Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 134

On July 7, the upper house of the Russian parliament–the Federation Council–agreed to set up a conciliation commission with the lower house, the Duma, to negotiate a mutually acceptable version of the law on the composition of the upper chamber (Russian agencies, July 7).

Parliament is keen to find a way out of the deadlock provoked by President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to reduce the power of Russia’s regional governors. At present, regional governors and the speakers of regional legislatures are ex officio members of the Federation Council. Along with this privilege goes the cherished immunity from criminal prosecution. Initially, the Duma acceded without protest to Putin’s proposal that much lowlier officials should represent the regions in the upper chamber. Naturally, this alarmed the regional leaders, who exercised their right as members of the upper chamber and vetoed the law.

This left the Duma with two options: either to go on the offensive by mustering the two-thirds note necessary to overrule the Federation Council, or to negotiate with the senators by setting up a conciliation commission. The first option was considered risky, given that the Duma could not be sure of rallying the 300 votes required to override the veto. The second option proved preferable if only because it held open the possibility of returning to the first option at a more propitious moment. This option also appealed to the Federation Council members, because they too were not at all sure how a vote in the Duma would turn out.

All this might suggest that a mood of compromise and good will is emerging over the new law, but that would be a mistaken impression. In fact, the confrontation is deepening between the president’s team, on one hand, and the regional elites, on the other, and the Duma is merely one of the points from which the battle can be observed.

Genuine reconciliation seems unlikely in light of the federal center’s clear determination to maintain the attack on the regional elites. Even as the two houses of parliament were agreeing to negotiate, news broke that the Constitutional Court had, in a closed session on June 27, ruled that the constitutions of Adygea, Bashkortostan, Ingushetia, Komi, North Ossetia and Tatarstan did not conform to that of the Russian Federation. The sticking point was the claim in all those sub-national constitutions that the peoples of the republics in question were the source of state power on the republic’s territory. This, the court objected, was at odds with Article 3 of the federal constitution, which proclaims that the sole source of authority in the Russian Federation is “its multinational people.” The court also ruled other provisions illegal, particularly those asserting that republic laws took precedence over federal laws; that republics had the status of subjects of international law; and that natural resources were the property of the republics on whose territory they were discovered (Russian agencies, July 7).

Meanwhile, Yuri Biryukov, Russia’s first deputy prosecutor general, revealed that his office was carrying out checks of the bilateral power-sharing treaties signed in recent years between the federal center and approximately half of Russia’s regions and republics. Biryukov declared that, once the documents had been analyzed, those provisions found to violate the federal constitution would have to be brought into line (Russian agencies, July 7).

The Duma had a further surprise up its sleeve. On July 7, it overrode the Federation Council’s veto of a bill on the militia. From now on, the federal government will be able to appoint and fire the heads of internal affairs departments throughout Russia without consulting the governors of the regions concerned (ORT, July 7). Nor are the governors likely to have been happy about a federal government ruling that the regions should in future hand over to the federal budget 70 percent of the taxes they collect, instead of the present 52 percent (Moskovsky komsomolets, July 7).

The regional leaders’ attitude toward Putin’s initiatives is now a far cry from that what it was back in May. The governors are now openly critical. According to Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko: “The Federation Council should retain exactly its current composition. It might be a different story if power in Russia were not so dilapidated, and if the economic situation was stable.” The governor of Khakassia, Aleksei Lebed, declared that governors and regional leaders must not be treated in such a way. Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast, dismissed Putin’s proposals as “conceptually unacceptable” (NTV, July 9). The head of Dagestan’s parliament, Mukhu Aliev, said the law on forming the Federation Council had “serious flaws” (Russian agencies, July 6).

Meanwhile, the chances appear slim that the conciliation commission will be come up with a solution acceptable to all sides. Members of the Federation Council are insisting that the bill on the formation of the upper chamber should be reconsidered from scratch–something to which the Duma deputies are categorically opposed. Members of the Federation Council have already threatened to appeal directly to Putin over this issue.