Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 52

With less than two weeks left before Russia’s presidential election, there are rumors that Acting President Vladimir Putin, the likely winner on March 26, will move decisively toward re-establishing central control over Russia’s regions following his election. According to unconfirmed reports, Putin is favorably disposed toward replacing Russia’s eighty-nine federally designated regions with a smaller number of larger “gubernias.” In what some observers see as the latest trial balloon in this direction, the heads of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Khabarovsk krai proposed on March 10 that all of Russia’s Far Eastern regions unite into a single gubernia. That same day, local media in Sverdlovsk Oblast reported that Putin, during a meeting with Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, had supported Rossel’s suggestion that the Tsarist-era institution of the “general-governorship” be revived in Russia.

The general-governorship goes back to the beginning of the 18th century, during the reign of Peter the Great, when the general-governor was the country’s most powerful local official. In the 19th century, under Aleksandr II, Russia was divided into six general-governorships, each granted special powers.

Sverdlovsk media quoted Anton Federov, the head of the Kremlin’s department which coordinates the activities of presidential representatives in the regions, as saying that Putin already had four candidates for the post of general-governor: Rossel, Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, Primorsky krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko and Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak (Russian agencies, March 10; Izvestia, March 14). Prusak was one of three governors who last month published a plan to reform Russia’s system of governance. They urged, among other things, that Russia’s governors be appointed by the president rather than elected, and suggested that the president himself might be appointed by the parliament, prime minister and the “power ministries” rather than elected. Prusak and his two colleagues also urged that the presidential term be extended from four to seven years. Putin subsequently said that he opposed the notion of appointed governorships, calling it a “step backward” (see the Monitor, February 29).

The newspaper Izvestia, which has generally been pro-Putin in its coverage, today quoted Federov as saying that the quotes attributed to Putin in the Sverdlovsk media concerning the issue of general-governorships were “totally fabricated,” and were probably initiated by regional governors in their final term and looking for a way to stay in power. The newspaper, however, suggested that there is something to the rumors that Putin plans to introduce such reforms (Izvestia, March 14).

In the just-released “From the First Person: Interviews with Vladimir Putin,” a book by journalists Andrei Kolesnikov and Natalya Gevorkyan and based on a series of interviews with the head of state, Putin repeated his support for a system of elected governors. He added, however, that it was necessary to come up with a method of sanctioning wayward governors. “For instance, removing them from office,” Putin said. Russia’s governors cannot be “fully independent,” and that some Russian regions have “unjustified” privileges that others do not. He named Tatarstan specifically as a region enjoying such privileges, but claimed that Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiev generally understands and agrees with his position. Putin told the two journalists that Russia has always been “a super-centralized state,” and said this was part of “its genetic code, its tradition, the mentality of its people” (Russian agencies, Reuters, March 13).