Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 222

The State Council of the Russia Federation, President Vladimir Putin’s new creation, met for the first time on November 22 (Russian agencies, November 22). This was a significant occasion. Putin agreed to create the State Council last summer, after he had succeeded in amending the law on the Federation Council. The heads of the executive and legislative bodies of Russia’s eighty-nine regions were put on notice that they would, by January 2002, be required to vacate their ex officio seats in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. As a consolation prize, they were offered seats in a new consultative body, the State Council. However, this new body had no status under the Russian constitution or Russian law.

The first session of the new body was invited to debate Russia’s state symbols. This is quite a controversial issue, given that one option under discussion calls for a return to the old Soviet anthem, but it is hardly the stuff of high politics. Also on the agenda was a similarly worthy yet insubstantial issue: a program for Russia’s development up to the year 2010 proposed by the governor of Khabarovsk krai, Viktor Ishaev (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 23). Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov put forward another version of the program. As if to underscore the State Council’s (so far) purely consultative nature, Ishaev declared that both versions would be presented to Putin and the president would be “invited to choose between them” (Russian agencies, November 21). Those liberal members of the government who attended the session (Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Trade and Economic Development Minister German Gref and presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov) winced openly and made no attempt to hide their disapproval when Ishaev came up with such proposals as boosting the economy by inflating the money supply and favoring those banks which provide credits to the “real economy” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 23). The newspaper Izvestia wondered whether the Kremlin was ready to abandon market liberalism to take account of Russia’s “incomprehensible yet eternal peculiarity” (Izvestia, November 22).

The regional leaders had another agenda, however. What they really wanted was to be seen to be setting a precedent and using the mechanism of the State Council to make an input into federal policy. Therefore, the governors attached considerable significance to Ishaev’s report. In their view, it prompted a useful discussion mutually beneficial both for the president and for the regional leaders. For example, Tatarstan Republic President Mintimer Shaimiev hailed Ishaev’s report as “a serious attempt to fill the strategic program with a regional perspective” (Russian agencies, November 22).

Putin was clearly not inclined to make it easy for the governors either to set precedents or to consolidate into an effective political force. Instead, he gave the governors until February of next year to put their heads together with the federal government and to come up with a medium-term plan for Russia’s development (Russian agencies, November 22). It is tempting to see this as busy work. Chuvash Republic President Nikolai Fedorov, who spearheads the regional opposition to Putin, summed up the president’s actions as “military cunning” (Russian agencies, November 23).

So far, the question of what the State Council will become and whether it will replace the Federation Council remains open. Turovsky, head of the regional studies department at the influential Center for Political Technologies, called the creation of the State Council a “compromise.” The governors, Turovsky argued, are in a tricky position. “They must prove that the State Council is necessary and important. Putin has hung before them a soap bubble that they must fill with content” (Noviye izvestia, November 22). In fact, the governors are seeking to fill the bubble not with abstract content, but with real power. To this end, they have begun to agitate for adoption of a federal law on the State Council.

The media made much of Putin’s words at the State Council’s opening session, where he exhorted the new body to assume the functions of “a political body of strategic purpose” but warned it not to attempt to usurp the government or parliament as a policy-setting body (Radio Ekho Moskvy, November 22). The governors appear confident that they will, over time, be able to build the new body into something of significance; at present, it seems far from certain that their ambitions will be realized.

In general, relations between the Kremlin and the regions are growing increasingly complex. No one talks any longer about the unqualified triumph of Putin’s centralization. Having exchanged the Federation Council for the State Council, the governors have, through their appointed representatives, kept control over the former while receiving as many as two new bodies in exchange. At the end of December, the State Duma is to debate the creation of a council of the heads of legislative assemblies of Russia’s republics and regions (Russian agencies, November 20). It is common knowledge that most of the heads of regional legislative assemblies are under the thumbs of the governors. If Putin hopes that creation of this new body will provoke a split in the ranks of the regional elites, he may be disappointed. It may merely cement them further. The president’s struggle for power with the regional barons is far from over.