Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 127

On July 26, President Vladimir Putin created a new commission to make relations between the federal center and the regions more equal and transparent (Russian agencies, June 29). The twenty-two-member body is to be headed by Dmitry Kozak, a deputy head of the Kremlin administration who is also in charge of preparing the judicial reforms currently under consideration by the State Duma (Russian agencies, June 26-27). Its members will include Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. Its task will be to come up with fresh proposals for dividing powers between the center and the regions and to ensure that, in Kozak’s words, “a single legal space” reigns in Russia. The forty or so bilateral treaties signed during the Yeltsin era and currently in force between the federal center and the regions must not, Kozak said, be regarded as the culmination of legal hierarchy. They should certainly not be allowed to take precedence over Russia’s constitution. In Kozak’s opinion, indeed, most of the bilateral treaties presently in effect contradict federal law. The new commission will accordingly enter into a dialogue with each Russian region in order to iron out these contradictions (Polit.ru, June 29). By August 1, district subcommissions are to have been set up in each of the seven federal districts (Polit.ru, June 26). They will have until the end of this year to present their suggestions to the central commission which should, in turn, produce its proposals for reforming the federal system by June of next year (Vremya Novostei, Izvestia, June 27).

The first of the bilateral treaties was signed by the Russian Federation and Tatarstan in 1994. Since then, such documents have been signed with slightly over half of Russia’s republics and regions. The agreements were always ambiguous–how can a state sign a treaty with part of itself?–but they served a useful function at a time (the early 1990s) when it looked as if the Russian Federation might fall apart just as the Soviet Union had done. A more serious problem was the lack of transparency in the treaties. None was identical and many contained unpublished protocols. This absence of transparency was bound over time to create problems and to impede the construction of an efficient federal system.

Larger regions such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have always set great store by the treaties, and are unlikely to give them up without a struggle. Over the past year, however, the governors have grown accustomed to the idea that the center is waging war against them and have ceased to fear its attacks. They therefore reacted quite calmly to the creation of the new commission. As is normal, the most active of them came out on the side of the president, but from their own perspective. Thus, Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov declared that the authority of the center and regions should be clearly demarcated and strengthened by means of legislation and that, while the center should take responsibility for national security, education, health care, ecology, foreign trade and customs policy, “the rest should be left to the regions” (RIA Novosti, June 28). Titov would, of course, like to leave with the center those areas, such as education and health care, that the regions have difficulty controlling and that that act as a drain on regional budgets. Rostov Oblast Governor Vladimir Chub said that, whatever authority the commission awarded the regions and the center, it should be bolstered with new sources of finance (Polit.ru, June 28). On June 28, the presidium of the State Council, a presidential advisory body made up largely of governors, devoted a session to interbudgetary issues. Its members voiced their opinions on the delimitation of authority, making it clear that they believed that the center was robbing the regions while simultaneously reducing their financial support (Kommersant, June 28). In the view of Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, the present method for constructing the budget gives the regions no incentive to improve their work (RTR, June 28).

Media coverage of Putin’s latest move echoed that given to his attack on the governors last year. For example, it referred to the Kremlin’s “new attack” on regions that had brought “more than 90 percent of regional legislation into line with federal [legislation]” (Kommersant, June 27). Certainty of the center’s ultimate victory has nonetheless decreased. Observers pointed out that the president had promised the speakers of regional parliaments that they would be represented on the new commission and that he was, in so doing, hoping to turn them into a counterbalance to keep the governors in check (NNS.ru, June 26). Other media suggested that, in the initial stages, the regional authorities were not threatened with serious changes. In future, however, the juridical basis for regional independence might be sharply reduced (Izvestia, June 27).

Similar prognoses were published a year ago, yet radical changes did not take place: The governors remain to this day the most powerful actors on their territories while the Kremlin is, as before, still their more or less successful rival. Hence the conclusion of some media commentators, that “the authorities have no clear picture of which powers should be shared and how” (Vremya novostei, June 27). As for Vladimir Lysenko, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee on federal affairs, he has dismissed the new commission as “a cozy spot for the senators, something along the lines of another State Council” (Vremya novostei, June 27).