Do you remember Boris Yeltsin? He used to be president of Russia. While he was on the job, he hived off bits of the Russian state to buy support and stay in office. He let regional bosses assert sovereignty and define their relationship to the federation in power-sharing treaties. He gave whole industries, including publishing and broadcasting, to a few financial flim-flam artists, in exchange for small loans and political backing. His police and special services went moonlighting, turning public safety into a corrupt, private and for-profit business.
Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, used his personal popularity to restore the “vertical of power,” the familiar top-down command structure that fits Russia as comfortably as an old jackboot. He has taken on the interests that Yeltsin bought off, co-opted or signed on to. He has won most of his battles, but there are more to be fought.
Putin stripped regional leaders of many of their prerogatives. He created seven federal districts, each headed by a presidential appointee, to oversee federal programs and federal funds in Russia’s eighty-nine sub-federal governments. He pushed reforms through parliament that give him the authority–circumscribed, and so far never used, but available–to remove governors from office if they are indicted for serious crimes. And he secured legislation to remove governors and regional legislative leaders from their ex officio seats in the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament. That change cost the local bosses their immunity as sitting parliamentarians from federal prosecution.
The governors and regional legislators now appoint their Council representatives, but the new Council, which convened for the first time in January, is less able than before to protect regional interests against federal power. Indeed a number of members, named in carefully crafted political deals, appear to represent particular economic interests not necessarily linked to the regions that sent them to Moscow: According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, Saratov’s Valentin Zavadnikov and Leningrad’s Sergei Vasilev are senators from United Energy Systems, Khakasia’s Arkady Sarkisian and Samara’s German Tkachenko represent Siberian Aluminum, and Mordovia’s Leonid Nevzlin stands for Yukos Oil. The reconstructed Council may still occasionally obstruct the government’s legislative program, but probably not on a regional basis.
Putin has gone after a number of the oligarchs, with mixed results. In 2000, police raids and fraud charges rattled Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most, Vladimir Potanin’s Interros, Vagit Alekperov’s Lukoil, Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft and several businesses linked to Boris Berezovsky.
Gusinsky was crushed. The banker turned media magnate became Putin’s target when he backed Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov against Putin for the presidency in 2000. He compounded that heresy, and severed his ties to the Yeltsin crowd, when he turned his journalists loose to report Russian brutality in Chechnya. He was arrested and freed and fled into exile. The courts gave his properties to Gazprom, the state-controlled energy monopoly.
Berezovsky, another oligarch with a media empire, was also hounded into exile. Prosecutors issued warrants for his arrest on charges of financial fraud last October. Last week they charged him also with supporting “illegal armed formations,” apparently by ransoming Russians held captive by Chechen rebels in the mid-1990’s. The ministry of press affairs closed the last of his television properties, Moscow’s TV-6, in January (see Russia’s Week, January 30).
But the other oligarchs were merely chastened. For the most part, they abandoned the overtly political roles they had played in Yeltsin’s time and formed instead a kind of lobby, meeting jointly and severally with Putin and his aides on business issues. Putin assured them that he would not revisit the suspect deals that made them rich, and they have not challenged his authority.
Until now. On December 29, Boris Yeltsin gave a long and rare interview on the national, state-run RTR television network. Looking strong and speaking forcefully, he gave Putin the faintest of praise: “We were counting on Vladimir Vladimirovich’s probity and fine moral qualities,” he said. And after a long pause and a condescending smile, he added: “And we were not mistaken.”
Aleksandr Tsipko reports in the current edition of Jamestown’s Prism (www.jamestown.org) that the interview was broadcast on nearly every channel, yet went completely unmentioned in the press. Tsipko’s conclusion is that. despite Putin’s efforts to wrest the press from the oligarchs, Boris Yeltsin’s cronies still control the broadcast media. Yeltsin and his “Family,” says Tsipko, want to remind the country that they created Putin and ran the media campaign that secured his election. They hope to persuade Putin that political stability–meaning Putin’s reelection–requires a truce with Family.
The truth, however, is just the opposite. Russia had ten years of Yeltsin’s government. Most Russians, it’s safe to say, think that was enough.