Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 2

By Ilya Malyakin

In 2000, on the strength of his first-round electoral victory and a political deal with the Communists in the Duma, Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed through a package of reforms intended to bring the regions more firmly back under federal control. A year ago, he asked Dmitry Kozak, his deputy chief of staff, to head a commission to recommend additional structural changes in federal-regional relations to establish, in Kozak’s words, “a single legal space for Russia.” Kozak delivered his report to Putin on June 1.

Kozak’s proposals launch Putin’s second wave of federal-regional reforms. In the first, Putin, by executive order, divided Russia’s regions into seven federal districts (okrugs), to be overseen by his plenipotentiary representatives. He then pushed through parliament a law removing regional chief executives and legislative leaders from their seats in the parliament’s upper chamber (the Federation Council) and replacing them with members chosen by regional legislatures. He also won the right to dismiss elected governors when they are charged with violating federal law. The swiftness and scope of these moves took governors and regional bosses by surprise. Their fear of his “Chekist” team prevented them from joining forces to resist the attack.

The second wave is different. It is notable for the detailed planning of its inception and the indeterminate nature of its outcome.

Let us start with the planning. The Kozak commission began its work a year ago. But in the course of a year much has changed. First, Putin has become a known quantity. The governors respect him, but they no longer fear him. They have come to understand his methods, if not his objectives. He is no longer seen as invincible.

In regional elections where he sought to defeat a troublesome governor, Putin by no means always achieved his aims. In the reformed Federation Council, which took office January 1, he has only the semblance of rather than genuine control of the chamber. And, despite having the right to dismiss offending governors from office, he has made no use of it.

And, like him, his plenipotentiary representatives in the seven federal districts inspire no fear. Profiling the most prominent of their number, Sergei Kirienko (head of the Volga federal district), the pro-Kremlin newspaper Argumenty i Fakty wrote that President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan treated him politely, as he might a waiter: “First he listens attentively, then he orders his favorite dish.”

Presidential representatives were to have brought regional legislation into line with federal laws. They have not succeeded. Stubborn regional leaders have refused to budge. Thus Tatarstan and Bashkortostan retain references in their constitutions to their own “sovereignty within the body of the Russian Federation,” though this does not correspond to federal legislation at all.

The experience of the past year has convinced the governors that Putin can be beaten. He frequently makes mistakes. He doesn’t have a sufficient resource base to wage a serious war in the regions. He is not even averse to making concessions. Furthermore, he and parliament are now a year closer to seeking re-election, the outcome of which depends on the regions. And there is no one in any given region who can influence that outcome more effectively than the governor.

Because Putin’s team has failed to achieve a radical overhaul in regional leadership, the time has come to ask what might happen if regional leaders were now to try and overhaul his team? His need for support from the regions reduces the prospect of a new “war with the regions” and suggests that the next wave of reform cannot be decided by him alone.

The Kozak commission’s general findings have inspired only tepid public discussion. Each of the commission’s recommendations looks clear enough, but the total picture they present is fuzzy. Putin considers that “the tasks set by the commission are unique in scale, significance and effect.” Certainly the work done has been on a grand scale–the Kozak team proposes changes to 135 current laws. But to what end?

The main issue is the delineation of powers. There is, for example, a proposal to define the level of government responsible for each area of healthcare and education. Responsibility for pre-school, primary and middle schools is assigned to the municipality. Middle and vocational schools go to the region. Higher education goes to the federal government. No one has objected. But the same approach is proposed in allocating natural resources. Kazak stresses natural resources as a national asset. Hydrocarbon deposits, for example, he says, are found in only twenty of Russia’s eighty-nine regions and large-scale deposits in only six. Forty percent of the earnings for these six come from the exploitation of these deposits. Kozak proposes to change this. The regions, he believes, should hold on to no more than 5 percent. This proposed innovation will draw fierce opposition from wealthy, mineral-rich regions.

Kozak also proposes to abolish the system of bilateral agreements between the Kremlin and many sub-federal governments. This move was expected. Although the majority of regions with agreements (twenty-eight of forty-two) have already scrapped them, many of the others are determined to keep them. For example, the leadership of Tatarstan, an ethnic Muslim republic of nearly 4 million people, regards the bilateral agreement (called a “treaty”) as the definitive system upon which the relationship between their republic and the center is based. They have no intention of altering that position. The Kremlin does not appear to have a way to force a change, no matter what it says to the contrary. It is not at all clear how successful the Kremlin will be in pursuing this “unification” of the law in cases where the regional elites reject it.

But it is the third element of the reform that raises the most questions of all. Just as the first wave of reform created federal districts headed by presidential appointees, the Kozak commission proposes in the second wave to create municipal districts headed by appointees of regional leaders. This is a real gift to the governors, who may be able to use their control of this new administrative layer to break the power of willful mayors who now torment them. What made Putin decide to make such a gift to the “regional barons,” when boosting their powers runs counter to his interests?

One theory follows the Kremlin’s official explanation: That the reforms complete the construction of a “rigid vertical of power” in which regional law conforms to federal law, the president enforces federal standards on the governors through the federal districts, and the governors in turn control local government through the municipal districts. The governors give up some power to Moscow and gain some power over local challengers.

But clearly not all the governors will consent to this. So a second theory emerges: That the Kremlin is paving the way for a different political deal, giving regional leaders power over mayors in exchange for support from those leaders for pro-Putin candidates for the State Duma and for Putin himself in the presidential elections.

Whatever the case, the “war of the regions” seems likely to turn into a great political bazaar. Whether the Kremlin believes the old saying “better to bargain than to battle,” there seems to be no alternative. The first wave of reform ran its course without securing a Kremlin victory over the regional barons. Because the Kremlin has little to bargain with, the second wave may end the same way.

Ilya Malyakin founded the Volga Information Agency in 1991 and remains its chief editor to this day. He also works as an independent regional expert with the Moscow-based International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies.