Progress and Resistance to Putin's Federal Reforms for Russia
In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Robert Sharlet, Professor of Political Science at Union College discussed Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to create a unified legal space in Russia. He noted the importance of examining the interface between law and politics, and stated that Putin's standardization and harmonization campaign is unique because it presents a "civilized arena, which accommodates both the reforms of a proactive, central government and also the resistance of the regions." He also characterized the types of regional and local resistance towards Putin's reforms, and concluded by suggesting possible limitations to further progress.
Russia's federal reforms can be categorized into two types of legal policy. Structural legal policy concentrates on using the law as a medium for federal restructuring, such as Putin's presidential decree in May 2000 that created Russia's seven federal districts, or the law that created the Russian federal council. The second type, known as substantive policy, focuses more on the harmonization of the republic constitutions and oblast charters to federal constitutional standards. Examples include the annulment of various bilateral power-sharing treaties, and the standardization of regional and federal legislation.
Sharlet emphasized that federalization is not a one-time, linear project. The harmonization process occurs in any federal system, including in the United States. In Russia, the district presidential representatives, federal procurators, court system and the Ministry of Justice essentially carry out the process. Although significant progress has been made in the past two years, standardization and harmonization "will continue as the center and periphery even out their different perceptions about how policy should be expressed in law."
The primary objective of Putin's standardization campaign is to develop the rule of law. Sharlet stated that Russia must establish a predictable, transparent, and equitable legal system because a law-governing state would encourage the emergence of civil society and would help create a law-governed economy. A legally regulated, market economy would attract foreign direct investment, which is essential for long-term economic development. He noted that Russia's move toward membership in the World Trade Organization also serves as an impetus for the harmonization of federal and regional law.
Sharlet divided the forms of resistance that Putin and other federal leaders have encountered into three main categories. The first is direct political confrontation between federal administrators and strong regional governors. Many of the governors who previously enjoyed autonomy from officials have issued various statements as a political rebuff to federalization. The second type is found in the form of indirect legal challenges. Regional leaders have utilized various instruments, including regional and Russian constitutional and supreme courts to challenge reforms. Governors have also mobilized the regional legislatures to create new laws that fail to conform to federal standards. The third form occurs because most of the reforms are subject to local implementation, which allows regional bureaucracies to sabotage federal initiatives.
Sharlet concluded that political bargaining, centralization of law enforcement, bilateral power-sharing treaties, and the complexity of various issues could limit further progress from occurring.