Where is the Birthplace of the New Russian Federation?

One of the sharp contrasts between today’s Russia and the West is the absence of contractual and competitive relations between political subjects: there is only one decision-making subject in Russia and he is sitting in the Kremlin. There is, however, a territory that is ready to change vectors, says Vadim Shtepa, editor-in-chief in Region.Expert.

A small country with a large social contract

The musings in this article were inspired by the governmental crisis in Estonia, where I have now lived for seven years. In early June, prime minister Kaja Kallas, leader of the Reform Party, fired seven ministers from its competitor, the Centrist party (Estonian Centre Party*). In Estonia, any government is coalitional, it is formed out of party representatives that receive the most votes in parliamentary elections. And usually, if the prime minister is unable to agree on a coalition, he himself resigns. Kallas, who is sometimes nicknamed “the iron lady”, went on a different route.

Having fired centrist ministers, she offered to create a new governmental coalition, and invite representatives of other parliamentary parties – such as the social democrats and the right-leaning centrist “Isamaa” – to join. Those two parties together with the Reformists create a parliamentary majority, and, if they agree to join the new coalition, Kallas will remain prime minister and act as the head of the renewed government. However, if one of the parties refuses and prefers to merge with the Centrists, they will have the majority and the prerogative to staff the new administration.

This step undertaken by the Prime Minister is unusual and quite risky, but nonetheless permissible by the Estonian legal model, which is based on contractual and competitive relations. The members of this contract, i.e., parliamentary parties, are autonomous political subjects and may enter any various coalitions they wish. In this parliamentary republic, there is no such concept as the power vertical, and the post of the president (according to the Constitution) provides for nonpartisan objectivity. Therefore, Estonian president Alar Karis has granted support to the prime minister’s initiative on firing several ministers. However, if Kaia Kallas fails to construct a new coalition, the president will most likely have to appoint a new prime minister.

Such is the functioning of a contractual state, which is based on the autonomous subjectivity of various parties, none of which can make a claim to absolute power. For such a state, a governmental crisis is not a dead end, but rather a problem which different political powers solve together, finding compromises and avoiding pushing the entire society into a conflict.

Overthrowing absolute monarchy

In the history of Russia, there are barely any examples of the existence of a contractual state wherein political powers interact on an equal basis. One can recall historical Novgorod and Pskov – but their popular assembly-based foundations, unfortunately, never became mainstream, and the word “Russia” itself didn’t even exist at the time. The Tsardom of Russia, which defeated the Pskovian and Novgorodian republics, and then “gathered” enormous Eurasian territories around itself, upheld the principle of absolute monarchy – exclusive personalist power. If it permitted any form of contractuality, it was exclusively to provide for “more loyal” implementation of the Tsarist decrees by his serfs.

The February revolution of 1917 which overthrew monarchy and established the goal of creating “a new Russia” at the Constituent Assembly, soon lost to the more new, Bolshevik version of absolute monarchy. “Komissars are mad with absolute monarchy”, Maximillian Voloshin prophetically remarked at the time. The Bolsheviks factually revived the empire in an even more totalitarian format, with the General Secretary replacing the Tsar, and quickly forgot all the “liberating” slogans which led them to power and which presupposed contractual equality. I believe that the most brilliant example of the absolute contradiction between their theory and practice is the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, signed by Lenin and Stalin, and which promised complete freedom of self-identification.

The third attempt to replace the absolute monarchy principles of the state with contractual ones was the Perestroika era, now forgotten or condemned by many: objective historians are still baffled as to how Mikhail Gorbachev managed to arrange a power transfer from the political buro of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the freely elected, multipartisan councils, which became new political subjects. Since 1990, all of the Union’s republics were no longer headed by general secretaries, appointed by the Kremlin, but by Supreme Councils elected inside the republics and headed by the likes of Boris Yeltsin, Vitautas Landsbergis, and Zviad Gamsakhurdia. And it weren’t just the republics that attained political subjectivity, but also the autonomies within the RSFSR, which, also in 1990, have signed their own declarations on state sovereignty.

The Novoogaryovo process (April-August 1991), which involved the freely elected leaders of 9 out of 15 union republics, no longer provided for the preservation of the former USSR, but rather its transformation into a contractual federation based on the principles of free will. Perhaps, this was too idealistic a dream on the part of Gorbachev, considering that historically, no such direct and equal contracts existed on Eurasian territories. The Putsch, organized by the supporters of the former USSR against the new contract, which was to be signed in August, demonstrated just how much the imperial nomenclature feared such a transformation: contractual and imperial principles are each other’s direct opposites. The failure of this putsch, however, paradoxically led to the rebirth of the Russian absolute rule: the 1917 situation, wherein Bolsheviks, acting under “liberating” slogans, have established a new dictatorship, has repeated itself.

The empire did not collapse in 1991, but rather “shrunk” to the borders of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic – president Yeltsin never cast out the former partisan and soviet nomenclature and constructed it into the political system of “the new Russia”. The Treaty of Federation of March of 1991, which contradicted the failed Soviet one, was quite illustrative. In the draft of the Soviet treaty, the republics willingly transferred some of their powers to the Centralized government, and in the final Russian treaty this model was turned upside down: the Center itself, by the Tsar’s kindness, left some insignificant strategic powers to the republics. The subjects of the Russian Federation factually never became full-fledged political subjects enjoying true autonomy in their own decision-making.

And then the Constitution of 1993 completely annihilated the contractual character of the Russian statehood. It is worthy to note that the Chechen Republic never signed the treaty – i.e., it never became a part of the Russian Federation de jure – and never voted for the Russian Constitution, but in 1994 President Yeltsin dispatched the army into Chechen territories under the slogan of “reinstating the Constitutional order”. That is probably the most telling illustration of the imperial consciousness’ triumph over its contractual counterpart.

Then the president introduced his “successor”, which signified the return of Russian history to the path of absolute rule. Putin factually became the sole political subject in Russia, one that has no need to construct contractual relations with anybody. It is rather symbolic that he never participated in the pre-election debates, and all other candidates who were allowed to run understand their official role in this puppet show. Today, attempts of any political forces to announce a position different from the Kremlin’s are synonymous with subversion. But even the oppositional immigrant diaspora that keeps dreaming of “the beautiful future Russia” spends more time discussing the personalities of candidates for the role of the “nice czar” then the construction of institutions that are capable of establishing a contractual federation.

Obviously, contractual relations are generally important as a social principle, but under the Russian conditions, an equal contract of the regions carries a special meaning, since in its absence any, even the most liberal of administrations in Moscow will inevitably evolve into absolute rule. Today, the actors of the Kremlin administration openly claim that “the Russian state was not built on a contractual basis”, thus negating the federation as a whole and confirming the absolute monosubjectivity.

A well-developed federation, such as the United States of the Federal Republic of Germany, is constructed on multiple, mutually beneficial contracts between its subjects. According to Chapter 1 of the Constitution, untouched by the 2020 amendments, “organs of local self-administration are not a part of the system of organs of state authority”, which, legally, leaves some space for contractual decisions. However, in practice, instead of making treaties with the local self-administration, state officials have a history of acting through command, for example, firing the popularly elected but “undesirable” mayors or uniting municipalities without any regard for the opinion of the local residents.

The absence of contractual roots in today’s Russia is all-encompassing – from local to international levels. The reluctance to reach an agreement on a ceasefire with Ukraine is also connected to the fact that the Kremlin doesn’t just fail to view the elected administration of this country as an equal in negotiations, but is also accustomed to the imperial “right of power”. Perhaps, the word “Russia” in itself initially carries a meaning of absolute rule? The story that took place in 2010, when court experts claimed that the protest slogan “Down with absolute rule and succession!” contains “an incitement to overthrow the existing state power” seems quite illustrative.

Siberia as a pilot project

The reinstatement, or, to be more precise – the establishment of federalism as equal and contractual relations between regions is not likely to happen on the Kremlin’s initiative. But, if we are to discuss in the project dimension, Siberia has the largest potential for such a transformation of the country.

In his book “Siberia as a colony”, one of the leading ideologists of Siberian regionalism of XIX century Nikolai Yadrintzev compared this enormous terrain to America. However, if Europeans obtained the “New World” in the West, to Muscovites it began right past the Ural mountains. Just like America, Siberia was pioneered by the most liberal people of their time, but, unfortunately, it remained a colony of the Old World rather than achieving independence. Nonetheless, this parallel manifests up to this day – novosiberian “monstrations” often display a flag of “United States of Siberia”, created by artist from Omsk Damir Muratov.

This model of different, but united “states” is quite harmonious with the polycentral nature of Siberia. Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Chita and other siberian cities together with the surrounding regions are quite different from each other, but are, at the same time, deeply interconnected, thus creating a prototype of a contractual federation. The awareness of this interconnection and common Siberian interests led to the creation of the interregional association “Siberian Agreement” back in 1990. Today, however, under the power of Kremlin’s stewards Siberia remains stripped of its political subjectivity; but the veteran of Siberian politics Alexei Manannanikov hopes for the eventual advent of new regional elites.

The unique Siberian identity manifested especially brilliantly during the early XX century revolution and Perestroika eras. In both cases, it was connected to the battle for Siberia’s decolonization, which still remains a pressing task to this day. Popular, albeit semi-banned movies are filmed about this phenomenon. Without Siberian resources, the empire will not be able to wage occupational wars; and will most likely not be able to stand. It’s not a coincidence that Siberian activists were the first to voice opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.

Siberians, in the tradition of New World residents, are capable of offering intriguing historical solutions, which bust Moscow-central stereotypes. When in October 1993, in Moscow two different versions of “the great Russia” clashed in an armed conflict, the Siberian politicians brought forth an ultimatum on the transfer of the decision-making center to Siberia. If their project had won, it would have meant a real transformation of Russia into a federation which is based on regional interests rather than imperial ambitions.

A very important and promising quality of Siberian federalists is that while they value the autonomy of each region, they are capable of seeing their common context, which provides for the necessity of contractual relations between them. They also respect the vast cultural diversity of Siberia and therefore remain free of nationalistic prejudices, which are common among modern Russian politicians. And if the Siberian project of an equal, contractual federation that is based on principles of free will shall prove its stability and effectiveness, other Russian regions are bound to want to join it, thus leaving the Old World behind.

Finally, I will note a paradox that has long been observed in the discussions between representatives of different regions. Separately, regionalists love diving deep in the history of their land, and sometimes it may even seem as if all they live for is “the glorious past” or are leaning towards isolationism. However, once they move on to projects of interregional treaties, a marvelous “case switch”* occurs – an active discussion of the future ensues, and this futuristic drive makes a huge contrast against the historical pessimism common among those who operate with “pan-Russian” terminology.