Russian President Vladimir Putin may be having second thoughts about his decision to cancel regional elections and appoint governors with only pro forma confirmation by respective parliaments.
Just a year ago, the plan appeared to offer a perfect solution to the multiple problems of federalism, with its empowerment of regional leaders who build local support bases. Putin never liked that arrangement but in December 2002, he reassured Russian voters that the system of elections would continue because it was enshrined in the constitution (Grani.ru, August 3).
Then last fall Putin cited the Beslan tragedy as the pretext for scrapping this system, even if the “war-on-terror” justification was far from convincing. Opinion polls regularly confirm that more than 75% of voters would prefer to elect the head of their respective region and believe that their political rights have been infringed (Levada Center, July 1; Ekho Moskvy, June 16).
The regional elites, nevertheless, expressed broad support for this deepening of “managed democracy,” not least because it granted governors an opportunity to keep their jobs beyond the two-term limit. In June, for example, Putin re-appointed Vladimir Chub as the governor of Rostov oblast, prolonging a term that started back in 1996 (Izvestiya, June 15). Even such a mainstream commentator as Vitaly Tretyakov has argued that legitimizing this indefinite continuity of regional fiefdoms is one of Putin’s most serious political mistakes (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 23).
This mistake results from a conscious choice for preserving “peace” in the regions by supporting the most loyal elite groupings, but this summer the Kremlin has been drowned by a flood of local feuds. Regional politics has turned out to be full of high drama and the contestants, instead of resolving their conflicts in the local arenas, now bring them to Moscow. They all claim absolute loyalty and seek to secure backing from various mini-groups in Putin’s extremely closed “inner circle” by every available means. The problem is that it is only Putin who could make the final decision, since he refuses to delegate this responsibility either to his aides or to the “presidential envoys” in the seven federal districts, who are formally responsible for suggesting candidates.
Putin apparently finds this arbitration much less pleasant than he thought when this strengthening of the central control was initiated; he was embarrassingly late with finding a suitable person for Irkutsk oblast, and now he has to deal with Kaliningrad (Kommersant, August 15). Irritated by the amount of intrigue, he tried to order the local politicians to stop their bickering, but the vendettas he is dealing with cannot be stopped that easily (Gazeta.ru, August 10). So in most cases he prefers to issue the incumbent a new mandate even if that means preservation of such outrageously despotic regimes as Kirsan Iliumzhinov’s in Kalmykiya and Murtaza Rakhimov’s in Baskortostan.
Another and more serious problem is the distortion of the system’s distribution of authority between the center and the regions. In handpicking the leader, the Kremlin implicitly assumes responsibility for his (only St. Petersburg has a female governor) performance — and in most cases this performance is in reverse proportion to the proclaimed loyalty. This necessitates increased transfers from the federal budget in order to compensate for the financial “irregularities” — but that only encourages further corruption (Vedomosti, August 9). Seeking to break this vicious cycle, Dmitry Kozak, the envoy in the Southern Federal District and one of the few capable administrators in Putin’s team, suggested imposing direct financial management from Moscow for regions that depend on federal support for more than 80% of their budgets (Expert, July 25). There is, experts agree, a rational point in this suggestion, but generally taking the financial levers away from a governor appointed personally by the president is not going to improve the integrity of the system (Gazeta.ru, August 9).
A more “radical” solution was proposed by Konstantin Pulikovsky, the envoy in the Far Eastern Federal District, who suggested appointing Viktor Vekselberg, one of the richest entrepreneurs in Russia, the governor for Kamchatka (Newsru.com, August 9). This extravagant idea is based on the experience with Roman Abramovich, the most famous of Russian “oligarchs,” who a few years back got himself elected governor of Chukotka — and has sponsored a few projects in the region that make a significant impact on everyday life of its population. The real political message, however, is that such disaster areas as Kamchatka need leaders who know how to make things happen but do not need to steal the last kopek. Unfortunately, it is all but impossible to find such people among Putin’s trusted cadre.
Both Pulikovsky and Kozak appear to be desperate, and if the former is unable to reverse the economic dislocation of his vast region, the latter cannot extinguish the brushfire of violent conflicts caused by the paralysis of the system of power. He submitted an honest report on the deteriorating situation in Dagestan but Putin, paying a surprise visit to the region in mid-July, confirmed his confidence in the leadership of Magomed Magomedov, perhaps fearing that the slightest rock could sink this fragile boat (Ezhednevny zhurnal, July 18). For the same reason, Mustafa Batdyev remains in charge of Karachaevo-Cherkessia despite public protests against the gangster style of business adopted by his family (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 10).
The region Putin really worries about is Moscow, which remains under control of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose loyalty has always been questionable. The specter of a “color revolution” has perhaps slightly retreated during this summer, but the fearful Kremlin knows that it could suddenly reappear right at its gates, and the outcome would be decided by the rather unreliable capital. Seeking to weaken Luzhkov’s grasp on power, Putin appointed his deputy, Valery Shantsev, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, resolving with the same “master-stroke” the local power conflict (Rosbalt, August 6). Luzhkov, however, is focused on the forthcoming elections to the city parliament, assuming that a clean victory would make it extremely hard for Putin to replace him with a “man from St. Petersburg” (Gazeta.ru, August 13). By no means a “revolutionary,” Luzhkov understands all too well that the system of power has turned rotten beyond the Soviet standard. The all-powerful president is helpless to prevent the gathering storm, but the shrewd Moscow mayor expects to survive it — and join the yet unknown winner.