It is almost a cliche among Russia watchers to criticize President Vladimir Putin's reforms of Russian federalism as a hyper-centralizing "counterrevolution" undermining democratic federalism. In fact, some of the federal reforms are positively influencing prospects for democracy.
Sure, many aspects of federative reforms are overly centralizing power at the federal level.
The replacement of governors and committee chairmen in the Federation Council with federally appointed representatives has enabled the Kremlin to manipulate the appointment process so that former federal officials and Moscow-based oligarchs have come to dominate its membership. Consequently, the council, which as the upper house of parliament should function as the regions' voice in federal lawmaking, is singing backup for the Kremlin.
The creation of seven federal districts, which include six to 15 regions each, is arguably unconstitutional and risks extralegal interference in the work of elected regional officials. Indeed, there have been instances for example, in Kursk and Ingushetia where the districts' presidential envoys engaged in blatantly arbitrary interference in regional elections.
However, in some areas, recentralization by Moscow was needed after the Yeltsin era of "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow." Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and other regions had negotiated a tenuous, confederation-like relationship with Moscow.
In many regions, the constitutions and laws adopted during the 1990s grossly violated fundamental principles of democracy. Especially in the national republics, strong, almost Soviet-style, executive power was preserved, allowing authoritarian rule to persist locally.
Regional constitutions and election laws in the regions still allowed regional chief executives, especially presidents of republics, to appoint local and city administration heads. They, in turn, were permitted to run for seats in the regional legislature.
This violated the fundamental democratic principle of separating the branches of executive and legislative power and helped regional executives, with their control of "administrative" resources during elections, to engineer pocket parliaments.
Upside to harmonizing
One of Putin's federative reforms the process of bringing regional law into conformity with federal law has forced regional authorities to repeal legislation and constitutional clauses that permit such practices, actually buttressing democracy in regions from Vologda to Vladivostok. Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Marii-El and Kursk are a few examples where executive authoritarianism has been written out of the law. More will follow.
The process created demand for an amendment to federal law that forbids such practices. Putin recently signed into law an amendment to Article 13 on the formation of regional bodies of government.
The harmonization process, which forces the regions to rewrite tens of constitutional clauses, is providing an opening through which other imbalances of executive and legislative power can be redressed. Powers, including those of appointing regional premiers, deputy premiers and ministers, have been redistributed to regional legislatures across Russia's regions.
In the regions of Kursk, Saratov and Tver, and the republics of Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Komi, Tatarstan and others, charters and constitutions have been or are being amended to increase the local legislature's confirmation powers, a check on executive power.
In Komi, the political tug of war last year between the republic's president, who had run Komi for 12 years, and the legislative assembly not only led to more balance between executive and legislative power, it also contributed to the victory of the legislature's more pro-democratic chairman in the republic's presidential election.
In Kalmykia and other authoritarian regions, it has reinstated not only local and city administration heads but also elected councils. In some cases, courts are allowing councils to elect administration heads, a common practice in Western democracies as well. In some regions, such as Primorye, local councils' powers have been enhanced to check those of administration heads.
Gains in civil rights
In federal democracies, such as during the black civil-rights movement in the United States, the federal government must lead in limiting the arbitrary actions of regional officials, who, for ideological or political reasons, willfully violate citizens' political and civil rights.
Putin's harmonization drive appears to be contributing to new protection of political and civil rights in the regions, at least in a few isolated cases.
For example, the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria's newly amended constitution restricts republic authorities' power to ban public demonstrations, meetings and rallies in accordance with federal law. In Tatarstan, the new constitution anticipated the new federal legal code's ban on detaining citizens for more than 48 hours without a court warrant.
In Krasnodar Krai, run by the Russian chauvinist Gov. Alexander Tkachev, prosecutors are preparing a court challenge to his policy of deporting Meskhetian Turk refugees from the region, deeming it a violation of federal law.
In some cases, defense of minority rights overlaps with defense of electoral rights against unfair regional laws. Discriminatory election laws have been repealed in the Republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Adygei.
In other cases, regional minorities are seeking federal support for equal language rights. In Bashkortostan, local Tatars are appealing to federal authorities to put an end to President Murtaza Rakhimov's "Bashkirization" policies.
They argue, for one, that the republic's state language law which gives state status to Russian and Bashkir, but not to Tatar violates the federal constitution. This marks a larger trend: civic movements and NGOs allying with federal prosecutors to challenge regional violations of rights and federal law in the courts.
Law and civil society
Putin's federal-intervention amendments pushing the harmonization drive forward enlist the courts to rule on the conformity of regional constitutions and laws with federal law. This is provoking a demand for judicial review of federal and regional laws and constitutions, not only from federal prosecutors, but also from regional elites "above" and the society "below."
Regional authorities are challenging federal norms and court decisions contradicting their laws. Regional national minority associations and nongovernmental organizations are demanding implementation of federal laws over discriminatory or repressive regional laws, challenging them and winning in the courts.
This is helping civil society defend democratic legal norms and providing federal authorities with societal stakeholders in the harmonization policy, improving the odds of its implementation.
Critics of Putin's federative reforms should acknowledge this positive result, which mitigates against some of the negative aspects of these and other Putin policies. More time is needed to accurately assess how the confluence of all policies influencing Russian federalism and regional politics plays out.
Dr. Gordon M. Hahn is The Russia Journal's political analyst and a visiting research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.