Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 106

The past week has seen the first indications that President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Russia’s regional leaders is beginning to bog down. And, while the governors are still trying to strike a submissive pose, there are unmistakable signs of resistance from regional elites.

Putin continued his attack, with an announcement last week that branches of the Prosecutor General’s Office will be established in each of the seven new federal districts (see the Monitor, May 25). So far, details of how this will work are vague. All that is known is that the prosecutor general’s deputies are to be the chief prosecutors in each of the districts, and that their new staffs have yet to be set up (Kommersant, May 25). According to Aleksandr Abramov, a deputy head of the Kremlin administration with responsibility for working with the regions, other federal “power structures” (the Ministry of the Interior, the tax police and so on) will also establish branches in the new districts (Izvestia, May 26). Sergei Stepashin, recently appointed head of the Audit Chamber, the federal agency which monitors how federal budget funds are used, immediately announced plans to set up branches of his organization in the new federal districts (Russian agencies, May 27-28).

These steps are no longer simply declarative. They represent a real attack on the governors’ powers, because they threaten the governors’ self-proclaimed right to exercise informal control over all federal institutions located on their territory, the “power structures” included.

These tough measures by the Kremlin were nonetheless tempered by concessions in a number of areas in which Putin had previously appeared unwavering. For example, the Kremlin seemed to agree to the creation of a presidential State Council–a consultative body which will give the governors an opportunity of influencing the highest levels of state power. This should compensate for the governors’ impending ouster from the Federation Council. Early last week, Putin would say only that he would think about creating such a body (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 24). By the middle of the week, the president himself was calling for the creation of such a council. Moreover, according to the governor of Yaroslavl Oblast, Putin had suggested not only that incumbent governors should become lifetime members of the new body, but also that some former regional leaders might also be included (Russian agencies, May 26). To be sure, the president attached a condition to his concession: that the governors agree to his proposal that appointed representatives from the regional governments sit in the Federation Council, not the governors themselves.

At the same time, there were reports, citing unnamed Kremlin sources, that Putin was “not opposed” to the amendment put forward by Federation Council members, removing the limit on the number of times oblast governors or republic presidents may be elected to office. At present, they are restricted to two consecutive terms. Aleksandr Abramov intimated, moreover, that Putin had proposed to the governors that they should approve his new draft laws now but that the changes should not take effect for three years. The governors, however, Abramov said, turned that suggestion down (Izvestia, May 26). There were also hints of other, no less significant concessions: for example, that the Kremlin might agree to go on consulting the governors before naming the heads of federal bodies in the regions.

Meanwhile, it became clear that the governors’ real position was very different from their public demonstrations of support. At first, it seems, regional leaders hoped to be able to put the brakes on Putin’s initiatives. The President’s subsequent steps shattered these illusions and forced the governors to switch from passive to active resistance. This obliged Putin to switch from “stick” to “carrot and stick.” Even so, there were signs that the going would get tougher. A growing chorus of governors began to criticize Putin’s proposals. So far, these have focused on the way in which the Federation Council is to be formed. This is not a matter of fundamental importance for the regional governors, given that the upper house should still be made up of their proteges, but it is an easy issue for them to defend. Even Kemerovo Oblast’s Aman Tuleev, who usually supports every Kremlin initiative, has criticized Putin’s proposals on this score. “If the president really needs to remove the governors from the Federation Council,” Tuleev snapped, “why doesn’t he just do away with the upper chamber altogether?” (Russian agencies, May 21). The President of the Komi Republic and the Governors of Irkutsk Oblast, Murmansk Oblast and Altai Krai also spoke out against the Kremlin’s proposals for the Federation Council.

Opposition is also building among the chairmen of the regional legislative assemblies, who have begun to form a center of opposition to Putin’s proposed changes. The legislative assembly speakers do not depend on Putin in any way and thus can say things that the governors prefer to keep silent about. The comments of Aleksandr Nazarchuk, chairman of the Altai Krai Council of People’s Deputies, were unequivocal. A majority of the heads of the regional legislative assemblies, he asserted, fear that, if they are excluded from the Federation Council, federal law will become divorced from regional legislation; when the matter comes to the vote, therefore, the regional speakers intend to insist on maintaining their Federation Council membership (Russian agencies, May 26). Finally, at the end of last week, the Kremlin stopped pretending that Putin’s proposals were meeting universal approval and conceded that the president’s reforms might run into opposition from parliament. Aleksandr Kotenkov, the president’s representative in the State Duma, acknowledged that Duma deputies representing single-mandate districts were coming under strong pressure from the leaders in their regions to vote against Putin’s initiatives. Kotenkov added that one “highly knowledgeable” police official had told him that, “As soon as the package of laws is passed, no fewer than sixteen governors will immediately find themselves in the dock, and many more will follow” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vremya MN, May 26). If Kotenkov thought he could cow the governors into submission with remarks like this, he was probably mistaken.

Federation Council members have set up a working group to ensure that the upper house has a unified position on the president’s draft laws when it meets for its next session on June 7 (Russian agencies, May 26). The working group will also liaise with the State Duma. It has the potential to turn into a center of resistance to the president’s plans.