Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 97

Putin’s rise to power provoked expectations, played up in the Russian media, that the Kremlin would adopt a tough stance toward the leaders of Russia’s eighty-nine republics and regions. By the middle of May, those expectations were already beginning to be realized. On May 11, within a week of his inauguration, Putin signed a series of decrees suspending laws passed by three Russian regions which, he complained, violated the Russian constitution since they dealt with issues that, according to the constitution, fall into the exclusive purview of the federal authorities. Putin’s measures are not expected to be his last. The Kremlin has reportedly drafted a further fifteen decrees for the president’s signature (Itar-Tass, May 11-12).

Among the legislation which Putin annulled was a decree of President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia, ordering the republic’s tax office to withhold part of Ingushetia’s tax payments to the center to make up for money that the center allegedly owed to the republic. Also annulled was an order by the Ingushetian government to the regional migration service not to issue work permits to people coming to work in the republic from abroad. Yet another concerned measures by the Amur Oblast authorities to regulate the passage of traders over the border between the region and China.

The Kremlin’s most serious grievance was with the Republic of Bashkortostan. In a letter to the speaker of the republic parliament, Putin pointed out that three articles of Bashkortostan’s constitution arrogate to the republic powers which, according to the Russian constitution, belong only to the federal authorities. These include the proclaimed right of the president of Bashkortostan to declare a state of emergency in the republic. Putin called on the Bashkortostani authorities to bring their legislation into line both with the Russian constitution of 1993 and with the bilateral powersharing treaty signed by Russia and Bashkortostan in 1994. (At the same time, commentators noted that the Russian president, while presenting Bashkortostan with rather tough demands, recognized the continuing validity of the above-mentioned bilateral treaty, which gives the republic a number of rights not enjoyed by other regions.)

Media reaction was rather positive. A number of national newspapers commented that, while the president had always had the power to repeal regional legislation, Yeltsin had rarely used it, preferring all kinds of correspondence and conciliation commissions. Putin, by contrast, intends to use his rights. Moreover, several commentators pointed out that, if Bashkortostan does not respond to Moscow’s warnings, Putin has many other levers at his command (Izvestia, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Segodnya, May 12). The precise nature of these levers was not spelled out, though Segodnya put the most sinister interpretation on the situation: “In the legal sense, the differences between Bashkiria and Chechnya are minor: Ichkeria is demanding that its independence be recognized de jure, while Ufa is implementing its sovereignty de facto” (Segodnya, May 12).

Commentators nonetheless noted that Putin’s actions were strangely selective. His toughness toward Bashkortostan was contrasted to his ignoring of the situation in the Republic of Tatarstan. Tatarstan’s laws are very similar to Bashkortostan’s and violate federal legislation no less. It might even be said that Bashkortostan copied much of its legislation from Tatarstan’s. And yet official sources say that so far the Kremlin has no plans to take Tatarstan to task.

All the regions which have so far caught Putin’s attention and most of those which have not possess large amounts of legislation which contradict federal law no less blatantly than the items so far singled out. President Aushev has, for example, legalized polygamy within his republic, yet Putin has so far left that legislation in force. Most common are restrictions on civil rights, including voting rights, and violations of civil freedoms, such as the infamous “propiska” system, that holdover from the Soviet period under which citizens are required to register their residence at a specific address and restrictions on choice of abode are applied which may curtail citizens’ freedom of movement. Nezavisimaya gazeta commented that the authorities in Moscow city, Stavropol and Krasnodar krais, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are particular offenders in this regard (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 12).

Putin’s most important initiative to date is his introduction of a three-level system of relations between the federal center and the regions, codified in his May 13 decree dividing Russia’s eighty-nine republics and regions into seven “federal districts” (Itar-Tass, May 13; see the Monitor, May 15). This will allow Putin to deal with regional leaders through seven “governors-general” who will oversee and coordinate the work of the regional departments of federal agencies (Such an arrangement was first proposed by Anatoly Chubais when he was head of the presidential administration in 1996.)

Putin’s decrees add definition to his image as a “gosudarstvennik” (statist). Some commentaries argue that they presage a move away from federalism and back to a unitary state. How they will work out in practice remains of course to be seen. So far, the response of regional leaders has been cautious in the extreme. Putin’s measures may, indeed, contain an element of intelligence gathering–a testing of the waters to determine whether the governors are in principle ready to shift to quiet but concrete dialogue with the federal center.