President Vladimir Putin’s September 13 package of reforms to centralize political power was met with consternation by outside observers, who see it as a rollback of democratization in Russia. Independent observers inside Russia were also baffled. They had long lost any illusions about democracy, but they still hoped for resolute leadership from Putin.
Putin is wasting no time in implementing the new proposals: the appointment rather than election of regional leaders and the abolition of single-seat mandates that fill half the seats in the State Duma. On September 27 it was announced that a new bill on the appointment of regional leaders would be introduced within a week, with the intention of passing it into law by year’s end (Vedomosti, September 29; Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 28).
Putin has justified this centralization with his argument that Russia is under attack by international terrorism. Just as the Soviet Union fractured along the lines of its ethnic federation, so, too, do terrorists seek to exploit Russia’s ethnic and territorial divisions. Beslan was not just a spillover from Chechnya; it was intended to trigger a war between Ingush and Ossetians. As Putin explained to the Council for Interaction with Religious Associations on September 29, “We should forecast and forestall conflicts in which ethnic-confessional factors are present” (RIA Novosti, September 29).
Ethnic minorities account for 20% of Russia’s population, with most of them living in 21 ethnically designated republics. Half of them, about 15 million, are Muslim, concentrated in the republics of the North Caucasus and middle Volga. At his September 6th meeting with foreign experts, Putin said, “There are Muslims along the Volga, in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Chechnya isn’t Iraq. It’s not far away. It’s a vital part of our territory. This is all about Russia’s territorial integrity.”
The risk of new Chechnyas springing up is not unrealistic. In the North Caucasus there are strong tensions within ethnically mixed republics such as Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. But the situation in the Middle Volga is much less volatile. The Muslim republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan enjoy a high degree of political autonomy, are doing reasonably well economically, and have been experiencing a cultural (and religious) revival. There are some reports of Wahhabi agitators moving into the region, and in December 1999 Chechen sympathizers attacked a natural gas pipeline in Tatarstan (Russkii kurier, September 10).
At first glance, one might assume that Putin’s goal in abolishing elections for regional leaders was to stamp out opposition to his rule or to remove corrupt bosses. But it now looks like the actual goal is just the opposite: to keep the existing leaders in power. Under the old rules many regional leaders, including Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiev, would have to step down at the end of their second term. Under the new system, Putin can re-appoint them indefinitely. There was no sign that these leaders were opposing Putin, overtly or covertly. On the contrary, last year Putin stepped in to assist Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov win re-election. Putin already had the power to recommend the dismissal of governors for abuse of office (subject to court approval), but he never tried to use this authority.
Putin’s goal is stability, and his chosen means to that end is preservation of the existing power structures. He does not want elections upsetting the apple cart, exposing the flaws of regional bosses, and allowing protest movements to emerge. Yet Lilia Shevtsova notes that by restricting elections, Putin is undermining a side of the popular legitimacy that has been the most important source of his power (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 27).
There is no reason to expect Kremlin-selected leaders to be more effective than popularly elected ones. Contrast the performance of Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, who rescued 25 hostages in Beslan, while his Kremlin-sponsored replacement, Murat Zyazikov, did nothing.
Trying to put a positive spin on the new policy, Vladimir Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, told journalists that in the future governors would have additional powers, such as coordinating the work of federal ministries in their region. What does this say about the federal representatives and regional inspectors, a new bureaucracy created with much fanfare in 2000 precisely to carry out that coordination task? (Vremya novosti, September 29). Stanislav Belkovsky, the ideological protagonist of the attack on Yukos, writes with exasperation, “The Kremlin has spent five painstaking years building up its hierarchy of governance — and it has proved to be patently ineffective.” (Vedomosti, September 14). Even United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov admitted, “A reliable power vertical is not in place yet. Or rather it needs amending. The country is not quite controllable so far. This reform has been necessitated by life, rather than solely by the fight against terrorism” (Izvestiya, September 29).
Indeed, Russia’s governability problem is not confined to Chechnya. But Putin’s solution is to intensify an already failed strategy of bureaucratic centralization.