Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 101

The main event of the past week was undoubtedly President Vladimir Putin’s three legislative initiatives aimed at reforming Russia’s federal relations. Putin outlined the measures in an address on national television on May 17. They include: (1) changing the way in which the members of the upper house of the Russian parliament–currently made up of regional governors and the speakers of regional legislatures–are chosen, (2) amending the law to allow the president to fire regional governors and dissolve regional legislatures if they violate federal law, and (3) giving regional governors analogous powers in respect to the mayors and legislatures of towns and cities on their territory.

The national press interpreted Putin’s initiatives as a major step toward recentralizing power in Russia, but the reactions of regional leaders were more mixed. In general, regional leaders reacted calmly. Clearly they had anticipated the president’s measures and many of them, strange though it may sound, seemed even to welcome them.

The changes in the way the Federation Council is to be composed raised few objections, creating the impression that few regional leaders are really interested in maintaining their senatorial status. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was one of the few regional leaders who criticized Putin’s initiative. Luzhkov objected that Putin’s idea of replacing governors and speakers in the Federation Council by their nominated “representatives” did not correspond to the Russian constitution (Radio Ekho Moskvy, May 18). Others among the few opponents of the president’s initiative objected that no one other than the regional leaders themselves could know the interests of their regions and represent them in parliament. Ulyanovsk Oblast Governor Vladimir Goryachev expressed this view (Narodnaya gazeta, [Ulyanovsk], May 19).

A majority of Russia’s incumbent “senators,” however, seemed quite prepared to leave parliament. Though their seats in the Federation Council give them immunity from criminal prosecution, their deputy’s status seems to mean little else to them. Perhaps they know that their best guarantee of immunity comes not from Federation Council membership but from their influence in the Kremlin and, even more so, in the regions they lead. As for the future make-up of the Federation Council, there seems little doubt that, given the method for selecting its members (as before, they will not be chosen in popular elections), they will be people fully controlled by the governors.

The State Duma could, however, create problems. Members of the Duma’s federation affairs committee complained during a May 18 session that the regions would now be represented in parliament by the “lovers and nephews” of the incumbent governors (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 19). Naturally, the governors hope to keep a channel for legally expressing their opinions and for influencing Putin. Thus they have already put forward the idea of creating an extra-constitutional consultative council under the president. According to Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, the possibility of such a state council is already under official consideration (Itar-Tass, May 19). Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev and Vologda Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev also favored this idea (Itar-Tass, May 18-19).

Formulating legislation to force regional executives out of office is more complicated, yet this proposal, too, has few open opponents. Ingushetia’s President Ruslan Aushev declared that “no one has the right to remove a president other than the people who voted him into office” (Moskovsky komsomolets, May 19). Following Putin’s address to the nation, Moscow’s Luzhkov pointed out that Russia’s laws and constitution already allow for using the courts to unseat governors (Radio Ekho Moskvy, May 18). Luzhkov’s broadside turned out, however, to be a case of shooting blanks. A closer look at the legislation accompanying the president’s initiative suggests that its bark is worse than its bite. The removal of a regional leader is quite complicated, requiring two court decisions that the leader has violated federal law. Once the Duma debates the proposal, the procedure is likely to be made even harder to put into practice. And if that does not happen, the Federation Council will veto the initiative; whereupon the Duma is unlikely to override the veto since most of the Duma deputies were elected with the support of their local governor (Russian agencies, May 18-19).

The procedure for empowering the president to dissolve regional legislatures that have passed anticonstitutional laws opens yet another can of worms. Daniil Tabaev, speaker of the Altai Republic’s State Assembly, was just one of the speakers who strongly opposed the idea (Russian agencies, May 19). Indeed, speakers were often more outspoken than regional executives. Tatarstan’s President Shaimiev, for example, came out in support of Putin’s initiatives, but Farid Mukhametshin, speaker of Tatarstan’s State Council, warned in no uncertain terms that the president would be exceeding his authority if he tried either to dissolve a regional parliament or to fire the head of a republic. “The president may raise this question,” Mukhametshin declared, “but only the local representative and judicial organs may consider it” (Vremya i dengi, [Kazan], May 19).Vladimir Platonov, head of the Moscow City Duma, echoed his view (Russian agencies, May 18).

Given the close relations between local officials at regional levels, it is hard to imagine that these statements had not been coordinated with the regional governors. This hints at the form that resistance to Putin’s initiatives is likely to take: By denying the president the possibility of cracking down on the regional legislatures, the governors may use the legislators as shields for their own actions and thus remain beyond the president’s reach. Otherwise, the governors seem reconciled to the idea of tougher presidential control: They know full well that their power rests not on formal legislation but on informal opportunities and secret actions, and that these cannot be restricted by the measures that Putin has proposed so far.

Regional governors are of course happy with Putin’s proposal to give them powers of appointment to local government bodies and their heads. A particularly enthusiastic reaction to this proposal came from Magomed-Ali Magomedov, speaker of Dagestan’s State Council (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 19). The State Duma may put up resistance in this area too, however. Some Duma deputies–for example, Vladimir Ryzhkov–see Putin’s draft legislation as an attack on the rights of local government and a violation of the Russian constitution; this view has also appeared in the national press (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 19). Moreover, any attempt by the Duma to restrict the governors’ powers vis-a-vis local government could help to bolster the governors’ resistance to other points of the president’s program.

The Kremlin’s position in this instance is clear, while that of the regional leaders, for all their superficial expressions of loyalty to the presidential initiatives, is murky. The only thing that is clear is that the governors feel reasonably confident that they possess enough strength and funds to confine the effects of the president’s initiatives to an acceptable minimum. The president is more likely, therefore, to engage in protracted bargaining than all-out attack. Any concessions that the governors eventually make will be a sign that they have received something in return. This bargaining will, in turn, serve as a prologue to the real struggle for the redistribution of power in the country. But that, it seems, lies still some way ahead.