Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 23

…While the question “Who is Mr. Putin?” has yet to be answered definitively, there is a growing sense in Russia that Putinism, its rhetoric notwithstanding, is turning out to be little more than Yeltsinism with some new faces. Indeed, while Vladimir Putin began his first political year promising a “dictatorship of the law” which would ensure one set of rules for everyone and bring lawless regional barons under the strict subordination of a “presidential vertical of power,” the events of the last fortnight suggested that Russia’s high politics is reverting to its natural state–one dominated by Byzantine intrigue, fractious financial-political clans and behind-the-scenes deals.

The linchpin of Putin’s reforms has been his push to bring Russia’s eighty-nine regions under stricter control by the federal center. Earlier this year the Kremlin pushed through laws depriving governors and regional legislative assembly heads of automatic membership in the Federation Council, the parliament’s upper chamber, and allowing the president to dismiss regional heads who violate the law. He also created seven new federal districts and put authorized representatives–most of them military or special services veterans – in charge of them. Their main task has been to bring regional laws in line with federal law and the constitution. Yet on November 29, the Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, gave preliminary approval to a bill which would allow a number of governors to seek a third term in office–something currently prohibited by federal law. The move was supported by the pro-Kremlin Unity and People’s Deputy factions, who would not have done so without Putin’s approval. The bill appears to be a concession to Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, but, if passed into law, would benefit other regional strongmen. They include Yegor Stroev, governor of Orel and Federation Council speaker, Murtaza Rakhimov, the president of Bashkortostan, and Nikolai Fyodorov, president of Chuvashia and perhaps the most vocal critic of Putin’s centralizing efforts.

To top it off, Putin announced that he would meet with Duma faction leaders and members of the recently formed State Council’s presidium to discuss various key issues, including state symbols, changes to the tax code and a draft law regulating political parties. The State Council, which includes the regional leaders, had been widely dismissed as a meaningless consolation prize to the regional bosses for having been force out the Federation Council. Now, as the website put it, the Kremlin had agreed to give the council a “real means for influencing the most important political decisions.”

Indeed, Putin’s “dictatorship of the law” appears suddenly to be transmuting into the ad hoc power brokering and deal cutting of his predecessor. This may explain why a strong advocate of Putin’s power vertical, Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky, charged that the regional bosses on the State Council were plotting to reverse the Putin mandate and turn the council into “a parallel institution of power.” But while it was natural for some Putinites to resort to conspiracy theorizing, the real reason for the president’s apparent retreat from his centralizing plans may simply be that they had come up against an immovable force–the essentially unchanging (and perhaps unchangeable) feudal nature of power in Russia.