Russia's Presidential Districts: A Representative's View

By
Nicholas Wheeler

The "first goal of Russia's newly created federal districts is to bring the country together as one," affirmed Sergei Kirienko at a 30 January 2002 Wilson Center Director's Forum. Kirienko, the Presidential Representative to the Volga District, explained that prior to the creation of the federal district system in 2000, many inconsistencies existed among the regions of Russia. According to Kirienko, the creation of the seven federal districts has succeeded in bringing the presidential authority to the local level, but is only a temporary measure that will have to be replaced as Russia and the tasks of the federal government evolve.

Kirienko began by stating that, during the transition period of the 1990s, the Russian Federation consisted of a plurality of regions that pursued autonomous industrial, economic, and legal agendas. He asserted that because a uniform, federalized legal system did not exist in Russia, the first objective of the newly created districts was to oversee the enforcement of Russian federal laws. Kirienko pointed out that the Volga district alone had nearly 2,000 local laws that directly conflicted with Russian federal law, and that this dilemma existed in all of Russia's regions. He cited one example in Yakutia, where the local law established two national languages, Yakut and English, but made no mention of Russian. Other laws in regions such as Chuvashia and Tatarstan, directly opposed a number of fundamental civil rights established by the Russian federal constitution. Kirienko declared that over the past eighteen months nearly all of the inconsistencies between the local and federal laws have been resolved, and, more importantly, the harmonization occurred through the court system.

According to Kirienko, the federal districts have also addressed the "atomization of economic space," found among Russia's regions. He explained that during the ten year transitional period, each region operated under an autonomous economic plan, supporting local businesses while erecting obstacles to trade, such as duties and other non-tariff trade barriers, with other regions. He noted that the lack of regional cooperation limited Russia's overall economic output and created many infrastructure problems within the country. One example of this was the absence of roads that crossed regional boundaries. Kirienko described how satellite photos showed that roads which were supposed to link together two or more regions were not aligned and, in some cases, ended or looped back instead of entering the bordering region. He stated that the goal of the seven federal districts was not only to establish a uniform legal system, but also increase regional cooperation by creating a single economic zone.

Kirienko discussed how the federal districts have restored the Russian practice of organizing geographical and economical surveys throughout the territory of the Russian Federation. From these assessments, federal leaders discovered enormously disproportionate levels of development among Russia's regions. Kirienko stated that leaders were surprised to find that the largest inequalities were found between localities within individual territories rather than two different regions. He explained that, in one region the disparity between the capital city and a village sixty miles away was larger than the disparity between a rich and a poor region. Kirienko noted that Russian leaders currently view inequality as one of the key challenges facing the government, and are examining ways to mend the problem before differences of money and human capital intensify.

Diversity is another key characteristic of the newly created federal districts. Using the Volga District as his example, Kirienko described how there are 102 national ethnic groups currently living in the Volga territory, including over 40 percent of all Russian Muslims. In fact, Kirienko noted, these groups have lived side-by-side for nearly three hundred years without any armed conflict. Kirienko declared that, in a time when there is much talk about the conflict between Christians and Muslims, the Volga District should serve as an example that the two religions can live together. He further stated that under his leadership, the Volga district has helped develop key federal policies of religious and ethnic coexistence.

Kirienko concluded by saying that the current system of federal representatives is only a temporary phenomenon. He stated that it is merely a mechanism of bringing presidential authority closer to the local level and a "pilot project" to develop more effective federal policy. Russian leaders hope to more successfully address problems that have plagued the country for the last ten years. Kirienko closed by saying that despite the successes of the seven federal districts, he believes that the institution of federal representatives is only transitory and will be replaced as institutions evolve.

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