Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 110

The past week saw a controversy over charges that several regional leaders put pressure on State Duma deputies in an effort to influence the way they voted on legislation affecting the status of the governors. These charges were first voiced by Aleksandr Kotenkov, the president’s representative in the Duma. At the time, Duma deputies were preparing to vote on a packet of draft laws put forward by President Vladimir Putin. The aim of these was to strengthen the control of the federal government over Russia’s eighty-nine republics and regions and, in particular, over their often-wayward presidents and governors. Kotenkov claimed that the governors acted out of fear that, as soon as Putin’s new laws had stripped them of the immunity conferred by membership of the Russian Federation Council, they would find themselves under criminal investigation (Russian agencies, May 26, 31).

Clearly, Kotenkov’s claims were intended to score a political point. They were picked up and repeated by other public figures, including some with no ties to the Russian president such as Sergei Ivanenko, deputy chairman of the Yabloko faction in the State Duma (Russian agencies, May 29).

At first the allegations were vague: The names of the deputies concerned were not publicly revealed, nor were the identities of the guilty governors, nor the means whereby pressure was supposedly administered. On May 30, however, three Duma deputies held a press conference at which they gave details about the pressures allegedly put on them (Russian agencies, May 30). None of them claimed he had been told precisely how to vote, but Valery Gartung, a former factory director who belongs to the People’s Deputy faction in the State Duma, claimed that he had no sooner announced his intention of voting for Putin’s proposals than his old factory was raided by the tax police. Gartung concluded that Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Sumin had been behind the attack. Dmitri Savelev, member of the Duma’s Union of Right Forces faction, similarly claimed to have been subjected to “indirect pressure” in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, including “all kinds of crude measures, from bribery and blackmail to administrative means, all to persuade me to undermine the ballot.”

In the regions, the deputies’ complaints fell on deaf ears. Even the leader of the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the Communist Party dismissed them as “a stunt” (Russian agencies, May 30). Governor Sklyarov of Nizhny Novgorod expressed bewilderment at the charges leveled against him, denying having put any kind of pressure on Savelev, and pointing out that he himself had more than once declared his support for Putin’s reforms (Russian agencies, May 31).

In the State Duma, however, the accusations and counteraccusations rallied to Putin’s cause a number of deputies who would not normally have supported him. For example, Yelena Mizulina, a member of the Yabloko faction, declared that the vote on Putin’s proposals would be “a moment of truth” which would reveal once and for all how much influence the governors had over deputies from single-mandate districts (Russian agencies, May 31). Under the influence of such statements, a number of media outlets interpreted the eventual result of the voting as a major victory for Putin and a demonstration of the regional governors’ inability to influence events. Even Segodnya–a paper which has often adopted a stance antagonistic to Putin, wrote that the vote left regional heads with “no hope in their fight for self-preservation” (Segodnya, June 1).

Indeed, the results of the Duma vote did not go the governors’ way. A mere handful of deputies–from twenty-eight to thirty-nine–voted against Putin’s various proposals to deprive governors of their right to sit in the Federation Council (Russian agencies, May 31-June 1).

Nonetheless, it is probably mistaken to suppose that the outcome of the voting proved that regional elites are completely toothless. There is no denying the fact that a large number of governors were able to exercise a significant influence over the outcome of the State Duma elections held on their territory in December 1999, or that the governors managed to get a large number of their supporters elected in single-mandate constituencies.

It follows that allegations that the governors tried to put pressure on parliamentarians in the latest voting are probably based on a misconception of the relations between regional leaders and the deputies elected to represent their districts in the Duma. The governors do not need to exert pressure on these deputies to get them to vote in a certain way: A simple command or “request” is normally sufficient. The results of the latest Duma vote suggest that, on this occasion, the governors issued neither commands nor “requests” to overturn the president’s bills in their first reading. This raises the possibility that the governors may be pinning their hopes on being able to “correct” the legislation in the second reading.

This is how some national newspapers have interpreted the vote. The newspaper Vremya novostei predicted that the Duma deputies, while ready to support Putin’s initiatives in the first reading, may change them “beyond recognition” in the second reading (Vremya novostei, May 31). Nezavisimaya Gazeta went so far as to speculate that the claims about “pressure on the Duma” were part of a campaign of disinformation intended to boost Putin’s draft laws. The campaign was plotted, the newspaper suggested, by a presidential administration wanting to boost the vote because it was worried that Putin’s proposals might not win the two-thirds majority necessary in order to overcome any eventual Federation Council veto (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 31).