‘Mintimer Shaimiyev was politically wise, and Boris Yeltsin wasn’t a bloodsucker’

If Russian federalism began with Yeltsin’s visit to Tatarstan and what is better for Russia — a strong centre or strong regions

‘Mintimer Shaimiyev was politically wise, and Boris Yeltsin wasn’t a bloodsucker’
Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

30 years ago, in August 1990, new head of Soviet Russia Boris Yeltsin began his first big trip across the country and started it with visiting the still Tatar ASSR. The Russian leader pronounced the famous: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow!” during those days hearing out opinions of the regional management about the necessity to expand powers of autonomous republics for their development. In fact, the formation of federalism in Russia began with Yeltsin’s support for the autonomous republic’s aspiration for economic independence. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, political expert Dmitry Oreshkin explains if real federalisation took place in the 90s and if it is possible nowadays.

“In 1990, Yeltsin didn’t have resources to subordinate territories, unlike Putin in 2020”

Mr Oreshkin, when Yeltsin said his famous words, did he really support the expansion of regions’ powers (for instance, those who were for sovereignty) or was it an element of his fight for influence with Mikhail Gorbachyov?

Both. The case is that every politician’s any decision is a very serious task — to save the political space he got from Soviet elites.

Old elites’ decisions on the regions looked simpler: they didn’t understand the diversity of the territories they ruled and built the country’s management alike — with the help of power control.

The technology was simple: if some regional boss didn’t perform tasks of the Central Committee of the party and Comrade Stalin, he was immediately sent to Kolyma. By the way, many in Russia still like such a military discipline, military unitarianism in which every opponent is destroyed.

But the country’s territories don’t develop in such a regime. Of course, the regions pay the tribute to the centre, follow centralised instructions but they have nothing left for their region. The hunger at the beginning of Soviet Russia is the prime example when grain was exported, while might God decide how people should survive in the regions. People in the regions were considered as a resource to strengthen the vertical of personally Stalin and the party’s CC. At the same time, any regional manager understood how not only barbarian but also ineffective this system was, and Boris Yeltsin who was the first secretary of the CC’s regional committee also perfectly understood how dependent he was on the Centre.

Hence other regional managers of that era had a natural desire to get more freedom for the development of their territories. And this phrase about sovereignty, on the one hand, was in opposition to Gorbachyov. On the other hand, this was determined by purely political circumstances as well — in 1990, Yeltsin didn’t have resources to subordinate territories, unlike Putin in 2020. He couldn’t send security workers to take some regional management to Kolyma like it was under Stalin. He understood the country’s management system was a deadlock and it was necessary to switch to some new regime. This is why Yeltsin pronounced the famous “Take as much sovereignty as you need” and didn’t declare it anymore some time later.

Why didn’t Yeltsin want to give the green light to the real agreement on federalisation through 1994 in his rhetoric before signing the agreement on power delineation between Russia and Tatarstan?

Politics is always people’s aspiration to dominate, and then it was important for both Yeltsin and regional leaders. Let’s remember that after August 1991 Tatarstan and other republics had an idea of greater sovereignty than in 1990, while Yeltsin wasn’t ready to give way to them. For instance, he wasn’t ready to agree on customs duties on goods that were imported through several regions to Kaliningrad or the same Moscow imposed by republics. “Yes,” Moscow said, “You’re right, on the one hand. You’re a sovereign republic. But the railway was laid as early as under the tsar”. And endless bargaining between the centre and republic began. Everything was complicated because there wasn’t legal space to make correct decisions, hence the problems that arose during the same elections to the State Duma and voting on the Constitution in 1993. Nevertheless, Yeltsin and Shaimiyev came to an agreement.

Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

“Yeltsin didn’t want to break the neck of the republics and its leaders”

Why did these leaders manage to agree then?

Because Mintimer Shaimiyev was politically wise, and Boris Yeltsin with all his whimsy wasn’t a bloodsucker and he didn’t want to break the neck of the republics and its leaders. He respected both Shaimiyev and Tatarstan, moreover, the agreement complied with Yeltsin’s instinctive ideas of democracy, talked about his respect for the desire of the republics and their leaders.

Was the federation created in the 90s? Because not all regions of the country managed to sign agreements with the centre.

I think Russia in the 90s anyway could be called a federation. There was clearly seen budget federalism. Look, debts between the centre and territories were split in two (and now 32% remain in the region, 68% go to Moscow). Though more could have been asked during those years, let’s say, a region could have left 70% of taxes, not 50%. Because the region is anyway people, and they earned money for the same taxes. And an army, agencies for internal affairs and so on could be maintained on a third. So 70/30 in taxes in favour of regions could have been full federalism, but 50/50 suited everybody. Moreover, the 90s were marked for legal federalism — leaders in many regions were called presidents. There was power federalism as well — we perfectly know that Putin stopped security workers’ subordination to the regions in the 2000s.

So Russia had as much federalism as possible in the 90s. And compare the Soviet with its extensive centralisation, considering the ideas of welfare, justice, society’s development during those years, it was a more federal state than now. In any case, it was closer to this concept than now when Russia, in fact, is a unitarian state.

“Moscow does command but doesn’t rule”

While one of the leading economists of the country once concluded that if some of our governors can’t obtain instructions of Moscow to develop territories, it means there can’t be any unitarian state, then it is a confederation, as strange as it might sound. What do you think of such a thought?

If a regional manager starts to behave in a provocative manner, he will be jailed like Furgal. In reply to the fact that the economy doesn’t work and the Kremlin’s economic instructions aren’t followed in a region, it will be said that the Centre provides the ruble rate, not the regions. External commerce goes through the central customs. And the same Tatarstan will pay excises to the federal centre’s treasury through regional customs because it is unitarianism, which is just poorly organised. It isn’t even unitarianism but verticalism — Moscow does command but doesn’t rule.

Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

What can you tell the Russians in favour of federalism who question it? They will say that Moscow hasn’t given them money yet, why they should think the regional authorities won’t be the same, corruptors.

Firstly, the ideal solution doesn’t exist, secondly, corruption blossoms almost in all states of the former Soviet Union.

In the USSR, the system was based on absolute ownership of nomenclature on all resources of the country. There was no private property — everything belonged to the people, so to speak, but in fact, it did to the nomenclature that used this welfare on behalf of the people. And this habit of administering property was very limited for a Soviet person and Soviet management.

A local boss’s power was less than the allied one’s. For instance, the ministry of defence wants to fence a territory and will do it without asking anybody because it is a classified site. When this Soviet model falls apart, a local boss starts to act in the same way, on his own scale like: “I am a boss here, and everything here belongs to me. I will build whatever I want, and if there is a business here, might it pay the tribute only to me.”

And the republics of the former USSR, post-Soviet Hungary, Poland and the Baltic States also went through the phase of post-Soviet corruption. The power and property in the post-Soviet area are still inseparable: though there is private property, it has nothing to do with federalism, it is linked with traditions of full ownership on a territory.

How can we then prove to people that federalism is better than a unitarian state?

Everything can be shown in practice only. And what does the Soviet and post-Soviet practice say? When Lenin and Stalin were in power, they didn’t think of any federalism. Under unitarianism, the USSR experienced three waves of hunger (in 1918-1921, 1931-1934 and 1946-1947 after the war), lost tens of millions of people during these years, while the country owned the richest land resources in the world!

Federalism is used here when the authorities start to understand they faced a deadlock, and they face a deadlock when there is nothing to gorge, I am sorry. And here reforms begin, while people consider reforms as bad luck. This is why people hate Gorbachyov like “everything in the USSR was great before he came, while he destroyed everything”. Though in contrast, Gorbachyov had to start reforms because the Soviet Union had faced a deadlock. But as soon as something starts to get better thanks to reforms (here suffice it to remember how our economy began to grow by 7-8% a year after the crisis in 1998), there is a great temptation of a crackdown because there is food to feed the people, there is food to feed security workers, and the comeback to verticalism begins.

Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

“Our federalism can be accompanied by terrible costs”

What do we have in the end?

The country hasn’t had any economic growth in the last 10 years already, people gradually start to feel it and get angry at the president like: “He cheated us”. But if Putin steps down now, conflicts between regional leaders will begin. And people will say that there was in order under Putin. An aspiration for federation in post-Soviet countries often ends with what we have in the east of Ukraine or the situation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yes, federalism is now an economic necessity, but here it can be accompanied by terrible costs because there will be a barbarian fight for power between central elites, regional elites and neighbours. This is why unless a person faces an obstacle first-hand, he will think about federalism the way he thinks. But when he faces the obstacle, he will start to hate centralism. This is why, theoretically, the opinion about federalism doesn’t change quickly for the better.

But I think that we are doomed in Russia to stay in this corridor of possibilities of federalism: economic effectiveness is on the one hand, the authorities’ fear to lose the political, force control over the territories is on the other hand. We often hear: “You want to rock the boat, destroy the country, while we don’t allow it.”

Can’t separatism be prevented when building federalism?

In the current political situation, there aren’t traditions of obeying political norms — here the principle “who is stronger is right” works. In the case of the PRD and PRL, we were shouted about the Russian world, while obvious bandits came to power then. And, in my opinion, the experience of the agreement between Russia and Tatarstan is a very underestimated positive example of how quite powerful and ambitious managers finally reached an agreement, continued respecting each other and stood clear of the temptation of crossing some line.

The Russian economy is feeling bad now, as well as people — incomes fall year after year, though not so low. Won’t the process of gradual transition of some powers to the regions or is it early to think about it?

Such things aren’t done because life is great. This will be possible when it becomes clear that this is the end. Russia can have either a strong centre or strong regions: but in our reality the centre dominated. But if the top starts to think differently, should we maybe divide incomes in half first?

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev