Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 154

The past week saw Russian President Vladimir Putin sign the second law from the “federative packet” of laws with which he hopes to redistribute power between Russia’s regions and the federal center. This law–“On changing and amending the federal law ‘On the general principles for organizing legislative (representative) and executive organs of state power in the subjects of the Russian Federation'”–empowers the president, in certain circumstances, to fire the popularly elected leaders of Russia’s republics and regions. Its signature dashed any hopes the governors may have still had that Putin would agree to compromise and set up a conciliation commission to discuss a form of the law which would have taken account of at least some of their interests.

Some newspapers reported that Putin had also signed the third law of the packet, which aims to reform local government by giving the governors the right to fire the heads of local governments (except for the mayors of the regional capitals–that power the State Duma left with the president). The Kremlin denied these reports, though with the proviso that the president would sign the bill into law in the near future (Russian agencies, August 31). Word that he had done so, however, did not follow. Perhaps he decided to delay the final step in order to keep a trick or two up his sleeve–such as offering the governors the power to fire all mayors without exception–for use in future negotiations. Clearly the present situation requires the president to keep hold of as many high cards as possible, for it is equally clear that further bargaining with the governors will be necessary.

The Kremlin has won a battle, but not yet the war. The governors gave in over the Federation Council, but they have scarcely surrendered. The battleground has shifted to those regions where the Kremlin’s position is least steady and the regional elite most secure. The regional governors most ready to fight on their own turf are those who present Putin with the greatest challenge. These include Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. In Luzhkov’s case, the battle will be fought over the mayor’s sacred cow–the “propiska”–Moscow’s special system for registering the city’s permanent residents. In addition, anyone who wants to stay in Moscow for any length of time is required to pay for temporary registration or risk being thrown out of the city. The Constitutional Court has already ruled that this system violates Russian citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of movement, but Luzhkov has flatly refused to rescind it.

Despite the recent statement by Georgi Poltavchenko, “governor-general” of Russia’s Central federal district, that the constitutionality of several of the capital’s legal norms will have to be reviewed, Luzhkov still refuses to budge. The city authorities insist that they see no grounds for overturning the registration procedure. A key argument of those who favor maintaining the capital’s registration regime is the fact that, according to unofficial data, a third of all crimes committed in Moscow are carried out by out-of-towners (Radio Ekho Moskvy, August 3). But Nikolai Fedoseev, who heads the Moscow city government’s housing policy department, responded to Poltavchenko’s challenge with a bald assertion that Moscow’s registration procedures do not contradict any existing legislation.

The position of Mintimer Shaimiev and the leadership of the Republic of Tatarstan is much more complicated and cannot be explained simply by the desire to hold on to this or that concrete privilege. Here the struggle is for retention of Tatarstan’s “special status,” which makes the republic a virtual state within the Russian Federation. Tatarstan’s leaders have not attempted to hide their position. Shaimiev himself has reminded journalists that the 1994 treaty between the Russian federal authorities and Tatarstan on the mutual delegation of powers can not be abrogated unilaterally and that its annulment would do no one any good. Tatarstan, Shaimiev has emphasized, is a powerful republic and its self-reliance is advantageous both to Tatarstan and to the federal center (Russian agencies, August 1).

Moreover, Tatarstan has an ally in its struggle. This became clear at a July 3 briefing in Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan, by the speaker of Tatarstan’s State Council, Farid Mukhametshin, and the speaker of Bashkortostan’s State Assembly, Konstantin Tolkachaev. Sergei Shakhrai, the one-time Kremlin aide who masterminded Yeltsin’s 1993 constitution and who now teaches at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was also present. All the participants criticized the Constitutional Court finding recently published in the official newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, and the statement by Court chairman Marat Baglai, concerning the impossibility of the existence of additional sovereign states on the territory of the Russian Federation. Shakhrai, who understands the constitution as well as anyone, argued that since it describes a model for limiting the sovereignty of the regions, this implies that sovereignty inheres in the regions themselves–on the understanding, of course, that the regions’ powers do not infringe on the sovereignty of the Russian Federation.

Bashkortostan’s Tolkachaev argued that the Constitutional Court’s decision was “poorly argued from the legal point of view,” while Tatarstan’s Mukhametshin said he suspected that political considerations lay behind the Court’s finding. The finding, he said, represented a “step backward toward a unitary state.” It had been greeted without enthusiasm in Russia’s republics because “it called in question the achievements of a decade of democratic development in Russia” (Russian agencies, August 3).

Putin’s team has not yet reacted to any of these statements. Nor is it clear what measures the Kremlin will take if such insubordination continues. Of course, the Kremlin could try to remove the rebellious regional leaders from office, one by one. But this would be easier said than done where the leaders of Moscow and Tatarstan were concerned. It is hard to imagine the political upheavals which might follow an attempt to remove a provincial leader so strongly rooted in the regional elite as Luzhkov or Shaimiev.

Perhaps the center itself does not know to what use to put the increased powers it has won. The situation in Primorsky Krai speaks volumes: There the local branch of the Yabloko Party wants to use Putin’s new law to oust Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, whose misrule has created a series of catastrophic energy crises in his region. Yet a source in the presidential administration told the RIA-Novosti news agency that the president can remove the head of a regional administration “only on the basis of a court ruling reached after the prosecution has presented evidence that the regional leader has violated the constitution or federal law.” Depriving the population of electricity for up to eighteen hours a day does not apparently fit that definition (Russian agencies, August 2).