Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 2

By Ilya Malyakin

It is more than nine months since Vladimir Putin declared his “crusade” against separatist sentiments in the Russian regions. Having started with the war against the blatant separatism of Chechnya–which became his ticket to the presidency–he continued to play by the rules he had selected.

His proposed package of bills, interpreted by the public as the beginning of a crushing attack on Russia’s regional barons, was passed by the State Duma in the face of opposition from the Federation Council. That was the first shot of a war which all the “warriors” were already fed up with by January 2001. However, having started it, they all found that it was not as easy to leave the field of battle as it was to enter it. No one likes to capitulate, but in order to agree to call it a draw, it is necessary to have a proper discussion of the terms. These terms should allow the president’s team to declare him the victor at least in word. The regional bosses do not need to be feted in public–they will be quite happy if they are simply left with the real powers and authority they currently enjoy.

Both the governors and the president would of course prefer to leave the field as victors. It looks as though absolutely everything has been thrown into the battle, but neither side has managed to turn the tide in its favor. The recent round of gubernatorial elections gave each side a number of local victories, but politics is not basketball: Eventual victory here does not depend on who has more points. The Russian press have told their readers in great detail about what would constitute a real victory for the president’s team. It would mean, specifically, that a “rigid executive hierarchy” would be created; that regional laws would not merely conform on paper to federal legislation, but would be seen to do so in practice; that the governors would be under the president’s control, which would include the power to dismiss them; that the federal structures operating in the regions would be completely independent from the regional authorities; that control of financial flows in the regions would be transferred to Moscow; that the governors would be downgraded from national politicians into ordinary local economic planners who do not have a serious influence on the decisionmaking process in the Kremlin; that the “administrative resources” they command (the range of informal powers on which the governors’ real might is based) would be cut right down; and that the Kremlin would have the ability to influence the outcome of gubernatorial elections as it saw fit. This may not be an exhaustive list, but it is quite sufficient to give and idea of the sheer scale of the “political territory” Putin’s team must seize in order to achieve a real victory.

Some success has already been recorded in meeting the tasks listed above. The creation of the system of federal districts (okrugs) has dealt a blow to the governors’ ability to control the branches of federal structures operating in their regions; the issue of transferring control of financial flows to the president’s special envoys has been raised; regional legislation has been audited to assess its conformity to federal legislation; the president has secured the legal right to dismiss transgressing governors from their posts. On top of this, regional leaders have lost the right to dismiss the mayors of local administrative capitals in their regions, which has dealt a severe blow to their ability to mobilize their “administrative resources” (a considerable part of which is controlled by the mayors, who have now become the governors’ main political rivals). The Kremlin has become actively involved in gubernatorial elections as an independent political player pursuing its own interests, and has been successful on a number of occasions.

However, on closer inspection all these achievements are significant primarily from a public relations perspective. They can be fashioned for public consumption into myths about a strong, centralized state. But they are not enough to radically change the balance of power in Putin’s war.

There were three distinct phases to Moscow’s offensive against its opponents in the regions. Phase one–outwardly the most successful–involved “preparing the artillery” by pushing the necessary legislation through parliament. Everything here was carried out almost to perfection, and it was this phase which produced most of the enumerated successes. We will not mention yet the hidden–and not so hidden–glitches which emerged during this phase. We shall return to these below.

Phase two of the offensive was timed to coincide with the round of gubernatorial elections in the autumn and winter of 2000. The launch of this phase was announced well in advance, and was accompanied by a wide-scale publicity campaign. The aim was clearly stated: To demonstrate the Kremlin’s ability to influence the formation of local political systems in the regions of the Russian Federation, and to remove the most “awkward” customers among the governors. During this phase, however, the attack, which had begun as a centralized offensive, dissolved into numerous individual battles. None of them actually affected the overall outcome of the campaign, or had any influence on the balance of power in any of the similar clashes in other regions. Among the Kremlin’s indisputably resounding victories during this phase were those of their favored candidates in the Voronezh and Ulyanovsk regions and the republic of Marii El. In each of these regions the “strong” incumbent was defeated by Moscow’s placeman. There were less impressive victories in Udmurtia and Kaliningrad. The governors notched up convincing victories too–for example in Bryansk, Volgograd, Kurgan, Chita, Stavropol and Khakassia.

However, in most regions the logic of the election results was not so simple. They cannot be simply defined as a victory for one side or the other. In Kursk, for example, a court ruling barred Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi from running in the elections, and at first this looked like a victory for his federal opponents. However, victory at the polls went not to the Kremlin-backed former head of the local FSB, Viktor Surzhikov, but to the communist Aleksandr Mikhailov. The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that the Kursk regional elite simply tricked its Kremlin partners, doing a deal with them to get rid of the unwanted Rutskoi (given present political realities in Russia, it would have been impossible to secure the local court ruling barring the governor without support from within the oblast), but then filling the void with its own man. It is no secret that Rutskoi’s arrival as head of Kursk Oblast met with opposition from the local elite right from the start.

This was a very typical result. In a whole series of regions the stand-off between the Kremlin and the governor resulted in victory for a third party. Usually this “third party” was the KPRF–in Ivanovo and Kamchatka, for example. Another variation on the theme was that the incumbent governor would voluntarily decline to stand for reelection, becoming the region’s representative in the Federation Council instead. This is what the head of Krasnodar, Nikolai Kondratenko, and of Chukotka, Aleksandr Nazarov, each did. It is only with some reservation that these two cases can be described as Kremlin victories. In the first, the governor resigned his post, having himself selected his “successor” and ensured his victory; in the second, it is debatable to what extent the victory was down to the Kremlin, and to what extent it was down to the man who won the election–Moscow oligarch Roman Abramovich (it is even debatable whether the Kremlin actually wanted him to win).

Meanwhile, the activities of Putin’s team during the January elections in Tyumen are extremely curious. Here Governor Leonid Roketsky was challenged by Sergei Sobyanin, deputy to the president’s envoy in the Urals. Sobyanin, naturally, was a “Kremlin man.” But it is also common knowledge that Roketsky himself enjoys Moscow’s support. The president was clearly well disposed towards him: Roketsky was the first person he nominated from the Urals district for a place on the presidium of the State Council–an advisory body made up of governors by way of compensation for losing their places in the Federation Council. Further confirmation of Putin’s regard for him came later, when the president Putin kept Roketsky in the State Council after he had lost the governorship. In other words, either the Kremlin team lacks any sort of basic unity, preventing it from pursuing a consistent and successful policy, or they are going by the somewhat curious principle that they have to win everywhere they can–even if they don’t need the victory. But then another possibility is that the Kremlin’s role in the Tyumen battle was negligible–they simply backed both main candidates so that any result could be proclaimed as a victory. At any rate, that was the tactic successfully employed in Udmurtia, where elections were held for the republic’s president for the first time on October 15.

It goes without saying that this second phase of the offensive is not yet over and done with. It can hardly come to an end before gubernatorial elections are held in all the Russian regions. But in early 2001 the wave of elections slowed to a trickle, and the president’s team was faced with the question of where to attack next–if indeed they should attack at all. In principle, one possible line of attack was identified when the president signed the law granting him the right dismiss governors from their posts. This law came into force on February 1, presenting Putin with the need to demonstrate his political will and his ability not just to secure himself this right–which even Yeltsin did not possess–but also to use it in anger.

So, Putin needed someone to dismiss. And there was a suitable candidate– Primorsky Krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. There was a catastrophic energy crisis in Nazdratenko’s region; Thousands of local residents were regularly being left without heat and electricity during biting frosts. There were constant calls from all sides to dismiss the governor, who had lost control of the situation; his image in the eyes of most Russians was irretrievably damaged by the media. Moreover, as if by magic, the crisis in Primorye suddenly began to get disastrously worse at just the right moment. It has to be remarked here that the nationwide energy crisis this winter had a very peculiar quirk: During the round of gubernatorial elections, the crisis worsened in precisely those regions where the Kremlin was hoping to replace the leaders–indeed, it worsened just prior to the vote itself. Voters who had had to manage without heat for long periods of time must surely have played a major role in defeating the “unsinkable” governor of Ulyanovsk, Yury Goryachev, and Marii El President Vyacheslav Kislitsyn. Yet what happened in those regions is nothing in comparison with the crisis in Primorye. It is true that the situation was just as catastrophic in many other regions of Siberia and the Far East–in fact in some places it was even worse (Civil Defense And Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu let this slip at a press conference once). But the media just kept talking about Primorye–hardly mentioning Sakhalin or Yakutia.

In a word, Nazdratenko was a carefully prepared target for demonstrating the president’s ability to use his new powers. But this was when the glitches from the first–and very successful–phase of the offensive came to light. During its finetuning in parliament, the law on the dismissal of governors was transformed into an instrument which was practically impossible to use. In order to oust Nazdratenko, it was first necessary to find a violation of the constitution or of legislation of which he was guilty. After legal confirmation of this violation, the governor would have two months to correct it; after these two months, the president could issue a warning, upon which the Primorye governor would receive another period of grace. The other option–temporary suspension from his duties by order of the prosecutor general–required that he be accused of some particularly grave felony. On top of all this, the consent of the Federation Council would have been required for Nazdratenko’s dismissal.

All this meant that there was a string of potential complications, and the favorable conditions for an offensive–that is, the cold weather–would be lost. Putin lost his patience. It is not known what was said during his telephone conversation with Nazdratenko which led to the governor’s resignation. But it clearly had nothing to do with the president’s new legal right. As for powers not enshrined in law–well, Yeltsin had had those too. And Yeltsin used them. Even if we ignore the governors he fired whom he himself had originally appointed, there is still Bryansk Governor Yury Lodkin, who was voted into power but was stripped of his post for “incorrect behavior” during the crisis of autumn 1993. This did not stop Lodkin from winning election again and holding onto the governorship to this day. In this context, Putin’s victory in Primorye does not look very convincing at all–indeed, technically Nazdratenko resigned entirely of his own accord. And until the next gubernatorial elections themselves, this victory will be overshadowed by the possibility that the former governor will run and win–as his colleague from Samara Konstantin Titov has already done, or as Kemerovo Governor Aman-geldy Tuleev is planning to do. The upshot is that everything depends on the ex-governor’s own goodwill–as he does not miss the opportunity of pointing out. But even if Nazdratenko is content to make do with his new post as head of the state fisheries committee, the elections will probably enable him to keep power in the hands of his own team–and there is little the Kremlin can do to stop him doing that.

But enough of Nazdratenko. Suffice to say that the Russian president has not managed to exercise his new right. He preferred a strategic loss in exchange for a short-term tactical victory. So what next?

Here Putin’s team runs up against a problem which it clearly does not know how to resolve. It would of course be possible to continue the battle using the same methods. However, the president cannot be very happy with these methods. We should remember that he began the battle (at least in the eyes of the public) as the duly elected head of state, following his vested rights and acting in accordance with the law. This was how his battle in parliament for the “president’s legislative package” looked, as discussed above. To a great extent both the creation of the system of federal districts and the subsequent work of the president’s envoys to bring regional laws into line with federal ones, fitted into this picture. However, the second phase of the offensive shattered this impression. By getting involved in a battle to change the line-up of governors, Putin quickly went beyond the bounds of his declared policy and began to stoop to the level of his opponents, whose authority is based not so much on the law as on their informal powers–including the mobilization of their “administrative” resources and their muscle. He began behaving like a feudal lord locked in a power struggle with other feudal lords. And while the methods used in this battle were concealed during the electoral campaigns, in the case of Primorye it became impossible to disguise the fact that they too were totally feudal. Even during the various elections, a separate battle had to be fought with each governor on his territory with no guarantee of success; considerable resources were spent, and even when Moscow won they got nothing in return which might ease any future confrontation. They had to start all over again on every occasion.

But the round of elections is over, and now the duration, complexity and cost (in all senses of the word) of each campaign has multiplied. It took years of effort, dating back to the Yeltsin period, even to secure Nazdratenko’s resignation. Meanwhile, in order to run such campaigns it is essential to have a very good grasp of all the fine points of what is going on each region. The president’s team had the opportunity to see that its grasp was clearly insufficient–and situations like the one in Kursk, where defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, are a consequence of this. And there is one other thing of which the Kremlin team is evidently now convinced: It is impossible to remove a truly strong governor by legal means. He controls everything in his region, including the courts and “power” structures.

A clear illustration of the Kremlin’s powerlessness is provided by the saga of the third term for governors. Whereas federal legislation used to allow each governor to be elected for just two terms in office, in early 2001 this limitation was effectively lifted–most of the present regional bosses have gained the opportunity to stand for election for a third and even fourth term. But did Moscow have any alternative given that Bryansk Governor Lodkin was reelected for a third term on December 10 without asking anyone, and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev has made it quite clear that he intends to do the same? Shaimiev has at least allowed some time for federal law to be brought into line with his plans. Moscow, keen to save face, was left with no option but to take the opportunity presented to it, thus demonstrating once again that possessing the right to remove regional leaders is one thing, but actually having the opportunity to use it is something else altogether. The situation could now be saved by another legislative attack, like the one undertaken last summer. But the Kremlin is clearly undecided about what laws it can use to undermine the governors’ “administrative resources”–the main source of their power–without impacting on its own interests or damaging its image in the international arena. On top of this, it seems that the president’s team has lost the will to continue the war, which has become protracted and is certainly not abounding in real victories. Now, when the public relations aspect of the campaign is over; when public opinion does not react so keenly to slogan of the “battle against separatism”; and when even the Chechen operation has reached a dead end, and practically nobody has anything serious to say about when it might be successfully concluded–now it is as though the Kremlin administration has suddenly discovered the truth of the old adage: “It’s better to deal than to fight”. For example, the third term for governors could easily be swapped for a prolongation of the president’s period in office by increasing the number of terms he can serve or the length of each term.

Individual attacks are still being undertaken, but there is no system to them any more. An attempt has just failed in the Duma to raise the issue of replacing elections for governors with their appointment by the president, but on the other hand it has been decided that these elections must have two rounds. The chairman of the Central Election Commission Aleksandr Veshnyakov plans to propose an amendment to electoral legislation barring governors who have resigned from immediately standing for election. Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev has mentioned amendments being prepared in the lower house limiting the number of governors who can be elected to office for a third term. But there is no longer any evidence that the Kremlin is behind all of this. These are probably just echoes of the Kremlin’s original attack, which have survived through inertia and which are doomed to be quashed if not by the veto of the Federation Council–which the governors still control–then by the president’s refusal to sign them. This is the fate being predicted–with reference to the president’s Duma representative Aleksandr Kotenkov–for the amendment concerning two rounds for gubernatorial elections.

The president no longer wants war. Now, when it can be confidently stated that there has been no large-scale infiltration of the ranks of the governors by Kremlin placemen, Putin must remember that without the support of the governors who have received a mandate for the next four or five years, it will be impossible for him to achieve much of what he wants to do in the future. For example, his amendments to the constitution, which are discussed increasingly frequently, will not secure the support in the regions required by law. Moreover, Putin’s own reelection for a second term may encounter unexpected and very serious complications if the governors do not properly mobilize their “administrative resources.”

Individual battles will, of course, continue to flare up. But the short, vivid period of hostilities is coming to an end, to be replaced by a long, tedious period of dealing.

Ilya Malyakin is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.