Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 21

On January 25 the State Duma voted to amend existing legislation to lift, for most of Russia’s regional governors, the restrictions which had until then limited them to a maximum of two terms in office (Russian agencies, January 25). Deputies representing the pro-Kremlin Unity and People’s Deputy factions voted unanimously in favor. President Vladimir Putin’s team clearly played a role in achieving that outcome. Seen against the backdrop of Putin’s recent “war” against the regional barons, the outcome looks odd indeed. However, the Kremlin itself was a virtual hostage of President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan, who made it clear from the start that he would run for a third term regardless of how the Duma voted. Passing the legislation was therefore the only way for the Kremlin to maintain the illusion that the federal center had any power to influence a regional leader of Shaimiev’s stature.

Even so, some members of the State Duma were unhappy with the arrangement. On the eve of the vote some were still arguing for minimal concessions to be made to the governors. Vladimir Lysenko, chairman of the Russian Regions parliamentary faction, suggested that only those regional leaders who had not run for reelection before October 16, 1999–the date on which the law laying down a maximum of two terms went into effect–should be allowed to run for a third term. Only four governors fell into this category; naturally, Shaimiev was one of them (Russian agencies, January 23). This was in line with the recommendations of the Duma’s regional policy committee, which wanted to allow a third term only to the chief executives who had run for reelection in regions whose charters and constitutions did not, as of October 16, 1999, include a two-term limit. This also amounted to four regions: Tatarstan, the Komi Republic, Kabardino-Balkaria and Novgorod Oblast (Russian agencies, January 23).

A group of deputies headed by Georgy Boos, deputy chairman of the Fatherland-All Russian faction, proposed a further amendment: allowing governors to run for re-election, regardless of how many terms they had served when the original legislation came into force on October 16, 1999, as long as the charter of the region in question did not specify a two-term limit. This amendment would have expanded the list of eligible regions to thirty-five, including Moscow, whose Mayor Yury Luzhkov happens to be the head of Fatherland-All Russia (Russian agencies, January 23-24).

Boos’ amendment was rejected when it came before the Duma’s regional policy committee (Russian agencies, January 19). It therefore came as a surprise when, on January 24, a session of the full State Duma approved the amended legislation in its second reading by a comfortable majority of 244 votes and gave the “Boos amendment” full support. Some leading parliamentarians reacted very negatively to this turn of events. Vladimir Ryzhkov, formerly leader of the pro-government Our Home is Russia faction, called the new legislation “absolutely feudal” and pointed out that it would give Shaimiev and Luzhkov the chance to run not for three, but even for four terms (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 24).

Ryzhkov expressed himself mystified by the outcome of the voting. This seems naive. Many independent experts noted that the “Boos amendment” violated even the rather tenuous argument on which Kremlin lobbyists had based the first version of the amended law. As adopted in the second reading, the new law treated governors who had already served for six to eight years as if they had not yet served any term in office at all, and would be starting their terms only when they were next elected. It turned out, too, that virtually all the governors could invoke the “Boos amendment”–to do so required only that regional charters and constitutions be amended before Putin signed the amended federal legislation into law (Russian agencies, January 24). It seems highly unlikely that the Kremlin-controlled Duma would have acted in so radical a way without presidential approval.

It therefore came as little surprise when, on January 25, 235 deputies voted for the “Kremlin amendment” in its third reading. Voting against were 175, with one abstention (Russian agencies, January 25). The approved document states that “the term in office of the chief executive of a subject of the Russian Federation is determined without taking into account any term in office which began before this law entered into force” (Vremya MN, January 25).

Some press commentary has interpreted this event as signaling a change in the Kremlin team’s policy. The president had not previously tried to win over the governors, relying instead on the power inherent in his presidential position. Now, however, Putin seems to have changed his approach (Kommersant, January 25). Sergei Ivanenko, first deputy chairman of the Yabloko faction in the Duma, described the passage of the amendment as a “constitutional coup” paving the way for a third term in office for the Russian president (Russian agencies, January 25; see also the Monitor, January 30). If so, Putin is indeed thinking a long way ahead. Boris Nemtsov, head of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, predicted “the feudalization of the country” and said the Kremlin’s support for the law betrayed “the weakness of the federal authorities in the face of powerful regional leaders” (Russian agencies, January 25).

The legislation must still be approved by the Federation Council and signed into law by the president. There are unlikely to be further surprises. Shaimiev clearly believes he has the go-ahead from the federal center. On January 26, he announced officially that he plans to run for a third term. Tatarstan’s presidential election is scheduled for March 25 (Russian agencies, January 26).