The Soviets that gave the Soviet Union its name were the communist-dominated organs of local government. In the old days, the administration of land and village affair in peasant communities was handled by a village assembly, made of male household heads. They controlled access to land, allocated community tasks and determined how the dues to their landlord or state would be paid and how soldier would be provided to the Russian army.

There are 83 republics, regions and territories in Russia (in the mid 2000s there were 89). Many were set up in the early years of the Soviet Union to recognize the homelands of different ethnic groups. Some of them are rich in resources such as timber, oil and gold. About 80 percent of them were at least partly dependent on subsidies from Moscow in the early 2000s. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, 24 of the subdivisions had bargains with Moscow for their own power-sharing arrangements. After Putin came to power in 1999 the power of the republics, regions and territories in Russia was greatly reduced.

The chief executive of all jurisdictions is the governor. The seven federal districts have governors who are appointed by the president. In 2006 a law substantially increased the oversight powers of regional governors over city mayors, reducing local governmental powers. A Law on Self- Government, expected to be finalized in 2009, is likely to result in interim reform creating large numbers of new municipalities, revising the present municipal government structure, and increasing the budgetary autonomy of all local jurisdictions. Implementation of some parts of the law began in 2004. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Local Power and Post-Soviet Politics , edited by Theodore Friedgut and Jeffrey Hahn, illuminates the role of local governments in areas such as welfare and housing. Informative articles on federalism and local politics include Susan L. Clark and David R. Graham's "The Russian Federation's Fight for Survival," Paul B. Henze's "Ethnic Dynamics and Dilemmas of the Russian Republic," and Robert Sharlet's "The Prospects for Federalism in Russian Constitutional Politics."


Administrative Divisions of Russia

Russia is officially known as the Russian Federation, a name which recognizes the semi-autonomous republics set up for ethnic minorities within it. There are republics, oblasts regions and krai (territories) stretched over 11 time zones in Russia. Oblasts are provincial jurisdictions or administrative provinces like states or provinces. Some are bigger than countries. About two thirds of them are in European Russia.

1) A kray (territory) is the term for six widely dispersed administrative subdivisions whose boundaries are laid out primarily for ease of administration. Two include subdivisions based on nationality groups — one autonomous oblast and two autonomous regions. 2) An oblast is a major territorial and administrative subdivision in the newly independent states. Russia has forty-nine such divisions, which approximate provinces. 3) An okrug is an autonomous territorial and administrative subdivision of a territory (kray) or oblast in the Russian Federation that grants a degree of administrative autonomy to a nationality; most are in remote, sparsely populated areas. In 1997 the Russian Federation had ten such jurisdictions. 4) A rayon is a low-level territorial and administrative subdivision for rural and municipal administration. A rural rayon is a county-sized district in a territory (kray), oblast, republic, region (okrug), or autonomous oblast. A city rayon is similar to a borough in some large cities in the United States. 5) A republic is a territorial and administrative subdivision of the Russian Federation created to grant a degree of administrative autonomy to some large minority groups. In 1996 the Russian Federation had twenty-one republics (before 1992 called autonomous republics), including the war-torn Republic of Chechnya.

Each of Russia’s 83 subnational jurisdictions has two representatives in the Federation Council (Russia’s upper house in its bicameral legislature). However, those jurisdictions vary widely in size, composition, and nomenclature. The autonomous regions and the autonomous oblast are parts of larger subnational jurisdictions. In a first step toward overcoming the complexity of this system, in 2000 all of Russia was divided into seven federal districts: Central, Far East, North Caucasus, Northwest, Siberia, Urals, and Volga. Within the 83 jurisdictions, the next-largest jurisdictional level is the “rayon”, which is approximately equivalent to a county in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006]

With a few changes of status, most of the Soviet-era administrative and territorial divisions of the Russian Republic were retained in constituting the Russian Federation. In 1996 there were 89 administrative territorial divisions: twenty-one republics, six territories (kraya ; sing., kray ), forty-nine oblasts (provinces), one autonomous oblast, and ten autonomous regions (okruga ; sing., okrug ). The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg have separate status at the oblast level. Population size and location have been the determinants for a region's designation among those categories. The smallest political division is the rayon (pl., rayony ), a unit roughly equivalent to the county in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The republics include a wide variety of peoples, including northern Europeans, Tatars, Caucasus peoples, and indigenous Siberians. The largest administrative territorial divisions are in Siberia. Located in east-central Siberia, the Republic of Sakha, formerly known as Yakutia, is the largest administrative division in the federation, twice the size of Alaska. Second in size is Krasnoyarsk Territory, which is southwest of Sakha in Siberia. Kaliningrad Oblast, which is somewhat larger than Connecticut, is the smallest oblast, and it is the only noncontiguous part of Russia. The two most populous administrative territorial divisions, Moscow Oblast and Krasnodar Territory, are in European Russia. *

Different Administrative Divisions of Russia

Administrative divisions: 83 subnational units: 46 provinces (oblastey, singular - oblast), 21 republics (respublik, singular - respublika), 4 autonomous okrugs (avtonomnykh okrugov, singular - avtonomnyy okrug), 9 krays (krayev, singular - kray), 2 federal cities (goroda, singular - gorod), and 1 autonomous oblast (avtonomnaya oblast'). Administrative divisions have the same names as their administrative centers (exceptions have the administrative center name following in parentheses). The United States does not recognize Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the municipality of Sevastopol, nor their redesignation as the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol.[Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Oblasts: Amur (Blagoveshchensk), Arkhangel'sk, Astrakhan', Belgorod, Bryansk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk, Ivanovo, Kaliningrad, Kaluga, Kemerovo, Kirov, Kostroma, Kurgan, Kursk, Leningrad, Lipetsk, Magadan, Moscow, Murmansk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Orenburg, Orel, Penza, Pskov, Rostov, Ryazan', Sakhalin (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk), Samara, Saratov, Smolensk, Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg), Tambov, Tomsk, Tula, Tver', Tyumen', Ul'yanovsk, Vladimir, Volgograd, Vologda, Voronezh, Yaroslavl'. =

Republics: Adygeya (Maykop), Altay (Gorno-Altaysk), Bashkortostan (Ufa), Buryatiya (Ulan-Ude), Chechnya (Groznyy), Chuvashiya (Cheboksary), Dagestan (Makhachkala), Ingushetiya (Magas), Kabardino-Balkariya (Nal'chik), Kalmykiya (Elista), Karachayevo-Cherkesiya (Cherkessk), Kareliya (Petrozavodsk), Khakasiya (Abakan), Komi (Syktyvkar), Mariy-El (Yoshkar-Ola), Mordoviya (Saransk), North Ossetia (Vladikavkaz), Sakha [Yakutiya] (Yakutsk), Tatarstan (Kazan'), Tyva (Kyzyl), Udmurtiya (Izhevsk) autonomous okrugs: Chukotka (Anadyr'), Khanty-Mansi-Yugra (Khanty-Mansiysk), Nenets (Nar'yan-Mar), Yamalo-Nenets (Salekhard). =

Krays: Altay (Barnaul), Kamchatka (Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy), Khabarovsk, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Perm', Primorskiy [Maritime] (Vladivostok), Stavropol', Zabaykal'sk (Chita) federal cities: Moscow [Moskva], Saint Petersburg [Sankt-Peterburg] autonomous oblast: Yevreyskaya [Jewish] (Birobidzhan). =

Local and Regional Governance in Russia

In the Soviet period, some of Russia's approximately 100 nationalities were granted their own ethnic enclaves, to which varying formal federal rights were attached. Other smaller or more dispersed nationalities did not receive such recognition. In most of these enclaves, ethnic Russians constituted a majority of the population, although the titular nationalities usually enjoyed disproportionate representation in local government bodies. Relations between the central government and the subordinate jurisdictions, and among those jurisdictions, became a political issue in the 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Initially, the Russian Federation made few changes in the Soviet pattern of regional jurisdictions. The 1993 constitution establishes a federal government and enumerates eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions, including twenty-one ethnic enclaves with the status of republics. There are ten autonomous regions, or okruga (sing., okrug ), and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', also known as Birobidzhan). Besides the ethnically identified jurisdictions, there are six territories (kraya ; sing., kray ) and forty-nine oblasts (provinces). The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg are independent of surrounding jurisdictions; termed "cities of federal significance," they have the same status as the oblasts. The ten autonomous regions and Birobidzhan are part of larger jurisdictions, either an oblast or a territory. As the power and influence of the central government have become diluted, governors and mayors have become the only relevant government authorities in many jurisdictions. *

The Federation Treaty was signed in March 1992 by President Yeltsin and most leaders of the autonomous republics and other ethnic and geographical subunits. The treaty consisted of three separate documents, each pertaining to one type of regional jurisdiction. It outlined powers reserved for the central government, shared powers, and residual powers to be exercised primarily by the subunits. Because Russia's new constitution remained in dispute in the Federal Assembly at the time of ratification, the Federation Treaty and provisions based on the treaty were incorporated as amendments to the 1978 constitution. A series of new conditions were established by the 1993 constitution and by bilateral agreements. *

Independent-Minded Russian Republics in the Post- Soviet Era

Many local and regional Communist bosses remained in power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were initially caught in limbo unable to maintain the Communist status quo but also resistant to change. Some were supported by gangster-businesses that control everything. Why did ex-communists retain so much power. Because they are the only ones with any experience governing. With their Communist-era perks and privileges gone they were more susceptible to graft and corruption.♠

Many of the 21 semi-autonomous republics within Russia proclaimed autonomy to varying degrees after the break up the Soviet Union. Some of leaders of the independent-minded republics vigorously pursued reforms and attracted foreign investment. More established their own private fiefdoms and attempted to rape their republic if all its wealth.

In 1992, Yeltsin gave the independent-minded republic a degree of autonomy and control over their natural resources in return for their loyalty. Many Russian felt this gave them to much power. Regional governments used the chaos during the economic crisis in 1998 as an opportunity to distance themselves from Moscow and seize more power. Some regions adopted laws different from those in Moscow and seized property once controls by Moscow. Some thought Russia might devolve into a kind of modern day Holy Roman Empire made up of loose confederation of semi-autonomous states. Putin reversed this trend with the creation super regions.

Super Regions and Putin’s Clampdown on Regional Power

Putin reduced the power of Russia's 89 elected regional governorships by dividing Russia into seven super regions (or districts or federal zones), headed by seven super governors appointed by and loyal to Moscow. The move was made to return power to Moscow that was lost to regional politicians under Yeltsin. The seven super region plan was widely praised as way to control lawlessness, corruption and inefficiency that prevailed in the hinterlands. Critics claimed the move was anti-democratic. *

The seven districts are: 1) Central (including Moscow and St. Petersburg); 2) South, or North Caucasus (between the Black and Caspian Seas and home of Chechnya); 3) Northwest (home of Arctic ports Murmansk and Arkhangelsk); 4) Volga; 5) Urals (rich in resource); 6) Siberia (rich in resources); ; and 7) Far East (large diamond deposits and rich fisheries).

In December 2004, the selection method of governors was changed, increasing the power of the national executive over subnational governments. Instead of direct popular election in the jurisdiction, governors now are nominated by the president, then appointed by the jurisdiction’s legislature. The legislature can reject a nominee, but after three rejections the president can dissolve the legislature. In 2005 all of President Putin’s more than 30 nominees were approved immediately by the respective legislatures. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

The December 2004 election for regional governors was scrapped. Instead the governors were selected by the president and approved by regional assemblies, which were largely loyal to the Kremlin. The West criticized the move as an erosion of democracy. Putin argued it was necessary for national unity. Rather than being upset many of the regional leaders praised the proposal. A force behind these changes was the Besland school massacre, which left hundreds of school children dead at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Local Jurisdictions under the Russian Constitution

The constitution of 1993 resolved many of the ambiguities and contradictions concerning the degree of decentralization under the much-amended 1978 constitution of the Russian Republic; most such solutions favored the concentration of power in the central government. When the constitution was ratified, the Federation Treaty was demoted to the status of a subconstitutional document. A transitional provision of the constitution provided that in case of discrepancies between the federal constitution and the Federation Treaty, or between the constitution and other treaties involving a subnational jurisdiction, all other documents would defer to the constitution. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The 1993 constitution presents a daunting list of powers reserved to the center. Powers shared jointly between the federal and local authorities are less numerous. Regional jurisdictions are only allocated powers not specifically reserved to the federal government or exercised jointly. Those powers include managing municipal property, establishing and executing regional budgets, establishing and collecting regional taxes, and maintaining law and order. Some of the boundaries between joint and exclusively federal powers are vaguely prescribed; presumably they would become clearer through the give and take of federal practice or through adjudication, as has occurred in other federal systems. Meanwhile, bilateral power-sharing treaties between the central government and the subunits have become an important means of clarifying the boundaries of shared powers. Many subnational jurisdictions have their own constitutions, however, and often those documents allocate powers to the jurisdiction inconsistent with provisions of the federal constitution. As of 1996, no process had been devised for adjudication of such conflicts. *

Under the 1993 constitution, the republics, territories, oblasts, autonomous oblast, autonomous regions, and cities of federal designation are held to be "equal in their relations with the federal agencies of state power"; this language represents an attempt to end the complaints of the nonrepublic jurisdictions about their inferior status. In keeping with this new equality, republics no longer receive the epithet "sovereign," as they did in the 1978 constitution. Equal representation in the Federation Council for all eighty-nine jurisdictions furthers the equalization process by providing them meaningful input into legislative activities, particularly those of special local concern. However, Federation Council officials have criticized the State Duma for failing to represent regional interests adequately. In mid-1995 Vladimir Shumeyko, then speaker of the Federation Council, criticized the current electoral system's party-list provision for allowing some parts of Russia to receive disproportionate representation in the lower house. (In the 1995 elections, Moscow Oblast received nearly 38 percent of the State Duma's seats based on the concentration of party-list candidates in the national capital.) Shumeyko contended that such misallocation fed potentially dangerous popular discontent with the parliament and politicians. *

Despite constitutional language equalizing the regional jurisdictions in their relations with the center, vestiges of Soviet-era multitiered federalism remain in a number of provisions, including those allowing for the use of non-Russian languages in the republics but not in other jurisdictions, and in the definitions of the five categories of subunit. On most details of the federal system, the constitution is vague, and clarifying legislation had not been passed by mid-1996. However, some analysts have pointed out that this vagueness facilitates resolution of individual conflicts between the center and the regions. *

Power Sharing Under Yeltsin

Flexibility was a goal of the constitutional provision allowing bilateral treaties or charters between the central government and the regions on power sharing. For instance, in the bilateral treaty signed with the Russian government in February 1994, the Republic of Tatarstan gave up its claim to sovereignty and accepted Russia's taxing authority, in return for Russia's acceptance of Tatar control over oil and other resources and the republic's right to sign economic agreements with other countries. This treaty has particular significance because Tatarstan was one of the two republics that did not sign the Federation Treaty in 1992. By mid-1996 almost one-third of the federal subunits had concluded power-sharing treaties or charters. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The first power-sharing charter negotiated by the central government and an oblast was signed in December 1995 with Orenburg Oblast. The charter divided power in the areas of economic and agricultural policy, natural resources, international economic relations and trade, and military industries. According to Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, the charter gave Orenburg full power over its budget and allowed the oblast to participate in privatization decisions. By early 1996, similar charters had been signed with Krasnodar Territory and Kaliningrad and Sverdlovsk oblasts. In the summer of 1996, Yeltsin wooed potential regional supporters of his reelection by signing charters with Perm', Rostov, Tver', and Leningrad oblasts and with the city of St. Petersburg, among others, granting these regions liberal tax treatment and other economic advantages. *

By the mid-1990s, regional jurisdictions also had become bolder in passing local legislation to fill gaps in federation statutes rather than waiting for the Federal Assembly to act. For example, Volgograd Oblast passed laws regulating local pensions, the issuance of promissory notes, and credit unions. The constitution upholds regional legislative authority to pass laws that accord with the constitution and existing federal laws. *

Presidential Power in the Regions in the Yeltsin Era

The president retains the power to appoint and remove presidential representatives, who act as direct emissaries to the jurisdictions in overseeing local administrations' implementation of presidential policies. The power to appoint these overseers was granted by the Russian Supreme Soviet to Yeltsin in late 1991. The parliament attempted several times during 1992-93 to repeal or curtail the activities of these appointees, whose powers are only alluded to in the constitution. The presence of Yeltsin's representatives helped bring out the local vote on his behalf in the 1996 presidential election. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The governments of the republics include a president or prime minister (or both) and a regional council or legislature. The chief executives of lower jurisdictions are called governors or administrative heads. Generally, in jurisdictions other than republics the executive branches have been more sympathetic to the central government, and the legislatures (called soviets until late 1993, then called dumas or assemblies) have been the center of whatever separatist sentiment exists. Under the power given him in 1991 to appoint the chief executives of territories, oblasts, autonomous regions, and the autonomous oblast, Yeltsin had appointed virtually all of the sixty-six leaders of those jurisdictions. By contrast, republic presidents have been popularly elected since 1992. Some of Yeltsin's appointees have encountered strong opposition from their legislatures; in 1992 and 1993, in some cases votes of no-confidence brought about popular elections for the position of chief executive. *

After the Moscow confrontation of October 1993, Yeltsin sought to bolster his regional support by dissolving the legislatures of all federal subunits except the republics (which were advised to "reform" their political systems). Accordingly, in 1994 elections were held in all the jurisdictions whose legislatures had been dismissed. In some cases, that process placed local executives at the head of legislative bodies, eliminating checks and balances between the branches at the regional level. *

Election results in the subnational jurisdictions held great significance for the Yeltsin administration because the winners would fill the ex officio seats in the Federation Council, which until 1996 was a reliable bastion of support. The election of large numbers of opposition candidates would end the Federation Council's usefulness as a balance against the anti-Yeltsin State Duma and further impede Yeltsin's agenda. In 1995 some regions held gubernatorial elections to fill the administrative posts originally granted to Yeltsin appointees in 1991. Faced with an escalating number of requests for such elections, Yeltsin decreed December 1996 as the date for most gubernatorial and republic presidential elections. This date was confirmed by a December 1995 Federation Council law. The decree also set subnational legislative elections for June or December 1997. (In July 1996, the State Duma advanced these elections to late 1996.) Observers noted that by calling for most of these elections to take place after the presidential election, Yeltsin prevented unfavorable outcomes from possibly reducing his reelection chances — even though voter apathy after the presidential election had the potential to help opposition candidates. *

Separatism Issues in Russia in the 1990s

In the first half of the 1990s, observers speculated about the possibility that some of the jurisdictions in the federation might emulate the former Soviet republics and demand full independence. Several factors militate against such an outcome, however. Russia is more than 80 percent ethnic Russian, and most of the thirty-two ethnically based jurisdictions are demographically dominated by ethnic Russians, as are all of the territories and oblasts. Many of the subnational jurisdictions are in the interior of Russia, meaning that they could not break away without joining a bloc of seceding border areas, and the economies of all such jurisdictions were thoroughly integrated with the national economy in the Soviet system. The 1993 constitution strengthens the official status of the central government in relation to the various regions, although Moscow has made significant concessions in bilateral treaties. Finally, most of the differences at the base of separatist movements are economic and geographic rather than ethnic. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Advocates of secession, who are numerous in several regions, generally appear to be in the minority and are unevenly dispersed. Some regions have even advocated greater centralization on some matters. By 1996 most experts believed that the federation would hold together, although probably at the expense of additional concessions of power by the central government. The trend is not toward separatism so much as the devolution of central powers to the localities on trade, taxes, and other matters. *

Some experts observe that the Russian republics pressing claims for greater subunit rights fall into three groups. The first is composed of those jurisdictions most vociferous in pressing ethnic separatism, including Chechnya and perhaps other republics of the North Caucasus, and the Republic of Tyva. The second group consists of large, resource-rich republics, including Karelia, Komi, and Sakha (Yakutia). Their differences with Moscow center on resource control and taxes rather than demands for outright independence. A third, mixed group consists of republics along the Volga River, which straddle strategic water, rail, and pipeline routes, possess resources such as oil, and include large numbers of Russia's Muslim and Buddhist populations. These republics include Bashkortostan, Kalmykia, Mari El, Mordovia, Tatarstan, and Udmurtia. *

In addition to the republics, several other jurisdictions have lobbied for greater rights, mainly on questions of resource control and taxation. These include Sverdlovsk Oblast, which in 1993 proclaimed itself an autonomous republic as a protest against receiving fewer privileges in taxation and resource control than the republics, and strategically vital Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory on the Pacific coast, whose governor in the mid-1990s, Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, defied central economic and political policies on a number of well-publicized issues. *

Some limited cooperation has occurred among Russia's regional jurisdictions, and experts believe there is potential for even greater coordination. Eight regional cooperation organizations have been established, covering all subnational jurisdictions except Chechnya: the Siberian Accord Association; the Central Russia Association; the Northwest Association; the Black Earth Association; the Cooperation Association of North Caucasus Republics, Territories, and Oblasts; the Greater Volga Association; the Ural Regional Association; and the Far East and Baikal Association. The Federation Council formally recognized these interjurisdictional organizations in 1994. Expansion of the organizations' activities is hampered by economic inequalities among their members and by inadequate interregional transportation infrastructure, but in 1996 they began increasing their influence in Moscow. *

Regional and ethnic conflicts have encouraged proposals to abolish the existing subunits and resurrect the tsarist-era guberniya , or large province, which would incorporate several smaller subunits on the basis of geography and population rather than ethnic considerations. Russian ultranationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovskiy have been joined in supporting this proposal by some officials of the national Government and oblast and territory leaders who resent the privileges of the republics. Some have called for these new subunits to be based on the eight interregional economic associations. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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