Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 140

On July 17, after a week of haggling, the conciliation commission set up to reconcile differences between the upper and lower houses of the Russian parliament reached agreement on President Vladimir Putin’s controversial plan to reform the Federation Council.

The commission was formed after the State Duma approved Putin’s bill with large majorities in all three readings, only to see the law vetoed by the Federation Council five days later. Initially, the omens were not auspicious: The governors tried to use the commission not to negotiate a compromise with the Duma but to cut a deal between themselves and the president. They wanted to scuttle not only Putin’s plans for the upper chamber, but all three laws in his “federal packet.” As well as reforming the upper chamber by stripping the governors of ex officio membership, the president was seeking the power to remove regional governors from office and to dissolve regional legislatures; to sweeten the pill, he offered to allow governors to dismiss the mayors of towns and cities in their regions (Izvestia, Vremya novosti, July 10).

At first, all the sides did was exchange ultimatums. The Federation Council threatened that, should the conciliation commission fail to reach a compromise favorable to the governors, the upper house would refuse to approve the draft federal budget project for 2001. The Duma representatives responded with warnings that the lower house could at any moment decide to override the upper chamber’s veto and vote through Putin’s original, “tough” version of the law (Russian agencies, ORT, July 11; Kommersant, July 12).

On July 14, the commission declared that it was abandoning its attempts to reach a settlement (Russian agencies, July 14). But, though the closed-door negotiations seemed to have run into a brick wall, they resumed on July 17.

Battle raged around three issues of particular concern to the governors. First, the Federation Council demanded a “soft turnover” of its members: The governors wanted to remain members of parliament until their gubernatorial terms expired and only then to give way to their successors. Putin’s original draft had called for each region to be represented in the upper chamber by two representatives: one nominated by the governor and approved by the regional legislature, the other elected from among candidates nominated by the speaker of the regional legislature. Under the original plan, the new Federation Council was to be in place as of February 1, 2001. The governors were unwilling to have to clear their candidates for Federation Council membership with the regional legislatures: Their second demand, therefore, was that they should retain the sole right to nominate the regional representatives. Third, the governors demanded to retain the right, which Putin’s original draft denied them, to recall the regional representatives from the upper chamber.

Eventually, the governors were persuaded to drop their demand that the entire law be withdrawn, in return for which the Duma quickly agreed that the governors should have the right to nominate their representatives to the Federation Council, and that this could be blocked only by a two-thirds majority of the regional legislature (Russian agencies, July 12). Agreement was also reached over a “soft turnover” of Federation Council members: the new Federation Council is now to be in place by January 1, 2002 (Russian agencies, July 13). The final sticking point was the governors’ demand that they should have the right to recall their regional representatives from the Federation Council, and here too a compromise was finally reached. The governors are to have the right to dismiss regional representatives as long as their decision is backed by a two-thirds majority of the regional legislature (Russian agencies, July 17.

In all, the parties agreed to thirteen amendments. The law as proposed by Putin has been softened in the governors’ favor. They have secured a grandfathering solution with which they seem to be content. In the long run, however, they have suffered a defeat. Putin will have to wait longer than he anticipated, but he seems to have got, for the most part, the reform of parliament he wanted. The Duma is set to vote on the new version of the bill today (July 19).