Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 16

By Ilya Malyakin

Attempts by Russia’s regional leaders to intervene in the activities of the federal center and even to take control of it have already enjoyed a fairly long history. Such attempts were impossible in the Soviet period and the early stages of post-Soviet development, but after the subjects of the federation adopted the system of electing presidents (in the national autonomies) and then governors (in the krais and oblasts), they became a visible, significant and legitimate phenomenon. Only now, however, on the eve of the elections to the State Duma of the Russian Federation, have they finally become open and public, furnished with the necessary institutions and ideology. By this I mean the emergence on the political scene of the Russia’s Voice and All Russia electoral blocs.

The first major attempt by the regions to make their presence felt came during the crisis in the autumn of 1993. During the first few days of that crisis most provincial leaders expressed a relatively clear desire not to participate in the formation of “support groups” for the president and the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, but to distance themselves as much as possible from what was happening in Moscow, leaving the rival groups to resolve the conflict themselves. Against the background of this extended waiting game, Boris Nemtsov, then governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, came up with a startling initiative, proposing as a compromise solution that the president and parliament should both resign simultaneously, transferring all powers for the transition period–until new elections could be held–to the council of governors. At that stage, however, provincial leaders were not yet ready to back up their bid for serious powers with real action: Nemtsov’s proposal was not based on the firm position of the majority of them, who were given their posts not through the ballot box but by the president.

It was a completely different picture almost exactly five years later, in August 1998, during another crisis of authority in Russia, not as drastic as that of 1993, but no less dramatic in its own way. Following the dismissal of Kirienko’s government, against a background of direct confrontation between Boris Yeltsin and the State Duma–both of whom were for an extended period completely unable and unwilling to seek even a semblance of a compromise–the issue of redistribution of power reared its head once again, this time in a decidedly non-rhetorical manner. As mentioned, the government had ceased to exist in its previous form, and the prospects of forming a new, stable cabinet seemed rather unlikely. The president’s authority was to some extent paralyzed by the conflict with the Duma and the threat of the initiation of impeachment proceedings; the Duma, in turn, faced the threat of dissolution. It was against this background that the role of the governors rapidly began to develop. This time there was no need for anyone to propose the institutional legalization of this process. This had, in effect, already occurred much earlier, when the decision was taken to form the Federation Council made up of regional leaders. It was this body that for a while became the focus of stable state power in August-September 1998. The creation of the Federation Council was not the only factor which significantly altered the situation in 1998, compared to 1993. Two more interrelated changes had occurred. First, in 1993 and for some time afterwards, the subjects of the Russian Federation were divided into two unequal categories. National autonomies were in a far more privileged position than oblasts: They were able to elect their own organs of power, adopt their own constitutions and sign treaties with Moscow on the distribution of powers and jurisdiction. Meanwhile, second, the administration heads of most oblasts were unelected, appointed figures directly dependent on the Russian president, who had the power to remove any of them at any time, and indeed used this power on more than one occasion.

However, after October 1996, elections for administration heads were held in all subjects of the Federation, and these striking differences between the oblasts and republics of the Russian Federation quickly began to erode. Before this, there had been frequent discussions in Russian politics about the need to eradicate the inequality between oblasts and republics by curtailing the rights of the latter, but it is interesting to note that such talk now quickly petered out of its own accord. The real reason for this change became very clear by 1997, when it transpired that equality between the subjects of the Russian Federation was indeed being established, but this was happening spontaneously, with minimal input and practically no control on the part of the federal Center: It was taking place through the efforts of the governors alone. Naturally, therefore, the idea that the powers of the republican authorities should be curtailed was not even entertained. The process was moving in the exactly the opposite direction–towards extending the powers of the oblast organs to match those of the republics. By 1998 the process had been completed almost everywhere. In a significant number of federation subjects the local authorities had even managed to take control of most of the federal structures on their territories, but even this did not prompt the center to attempt to exert an active and intelligent influence on what was happening. The impression was that Moscow had parted with the regions entirely, granting them the right–in exchange for a modicum of loyalty–to undertake all sorts of social experiments, to establish the most unusual political and economic systems and even to venture within “reasonable” limits beyond the bounds of current legislation.

In the context of all the above, the next step taken by the regional leaders seems entirely logical. By now they were persuaded that the center would do nothing to counter their ambitions to extend to the maximum their powers in the territories they controlled, and that the center did not in fact have the real ability to do so. The regions now began “marching on Moscow,” openly intending not just to reduce to a minimum their dependence on the capital, but also to create organs of federal state power under their own control. With an excellent springboard in the form of the upper house of parliament, the regions–equally logically–launched their main offensive against the lower house. (Their prospects for “taking” the presidency are not yet backed up by the existence of a single candidate, or at least one supported by an overall majority, and in any case it would be impossible to make a move on the government without control of the Duma.) One of the main consequences of this new trend has been the formation of two relatively well-known electoral organizations, mentioned above: Russia’s Voice, led by Konstantin Titov, and All Russia, headed by Mintimer Shaimiev. This process was mirrored by the creation of Fatherland, led by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and the “new regionalization” of Our Home is Russia (ROH), which took place after Viktor Chernomyrdin’s dismissal as prime minister. It is these four forces which now dominate the regional “political market,” claiming to reflect the interests of the subjects of the federation.

At present Fatherland and All Russia seem to be in the strongest position. The former has the greatest representation in the provinces thus far, enjoying the support mainly of the “weak” and “average strength” governors who do not yet feel ready to enter the political fray independently or who have not yet defined their interests at a federal level. There are exceptions, however. Fatherland has the support of such strong regional leaders as Ivan Sklyarov (Nizhny Novgorod Oblast), Vitaly Mukha (Novosibirsk Oblast) and a number of others. Their decision to back Luzhkov is apparently linked in many ways to the fact that they missed the allocation of leading positions in the All Russia bloc, particularly, and for Sklyarov the decision is probably also related to his struggle for domination in the Volga region (by entering any of the other blocs he would have had to concede the leadership to his neighbors–either Shaimiev or Titov, or to the deputy chairman of ROH, Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitry Ayatskov). However, Fatherland cannot really be considered a fully “gubernatorial bloc”: It retains all the hallmarks, typical for contemporary Russia, of a centralized party structure created to further the interests not so much of various regions, but rather of a particular Moscow politician–Yuri Luzhkov. To all appearances, the governors joining the block are banking not so much on preserving and strengthening their current position, but rather on the potential future political dividends from Fatherland’s success at the elections to the Duma and Luzhkov’s election as president. If this were to happen, their support is likely to be rewarded.

On the other hand, some of the governors who officially support Fatherland are avoiding putting all their eggs in one basket. In many officially Luzhkov-supporting regions, organizations from All Russia or Russia’s Voice are active, and are even led by people close to the regional leaders. However, this tendency is universal–governors and presidential teams in all subjects of the Russian federation attempt to maintain good relations with several blocs at once, regardless of the officially declared allegiance of their leaders. Thus the head of Khabarovsk krai Viktor Ishaev is playing a rather complex political game, maneuvering between Fatherland and ROH, while in Komi Republic the regional leaderships of these two blocs have been taken by the two first deputies of the head of the local executive.

The All Russia bloc may be considered the second most significant political organization working with the regions, and it quite unequivocally claims to reflect the interests of the regional elites. This organization was created entirely outside Moscow–which fact alone places it in opposition to the federal center–and consists in the first place of leaders of subjects of the federation which have managed to acquire “special status” within the Russian Federation, whether formally or informally, and of certain economically powerful regions such as St. Petersburg, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. Unlike Fatherland, All Russia is tied neither to a particular political figure nor even to a concrete program. It should not be forgotten that the political organization supported by the governor–whether it is ROH, Fatherland or Russia’s Voice–quickly becomes the regional “party of power” almost everywhere. However, the case of All Russia is a little different. This organization has been joined mainly by established and well structured (albeit with no previous official status) regional “parties of power”, each of which is geared towards supporting its own leader, and which have reached a compromise thanks to their common desire to achieve greater powers for the regions at the expense of the Center and to their willingness to assume such powers themselves. Symptomatic of this is the fact that the All Russia structures in each of the federation subjects involved in this organization are practically autonomous and even have slightly different names. Thus the Tatarstan branch is called “Tatarstan–21st century”, the Perm oblast branch is called “Prikam’e–21st century” and so on. Furthermore, their founders do not hide the fact that this institutionalization of regional parties of power is dictated by the desire not just to prepare for the federal elections, but also to ensure as effective a solution as possible for the problems related to running election campaigns within the regions–above all to reduce to a minimum the chances of a “random” election result.

Much weaker is the Russia’s Voice bloc, which announced its inception almost before all the others but which is on a markedly smaller scale. Essentially it has a great deal in common with All Russia, but it has managed to unite far fewer federation subjects, and its team appears much weaker than those of its opponents. This is not really surprising: Whereas Fatherland is united around a future presidential candidate and All Russia is based on common interests in the “center versus the regions” confrontation, the emergence of Russia’s Voice was in many ways dictated by the personal interests of a particular regional leader. He may be quite a strong leader, but cannot compare to Luzhkov in terms of his influence or the level of his aspirations. Of course, in creating this bloc, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov once again demonstrated his ability to be an interregional leader, edging out others hopeful of assuming a dominant position in the Volga region–particularly Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov. However, this was where his success ended: In competition with Fatherland and All Russia, Russia’s Voice, focusing on a single but peripheral leader, has almost no chance either of attracting new subjects of the federation into its sphere of influence, nor of gaining political authority. At the same time, it is its isolation which has to a significant extent reduced the chances of the Russian provinces of securing even a partial “victory over Moscow” at the forthcoming elections, creating another split in the ranks of the provincial elite.

Finally, Russia is Our Home claims to have some influence among the governors. However, these claims are largely unfounded and are of a somewhat passive nature. After Chernomyrdin’s removal from the post of prime minister there was a rapid breakdown in the organizational structure of ROH. To a large extent the existence of the three political movements described above is due to ROH, particularly the existence of Fatherland, which many governors originally took to be ROH’s successor as the federal party of power. However, the movement now very much appears to be the outsider in comparison with its rivals. Nevertheless, it does have something in reserve: In drawing up the party list for the elections, consideration was given to the inclusion among the top three names of one of three influential governors who still support ROH. The names involved are indeed very well known: Dmitry Ayatskov, Viktor Ishaev and Mikhail Prusak (though Ishaev, as mentioned above, is inclining towards cooperation with Fatherland and thus appears to be the weak link in this chain).

It is clear that of these four organizations, only Fatherland has the undoubted ability, independently and with no allies, to garner the 5 percent of the vote required for the party lists and to secure seats for a large number of its deputies from single mandate constituencies. For the others the prospects for forming their own factions in the Russian parliament look highly dubious. For this reason, for as long as Russia’s Voice and All Russia have existed, analysts and journalists expected them to move towards resolving this problem, particularly in the direction of bloc politics. Fatherland was seen as the most favorable coalition partner for them. Russia’s Voice, however, totally rejected the idea of union with Fatherland and entered into a coalition with Chubais’ Right Cause and Kirienko’s New Force.

Although the choice of allies made by Russia’s Voice seems rather paradoxical if we recall that the liberal movements suffered a total defeat at the last elections and their popularity has hardly increased since then, its behavior is in fact quite comprehensible and justifiable. The fact of the matter is that Fatherland, which is foisting itself upon the governors as an ally, is in fact not their ally at all. In his style of behavior, his personal mythology, his management methods and many other features, Luzhkov undoubtedly appears to be close to the governors, but some qualification is required: His aspirations apply not just to the federation subject which he heads–Moscow–but to the whole country, and the logical implementation of these aspirations must inevitably lead not to the extension of powers for the regions–far from it–but to a very significant restriction of them.

Some governors have taken decisions on forming electoral alliances in their own regions without waiting for official sanction from the “party leadership”. Their decisions have been as a rule rather uniform, but effective–the governors attempt to unite all the local structures of the four political organizations under their leadership and to make them work as one team. This is what happened, for example, in Orel Oblast, where Fatherland became the focus of the alliance; the situation in Perm Oblast is heading in the same direction, but under the umbrella of All Russia. Thus the agreement recently made between Fatherland and All Russia will probably be not so much a union as a division of spheres of influence.

Thus the situation in which the provincial political elites find themselves on the eve of the elections to the State Duma is characterized by two circumstances. The first of these is a general increase in the aspirations of these elites to control the activity of the federal organs of power, and the second is the emergence of a new fault line between the subjects of the Russian Federation: Not only along the traditional lines of sympathy with the “communists” or the “democrats”, but along the lines of the allegiance of the governor’s team to the “regionalists” or the “federalists.” Furthermore the focal point for the federalists is typically provided not by the current federal power structures, which are clearly unable to withstand attack from the regions, but by the “future” structures, represented by the team of one of the main candidates for the next president of the Russian Federation. The second circumstance is the more important here, given that the events it generates on a federal scale are in a way a model for future development.

Ilya Malyakin is editor-in-chief for the Volga Information Agency.