltsin's representatives helped bring out the local vote on his behalf in the 1996 presidential election.

The governments of the republics include a president or prime minister (or both) and a regional council or legislature. The chief executives of lower jurisdictions are called governors or administrative heads. Generally, in jurisdictions other than republics the executive branches have been more sympathetic to the central government, and the legislatures (called soviets until late 1993, then called dumas or assemblies) have been the center of whatever separatist sentiment exists. Under the power given him in 1991 to appoint the chief executives of territories, oblasts, autonomous regions, and the autonomous oblast, Yeltsin had appointed virtually all of the sixty-six leaders of those jurisdictions. By contrast, republic presidents have been popularly elected since 1992. Some of Yeltsin's appointees have encountered strong opposition from their legislatures; in 1992 and 1993, in some cases votes of no-confidence brought about popular elections for the position of chief executive.

After the Moscow confrontation of October 1993, Yeltsin sought to bolster his regional support by dissolving the legislatures of all federal subunits except the republics (which were advised to "reform" their political systems). Accordingly, in 1994 elections were held in all the jurisdictions whose legislatures had been dismissed. In some cases, that process placed local executives at the head of legislative bodies, eliminating checks and balances between the branches at the regional level.

Election results in the subnational jurisdictions held great significance for the Yeltsin administration because the winners would fill the ex officio seats in the Federation Council, which until 1996 was a reliable bastion of support. The election of large numbers of opposition candidates would end the Federation Council's usefulness as a balance against the anti-Yeltsin State Duma and further impede Yeltsin's agenda. In 1995 some regions held gubernatorial elections to fill the administrative posts originally granted to Yeltsin appointees in 1991. Faced with an escalating number of requests for such elections, Yeltsin decreed December 1996 as the date for most gubernatorial and republic presidential elections. This date was confirmed by a December 1995 Federation Council law. The decree also set subnational legislative elections for June or December 1997. (In July 1996, the State Duma advanced these elections to late 1996.) Observers noted that by calling for most of these elections to take place after the presidential election, Yeltsin prevented unfavorable outcomes from possibly reducing his reelection chances--even though voter apathy after the presidential election had the potential to help opposition candidates.

The Separatism Question

In the first half of the 1990s, observers speculated about the possibility that some of the jurisdictions in the federation might emulate the former Soviet republics and demand full independence (see Minority Peoples and Their Territories, ch. 4). Several factors militate against such an outcome, however. Russia is more than 80 percent ethnic Russian, and most of the thirty-two ethnically based jurisdictions are demographically dominated by ethnic Russians, as are all of the territories and oblasts. Many of the subnational jurisdictions are in the interior of Russia, meaning that they could not break away without joining a bloc of seceding border areas, and the economies of all such jurisdictions were thoroughly integrated with the national economy in the Soviet system. The 1993 constitution strengthens the official status of the central government in relation to the various regions, although Moscow has made significant concessions in bilateral treaties. Finally, most of the differences at the base of separatist movements are economic and geographic rather than ethnic.

Advocates of secession, who are numerous in several regions, generally appear to be in the minority and are unevenly dispersed. Some regions have even advocated greater centralization on some matters. By 1996 most experts believed that the federation would hold together, although probably at the expense of additional concessions of power by the central government. The trend is not toward separatism so much as the devolution of central powers to the localities on trade, taxes, and other matters.

Some experts observe that the Russian republics pressing claims for greater subunit rights fall into three groups. The first is composed of those jurisdictions most vociferous in pressing ethnic separatism, including Chechnya and perhaps other republics of the North Caucasus, and the Republic of Tyva. The second group consists of large, resource-rich republics, including Karelia, Komi, and Sakha (Yakutia). Their differences with Moscow center on resource control and taxes rather than demands for outright independence. A third, mixed group consists of republics along the Volga River, which straddle strategic water, rail, and pipeline routes, possess resources such as oil, and include large numbers of Russia's Muslim and Buddhist populations. These republics include Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Mari El, Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Udmurtia.

In addition to the republics, several other jurisdictions have lobbied for greater rights, mainly on questions of resource control and taxation. These include Sverdlovsk Oblast, which in 1993 proclaimed itself an autonomous republic as a protest against receiving fewer privileges in taxation and resource control than the republics, and strategically vital Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory on the Pacific coast, whose governor in the mid-1990s, Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, defied central economic and political policies on a number of well-publicized issues.

Some limited cooperation has occurred among Russia's regional jurisdictions, and experts believe there is potential for even greater coordination. Eight regional cooperation organizations have been established, covering all subnational jurisdictions except Chechnya: the Siberian Accord Association; the Central Russia Association; the Northwest Association; the Black Earth Association; the Cooperation Association of North Caucasus Republics, Territories, and Oblasts; the Greater Volga Association; the Ural Regional Association; and the Far East and Baikal Association. The Federation Council formally recognized these interjurisdictional organizations in 1994. Expansion of the organizations' activities is hampered by economic inequalities among their members and by inadequate interregional transportation infrastructure, but in 1996 they began increasing their influence in Moscow.

Regional and ethnic conflicts have encouraged proposals to abolish the existing subunits and resurrect the tsarist-era guberniya , or large province, which would incorporate several smaller subunits on the basis of geography and population rather than ethnic considerations. Russian ultranationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovskiy have been joined in supporting this proposal by some officials of the national Government and oblast and territory leaders who resent the privileges of the republics. Some have called for these new subunits to be based on the eight interregional economic associations.

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