Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

Sergei Mironov has dropped his second bombshell in the little more than one month since he took over the job of speaker of the Federation Council, upper chamber of Russia’s parliament. First, he provoked a furious debate when he called for extending the presidential term in office. Then, on January 9, Mironov revealed that the lower chamber, the State Duma, would soon debate a bill on transferring some of the functions of the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg (Russian agencies, January 9-10).

In fact, the issue was first floated in the fall of 2000, when public opinion was sounded out and put up little resistance to the idea. Now, Mironov announced, a bill worked out with St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev is being examined by lawyers. It will then be sent to the Russian government. Once the government has added its conclusions, it will pass to the Duma. Mironov, who once represented the St. Petersburg legislature in the Federation Council, pointed out that St. Petersburg was purpose-built as Russia’s capital (by Czar Peter the Great) and already fulfils several of the functions of a capital: summit meetings are often held there and the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States meets there. These are all arguments, Mironov said, toward why the city should receive the appropriate financial compensation–and those who have proposed the new bill have drafted it in such a way as to allow St. Petersburg to receive both official status and financing suitable to its functions (,,, January 10).

The speaker’s pronouncement provoked consternation among those Moscow politicians who understood that, given the extent of control exercised over the parliament by the team of President Vladimir Putin, it will be up to the president–a native of St. Petersburg–to decide how many of the capital’s functions Moscow will transfer to Russia’s second city. Muscovite politicians are gloomily convinced that the “Petersburg lobby” is going to put its plans into action. As long as the bill is still under review by the legal experts, however, supporters of the scheme are cautious, and at pains to stress that what is at issue is not a matter of abridging Moscow’s status as the capital but simply of rationalizing an existing situation.

This point was stressed by Governor Yakovlev’s chief press officer, Aleksandr Afanasyev (, January 10). Mikhail Margelov, head of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, went further, speaking of the need to decentralize the institutions of federal power and suggesting that St. Petersburg, being “Russia’s imperial capital,” should be seriously considered as the location for certain federal government offices. Federation Council member Aleksandr Kalita went further still, suggesting that the Russian parliament might be transferred to St. Petersburg, while the government and head of state remained in Moscow (Russian agencies, January 11). Though these various positions differ, they all envisage an increase in status for President Putin’s hometown.

And while some politicians spoke against the idea, they did so mainly from an economic point of view. Federation Council member Nikolai Tulaev argued that such a step would place too great a strain on the federal treasury (, January 11). Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s economic adviser, also opposed the idea on grounds of cost, adding, for good measure, that when the Bolsheviks transferred the capital back to Moscow, Moscow suffered a loss of “cultural character” (Russian agencies, January 11).

So far, no one has offered a political or economic evaluation of Mironov’s proposal. Several observers have, however, pointed out that Moscow’s status as the capital is fixed in the Russian constitution, and warned that an alteration would violate the country’s basic law. This has provoked some Russian media to suggest that the constitution written under one president has proved “too tight” for his successor and should be changed to “fit” the latter (TV-6, January 11). Putin could of course clear up speculation over this issue, just as he did when he rejected Mironov’s proposal for an extension of the presidential term. This time, however, he is staying silent, as he has done in other politically sensitive situations. Until he speaks his mind, his silence is likely to be interpreted as support for the transfer of at least some of Moscow’s functions to his hometown.