Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 1

By Nikolai Petrov

“Who are you, Mister Putin?” many journalists asked two years ago, after Boris Yeltsin suddenly stepped down, handing the reins of Russia to Vladimir Putin. One answer to the question lies in changes to the federal system–Putin’s first and probably most important reform. Federal reform and Putin’s presidency are, after all, the same age. Both date, effectively, from May 2000, the week immediately following Putin’s inauguration.

The principal elements of the reform were threefold: the creation of seven federal districts (okrugs) each with a presidential plenipotentiary, the transformation of the Federation Council from a governors’ club into a compliant body, and the introduction of new powers enabling the president to fire elected heads and dissolve legislative assemblies in Russia’s eighty-nine constituent regions.

The essence of it is the flushing out of the channels of power, with the aim of managing relations with the regions and controlling the security agencies in the provinces. Success in this will mean that the main task of Putin’s first term in office–the assumption of complete authority–has been achieved.


Federal reform, which Putin’s team prepared in advance, was launched immediately with great energy and no debate. We can only guess as to who was responsible. Leaks on the matter were, atypically, conspicuous by their absence. The configuration of the new federal okrugs mirrored exactly the districts of the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, and differed from the army’s military districts–a difference later heightened by the merger of the Volga and Ural military districts (leaving seven federal okrugs and six military districts). Five of the seven new envoys were generals, and many of their staff, and of the federal inspectors in each of the eighty-nine provinces, were drafted in from the special services.

The envoys appear to have a high degree of latitude, because they operate in widely differing ways, with varying degrees of success. All seven of the initial appointees are still in office, though around half of their staff and the regional inspectors have been replaced. The envoys, along with the heads of the security structures and other “presidential” departments, are members of the Security Council, and they meet regularly with the president. Their staff, modest in number, work in conditions of secrecy that amounts to an information blackout.


To this day it is still not entirely clear what the goals of the reform were, and, hence to what extent they have been achieved. The declared aims were fourfold, if not wider.

–Bringing regional legislation into line with federal legislation. The envoys have busily reported the percentages of disputed or amended laws that have been “brought into line.” However, many of these laws were redundant, while new laws were being created in places like Bashkortostan and Tatarstan as fast as old ones were retired. After a year or so, when the envoys reported that they had completed this task, they were then–like something out of a Russian folk tale–assigned a new and even harder task, to reform the legal system at the local level.

–Coordinating the activities of the territorial organs of federal power and personnel work. The envoys preside over newly recreated “colleges” with representatives of federal agencies, plus innumerable commissions and councils.

–Attracting investment and promoting small businesses. The envoys have taken to presenting themselves as intermediaries between international business and regional administrations, taking overseas trips and meeting foreign leaders.

–Delimiting the powers of federal, regional and local authorities. This includes work on the repeal of the special bilateral agreements between Moscow and individual provinces, which had been the hallmark of Yeltsin’s approach to federalism, and which had undermined a unified federal policy towards the regions.

But none of these depend on a new tier of okrugs. The Kremlin’s goals would thus seem to exceed those officially declared.

The federal okrugs are rapidly developing into a new tier in the territorial state structure. Several dozen okrug-level structures have been created by various federal agencies, giving Moscow a real presence, with an effective system for gathering and disseminating information on the status of the provinces and the activities of both the local authorities and the federal structures. This structure is being actively extended downwards in the creation of a network of offices, open to the public, designed to receive complaints and meet with social organizations.

Control of the territorial organs of federal power has been taken away from the regional administrations, and the system of rotating public servants that was standard practice in Soviet times has been restored–and, with it, the homogeneity of the administrative domain. The system of close ties between regional administrations and the security forces, the courts and business that emerged over the past decade has been broken up. In a number of cases even businesses are being brought under federal okrug control.

The envoys play an important role as intermediaries between Moscow and the regions, but, for all their efforts, they have not secured direct control of federal financial flows.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Kremlin was an active and generally effective player in the last round of gubernatorial elections, during which a third of the governors were replaced. Elections are the best time for getting involved in and establishing friendly relations with a region’s key players. In eight regions the Kremlin succeeded in dissuading or blocking the incumbent from running again. Direct interference was most clearly seen in those cases where FSB chiefs were “maneuvered” into the position of governor, in Voronezh, Smolensk, Kursk (unsuccessfully) and Ingushetia.


The federal reform is a litmus test of the effectiveness of the Putin administration, and of its capacity to deal with future challenges. Observers have advanced different explanations for the federal reform.

–Perhaps Putin was “fed” the idea of reform as a distraction from more important matters, or he merely picked up this familiar tool to demonstrate his determination and effectiveness.

–It was part of a careful strategy to strengthen the “power vertical” and gradually weaken the executive power of elected governors (as has occurred in Moscow and Sverdlovsk Oblast).

–It was simply preparation of a government infrastructure, a duplicate system, for use in the event of a crisis.

All three of these logics may have been part of Putin’s decision. Yet the list is not exhaustive. Because several pieces are simply missing, the jigsaw puzzle can be arranged in different ways.

The most important aspect of the reform is the question of power. This goes beyond the simplistic notion of a “war on the governors” … it is in fact more appropriate to talk about the acceptance of their surrender. Equally important was establishing presidential control of all the security structures and law enforcement organizations (the siloviki), and establishing a control system to bypass the presidential administration, headed by Aleksandr Voloshin, that Putin inherited from his predecessor.

As far as the security structures are concerned, replacing ministers on impulse would achieve nothing. What was needed was to find a way to break the vicious circle whereby the headquarters were unable to control their regional operatives. It is relevant to recall the failure of Anatoly Chubais’ 1997 efforts to strengthen the role of presidential representatives in the eighty-nine regions: These figures were just too structurally dependent on the regional governors. Similarly, bureaucratic intransigence thwarted the military-administrative reforms of 1998, which had envisaged transition by January 2000 to an integrated okrug network, and which also failed.

The first stage of Putin’s federal reform saw regional heads of the security heads ousted en masse. The second stage, beginning in April 2001, saw a blitz on the top brass: defense and interior ministers replaced with key players from Putin’s team, the previously dismantled Ground Forces Main Command reinstated, and the Internal Troops Command reinforced with army generals.

The cadre base for federal reform was the FSB and the Federal Tax Police, and the center for its implementation was originally the Security Council. Why use the Internal Troops districts as the geographic basis for the new okrugs, and not the military districts, subordinate to the defense ministry and General Staff? Because you don’t put new wine in old bottles. The Internal Troops had been nurtured by Boris Yeltsin into an effective 200,000 strong force, well financed and equipped. They were not under Defense Ministry control, and enjoyed a substantial degree of independence even within the Interior Ministry. Moreover, by grafting army generals into senior Internal Troops posts, Putin increased the latter’s controllability and loyalty.

Restoring a single chain of command, the aim of 1998’s military administrative reform, has been partly achieved. According to some sources, it was expected prior to April 2001 that the single commander in each okrug would be the presidential envoy. Subsequently, when Sergei Ivanov became defense minister, this was revised to the military district armed forces commander. Amalgamation of the rear services of the various departments, as planned under Yeltsin, is currently going full speed ahead in the Far East, which has been chosen as a test-bed for the implementation of military reform.

Against this background, we can see why the president chose men in uniform as his envoys. The reform project as a whole, both in its development and implementation, belongs to the siloviki. Who else is capable of effectively managing (sometimes commanding and sometimes keeping out of the way of) the siloviki in the regions, and those among the staff of the presidential envoys?


The most important of the tasks originally assigned to the federal okrugs has therefore been accomplished. But the federal okrugs themselves are certainly not a tool with only one role. There are several reasons for their retention in the foreseeable future.

The federal okrugs have become a universal matrix for the far-reaching reorganization of numerous federal structures and have thereby acquired great momentum. In many respects they reproduce the “power vertical” of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They have become an integral part of Putin’s political system, helping to create a monolithic society and shaping it along semi-military lines, involving subordination, a clear division of responsibilities, and tight administrative control of business and the institutions of civil society. It would be extremely hard to remove them without destabilizing the entire system.

Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences. For several years he led the regional project at the Carnegie Moscow Center, where he is finishing the White Book on Democracy in Russia together with Mike McFaul and Andrei Ryabov.