Nowadays federalism is a widely used concept for organising states around the world. Although, genuinely federal systems can only be found in a minority of states, one can observe a trend towards regionalism and local self-government in many countries. A main principle of the EU, for example, is to give the regions within its member states as much power as possible – this means government at the lowest possible level. Even traditionally unitary states like Britain now allows regional parliaments. The state as a unitary entity, although not everywhere, seems to have lost its ability to unite a country. People believe that regional problems are best dealt with at a regional level rather than from a central government.
States use federalism in very different ways, no two systems are identical and only very few could be described as truly federal according to the classic definition. Rather do states individualise the concept of federalism for their special needs. However, some key features of federalism can be identified. The main difference between a unitary and a federal system is the existence of two distinct levels of government in federalism – one at the federal level and one at the regional level.
Especially states with a very large territory seem to be prone to be organised in a federal way. Here, federalism is a guarantor of stability and integration, as a large territory usually includes many different ethnic groups and regions which claim a certain amount of independence within the state. Russia would thus perfectly fit into this pattern and one could think that federalism has a long tradition. However, the history is different: the Russian Empire under the Tsars was organised centrally and although the USSR claimed to be federal, regional politics was determined by Moscow.
The fall of communism was used by many Soviet republics to gain independence. Those who stayed in the Russian Federation were given at least cultural independence, but linked to loyalty to Russia. Yeltsin’s 1993 Constitution was the result of long struggles and bargaining about the degree of autonomy for the republics. Finally, the word ‘autonomy’ was not used to describe their status but the republics were allowed to have their own constitution, national flag and president. This was then probably the highest degree of sovereignty, the republics have had for the last 100 years.
Before engaging into a discussion on the effectiveness of Russian Federalism, this paper will firstly define Federalism in general and establish what is so special about the Russian federalism. Secondly, the problems with the present system shall be mentioned and recent attempts by President Putin to solve these problems shall be looked at.
Federalism, like many concepts in the Social Sciences, cannot easily be defined. Clearly, there are certain criteria that make a federal state distinct from a unitary one, but a single definition is not possible. However, looking at countries where federalism has been practised for a long time might clear some uncertainties about the concept.
As already mentioned, a key feature for federalist states is to have two levels of legislature. These two levels are accompanied by two distinctly operating levels of government. Regions, provinces, Länder or republics in order to benefit from the advantages a large state brings, share sovereignty with the federal government and in return can rule, within limits, autonomously. In other words: a separation of power on the territorial level is added to the existing three levels.
Usually, federalism is also associated with pluralism. It is certainly the case that pluralistic societies tend to be federal, but federalism does not necessarily promote pluralism. The society has to be pluralistic already for federalism to work. Federalism can thus be a means to promote integration of a pluralistic society, but it can definitely not change a fragmented society into a pluralistic one or promote tolerance.
Federalism can be described as a form of organising a state, so that
everybody can be satisfied (or nobody permanently disadvantaged) by nicely combining national and regional/territorial interests within a complex web of checks and balances between general, or national, or federal government on the one hand, and a multiplicity of regional governments on the other.
The emphasis must be seen on the ‘complex web of checks and balances’. The whole idea of federalism seems to be to introduce another check on a national government. It is therefore essential for federal states to have a bicameral system of legislation: the second chamber must represent, at least in one form or another, the regions.
Germany seems to be a very good example to illustrate federalism and its use in practise. As, federalism has a long tradition there and even when Germany was not a state at all, it was still federal. Traditionally, in Germany the Länder are very active and involved in policy making. In the defeated Germany after the 2nd World War, a federal structure was introduced in order to make it impossible for future governments to become too powerful. However, federalism cannot work if it simply imposed, federal structures are not built up in a day. Only the strong regional traditions in Germany and the existence of a political culture in favour of federalism made it work.
 Examples are the USA, Canada, India, Australia, etc.
 Iain McLean (ed.): Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, vs. ‘federalism’, p.179
 Here I refer to the fragmented Germany until 1848, when there was no single German state but hundreds of small states. At that time the basis was laid for the federal structure of Germany today.
- Quote paper
- Patrick Wagner (Author), 2002, How effective is Russion Federalism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/18951