By Brian Whitmore
Russia’s regional leaders are cautiously maneuvering and organizing in an attempt to carve out their places in the country’s political landscape when President Boris Yeltsin finally passes from the scene.
Last month, in the hall where Russia’s first elected parliament convened nearly a century ago, Russia’s latest regional political movement–one which called for a radical decentralization of power from Moscow–was born. Led by Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Tatarstan, All Russia is the third regional political movement to be established in Russia over the past year. Last fall, Yuri Luzhkov, powerful Moscow mayor and presidential hopeful, created the political party Fatherland (Otechestvo), which he hoped to turn into a vehicle to carry him to the Kremlin. Fatherland is now running second only to the communists in most public opinion polls. Then, early this year, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov formed a movement called Voice of Russia.
Analysts say that Russia’s political heavyweights, including top regional leaders like Luzhkov, Shaimiev and Titov, are beginning to sense that the Yeltsin-era is entering its twilight, and are trying to carve out a niche in whatever new order eventually emerges.
“Russia’s political elite, including regional leaders, are preparing for the post-Yeltsin epoch and trying to find their place in that epoch,” said Andrei Ryabev, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. At the same time, Ryabev says, regional leaders are being cautious and hedging their bets. Initially, it appeared that the three regional movements would merge into a single powerful “governors’ party” which would carry Luzhkov to power.
Ryabev, however, says that following Yeltsin’s most recent political resurrection and with Russia’s future balance of political forces far from clear, regional leaders are unlikely to unanimously jump on Luzhkov’s bandwagon. Conflicting interests and competing ambitions are also preventing Russia’s regional leaders from uniting into a single political force.
THE BATTLE FOR THE DUMA
On May 22 and 23, nearly 600 delegates from eighty-three of Russia’s far-flung regions descended on St. Petersburg for All Russia’s founding congress. Meeting in the Grand Hall of the city’s Tavrichesky Palace, where Russia’s pre-Revolutionary State Duma sat, All Russia delegates called for decisionmaking power to be shifted to the regions and slammed Moscow’s attempts over the past decade to reform the country from above.
“Attempts to reform Russia from the top have not worked. It must be done from below, from the regions,” said St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, adding that attempts to reform Russia from above have “plunged Russia, a rich country, into a national catastrophe.”
In addition to Shaimiev, All Russia’s leadership includes Yakovlev, Murtaza Rakhmonov president of Bashkortostan, and Ruslan Aushev, president of Ingushetia.
All Russia’s platform rejects the monetarist economic policies championed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais and his team of so-called “young reformers” in favor of greater state regulation of the economy. It also calls for the regions to have greater control over taxing and spending, and supports social welfare programs that target the most needy citizens. In this sense, All Russia’s platform does not differ from Luzhkov’s Otechestvo or Titov’s Voice of Russia. But according to analysts, All Russia–like the other regional movements–is more about power than about policy. “The only thing that unites Aushev, Yakovlev and Shaimiev is that they all want more power and their own people in the State Duma,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based political think-tank.
Indeed, speakers at the All Russia congress made it clear that they sought to gain greater influence in the State Duma by supporting candidates in parliamentary elections scheduled for December of this year. “Our intention is to form a constructive majority in the State Duma which will stand for the interests of the regions,” said Shaimiev.
In an effort to increase its chances in those polls, All Russia seeks to change the way the lower house of parliament is elected. Under the current system, half of the Duma’s 450 federal lawmakers are directly elected in constituencies. The other seats are allocated proportionally according to the percentage of the national vote received by political parties. All Russia proposes changing federal election legislation, scrapping the party lists and having the Duma elected solely from 450 electoral districts. Such a move would strengthen the governors, who have enormous influence over elections in their territories, and weaken Russia’s national political parties. “The governors,” Ryabev said, “would clearly like to turn the Duma into the junior branch of the Federation Council.”
The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament made up of regional leaders, has been long the sleeping giant of Russian politics. On paper it has broad powers–it can approve legislation and the national budget; rule on the hiring and firing of prosecutor generals, Supreme Court justices and Constitutional Court justices; and support or veto presidential moves to establish emergency or military rule. Only of late has the Council truly flexed its muscles, with its repeated refusals to approve the Kremlin’s dismissal of Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov. Instead of sacking Skuratov, the Council has created an anticorruption committee whose work could be potentially explosive. The committee is reviewing corruption accusations against both the Kremlin and Skuratov himself.
If Russia’s governors–who already rule their regions virtually unchallenged and control the upper house of parliament–also were able to place their proteges in the State Duma, then they would have de facto control over the country’s entire federal legislative process. For this reason, leaders of various established national political parties–of various political stripes–lined up to criticize the idea in the harshest possible terms. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov slammed All Russia’s proposal, saying that if the entire Duma were elected from single member districts then criminal groups would dominate the chamber. “[If this happens] the Duma will be elected from mafia districts,” said Zyuganov in remarks reported by Interfax.
Likewise, during a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said that All Russia was a “dangerous movement” which could lead both to the disintegration of Russia and to criminal groups coming to power in the Duma. Many of Russia’s governors have been accused by politicians and the media of working in concert with local and regional mafia groups.
Perhaps not accidentally, the Duma last month began looking into the legality of sitting governors forming political parties. Federal law forbids “civil servants” from engaging in “political activity”–though it is unclear whether or not the prohibition extends to elected regional executives. Federal lawmakers also approved the second reading of a bill which would strengthen political parties, giving those candidates on party lists the right to run simultaneously in single mandate districts. Under the current legislation, candidates who occupy the top three places of a party’s federal list cannot run in any of Russia’s 225 electoral districts.
CONFLICTING GUBERNATORIAL AGENDAS
Expectations that the All Russia congress in St. Petersburg would result in a grand alliance of regional leaders met with disappointment. Luzhkov declined an invitation to attend the congress, although he did send a representative who delivered a message proposing cooperation among the three parties. Voice of Russia leader Titov, who did attend the congress, said that such an alliance would be “desirable.” To varying degrees, All Russia’s leadership also expressed support for such an alliance, although not everybody is enamored of the idea of Luzhkov’s Otechestvo simply devouring the other two parties.
It is perhaps for this reason that Ingushetian President Aushev suggested that All Russia would consider supporting former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Primakov–who, despite repeatedly announcing that he has no intention to run for president, still leads in most public opinion polls. Shaimiev, for his part said he favors working with Luzhkov, though he added that certain regional leaders need to “overcome their personal ambitions.” Analysts say that uniting the three electoral blocs will prove difficult due to competing agendas.
Movements like All Russia and Voice of Russia, observers say, don’t have a chance of winning the 5 percent of the vote necessary to place candidates from their party lists in the Duma–and therefore must count on winning seats from single mandate districts. Luzhkov’s Fatherland, on the other hand, has the support of between 10 and 15 percent according to most public opinion polls, meaning the Moscow mayor has an interest in preserving the current party list system. Most polls predict that Zyuganov’s communists, Luzhkov’s Fatherland and Yavlinsky’s Yabloko will be the only parties to clear the 5 percent barrier in December’s elections.
“Luzhkov is already playing in the same league with Zyuganov and Yavlinsky as a national party leader,” Piontkovsky said. “He is not interested in scrapping the party list system.”
There is also very little uniting Russia’s regional leaders other than the desire for more influence. “There is no ideology of regionalism or federalism in Russia, just a desire on the part of the governors to gain more power and influence,” said the Carnegie Center’s Ryabev, adding that no grand alliance among regional leaders is likely in the near future, given the uncertainty in Russian politics as Yeltsin’s term nears its end.
“The governors sense that everything is in flux,” said Ryabev. “No real political alliance will be formed among them until it is clear who will emerge on top when Yeltsin passes from the scene.”
THE KREMLIN VS. LUZHKOV
As Russia’s elites jockey for place in the post-Yeltsin world, the president himself appears unwilling to fade from the political scene. Meanwhile, Luzhkov’s political star has fallen in almost direct proportion to the president’s recent revival–and the Kremlin has been increasingly taking measures to cut the Moscow mayor down to size. Following last August’s ruble devaluation Yeltsin was noticeably weakened and was forced to temporary cede much of his power to then Prime Minister Primakov, who enjoyed the backing of the communist-dominated Duma. At this time, the country’s political elite began to openly talk about the post-Yeltsin era–with Primakov and Luzhkov considered the leading contenders to take over the presidency.
But since Yeltsin re-established himself in power last month–firing Primakov, surviving an impeachment attempt by the Duma and forcing his nominee for prime minister, the loyal Sergei Stepashin, through the lower house of parliament–regional leaders have been increasingly backing away from the Moscow mayor.
Having disposed of Primakov, the Kremlin is now setting its sights on Luzhkov.
According to media reports, the Kremlin inner circle, widely referred to as “The Family”–which includes Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Sibneft oil executive Roman Abramovich, former Kremlin chief of staff Valentin Yumashev and current Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin–would either like to keep Yeltsin in power beyond June 2000, or handpick a successor who would allow them to keep their privileges. The unpredictable and fiercely independent Luzhkov does not fit the bill. Shortly after disposing of Primakov, the Kremlin set its sights on the Moscow mayor.
In late May, a letter from Zhirinovsky to Yeltsin, arguing that the post of Moscow mayor should be eliminated and replaced with a federally appointed “minister for Moscow affairs,” was leaked to the media. The letter argued that Luzhkov was becoming too powerful because he has under his control a vast assortment of police and security personnel in the capital. The “Zhirinovsky letter” and its subsequent leak was hardly an accident. Zhirinovsky, the so-called ultranationalist and bad boy of the State Duma, has been carrying the president’s water for years–displaying the most pro-Kremlin voting record in the lower house of parliament.
Following the letter, Luzhkov responded immediately. Speaking at a meeting of private security firms, he said that confidence in Yeltsin’s leadership has all but disappeared. Luzhkov then warned the Kremlin against any unconstitutional power plays which might be in the works. “If [the Kremlin’s] actions overstep the framework of the Constitution, we will do everything possible to oppose them,” said Luzhkov.
The Kremlin has also initiated a campaign against Luzhkov in the media. In the June 1 issue of the influential magazine “Vlast,” an unidentified Yeltsin aide was quoted as saying that the Kremlin’s main tasks in the upcoming State Duma elections were to minimize the number of mandates received by the Zyuganov’s Communists and Luzhkov’s Otechestvo. The weekly also reported that the Kremlin was engaged in a whole series of measures against Luzhkov–including pressuring Shaimiev and other regional leaders into not supporting Luzhkov, squeezing the capital’s finances to decrease mayor’s public support and releasing “kompromat” (compromising material) against Luzhkov.
Luzhkov and Yeltsin have always had a complex and uneasy political relationship–cooperative when it suits both parties, hostile when their interests diverge–although the two have never openly gone to war against one another. Should they decide to do so now, the results will likely determine Russia’s post-Yeltsin political landscape.
Brian Whitmore is a political reporter and columnist who covers city politics for the “St. Petersburg Times.” He is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of South Carolina.