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Two Types of Constituent Units


In the past, Russias internal ethnic-national territories were classified by size and status into autonomous republics, autonomous provinces, and national districts. Today all the autonomous republics are simply termed republics. In many, the indigenous ethnic group comprises a minority of the population. Republics and autonomous districts are units created specifically to give certain political rights to populations living in territories with significant ethnic minorities. Typically, republics enjoy higher constitutional status and are treated as though they had a share of sovereignty. They have the right to adopt their own constitution so long as it does not contradict the federal constitution. 

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The elevated status of ethnic-national republics is partly the legacy of the early 1990s, when all the republics within the Russian Federation adopted declarations of sovereignty and two of them (Tatarstan and the Chechen Republic) made attempts to declare full or partial independence from Russia.

In this period, when the new Russian constitutional order was particularly fragile and fears of regional separatism were acute, the central government was compelled to negotiate special arrangements with some of the ethnic-national territories. Moscow signed bilateral treaties with Tatarstan and Bashkortostan under which it conceded special privileges in return for their loyalty. Ethnic-national territories were also able to negotiate special arrangements under which they were exempt from certain taxes, or permitted to retain a higher share of earnings from the exploitation of the regions natural resources.

By contrast, purely administrative subdivisions such as oblasts (regions), populated mainly by ethnic Russians, have no special constitutional status. Not surprisingly, there is constant rivalry between the oblasts, on the one hand, and the republics on the other. Leaders of oblasts complain that republics enjoy special privileges, which enable them to circumvent federal law or receive other benefits in the form of federal subsidies.

The tensions between the two kinds of subjects of the federation generated by the inequalities in their constitutional status are likely to continue unless the central authorities can find a way of persuading the governments of the republics to relinquish their privileged constitutional status.

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