Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 25

President Vladimir Putin’s reform of the upper house of the Russian parliament culminated on January 30 with the adoption of a new organizational structure and the election of a new set of parliamentary leaders. The powerful regional governors who, in the last years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency enjoyed the automatic right to sit on the Federation Council, have all now been replaced by full-time “representatives.” Though the new senators were nominated by those they have replaced, Russia’s regional governors have lost both a first-hand source of leverage over federal policy and personal immunity from criminal prosecution. Putin initiated the reform soon after his election in 2000, exploiting the ambiguous wording of the 1993 constitution, which states that the Federation Council “is formed” of two representatives from each republic and region without specifying how these representatives are chosen. From 1995 to 2001, the governor of each region and the speaker of the local parliament sat on the Federation Council as ex officio representatives of their regions. Putin’s reform stripped the governors and speakers of this automatic right. Instead, their seats were to be taken by “representatives” nominated for a four-year term by the governors and speakers and approved by the regional parliament in a secret ballot. The last governors and speakers vacated their seats as of January 1 this year. But, while the changes in the chamber’s make-up are now complete, many of the new senators seem unsure what they are supposed to do next (Vremya MN, January 31).

Voting for the Federation Council’s new officers–deputy speakers and committee chairpersons–was carried out according to a “package” principle, whereby Federation Council members were presented with a list of names but were not allowed to pick and choose among them (ORT, January 30). Independent observers and even some senators expressed bewilderment over the composition of the new leadership. There were even suggestions that the Federation Council’s new speaker, Sergei Mironov, had picked the leaders “according to acquaintance”–that is, according to how well he knew them (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 31).

Mironov rejected this accusation, insisting that the new rules and composition of the Federation Council will enable it to participate more actively in lawmaking (, January 30). In his view, the Federation Council is set to become a full-fledged legislature and compete on the legislative field with the parliament’s lower house, the State Duma (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 30). The Federation Council has nonetheless lost what had until now been its main function–protecting the interests of Russia’s regions during the legislative process. That function is being replaced by another–lobbying the interests of regional leaders, of the Federation Council’s new members, and of the economic forces they represent (, February 2). The makeup of the “post-reform” Federation Council follows no obvious pattern. For some of its members, the post represents a kind of honorary retirement. Others may see a period in the upper house as a springboard to a higher post in the federal apparatus. A third group consists of blatant lobbyists. The interests of the country’s electricity grid, United Energy Systems (UES), are–for example–represented by Valentin Zavadnikov (nominally representing Saratov Oblast) and Sergei Vasiliev (Leningrad Oblast); those of Siberian Aluminum by Arkady Sarkisian (Republic of Khakasia) and German Tkachenko (Samara Oblast); those of the Yukos oil company by Leonid Nevzlin (Mordovia) and those of the Transaero airline company by Aleksandr Pleshakov (Penza Oblast) (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 30). While these groups have little in common with one another, their connections to any kind of legislative activity in the regions they are supposed to represent are equally slim. In this case it may be true, as some commentators have argued (, February 2), that it does not matter who sits on the committees or that the Federation Council is not a democratic institution. Of more significance, these commentators argue, is whether the reformed Senate will obstruct the president’s and the government’s economic, political or personnel policies (Izvestia, January 30).

Given the Federation Council’s heterogeneity, this appears unlikely. It seems more probable that the chamber’s current makeup and structure will turn out to be transitional. Fixed only for as long as it takes the Russian president and the regional leaders to decide what they want from the Council in the next phase. According to Speaker Mironov, a majority of senators believes that the upper house should be “formed” by direct, popular elections. As pointed out above, there would be no need to amend the constitution before this could happen (, January 30). Nor would such a development be likely to seriously influence the makeup of the Federation Council. Russia’s governors learned long ago how to control elections on their territory, and the process of “electing” representatives is unlikely to differ much from “appointing” them. It might however prove “useful,” inasmuch as it would provide a pretext for quietly replacing those senators who proved unable to deliver benefits to their regional partners.