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Russian Constitutional Court's 'Unconstitutional' Decision

Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov (right) says Russia is now more centralized than the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Will Vladimir Putin listen?
Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov (right) says Russia is now more centralized than the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Will Vladimir Putin listen?
A new Russian Constitutional Court decision represents the opening round of a new Moscow campaign against the Russian Federation's so-called ethnic republics, and thus is certain to provoke new tensions between the central government and the peoples and governments of these republics.

In this battle, Moscow may succeed in getting its way with the textual changes the court has ordered, but it is likely to do so only at the cost of a wave of anger at Moscow's intentions greater than anything the Russian Federation has seen since the 1990s.

This week, the Constitutional Court ordered the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Sakha, Tuva, Kabardino-Balkaria, Komi, Chechnya, and Buryatia, as well as Krasnodar Krai, and the Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous oblasts to eliminate references in their basic laws to the sovereignty of their local governments and citizenship of their residents.

Such references, the court ruled, contradict not only the court's orders from 2000 and 2001, but also the basic premise of the Russian Constitution that "the bearer of sovereignty and the unique source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people." And as such, the court continued, there cannot exist "two levels of sovereign power existing in a single system of state power," and therefore the constitution does not allow "the sovereignty of either the republics or other subjects of the Russian Federation."

Three aspects of this decision are worth noting. First, it is striking that these federal subjects have ignored up to now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's much-publicized drive to create a common legal space in the Russian Federation. For more than eight years, these republics have effectively thumbed their noses at Moscow, an indication that Putin's claims of success in this campaign were vastly overstated.

Second, the court's decision this week suggests a reading of federalism that is at odds with other federal systems. In most of them -- and federalism is sufficiently rare that one can generalize -- not only the federal system but its component parts participate in sovereignty and citizenship. What the Russian Constitutional Court has done is to promulgate a decision that points to the return of a centralized Russian state in place of the federal one the 1993 constitution calls for. Indeed, in the eyes of many people in the republics, what the Constitutional Court has done is to adopt an unconstitutional decision.

And third, the timing of this decision, after the parliamentary and presidential elections and before an expected sweeping reshuffling of regional heads and a meeting next month at which Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology, will argue against the long-accepted principle that territory is a critical aspect of the existence of any ethnic group, provides yet another indication that Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev may plan to launch a broad campaign against the existence of the ethnic republics.

A Basic Decision

The possibility that they will do so, already highlighted last week by Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov's now notorious public assertion that the Russian Federation today is more centralized and authoritarian than the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev period, is certain to prompt nationalist groups and republic officials to come together to defend the last vestiges of federalism in Russia using all the means -- including public demonstrations, appeals to outside groups, and the courts -- at their disposal.

They may not win this battle, just as they often have not won in the past. But the leaders of these republics are in a position to create headaches for Moscow far greater than the town of Pikalyovo did last week, when demonstrating workers complaining of wage arrears compelled Putin to appear in the town personally to satisfy them. And there is no way that Putin can visit all of the ethnic republics or satisfy their demands without backing down in ways he almost certainly will not want to be seen as doing.

Consequently, what may have struck many as a kind of housekeeping decision by the Constitutional Court could prove to be a turning point in the evolution of the Russian state, a moment when the powers and peoples will have to resolve the question of whether their country is to be a federation, as the Russian Constitution requires, or a unitary state as the Russian Constitutional Court has now appeared to decree.

Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on the former Soviet space, teaches at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ADA or RFE/RL