Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 1

A Russian Who Fights for the Rule of Law

By Yelena Dikun

When you arrive in Cheboksary, the capital of Chuvashia, from Moscow, it seems that time has run backwards, and you have been carried back ten years. The central streets are named after Lenin, Marx, and Engels. In front of the House of Soviets (where the president and government are located), as one would expect, there is a monument to the leader of the world proletariat. There’s also a little bust of Feliks Edmundovich [Dzerzhinsky, head of Lenin’s "Cheka."] In a word, everything is in its place…

Chuvashia is traditionally considered a conservative region. The Communists are very influential here; it suffices to say that they received 34 percent of the vote in the elections to the State Duma, and in the presidential elections, Gennady Zyuganov got twice as many votes as Boris Yeltsin.

But this republic, one of the "reddest" republics in the Russian Federation, three years ago elected as its president one of the original democrats, former Russian minister of justice Nikolai Fedorov. Before that, messengers from his native Chuvashia (Fedorov is an ethnic Chuvash; he was born in 1958 into a peasant family in the village of Chedino in the Chuvash ASSR) came to Moscow many times, trying to persuade him to run for president. The Communists and Agrarians opposed Fedorov, and curiously enough, they were supported by the Union of Entrepreneurs of Chuvashia.

But, unlike his opponents, Fedorov did not promise the people pie in the sky, work for all the unemployed, and housing for all the homeless. He said openly that the only thing he could guarantee was that they would have no reason to fear either the president, or the ministers, or any other government officials; that the only thing to which they had to submit was the law itself.

Today, remembering these days, Fedorov explains his position in this way: "I saw how scared people were here, how they trembled before the local administration. For me, as a lawyer, the law was unquestionably supreme; only it could rule society. That’s probably why I won."

People who know Nikolai Fedorov well often call him an abnormal or "overly-refined" lawyer, who sees both life and politics in an excessively-legalistic light. He suffers from the "genetic disease" of excessive faith in the independent value of law.

Clearly, this is a result of his dramatic family history. In 1929, his grandfather’s family fell under the first wave of "de-kulakization." The adults were sent to Siberia, where they disappeared, and the children were sent to an orphanage. Fedorov’s father could never get over the injustice that had been done to these freedom-loving people, just because they had owned their own farms. His whole life, he protested against the regime, for which he was arrested many times and expelled from his collective farm. When the Politburo adopted a resolution to demolish eleven villages in the Chuvash ASSR, including the one in which the Fedorovs lived (they were going to build a chemical factory there), the elder Fedorov defended his home, with ax in hand. "Many people had gathered round, the police arrived, and my father barricaded himself inside, let nobody in, and threatened to kill anybody who touched his house or his land. They still tore down our village, of course, but that was the first time that, on some subconscious level, a strong urge arose in me to protest, to defend myself against the government’s high-handed behavior. Perhaps that was why I became a lawyer," Nikolai Fedorov recalls.

Nikolai Fedorov entered big-time politics in 1989, when he was elected a people’s deputy of the USSR from Chuvashia, and headed the USSR Supreme Soviet’s Committee on Questions of Legislation, Legality and Public Order. After that, from 1990 through April 1993 — he was Russian minister of justice.

Fedorov keeps a photograph on his desk. It is a picture of a family dinner: Fedorov and his daughter are in the center, next to him are Boris Nikolaevich and his wife, and former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. Everyone is smiling and exchanging hugs. "That was in 1992, at my house, on my birthday. At that time, we were still very close," Fedorov remarked. "I never got into a shouting match with Boris Nikolaevich. We just drifted apart."

Nikolai Fedorov resigned in April 1993, when Yeltsin issued his decree "On Emergency Rule." He was the only member of the government who openly condemned this document, saying that it was a variation on the theme of the August 1991 coup.

"Being the minister of justice, I observed that with each day, law was playing an ever smaller role in Russian politics. Potentially, it could have been 100 percent, and then it became 90, 20, 10… It was replaced by arbitrary administrative rule by people in the president’s entourage who ignored the law. I beat my head against the wall, trying to show at all levels that we would be better off observing norms of legality. It’s only an illusion that you can win by breaking the law. At first, when I attended Security Council meetings, I was able to make sure that legal logic prevailed. But they began to invite me less and less frequently… I had many serious, confidential conversations with Boris Nikolaevich on this subject, and in his office, he always supported me, agreed with me. But then, it all began to slip away. The time finally came when I was virtually removed from real policy-making, and my opinion no longer counted. The decree on emergency rule, in essence, was the last straw. After that, it made no sense to stay on," said Fedorov.

When Nikolai Fedorov became president of Chuvashia, many suspected that the republic would be only a "stepping stone" for him, a "trampoline" for his next jump up to a new position in the federal government. It suffices to recall that Grigory Yavlinsky, finding himself in disfavor, tried to return to power in Moscow through Nizhny Novgorod, but ended up limiting himself to writing a book. Then Yevgeny Saburov went to the Crimea, and Gaidar went off to reform Yaroslavl oblast, but neither of them stayed for very long.

Contrary to expectations, however, President Fedorov quickly began to get settled in his native republic. His first presidential decree proceeded logically from his election program — it concerned measures to guarantee law and order in the republic. Fedorov constantly keeps this question under his personal control, and considers it a matter of his professional honor. And he is glad to say that he has, to a certain extent, succeeded. Last year, the number of rapes in Chuvashia was down by 24.2 percent, arson by 35.5 percent, robbery by 14.7 percent. Crimes are being solved at a rate 50 percent higher than two years ago. Now, 66.2 percent of all crimes are solved here, which is higher than the Russian average. The republic has become an inhospitable place for the criminal world; it is no accident that there is not a single Mafia leader [vor v zakone] here. Neither is there widespread corruption.

Incidentally, when Fedorov first started his presidential term, a number of KGB, MVD, secret service generals would bring him all sorts of information. They would hand it to him with a grave look on their face and say: "Look at all the compromising information we have amassed on this person." "But I’m a lawyer," Fedorov would say, "I have to know where you got this information, what proof you have." It turned out that 90 percent of their information was nothing but gossip and rumor. I put these people in their place, and fired some of them. They don’t bring me that kind of information any more. I think that ‘evidence’ based on hearsay and gossip appears only when there is a demand for it."

When taking office, Fedorov noted that unemployment in Chuvashia was double the national average and salaries only half the national average. These proportions, unfortunately, have not changed. The republic’s inhabitants are only saved by the fact that most of them have plots of land or relatives in the country, so they can save money on vegetables, meat, and milk. In addition, many are now starting to bake their own bread.

But nevertheless, over Fedorov’s three years in office, much has changed for the better in the republic. Highway construction has more than doubled, and the rate at which villages are being converted to gas is up sharply; telephone service has been expanded to tens of thousands of homes. If you compare Chuvashia to its neighbors: with the Ulyanovsk and Kirov oblasts, Mordovia and Mariy-El, construction is booming. According to these indicators, the republic has outstripped even the Nizhny Novgorod oblast, with which it is in constant competition. For example, last year, builders in Nizhny Novgorod built 800,000 square meters of housing, and 500,000 were built in Chuvashia, but the population in Nizhny Novgorod oblast is 4,000,000, while in Chuvashia, it is 1,300,000. Last year, ten schools were built in Nizhny Novgorod oblast, while twelve were built in Chuvashia.

In other words, the president is stressing the organization of new, competitive production, and the replacement of the republic’s whole infrastructure, to create the foundation for modern development in Chuvashia. Fedorov admits that this policy has not always been popular; people want to live well today — not tomorrow.

Obviously, that was what the local opposition was counting on when they organized a referendum last summer to abolish the presidency. In essence, the referendum was a vote of confidence in President Fedorov. But its "well-wishers" did not get what they wanted — on December 17, 1995, Nikolai Fedorov got more votes than he received in the presidential election.

But in spite of this, Fedorov has not written off the Communist opposition, especially taking into account that there are no normal parties or social movements in the republic, it looks quite active. In his opinion, it is the Russian government’s fault that the influence of the Communist party is growing in the provinces; it has no well-thought-out regional policy. For example, almost everyone at that giant of industry — the Industrial Tractor Factory in Cheboksary — is a member of the Communist party. In its time, this enterprise was built by a special decision of the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers.

But then, the U.S. Congress gave the Caterpillar company, which produces similar machines, $100 million in credits, to get started in the Russian market. And that year, deliveries of American tractors to Russia increased sharply. Hardly anybody wanted Chuvash tractors anymore, in spite of the fact that they were competitive and only half the price. As a result, the factory stood idle, people went unpaid, and naturally, they were unhappy with the government. "For two years, I’ve tried to tell the president and the prime minister about it. They nod their heads, but nothing is ever done," says Fedorov.

It is the same story with hops. Chuvashia grows 85 percent of all of Russia’s hops, but the peasants, who make up 40 percent of Chuvashia’s population, can’t sell them, because the market is flooded with Chinese, German, and Yugoslavian hops…

Therefore, President Fedorov is trying as hard as he can to have the powers of the center and the republic on questions of the economy and ecology clearly defined: which duties and responsibilities will be assumed by the Federation, and which are exclusively the responsibility of Chuvashia. For example, the governments of Russia and Chuvashia have agreed on how to solve the problem of the Cheboksary reservoir and the destruction of all chemical weapons in the republic. But Fedorov does not want to have the center take responsibility for all his problems, to the last trifle as in the case in Udmurtia and Komi.

In the first days of his presidency, Nikolai Fedorov said openly that from now on, he would interpret instructions he received from the federal center more conservatively. He explained his position in this way: "This doesn’t mean that we intend to quarrel with Russia’s leadership, but Russia and Chuvashia are very different worlds. We are here on the spot, and it’s clearer to us what has to be done and how to do it, so I will be the one to formulate local policy. Then, later, Moscow, in negotiations with me, can decide what it needs to do so that Fedorov can accomplish his mission as a reformer. But if you just snap to attention whenever the center says anything, you’ll never get anywhere; they’ll simply stop noticing you."

Meanwhile, Moscow has always had a very cautious attitude towards Nikolai Fedorov, who slammed the Kremlin door behind him when he left, and, like other leaders, such as Sverdlovsk oblast governor Rossel, Kabardino-Balkaria’s president Kokov, or North Ossetia’s president Galazov, cannot be made to play the game by Moscow’s rules. But Moscow always finds a way to exert control, even over the independent leaders, and this has been clearly demonstrated.

Although Fedorov did everything in his power to persuade his countrymen to vote for Yeltsin, criss-crossing the republic, pointing out that any other choice would be a grievous and irreparable mistake, Chuvashia voted for the leader of the leftist forces. This immediately cost the republic: appropriations going to the republic were immediately re-examined, in particular, the money for the cultivation of hops. Of the 43 billion rubles planned for the federal "Russian Hops" program, the republic got only 10 billion, and even that could be taken away when the budget reaches its final form. Moreover, the republic, which has suffered enormous material damage from natural disasters, did not receive a single kopek in assistance. At the same time, Moscow gave Chuvashia’s "right-voting" neighbors — Mordovia, Tatarstan, Nizhny Novgorod oblast — subsidies immediately. Chuvashia faced the real threat of having its gas, electricity, and other life-support systems cut off.

Of course, Nikolai Fedorov cannot be held responsible for the fact that the people of Chuvashia did not give the Russian president the same support which they twice gave him. But Fedorov is a decent man, and considered it necessary to say that if complications arise in relations with Moscow and Russia because of him, and the whole republic can be made to suffer for it, then he will have to rethink the possibility of staying on as president of Chuvashia. Fedorov sent a letter with this request to the victor — President Yeltsin. Obviously there was more emotion than cold calculation behind this decision. But the Kremlin did not demand Fedorov’s resignation–it was impossible, even technically. But the center, from all indications, continues to make the election returns the basis of its "regional policy." Those who were able — it doesn’t matter how — to reorient the mood of their electorates in the "necessary" direction, have to be thanked properly. If the budget pie is going to be divided up in this way, there will simply be nothing left for those were not up to the task…

Many of Nikolai Fedorov’s countrymen are amazed that he has not had a house built for himself, as though it is beneath him, as president, to live in a state apartment (before that, he lived for half a year in a hotel.) But Nikolai Vasilievich decided that he would build no house while he was in office, because it might be considered an abuse of office. If that is so, there might be quite some time before he has a home he can call his own — next year, Fedorov intends to run for a second term. "This may sound arrogant, but when I see who is running for president, it makes me scared. I can’t imagine being an average citizen of the Chuvash republic under such ignorant, aggressive rulers. I would never be able to resign myself to such a government. This is what brings me back into the political fray. It is better to be president than to be subjected to the alternative."

Translated by Mark Eckert