Vladimir Putin’s drive to remake Russia got an extra lift from good poll numbers. The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) says 71 percent of Russian trust the new president, an all-time high. Whatever Putin may think of democracy–and by all indications it is not much and not good–he attends carefully to public opinion, to shape it and react to it in a modern way his predecessor did not understand. The good report from the respected VTsIOM suggests there will be no delay and no retreat on pushing fundamental reforms.
Certainly the Kremlin showed little give in responding to the first wave of criticism of Putin’s political reforms. Regional leaders may have been shell-shocked by Putin’s decree creating new federal districts between the regions and the Kremlin; they reacted feebly and late. But the reforms that require legislative action are getting more attention. The Kremlin’s package of bills to remove leaders from the Federation Council (the upper house of the federal parliament) and empower the president to dismiss elected governors and regional legislatures came under attack last week. The Kremlin did not budge.
Some of Russia’s best-known regional leaders–oblast governors, republic presidents, big-city mayors–across the political spectrum spoke out against the proposed reforms. Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, warned that replacing the regional leaders in the Federation Council would “radically reduce” the Council’s authority and ability to protect the country from “extreme situations”–meaning, perhaps, a presidential coup against the parliament. The president of Bashkortostan said that even if the reforms were enacted, he would not recognize the authority of the Federation’s president to dismiss an elected regional leader. Ruslan Aushev, the embattled president of Ingushetia whom Putin stripped of a general’s commission two weeks ago, said the reforms are “a step backward.” Aleksandr Lebed, the retired general who is governor of Krasnoyarsk, said the Federation Council is “alarmed” about the direction of Putin’s reforms but probably powerless to stop them. Boris Nemtsov, a former governor of Nizhny Novgorod and a leading right-wing (liberal) politician, said the country would become a “political slaughterhouse” if the president could use charges brought by his appointed prosecutors to dismiss governors elected by the people. Some people in the administration, Nemtsov said, “want to establish a dictatorship in country… a dictatorship of a corrupt bureaucracy.” Gusinsky’s arrest gives Nemtsov’s fears a certain prophetic weight.
The regional leaders play from a weak hand. The president does not necessarily need their support to enact his program. Even if the Federation Council votes the package down, a two-thirds vote in the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, can send the bills to the president for signature without the Council’s approval. The strong polls should help Putin in the Duma, where many of the deputies owe their seats to their identification with the president’s political alliance.