Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 55

The upper house of the Russian parliament saw the formation of its first faction last week. Because the rules of the Federation Council specifically forbid factional activity, the new group, which calls itself “Federation,” had to describe itself as a “group.” Federation, which has been set up to support President Putin, held its founding meeting on March 12 in Moscow’s exclusive President Hotel; the media were not invited (Russian agencies, March 11-12). On the eve of the meeting one of its leaders said that eighty-one members of the upper house were ready to join the new group (Polit.ru, March 11). The new body was already therefore close to commanding a majority of the 178 members of the upper house (Izvestia, March 13).

It remains unclear how Federation intends to support Putin’s policies. Those who hoped that this would be revealed at the press conference held by the group’s leaders were disappointed. Group coordinator Mikhail Margelov, who represents Pskov Oblast in the Federation Council, Valery Goregyad, who represents Sakhalin, and Aleksandr Nazarov, formerly governor of Chukotka who now represents that region in the upper chamber, revealed nothing which what was not already known. Goregyad claimed that the group had been created to prevent a split in the Federation Council while that body was being reformed, but he did not say how it would be achieved. Almost the only interesting piece of news coming out of the press conference was that Federation, contrary to rumors, had no plans to remove Yegor Stroev from the post of parliamentary speaker (Polit.ru, March 14; Russian agencies, March 15). As for Stroev, he did not, at first, hide his misgivings about the usefulness of parliamentary groups (Polit.ru, March 13). Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov bore Stroev out, describing the upper chamber as “a society of regions” which should not be politicized and saying he had no plans to join the new group (Russian agencies, March 14). Stroev and Luzhkov seemed chiefly concerned that Federation was encouraging factional activity in the Federation Council, even though its members behave like independent politicians. “If someone wants to make friends, let him make friends,” Stroev said. “He will nonetheless be called upon to vote in accordance with the wishes of those who sent him to represent them in the Federation Council” (Polit.ru, March 13).

The regional elite also seemed worried about this issue. Aleksandr Uss, head of the Krasnoyarsk Krai legislative assembly, made no bones about his disagreement with the way the upper chamber was being reformed. The new law on the Federation Council, Uss argued, had left unresolved the question of how regional representatives should cooperate with the state authorities and, specifically, how the former were supposed to monitor the work of the latter. Uss argued that regional leaders should be empowered to monitor the actions of their representatives. A member of the Federation Council is not, Uss pointed out, “an independent actor in the political process. He is a representative, nothing more.”

Meanwhile, the new members of Federation Council were flexing their muscles and not, as one newspaper put it, “shy about demonstrating their influence” (Izvestia, March 13). They paid little heed to the opinions of the elected governors–all of whom will soon have had to give up their seats in the Federation Council. The number of new Federation Council members is growing steadily. As of March 14, when five new members took their seats, the total stood at forty-four new members, a quarter of the whole (Russian agencies, March 14). Even so, the process is going more slowly than expected. At one time, it had been assumed that half of the Federation Council’s 178 members would have been replaced by the spring of this year (Polit.ru, March 14). Those who launched the Federation group pin their hopes on this continuing process and seem confident that they will be able to recruit the new members who replace the old regional leaders (Izvestia, March 13). They plan to replace the old members, who saw themselves as above party politics, with a new group of fully politicized representatives (Segodnya, March 14). The plan seems to be that a majority of the Federation Council’s members will join Federation; no other groups are expected to be set up. In the end, therefore, the “federalists” may not even need to repeal the ban on factional activity in the upper house (Izvestia, March 15).

Some argue that the Federation Council should play a more active role in the legislative process. These observers are not happy with the current system, in which the Federation Council is effectively reduced to the role of checking up on the work of the State Duma (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Segodnya, March 16). In any case, the Kremlin and its “support group” want to speed up the process of replacing the Federation Council’s members before the governors have time to regroup and fight back. Federation accordingly plans to ask those governors and heads of regional legislatures whose terms are due to expire on January 1, 2002, to vacate their Federation Council seats ahead of time. One of Federation’s members was recently quoted as saying that a chamber made up of “nonentities sitting out their terms” could never work effectively. According to this critic, the governors and speakers should have a livelier interest than anyone else in an effectively functioning Federation Council (Polit.ru, March 14).

It is unlikely that the old-time governors, who have already worked out their plan of resistance, will heed such exhortations. They seem to have opted for the old principle: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” By the end of last week, the number of Federation Council members supporting the Federation group had grown to 100. They even included Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov, who ran against Putin in last year’s presidential elections (Segodnya, March 16). And Stroev himself suddenly announced that Federation, the group whose formation he had so recently deplored, ought to include ALL the members of the Federation Council, “in order to vote properly and in harmony” (NTV, March 18). Putin seemed, at least for a while, to have Russia’s new senators eating out of his hand.