Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 12

?The fortnight saw the first serious expressions of unhappiness with President Vladimir Putin’s plans to bring Russia’s eighty-nine regions under stricter control by the Center. The first sign of resistance in this area came from what was, at first glance anyway, an unexpected source: Boris Berezovsky, the Duma deputy, controversial tycoon and consummate Kremlin insider. In an open letter to Putin on the eve of a State Duma vote on the presidential initiatives, Berezovsky called the creation of seven super-districts administered by seven presidential representatives an “extremely dangerous” step which would stimulate Russia’s disintegration. He also said that he categorically opposed the Kremlin draft law which would give the president the power to remove governors and the heads of regional legislative assemblies. Berezovsky claimed not to oppose Putin’s efforts to strengthen the state, but said that this particular centralization initiative put into question the president’s commitment to democracy.

The immediate reaction of most commentators in the Russian media boiled down to this: Berezovsky always has ulterior motives and is not known for a deep faith in democracy, so what are his real motives? Some of the more conspiratorial-minded observers said that Berezovsky may have been trying to make himself indispensable to Putin by speaking out against the plan on the eve of the Duma’s vote, thereby ensuring the plan’s approval. This was not particularly convincing, given that most Duma members–unlike members of the Federation Council, which is made up of the regional leaders–were ready to support the plan in any case. According to another theory, Berezovsky, who was being squeezed out of the Kremlin inner circle and was worried that several criminal investigations into his business affairs could be put back onto the active list, decided to make common cause with other notables on the Kremlin’s black list–that is, the governors. Whether Berezovsky was in fact feeling heat from Putin is not known. But it is possible that the tycoon, who has often shown an uncanny ability to sense changes in the prevailing political winds well in advance, sensed that the regional barons–who, along with the oligarchs, were the main beneficiaries of post-Soviet Russia’s decentralized, almost feudal system–were prepared to mount a campaign of resistance against the Kremlin’s attempts to create a strict presidential “vertical of power.”

Whatever Berezovsky’s motives, a number of the regional leaders began openly expressing their dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s plan as the fortnight came to a close. And they were particularly vociferous about the provisions giving the president the right to remove them from office and robbing them of their seats in the Federation Council, which gives them immunity from criminal prosecution. Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev called the measure giving the federal center the right to remove regional leaders “a step backward.” Yuri Luzhkov, another recent target of the Kremlin’s wrath, warned that the plan to remove the governors and legislative assembly heads from the Federation Council would “radically reduce” its political status and that giving the head of state the right to remove regional leaders would lead to “arbitrary rule.” Perhaps the most ominous comment came from Murtaza Rakhimov, Bashkortostan’s president. He said that it made little difference to him whether or not he sat in the Federation Council, but added that “the president of a republic was elected by the people and only they have the right to remove them from office.” To some observers, this comment, which had more than a passing resemblance to some of those made in October 1993, boiled down to saying: “I dare you.”