Russia And Syria: Different Systems For Different States


Russia and Syria have a multitude of differences when it comes to their internal political administrative units, and these are important points to reflect upon. The Syrian Arab Republic is a constitutionally unitary state, meaning that no regions or cities have autonomy or “self-rule”, whereas the Russian Federation is precisely that – a federation – and large swaths of the country have a political status which grants them a broad degree of freedom to administer themselves as they’d like within certain constitutional boundaries. The reason that these two countries have such fundamentally different domestic political frameworks is due to their unique histories and circumstances. Syria has always been a rich multi-ethnic and multi-confessional civilization for millennia, whereas Russia had only just begun to diversify away from its Russian Slavic roots in the 15th century and continued expanding into the Imperial and nation-state eras. Syria, on the other hand, had been under Ottoman occupation since that time and up until the end of World War II, so it had an entirely different experience entering into the modern era.

Syria’s Administrative Past And Present

Syria, due to not having experienced independence for centuries as a result of Ottoman and French occupation, was faced with the difficult task of strengthening its civic-civilizational identity in the era of nation-states, which explains why the country took the steps towards centralizing political control over all of the separate groups inhabiting the country. This was intended to preserve Syria’s civilizational unity which had endured for millennia and to not allow it to be torn apart by subnational identity conflict. Because Arabs were the most significant ethnos guiding the historical development of the state, the country was officially named the Syrian Arab Republic in honor of their contributions. Independent Syria continued the policies of inclusivity and secularism which defined its historic civilization, thus allowing all ethnic and confessional groups to feel welcome in the country.

Former President Hafez Assad was insistent that this was the only way for Syria to develop and prosper into the future, which explains why he so strongly preached the need for a unified Syrian identity.

Correspondingly, both Presidents Assad and their predecessors knew that dividing the country up into ethno-sectarian regions and granting special political rights to some of them would be disastrous for the country and would spell its certain doom, which is why nothing of the sort ever happened.

This also explains why Syria is presently so determinedly against the so-called “federalization” of the country and/or the granting of “autonomy” to certain groups of its citizens, as this would in practice amount to nothing more than the internal partition of the unified Syrian civilization. For this reason, Syria only has governorates of equal political importance and will never subdivide itself into a Bosnian-like dysfunctional political entity, as this is precisely what the country’s enemies want to have happen.

The Russian Empire’s Administrative Past

Russia is in an entirely different situation as a result of its fundamentally dissimilar history. What would eventually become the Russian Empire started to expand out of its Eastern European/Slavic central core around the 15th century under the rule of Ivan the Formidable (popularly mistranslated as “Ivan the Terrible”). This process would continue unabated until the First World War, meaning that almost the past 500 years have been marked by Russia’s legal territorial enlargement. Naturally, this resulted in the incorporation of diverse ethno-confessional groups into the Slavic Orthodox Christian society, though at first it did not lead to any asymmetries in the political rights of the individual provinces relative to the imperial center. This is mostly because of the omnipotence of the Tsar, but two unique territorial acquisitions played a role in the Russian Empire granting de-facto autonomy to some of its newly incorporated populations.

The Russian Empire incorporated both the Grand Duchy of Finland and what has historically been referred to as Congress Poland after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. These geographically large and identity-separate additions to the already diverse Russian Empire presented the Tsar with integrational challenges, which he sought to resolve by granting them what unofficially amounted to broad autonomy. Each incorporated entity had its own courts, military, parliament, and other political rights separate from all of Saint Petersburg’s other domains, though still subordinated to the Tsar and whatever he and his government decreed. The Finns preserved their political autonomy all throughout this period and until the dissolution of the Russian Empire, though the Poles had their extra rights taken away from them in response to their rebellions. Ultimately, “Congress Poland” ceased to exist and was instead divided up into what has later been called “Vistula Land”, or a collection of separate provinces in the former territory of “Congress Poland” equally on par with the rest of Saint Petersburg’s other administrative holdings (except for the Grand Duchy of Finland).

The reason for explaining the historical genesis of Russia’s autonomous polities is because of how influential this has been on Eastern European history, since the two former territories of the Grand Duchy of Finland and “Congress Poland” eventually became independent once the Russian Empire fell apart. It can be seen from this that the granting of separate autonomous status to certain parts of the country can create a structural-institutional precedent (even if it’s removed for some time like in the case of Poland) for outright independence during forthcoming and unexpected times of national trouble and crisis. Nevertheless, because of the geopolitical shock of what transpired in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War’s progressive transition towards building the Soviet Union, the legacy of autonomous status stayed with Russia and continued into the Soviet period, predictably with similar results come 1991.

The Soviet Union’s Administrative Past

The Soviet Union was a communist state which enforced its ideological vision onto all forms of society, especially as it related to internal political administrative units. Communist ideology preaches that all of mankind progresses according to a unidirectional linear development which takes them past the stage of nationalism and into socialism and finally communism. For people still living in pre-nationalist feudal societies, like the Soviet communists identified some of their countrymen as doing, they felt the need to administratively interfere in order to accelerate their development through fostering a sense of nationality that would then allow them to more easily advance towards socialism and communism. In keeping with the Marxist ideology that nationalism is not a legitimate political force but just a smokescreen diversion crafted by the imperialists, the Soviets saw no threat in outright manufacturing nationalisms where none had previously existed, such as with the Uzbeks or Turkmen in the traditional meaning that this concept is popularly understood as.

The Soviet Union thus set out to create 15 equal Soviet Socialist Republics which would comprise the USSR (officially known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), partly to accommodate for this ideological imperative and also to placate ethno-separatists who had fought against the communists during the Russian Civil War and even enjoyed temporarily short-lived “independence” (like the Ukrainians, Belarussians, Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis). Therefore, as the Soviet government fought to reintegrate these restive secessionist regions, it needed to find a middle-ground way to balance between their aspirations for independence and their reincorporation into the geopolitical successor of the Russian Empire. Likewise, due to ideological considerations, it needed to foster a sense of nationalism among the Central Asian peoples in order to speed up their development towards socialism and communism, hence the 1936 national delineation among what are now the five former Soviet Republics in the region.

Concurrent with this, the Soviets even took their ideology a step further by applying the same ethno-territorial standards within some of the individual union-level Soviet Socialist Republics.

For example, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic received its own autonomous republics within its borders, further complicating the internal domestic administration of the USSR as a whole. Some of the other republics which experienced something similar were Georgia with the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and Azerbaijan with the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and Nakhchivan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, for example. This is all very important because the union-level Soviet Socialist Republics like Armenia and Belarus became independent countries immediately after the late-1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, whereas some of the internal autonomous regions became the source of deadly conflict in the post-Soviet era.

The Russian Federation’s Administrative Past And Present

The historical analysis brings the research around to discussing the Russian Federation’s administrative past and present. The first thing that should be mentioned is that Russia presently has several nominally different types of administrative units, although only one of them is essentially autonomous. All entities, however, are legally equal to one another in terms of their relationship to the federal center, it’s just that the autonomous ones have the potential for a degree of self-rule and various expressions of it, if they so choose.

In the order of the most autonomous to the least, here’s a list of Russia’s federal entities:

  • Republics (22): These entities have their own constitution, retain the right for the language of their titular nationality to be official on par with Russian, and their political leader used to be called the “President” until a 2010 nationwide decree amending this terminology.
  • Federal Cities (3): Only Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Sevastopol count as “federal cities”, and they’re essentially metropolitan areas with their own separate federal status on par with oblasts.
  •  Autonomous Okrugs (4): These polities are part of certain oblasts but simultaneously are counted as their own separate federal subjects.
  • Krais/Autonomous Oblast/Oblasts (9, 1, 46): These two categories of subnational administrative units are equal in all ways, with the exception being that krais are an historical word used to denote “frontiers”, but have no political differences with oblasts in any practical way.


Extrapolating from the map of Russia, one can deduce several patterns which played a role in why Russia’s internal administrative political divisions are located where they are.

As can mostly be seen by the map, the oblasts – the least-independent federal entity in Russia – are mostly concentrated in the historic Eastern European Slavic core. The Russian government never had a need to grant these people extra political rights or symbolic/nominal concessions because they didn’t anticipate them being likely to rise up against the state or fall under foreign influence to do so. As the Russian state expanded eastward and Slavic Orthodox Christians began to migrate in this direction (which also corresponds to what would later become the Trans-Siberian Railway), the newly acquired territories took on the administrative characteristics of the Russian heartland and thus became oblasts after the Soviet Union’s 1922 formalization. The historical “frontiers” retained their krai designations but functioned just like oblasts as well, with the autonomous okrugs essentially being a symbolic quasi-republic outgrowth of these entities. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast has its own unique history and was envisioned by Josef Stalin in 1934 as being a future home for Jewish people and an anti-imperialist alternative to the Zionist colonization of Palestine.

What’s most important to pay attention to, however, are the patterns that can be seen when it comes to the nearly two dozen republics scattered all throughout the Russian Federation. These territories were granted separate political rights above their administrative counterparts due to unique historical-demographic reasons, principally the preponderance of one or another ethno-confessional minority group separate from the prevailing Slavic Orthodox Christians. This is certainly the case when it comes to the Tatar Muslims in the Volga Region and their Finno-Ugric neighbors, as well as the latter’s ethnic compatriots in the Karelia Republic bordering Finland (and which was once its own union-level Soviet Socialist Republic between 1940-1956 primarily with the intent of serving as a structural foundation to what Moscow hoped would be all of Finland proper’s post-World War II integration into the USSR). The people of the Northern Caucasus were granted their own republics for similar reasons related to their identity dissimilarity with the rest of Russia, with most of them being Muslim except for the Adygeans and North Ossetians. Still, the compact identity diversity between the various peoples was enough to convince Moscow to grant them republic status as an effort to effectively keep the peace between the historically restive people.

Moving eastwards, the cluster of four republics near Russia’s Mongolian borderland is due to its native people’s identity separateness in being mostly Mongol Buddhists or Shamans. As for the northern ones of Komi and Sakha, these areas are largely unpopulated though rich in natural resources, and their native populations are also mostly followers of shamanist faiths. What’s particularly interesting to note about many of Russia’s 22 republics is that Slavs comprise the majority demographic in 9 of them (Karelia, Khakassia, Crimea, Buryatia, Komi, Adygea, Udmurtia, Altai, and Mordovia) and the largest plurality in another (Mari El), meaning that almost half of them are not ethnically dominated by their titular nationality. It can be inferred that these areas pose the least risk of experiencing forthcoming separatist scenarios in the future, though of course some could obviously be devised by external powers under the Tibetan-/Xinjiang-like misleading pretense that “Russians have destroyed their native culture”, though this doesn’t seem too likely in have much success at materializing given Russia’s strict crackdown on foreign-funded “NGOs”.


This brings the analysis along to discussing some of the problems inherent with granting autonomy to some of Russia’s various republics, particularly those in the Northern Caucasus and the Volga. The Russian Federation was hit with a wave of internal separatism of various manifestations following the 1991 Soviet dissolution, and this most notoriously took the form of the Chechen Insurgency. It’s already well known that it took Moscow two separate federal interventions to quell this problem and it was only just a few years ago that the authorities decreed that the operation was being discontinued due to its successes. The particularities of that conflict are many, but the general idea behind them is that Gulf-supported Wahhabis had flooded into the Muslim-majority territory after 1991 and began to cultivate the same violent religious extremism as is currently beleaguering Syria.

In many ways, one can say that the history of international jihadism progressed from Afghanistan to Algeria, Bosnia, Russia (Chechnya), the Serbian/Yugoslavian province of Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, then Syria, demonstrating a clear strategic continuity of Gulf asymmetrical religiously inspired aggression against secular governments. Chechnya was especially vulnerable to this because it’s a peripheral autonomous republic on the edge of the Russian Federation, and Moscow said on multiple times that numerous foreign fighters had infiltrated into the republic as a result and attempted to turn it into a terrorist safe haven (and the same can be said for Kosovo vis-à-vis Serbia/Yugoslavia, too). This also ended up happening with neighboring Dagestan in 1999 and which sparked the second federal intervention in the Northern Caucasus. The lesson to be learned here is that regardless of the historical-demographic uniqueness which may give rise to autonomous administrations within certain countries, the geographic peripheral nature of these entities could make them vulnerable to external interference which could further exacerbate simmering domestic conflicts into all-out warfare.

The lesson is reinforced by the example of the Volga Republic of Tatarstan, a resource-rich region entirely surrounded by the rest of the Russian Federation. Despite being majority-Muslim and theoretically just as predisposed to external ideological destabilization as Chechnya was, Tatarstan did not descend into a Wahhabi warzone partially because of the important fact that it did not abut any neighboring state which could facilitate the said infiltration. Being entirely “landlocked” by Russia, it was compelled to reach a pragmatic accommodation with Moscow whereby it would enjoy considerable autonomy in exchange for remaining part of the Russian Federation and not pursing independence. The outcome is that Tatarstan is now one of the most stable and prosperous places in all of Russia, and while natural resource revenue undoubtedly had a significant role to play in this, the fact that its people did not succumb to Salafism also had a lot to do with it being geographically insulated from the direct influence of hostile foreign forces.

Concluding Thoughts

The abovementioned analysis attempted to explain the reasons behind the diametrically dissimilar administrative political frameworks within the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic, highlighting the influence that unique historical-demographic-civilizational factors played on the development of each state’s separate internal governing models. It has been clearly argued that the evolution of Russia’s federal system is the result of approximately two centuries’ worth of progress in experimenting with and integrating autonomous polities into the unified national framework, and even then, this arrangement is still undergoing occasional modifications. Syria can learn a lot from this by recognizing that “federalization” is a drawn-out and complicated process, made even more convoluted when one of the self-proclaimed statelets abuts a hostile neighbor and could thus very easily either come under foreign influence or be exploited by the said country and its NATO allies for aggressive purposes against the Syrian Arab Republic.

Moreover, due to the difficulties inherent in implementing federal administrations, this model should not in any way be seen as a simple panacea for all of the country’s current political ailments, as unlike the USSR which decentralized after a full government victory in the post-revolutionary civil war, Syria would in this prospective case be devolving under foreign pressure and without Damascus having secured full sovereignty over every corner of the country following the international war which has been waged on the state. The historical-demographic-civilizational factors present in Syria, all of which are being exacerbated at this very moment, make it so that any decision to superficially emulate Russia’s governing model by “federalizing” the country is guaranteed to amount to nothing more than the de-facto internally partitioning of the state and the initiation of a drawn-out process whereby the individual statelets would progressively move towards the path of full-fledged “independence” one day. It’s not to say that federalism in and of itself is something inherently negative, but just that it works well for Russia due to its circumstances, and correspondingly, would be disastrous for Syria for those exact same unique reasons.