Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov announced recently that there should be only one "president" in Russia and therefore he was renouncing his own claim to that title. Other leaders of North Caucasus republics then announced their intention of following Kadyrov's example. North Ossetia, though, was ahead of the curve -- about two years ago, the forward-looking republic already turned its president into a "head of the republic."
One could view Kadyrov's move as another act of outward loyalty by a vassal to his lord. It is possible that this manifestation of oriental courtesy was a result of the feudal anger of President Dmitry Medvedev, expressed to his envoy to the region Aleksandr Khloponin and the leadership of Daghestan concerning corruption in the North Caucasus and the lack of investment there. The situation is no better in Kabardino-Balkaria or Ingushetia, both of which rely on the federal budget for 90 percent of their revenues and are crippled by primitive economies and low-level partisan conflict.
But Chechnya also doesn't have much to brag about -- except for a fragile peace and the ability to absorb regular donations of billions of rubles from the federal budget. And Moscow has no way of figuring out how that money is spent since the regime in Chechnya is absolutely opaque. All the auditors can do is marvel at the palaces of the local elites and the impressive cortege of jeeps that hustles Kadyrov from place to place. Any talk of kickbacks for reconstruction contracts is carried out only in whispers, since anyone caught speaking too loudly could easily vanish without a trace tomorrow.
Chechnya today is de facto paid tribute. Its formal ruler pays a supposedly loyal vassal for superficial demonstrations of loyalty and to use his own forces to put down local insurgents. It is a payment for peace and a payment for a war against guerrillas that "Imam" Kadyrov's forces can carry out far more effectively than the Russian Army.
So now Kadyrov has publicly appeased Moscow, but this does nothing to change Chechnya's de facto status in Russia. Russia will have one president. All the others will quietly change their titles. But there will also be only one "imam," the head of Chechnya, who is de fact above the authority of the Russian Constitution, and who not only rules over Grozny but who also has the power of life and death over all Chechens around the world.
This situation is a bit reminiscent of the pasha of Egypt in the early 19th century. Although Egypt was formally a province of the Ottoman Empire, its rulers governed autonomously and -- in part because of the power of its army -- influenced matters in the imperial center.
The federal bureaucrats of the ruling United Russia party have hurried to support Kadyrov's initiative. After all, it is a lot easier to mobilize regional lawmakers for another show of servility than it is to, for instance, fix all the mistakes in the federal Forestry Code. But there is something positive in Kadyrov's proposal: it makes the real situation in Russia clearer. Now it will be easier to see the real essence of the present system of relations between the center and the regions.
The de facto confederal relations that have emerged between Chechnya's ruling imam and Moscow are an exception. And Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which have held on to some real federal relations with the center, are in their own orbit. A little closer to the center is Yakutia. But that is the extent of the asymmetrical construction of the Russian state.
The heads of other republics who still have the title president clearly do not deserve it. Even the country's republics -- to say nothing of its ordinary oblasts -- are rushing headlong to lose their real status as subjects of a federation and are being turned -- as nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky once promised -- into simple "guberny" or provinces of a unitary state that are all subordinated to the central vertical of a unitary state.
It doesn't matter that unitarism is a post-Soviet, ineffective, lazy, corrupt system that has no mechanism for two-way communication or mobilization even in the event of a critical situation. As the fiery summer of 2010 has shown, even fire alarms don't reach the co-rulers in the Kremlin and the White House in a timely manner. And that is why Russia burned so badly this summer.
Actually, it would be more honest to admit once and for all the process of defederalization and to change the name of the country itself. The official name "Russian Federation" is outdated and doesn't reflect the reality that has been created by the regime of Vladimir Putin.
There was a time when authoritarian rulers were more honest. When it took over a federal state in 1933, the "ruling party" of Germany promptly declared it a single "Reich," or empire. And no one in the country and no one around the world had any illusions about its goals. That was the brutal fashion of those times.
But now we live in an age of public relations and democratic window dressing. Having created a "management vertical" and having destroyed all vestiges of federalism and the first sprouts of local self-government, the Putin regime nonetheless must hang on to the old banner of the Russian "Federation."
These aren't the 1930s and it isn't fashionable anymore to be an autocrat. The architect of the government's decorative projects, Vladislav Surkov, is charged with maintaining the facade of a "democratic," "federal" Russia that periodically stages a show called "elections."
Mikhail Sokolov is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL