Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 7

By Ilya Malyakin

On June 9 the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation had the final word on the two-year struggle by Russia’s governors to extend their hold on power. In spite of its contrived sophistry, this problem has been a measure of the state of one of Russia’s defining political dramas–the redistribution of power between the federal center and the regions, an issue that dates back to the summer of 2000 and President Vladimir Putin’s attack on the omnipotence of the regional barons.

The governors won from the Constitutional Court everything that they could hope for in the circumstances. Admittedly, the existing law restricting their period in office to two consecutive terms was not repealed, but the court decreed that these terms should be calculated from October 16, 1999, when the current Russian federal law “On the General Principles for the Organization of the Legislative (Representative) and Executive Bodies of State Authority in the Regions” was enacted. The fact that some governors had already been in their post for almost a decade prior to that date was ignored. True, local lawmakers retained the right to decide for themselves what should be the fate of their executive leaders, in those regions whose constitutions and statutes already contained, by October 1999, provisions limiting the governorship to a maximum of two terms. But the regional heads can usually find a way to square things with their legislatures.

The story of how the attempt to clip the wings of these governors-for-life had precisely the opposite effect is a good illustration of the relationship between the real and the imaginary in Russian politics. The original intentions of the parliamentarians were unambiguous. The law “On the General Principles…” is clear cut: An individual may be elected as head of the executive in a region no more than twice. However, by the end of 2000, the prevailing opinion in the Duma was that the governors had been treated unfairly; the law was in effect backdated, taking into account time spent in office prior to its adoption. As a result of the consequent “quest for justice,” an amendment was tabled, granting regional heads the opportunity to be elected for a third time, provided that their second term had commenced prior to October 1999. Some twenty governors stood to benefit from this, including the president of the Republic of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev. (It was commonly held that it was only in order to maintain normal relations with Tatarstan, which insists on its own special status within the Russian Federation, that the amendment even saw the light of day.) However, it soon underwent a radical modification–with the decision to completely disregard gubernatorial terms of office that had commenced prior to October 1999 in regions whose own statutes contained no “limiting” clauses. Thirty-five regions fell into this category, notably including Moscow, whose head, the highly influential Yury Luzhkov, had no intention of standing down.

However, at this point parliamentarians recognized that they had gone a little too far. In addition to Shaimiev and Luzhkov, the overwhelming majority of the governors–sixty-nine out of eighty-nine–stood to benefit from the new arrangements. As a result, in the summer of 2001 the Duma approved a new amendment (proposed by and named after Union of Right Forces [SPS] member Boris Nadezhdin), specifying that the only regional heads who could continue in office were those for whom the number of permitted terms was not restricted in their local legislation as of October 16, 1999. In this way, governors were deprived of the chance to extend their term of office simply by amending their regional statutes and constitutions. Shaimiev and Luzhkov hung on to their privileges, but the total number of regional chiefs left with this special status fell to nine. Out went such powerful figures as Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov and Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel. But then the Federation Council–the governor-controlled upper house of parliament–took advantage of its right to veto the law. In its second reading, the Nadezhdin Amendment won only 285 of the 300 votes needed for victory. This was thanks to deputies representing the Kremlin’s interests in the Duma.

Technically, what happened was that members of the Federation, a grouping of Putin’s supporters in the Federation Council, appealed to the pro-presidential Unity party in the Duma to “use all their influence” to prevent the adoption of the Nadezhdin Amendment. Unity responded by announcing their intention to support their colleagues in the upper house. They were joined by the satellite People’s Deputy group, and it was this that determined the outcome of the second vote.

The most recent attempt to salvage the spirit of the law “On the General Principles…” was an SPS appeal to the Constitutional Court. The court’s decision on the matter comes as no surprise. Nobody, with the possible exception of the judges themselves, has even attempted to analyze the outcome from a legal standpoint. Instead, as if with one voice, commentators are looking at events in a political context, in the light of which the actions of both the court and Putin’s supporters in the Duma appear to be perfectly logical.

Yet the efforts to present what has happened in terms of a sort of concession for which the governors will have to pay the price until the end of their extended terms of office are unconvincing. The fact is that elections are approaching in Russia, first for parliament, then for the presidency. To guarantee their success, the Kremlin team simply must reach some understanding with the regional elites, who have total control of the electoral landscape within their own territories. But rather than negotiate with the regions, the Kremlin spent the period of 2000-2001 trying to impose its will, so that now Moscow is obliged not only to seek some form of compromise but also to make amends for any offense taken.

However, in the case under discussion here, suggestions that there might be a pre-election truce need to be hedged with major reservations. First, Putin finds himself cast rather in the role of junior partner, given that several governors can now remain in office longer than he can, since he is also confined to just two terms. Second, the Duma, with its “quest for justice,” has never had any effective influence over the activities of regional leaders. Back in December 2000, Bryansk Governor Yury Lodkin was re-elected to a third term in office, without awaiting the completion of the parliamentary debate. Nor did Tatarstan’s Mintimer Shaimiev bother to seek Moscow’s consent to remain in his post, but promptly set a date for his third nomination, leaving the Duma only just enough time to bring federal law into line with his intentions. And the Duma really had to move fast in order not to lose face. Third, Orel Governor Yegor Stroev, who at the time was also speaker of the Federation Council, simply ignored the existence of the Nadezhdin Amendment. While parliament’s lower house was trying to overturn the upper house’s veto, he calmly carried on with his election campaign and emerged the victor in both battles.

Of course, the Kremlin could have brought pressure to bear on Lodkin, but the Bryansk governor had already been sacked once before, with the assistance of the special police troops, for supporting the Supreme Council rather than the president in the clashes of 1993. But while Boris Yeltsin, who had him removed on that occasion, relinquished the presidency way back, Lodkin resumed his governorship and holds on to it to this day….

Nor will the Kremlin easily forget one of the lessons of 1991, when governors were still appointed by the Russian president. Yeltsin had to recall his appointee as head of Ulyanovsk Oblast for the simple reason that no one in the region would follow his orders. The Kremlin’s spin doctors can say what they like about how much they have strengthened Moscow’s position in the regions, but they know full well that, if it comes to open conflict, the Russian president simply does not have the means to force a rebellious governor into submission. Regardless of any laws that the Duma might dream up, even the security forces remain within the sphere of informal gubernatorial control. So any hypothetical mutiny could only really be put down by the army–and then only if it were brought in from a neighboring region.

The latest Russian Constitutional Court decision therefore represents not a concession by the Kremlin, but a defeat in the war it has been waging with the regions. The federals are not, of course, fleeing the scene of battle, but retreating in an orderly fashion, with banners unfurled. They can still make out that there has been no retreat, and use the media they control to spread rumors about bribery of the constitutional judges, or to suggest that the governors have merely been “compensated” for forthcoming federal reforms, plans for which have already been drawn up by a commission led by the deputy head of Putin’s administration, Dmitry Kozak. Yet these same media outlets are obliged to concede that the Kremlin had no alternative anyway, because, in most cases, there is simply no one with whom the governors can be replaced.

But there is one more factor that may ease the pain of defeat for the Kremlin. After what has happened, the regional elite will appreciate much more readily a further justice, however specious the pretext, of allowing an extension of Putin’s own time in office. Of course, such a development would mark yet another rejection of democratic standards in the shaping of the executive bodies that now dominate the political arena. But in today’s Russia the word “democracy” has fallen right out of favor.

Ilya Malyakin founded the Volga Information Agency in 1991 and remains its chief editor to this day. He also works as an independent regional expert with the Moscow-based International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies.