Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 150

Last week saw the culmination of the struggle between the federal center and the regional elites. The July 26 session of the Federation Council brought not the pitched battle between the senators and the president which many had anticipated, but a virtual capitulation on the part of Russia’s regional leaders.

As late as the eve of the session, senators were seriously discussing the possibility of vetoing, for a second time, the president’s bill on the new procedure for forming the Federation Council. After the upper house vetoed the bill the first time, a conciliation commission was set up consisting of representatives of the two houses of parliament and of the presidential administration. Many of the elements of the law which had provoked the Federation Council veto were removed, yet the senators threatened to veto it again not because of its defects but in connection with another of Putin’s bills–that which would, for the first time in the history of post-Soviet Russia, formalize procedures for the president to remove democratically elected governors and to dissolve regional legislatures. The Federation Council had also vetoed that law, and the governors hoped to use it as a bargaining chip. Although the State Duma mustered enough votes to override the Federation Council’s veto, the law still had to be signed by the president, and the senators seemed to think that the threat of a second veto of the law on forming the Federation Council might make Putin wary of signing the other bill into law. Since the governors could not, however, be sure that the Duma would not override their veto, they also, for good measure, threatened to veto the second half of the tax code.

In the end, common sense prevailed. The Federation Council passed both laws almost without debate: that on the new procedure for forming the Federation Council by a vote of 119 to 18, with four abstentions (Russian agencies, July 26). This means that regional leaders will depart the upper house at the end of 2001 (earlier for those whose elected terms expire before that date). The senators approved part two of the tax code by a vote of 115 for, 23 against, and five abstentions (Russian agencies, July 26). The Federation Council ignored the recommendations of its own budget and economic committees, which had urged that the tax code be passed but that the law putting it into effect be rejected (Russian agencies, July 25-26).

The national media seemed at a loss to explain the senators’ change of heart. The newspaper Vedomosti put it down to overnight negotiations between Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the latter’s unconventional ruse: asking the oligarchs to put pressure the senators closest to them (Vedomosti, July 27). Nezavisimaya gazeta speculated that the senators had simply grown weary of fighting “a hopeless battle” against the president and the lower house, and realized that buying time would not be enough to halt the reform (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 27). Segodnya was more down to earth. “The Kremlin’s blitzkrieg is developing into ‘trench warfare’. In order to speed up his reforms, the president must take up the creation of a State Council and Constitutional Assembly” (Segodnya, July 27).

The interest shown by the senators in the idea of a State Council and Constitutional Assembly indicates that they pin great hopes in these proposed bodies. This may explain why the governors softened their stance even though they possessed the means with which to combat the president’s initiatives.

No sooner were the results of the voting published, indeed, than Putin made what looked very much like the payoff. On July 27, he signed an order approving the upper chamber’s suggestion for the creation of a State Council. Both houses of parliament were invited to present their suggestions on the status and make-up of this body (Russian agencies, July 27). So far, however, the senators have little idea what shape they want the new body to take. Voronezh Oblast Governor Ivan Shabanov called on the Federation Council to take the legislative initiative and to submit to the Duma a bill “On the State Council.” In the initial phase, he said, the council might have only advisory status, but it should not remain a consultative body forever (Russian agencies, July 26). St Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev suggested that the State Council should have a “high” consultative role and be restricted to the heads of the “powerful” regions, numbering no more than sixty people (Russian agencies, July 27). Oleg Korolev, governor of Lipetsk Oblast, countered that the leaders of all the regions should be in the State Council, since any “exception to the rule is separatism” (Russian agencies, July 28). Altai Krai Governor Aleksandr Surikov called for the State Council to take over some of the functions currently belonging to the Federation Council, such as approving the imposition of states of emergency and the dispatch of Russian troops abroad. He called for the State Council to be included in the federal constitution (Russian agencies, July 28).

Indeed, a new theme emerged, with the governors insisting on the creation of a Constitutional Assembly to amend the 1993 constitution which, they argued, had been adopted hastily and therefore left scope for improvement. Farid Mukhamedshin, chairman of the State Council of Tatarstan, called for a review of suggestions for amending the constitution made by the regions (Russian agencies, July 26). Many regional leaders supported his view, apparently hoping to revise in their favor the results of the struggle between themselves and the Kremlin.

The senators had another reason to soften their position. On the eve of the Federation Council’s July 26 session, Putin urged them not to debate the amendments to the law on local self-government–the third bill in the Kremlin’s “federative packet”–which had been passed by the Duma. This bill had aroused controversy since it would allow the president to sack the mayors of cities. Given that two weeks have gone by since the Duma passed this legislation, it might have been considered approved and have been sent for the president’s signature (Russian agencies, July 25). However a speech by Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev immediately followed. Referring to a conversation he had had with Putin, Stroev said the president had promised not to sign the bill into law until the Federation Council had discussed it. Stroev alleged that the president was prepared to amend the bill in order to give governors the means to “exert influence” over the mayors (Russian agencies, July 26). As a result, the Federation Council discussed the law and rejected it (Russian agencies, July 26). At present, the bill remains in limbo (Russian agencies, July 31).

All this may suggest that the governors still hope to mount some kind of counterattack. However, they have lost momentum and are in a substantially weakened position. It seems unlikely that the president, now that he has gained the upper hand, will agree to give ground in the future.