The buzz in Moscow is all about the “vertical of power.” The phrase contrasts Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, whose presidency for long stretches was literally horizontal. But the phrase means more than that Putin is a stand-up guy. It means Russia is moving back to a centralized and hierarchical administration, with a president prepared to exercise all the powers that the constitution confers on him, and maybe a few more besides.
The political explosion of 1991 spun fourteen Soviet republics out of Moscow’s orbit entirely. It compelled Russia’s new federal government to conclude formal power-sharing arrangements with several of its constituent regions. But the force of that blast is clearly spent. President Putin’s Russian Federation will be more Russian and more federalist than what has gone before.
Putin signed on May 13 a decree that superimposes seven districts on Russia’s eighty-nine sub-federal regions. A “presidential representative” appointed to each district is to ensure compliance throughout the region with federal laws and policies. They are expected to have the power to grant or withhold federal benefits. The regions will continue to elect their presidents, governors, and mayors, but these chief executives are likely to find less and less to execute.
Regional leaders dutifully saluted. Mintimer Shaimiev, president of the ethnic republic of Tatarstan, said the new system “will serve as a more effective instrument for realizing the constitutional authority of the president of the Russian Federation.” Shaimiev, head of the “Russia’s Regions” political movement, was the first regional leader to conclude a power-sharing “treaty” (as it was called) with the central government. Tatarstan had its own passports, its own language laws, and for a while its own export controls and its own currency. Shaimiev’s endorsement of the district system is a recognition of Putin’s power.
Also in the works may be a “National Guard of the Russian Federation,” a force directly subordinate to the president, and available for deployment by the president’s representatives in the new administrative districts. Like the district system, the National Guard is another suggestion of the Center for Strategic Research, the think-tank that Putin created last December to prepare ideas for his administration.
Amazingly, Putin created the district system by decree, without the involvement of the legislature. Though individual members may complain, the pro-Putin Duma as a body is unlikely to object. The Federation Council, where regional executive and legislative leaders sit ex officio as the upper house of parliament, would seem likely to make more noise. But Putin’s think-tank proposes to get the governors out of parliament by shifting to direct election of Federation Council representatives. That move–which should require constitutional change–may not be far off.
Raid… When Vladimir Gusinsky arrived at the headquarters of his media holding company on May 11, three armed men in ski masks and camouflage stood at the entrance. Hours earlier, masked commandos with automatic weapons had raided the building, which houses the Media-Most holding company, NTV-Internet, and Memonet, all part of Gusinsky’s radio, television and publishing empire. Russia’s top prosecutor said later that the raid was his operation, a search for evidence of illegal eavesdropping and violations of bank-secrecy laws.
Over the next couple of days, Russian state-owned and state-backed media described material purportedly seized in the raid: tapes and transcripts of phone conversations involving Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo; tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais; and Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, among others. Media-Most issued a statement claiming the material was not seized in the raid and accusing the government of “disinformation, falsification and fraud.” The Berezovsky-owned newspaper Kommersant then said the wiretap transcripts had not been seized in the raid but had been purchased from Media-Most’s security subsidiary.
Gusinsky’s media properties include NTV, the only independent national network; Itogi, a popular weekly news magazine; Segodnya, a daily; and the radio station Ekho Moskvy. Almost uniquely in Russia, these news outlets have been critical of the conduct of the war in Chechnya and of President Putin. Using the techniques of Western-style investigative journalism, they have gone after corruption in high places, particularly among Boris Yeltsin’s close associates. They have also been supportive of Putin’s political rival, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, with whom Gusinsky has had a close and often suspect relationship since the late 1980s.
There is little question that the state is leaning hard on Gusinsky and wants to close him down. Media-Most investor Gazprom, the gas monopoly that is 35 percent state-owned, has threatened to pull out its money and call in its loans. The state has jacked up the fees it charges for broadcast licenses. State-owned RTR television accused Media-Most of ties to Israeli intelligence. Further harassment is likely.
President Putin, however, wants to appear above it all. “Freedom of speech and freedom of the media are immutable values,” said a statement issued by his press service. Perhaps Putin intends to crush Gusinsky with a fist of irony: On the day of the raid, he met in Moscow with Ted Turner.