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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 30, 2005

Law Professor Domrin Examines Russian Constitution, Federalism

Nearly 14 years after the Russian Federation emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union, the country's constitution is still unsettled and evolving, a Russian law expert said at the University of Iowa College of Law Thursday.

Alexander Domrin is an expert of the Moscow-based Institute of Law and Public Policy and serves as an advisor to both houses of the Russian federal parliament. He is teaching Russian law and international law this semester at the UI law school. Domrin was speaking as part of a symposium conducted by the journal "Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems," one of four journals published by the UI College of Law that examine legal questions and provide students with practical working experience.

Domrin said the Russian constitution, approved in 1993, two years after the Soviet collapse, adopted a similar federal system used by the USSR, with a central government and smaller sub-governments based on region or ethnic group. Unfortunately, he said, the Soviet federal system was federal in name only because the country was run by the Kremlin. As a result, the nominal federal system was put together haphazardly and grew increasingly dysfunctional, which meant little during the Soviet years but caused serious difficulties as post-Soviet Russia tried to bring federalism to life.

Domrin said the Russian constitution established 89 separate sub-governmental regions, similar to the states in the United States. But unlike U.S. states, which are equal in power, Russia's 89 regions have six different levels of autonomy, leaving some regions with much more power than others. In some cases, he said by way of analogy, it would be like Johnson County and the state of Iowa having equal legal authority.

"In Russia, this is called 'matrishka,' like the nesting dolls that tourists bring home," Domrin said. "For this situation to improve, something has to be done with all these nesting dolls."

On top of that, he said the regions are vastly different in size and population. The territory of the largest subject of the Russian Federation, Yakutia, is 408 times larger than of the smallest, Adygeya. Moscow, with an official population of 8.5 million -- though it is probably much larger than that, Domrin said -- is 474 times larger than the least inhabited region, Evenkia, with a population of only 18,000.

Russian federalism is further complicated by the fact that more than 100 different ethnic, national and religious groups live in the country, many of which are seeking rights and powers. Domrin quoted an historian who said that only the Roman Empire was as culturally diverse as Russia.

All of these difficulties have led to a federal system that Domrin said is unstable and probably unsustainable, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent reforms centralizing power in his office is an attempt to settle the federalism question. Domrin said Putin is not inventing any new powers for himself. The powers were given to the Russian president in the 1993 constitution, but had not been used previously by Putin or Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor.

Among Putin's reforms, for instance, is that regional governors are no longer elected directly by voters, but by territorial legislatures, and with the approval of the president. Putin has also decreed that in the 2007 parliamentary elections, voters will choose parties instead of individual candidates.

In the end, Domrin said the future of Russian federalism is up in the air, and thinks that in its current state, with 89 regional governments of varying autonomy, not workable. He said the current expansion of Russia's federal government activity can be considered a sign of Russia's transition from 'cooperative' federalism -- one based on treaties between the central government and subjects of the federation -- to 'coercive' federalism with a powerful central government and strict compliance of the units within it. Domrin also sees a change from the current 'asymmetric' federation to a more structured union, with each of the constituent governments having equal legal authority.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010, tom-snee@uiowa.edu.