Russia's constitutional structure: Federal in form, unitary in function

20-10-2015

Constitutionally, Russia is a federation, as was the Soviet Union before it – a natural choice for such a large and heterogeneous country. The 85 federated states which make up the country (referred to as 'subjects of the Russian Federation', 'federal subjects' or 'regions') enjoy wide-ranging powers. At federal level they are represented by the upper house of parliament (Council of the Federation), giving them direct influence over federal law-making, at least on paper. Russia's federal system faces numerous challenges. Of these, the most serious is the threat of separatism, particularly in the Northern Caucasus. Not only do Chechnya and its neighbours face high (though diminishing) levels of violence; they also suffer from severe poverty. There are huge economic and social disparities between, on the one hand, impoverished regions such as these, and on the other, Siberia, with its oil and gas wealth. In some regions, economic problems are compounded by financing difficulties, with heavy dependence on federal subsidies and rising, though still relatively low, regional debt. Although the constitution enshrines regional autonomy, Vladimir Putin's rule has seen a growing concentration of power in his hands. Legislative reforms, together with the dominance of his United Russia Party in regional parliaments and executives, severely constrain their capacity to pursue independent policies. Like the Soviet Union before it, Russia thus functions as a unitary state, despite its constitutional status as a federation.

Constitutionally, Russia is a federation, as was the Soviet Union before it – a natural choice for such a large and heterogeneous country. The 85 federated states which make up the country (referred to as 'subjects of the Russian Federation', 'federal subjects' or 'regions') enjoy wide-ranging powers. At federal level they are represented by the upper house of parliament (Council of the Federation), giving them direct influence over federal law-making, at least on paper. Russia's federal system faces numerous challenges. Of these, the most serious is the threat of separatism, particularly in the Northern Caucasus. Not only do Chechnya and its neighbours face high (though diminishing) levels of violence; they also suffer from severe poverty. There are huge economic and social disparities between, on the one hand, impoverished regions such as these, and on the other, Siberia, with its oil and gas wealth. In some regions, economic problems are compounded by financing difficulties, with heavy dependence on federal subsidies and rising, though still relatively low, regional debt. Although the constitution enshrines regional autonomy, Vladimir Putin's rule has seen a growing concentration of power in his hands. Legislative reforms, together with the dominance of his United Russia Party in regional parliaments and executives, severely constrain their capacity to pursue independent policies. Like the Soviet Union before it, Russia thus functions as a unitary state, despite its constitutional status as a federation.