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Ephemeral Federalism

"Gorbachev Factor"

The state structure of the USSR was, on face value, a federation, and fifteen nominally sovereign republics were considered to be the constituent units of a federal union. The name of the nationthe Union of Soviet Socialist Republicsalso implied the existence of a federal state. Most structures of power at the central level were replicated in the union republics: they had their own constitutions, national plan, and budget.  

However, there was one thing in the Soviet regimes setup that turned all the formal constitutional provisions of Soviet federalism into a moot issue. In the Soviet system, the party was the real source of all legislative policy and the controlling factor behind the formal governmental organs. But the centralized party hierarchy rejected the federal principle. The party organizations of the union republics were not national parties, but branches of the single unitary Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The party was the ultimate deciding factor on all matters of policy, and the central supreme party organs at the top in Moscow could always overrule or ignore any formal constitutional provisions.

The union authorities controlled major productive resources throughout the country, including land, natural resources, industry, and human capital, and made strategic decisions about economic development in the republics. The control of the money supply was also an exclusively central function. Apart from the party, other union-wide control structures such as the KGB, army, and economic bureaucracy penetrated into each republic and facilitated the centers supremacy. All this meant that, in reality, Soviet federalism was formal and ephemeral. The USSR was in fact a unitary state with a measure of administrative devolution. Genuine federalism was not viable in a state where the ruling party wielded absolute power.

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