Despite its immense extension, Russia is usually considered a homogeneous and highly centralized country. In the light of history, this idea appears only partially correct, especially as far as homogeneity is concerned. Indeed, the Russian Empire was a country of astonishing ethnic and cultural complexity, which, in addition to ethnic Russians – who did not reach half of the total population – included hundreds of peoples very different in language, religion, and economic and cultural development. The statement of the Swiss historian Andreas Kappeler, according to which "The history of Russia, its regions and its peoples, is unsatisfactory without understanding this multi-ethnic context" remains absolutely valid to date.
It should also be considered that while the Russian Empire did not recognize any form of territorial and administrative autonomy for its peoples, in the Soviet Union the situation completely changed. As a matter of fact, the new state emerged on a federal basis with the creation of republics, regions and territories organized according to a decreasing level of autonomy. Indeed, this structure did not avoid the complete centralization of power in the hands of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, it played a paramount role in the consolidation of local identities, not only in the federal republics, but also in the autonomous republics and regions based on so-called titular nationality, i.e. the population considered more significantly bound to a specific territory. Therefore, this nationality policy deeply influenced the disintegration of the USSR and the outbreak of several ethno-territorial conflicts within the post-Soviet space.
Although in lesser measure compared to the Russian Empire and the USSR, the Russian Federation also has a largely multi-ethnic character. Despite the strong prevalence of ethnic Russians (about 80%), there are many and considerable ethnic minorities: Tatars (4%), Ukrainians (1.5%), Chuvashs (1%), Bashkirs (1%), Chechens (1%), and Belarusians (1%) and so on. The Russian Federation is presently divided into 85 federal subjects, 22 of which are republics. Most of them represent a non-Russian titular nationality, which is not necessarily the majority of a republic's population. Among the cases of particular interest we can mention the republics of Tatarstan and Buryatia, where the titular populations are respectively Turkish Muslims and Mongol Buddhists. Within the Russian Federation there are also some federal subjects that present important geographical and historical peculiarities such as the Kaliningrad exclave, located between Poland and Lithuania, or the republic of Crimea, annexed in 2014 and without any international recognition.
In such a vast and complex country, centre-periphery relations are obviously of considerable importance. The early years of post-Soviet Russia saw a phase of strong requests for autonomy or even secession (as in the case of the Chechen wars) by many republics, the so-called "parade of sovereignties". This dynamic was especially intense in the initial phase of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, marked by a devastating political and economic crisis that involved the whole Russian Federation. In exchange for political support, Yeltsin offered large spaces of action to the leaders of the federal subjects. Therefore, many republics managed to reach a high level of political and socio-economic autonomy, often producing legislation in conflict with federal laws.Such a situation could appear to a certain extent positive at a time when the federal centre had very limited economic resources. The downside was, however, a poor control of the centre on the local use of resources and the frequent adoption by the federal subjects of legislative measures that represented a significant threat to the integrity of the state. At this stage, the power of local elites resulted in dangerous centrifugal dynamics.Precisely for this reason, since the beginning of his ascent to power Vladimir Putin decided to introduce the so-called "plenipotentiary representatives" (employees of the presidential administration) into the macro-regions of the federation in order to resolve, to the advantage of the centre, the disputes between federal and local legislations. This process of increasing centralization continued in 2004 with the replacement of governors' elections with a presidential nomination. In this way, the governors have become a local element of presidential power. The reintroduction in 2012 of the direct election of governors took place in conditions that made it very difficult to elect candidates not belonging to United Russia, the ruling party. In recent years, however, due to the country's growing economic difficulties, the downsizing of federal support is creating serious problems for the regions, many of which are no longer receiving sufficient resources. Given this negative evolution and the extreme variety of local situations, a new process of institutional decentralization appears to be quite necessary in Russia. Indeed, such decentralization should provide incentives for regional governments to stimulate the economic and social development of a country that is remains far below its potential.The emergence of the COVID-19 virus could perhaps give an important push in this direction. This dossier tries to verify whether there are concrete signs of change in some regions of the Russian Federation, very different from each other: Kaliningrad, Crimea, Far East, and North Caucasus.