Building a True Russian Federation: How to Democratise, Decentralise and Therefore Federalise the Russia of the Future
Only a democratic Russia will become an asset, instead of a threat, to global security. And only a truly federal Russia will be sustainably democratic. This would be a Russia that respects itself and its neighbours. A Russia that does not ignore other people’s experiences but learns from them.
A Russia that is focused on solving its own problems rather than creating problems for other states. Russia has made several attempts to become a federation. However, they failed because either the element of democracy was lacking or a fake federalism was imposed from above without any buy-in from the regions.
The fact that it did not work out in the past does not mean it will never work out. In the Buryat language, there is an idiom “Зүрхэ бу алда” that translates to “don’t give up.” I write this in Buryat because ethnic minorities, who often become hostages of decisions taken by the majority, such as the invasion of Ukraine, must take an active part in building a future federation.
The brutal experience of the 1990s and 2000s has taught us that citizens have a responsibility to participate in the democratic governance of the country on a daily basis, including at the regional and local levels; otherwise, autocrats will come to power and deprive them of this opportunity. Without citizens’ active, everyday participation, the newborn Russian democracy will again become a toy in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats trying to build a system of governance “for themselves.”
Currently, Russia is the aggressor. It is waging an imperial war of aggression against Ukraine. The lessons from West Germany, which managed to evolve from a dictatorship committing crimes against humanity into a constructive democracy, are of utmost importance for Russia.
In addition, Russia is currently learning, and will continue to learn in the future, a significant lesson from Ukraine, which today is selflessly fighting for its freedom as well as universal democratic values. It was Ukraine that began its process of decentralisation several years ago. The reformers of the new Russia will need to de facto reestablish Russia as a federation and, for the first time, try to build it “from below” – according to the principle of the United States of America.
It is important to achieve economic autonomy for the regions, which currently pay almost 65% of their tax revenue to the national level and are subsequently forced to demonstrate loyalty to the Kremlin, whose decision determines how much money the region will receive. The powers of the national government should be strongly and very explicitly limited. The foundation of the new Russia should be formed on a broad mandate of popular representation from municipalities and regions.
Regions and municipalities must have clearly defined, inalienable, large-scale powers and their own financial base. Parliament and political parties should strongly influence the formation of the executive branch. The basis of the future federal Russia should be municipalities, regions and a well-developed historical memory. Until today, insufficient attention has been given to working with historical memory in Russia, whereas post-Hitler Germany utilised the learned lessons from history as a foundation.
In popular memory, the true heroes of Russia should not be figures such as the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to whom Putin presented the state award of Hero of Russia, but fighters for democracy – for example, human rights defender Andrei Sakharov, Soviet dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Russian oppositionists Boris Nemtsov and Galina Starovoitova, and many others. Such a shift will require massive efforts in the education system, but without this, neither Russian democracy nor a truly federal Russia will be possible.
Russia must become a federation of the lessons learned from history. Otherwise, it will have to continue the vicious circle of mistakes, causing damage to other countries and, of course, to itself.
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