Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 5

By Aleksandr Tsipko

Not so long ago it seemed that Putin’s hardest task would be to put an end to the governors’ free reign. The elected regional leaders are backed by a population which supported them in the elections, and commercial structures created with their blessing. At the end of the day, the governors and republic leaders have grown accustomed to their freedom. The decentralization of Russia is a political reality. But now, just a month after the presidential election, there is no trace of the former regional self-confidence. The leaders have stopped playing their old games of confronting the Kremlin. They are instead falling over themselves to declare their loyalty to the new president.

In this context, it is revealing that the Federation Council gave Putin almost unqualified support in dismissing Yuri Skuratov as prosecutor general (133 for, 10 against) in its April 19 vote.

First, it attested to the unprecedented power of the new executive. The upper house–made up of the elected heads of Federation subjects and the heads of regional legislative assemblies–has been in existence for six years. The recent vote is one of the very few occasions that Federation Council has so clearly voted to accommodate the executive. Putin is a threat. Yeltsin was not. Three times during 1999 Yeltsin asked the senators to support his resolution to dismiss the disgraced Skuratov. (Yeltsin relieved Skuratov of his duties as prosecutor general for his attempt to launch criminal proceedings against the Kremlin’s chief planner Pavel Borodin for taking bribes from the Swiss firm Mabetex.) Three times the governors who controlled the Federation Council refused, oblivious to threats and remonstrations. In doing so, the governors were backing Primakov and Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, who were behind Skuratov’s exposures of corruption. But now the governors have been looking for a way of showing their loyalty to the new president. Extraordinarily, this time it was the governors themselves who suggested to Putin that he should submit the Federation Council with an official letter requesting Skuratov’s dismissal. On top of this, they were prepared to vote for any candidate the new president might propose as the new prosecutor general.

Second, the April 19 vote showed that the so-called “red governors,” elected with the support of the protest vote, are just as loyal to Putin as the so-called “white governors,” supporters of liberal reforms who triumphed at the elections thanks to the support of the Kremlin. The communist governor Tuleev even surpassed the liberal Ayatskov in manifesting his loyalty to Putin. The latest vote on Skuratov demonstrated that the “red” communist governors have finally moved over to the Kremlin’s side.

Third, it testifies to the fact that the issue of the legality of presidential decisions is now of secondary importance to the governors. In their determination to secure the support of the new authorities, they are prepared to vote for any of the new president’s initiatives, even unlawful ones. The upper house of parliament is now unable and unwilling to be the mechanism for restraining Russia’s traditional system of one-man-management. The governors are prepared to sacrifice the principle of the division of power for the sake of saving their own skins.

Fourth–and most important–the governors’ almost unanimous support for Putin in his desire to rid himself of the man bent on unmasking corruption in the Kremlin has shattered the deep-rooted myth that the governors and national republic leaders are independent of the Kremlin. It is not only Russian provincial governors who are falling over themselves to swear loyalty to the new boss in the Kremlin, but also the presidents of Muslim republics. It now transpires that the governors can pass for feudal princes; they were known as “regional barons” only because Yeltsin was a weak president and allowed the governors to do whatever they wanted–not pay taxes, adopt local laws which contradicted the Russian constitution, cooperate with and nurture the local mafia. Throughout the period of validity of his constitution, adopted in December 1993, Yeltsin did not relieve even one governor of his duties. This despite the everyday phenomenon of regional authorities merging with regional mafia structures. In fact, regional feudalism and the accumulation of power in the country in the hands of the “family” were a consequence of Yeltsin’s infirmity. The governors and regional leaders, the heads of Muslim republics and above all Luzhkov, Shaimiev, Rakhimov and Aushev decided to enter into a power struggle with Yeltsin (to which end they formed the Fatherland-All Russia opposition movement) only because the former president was ill and inactive, and had let things slide.

For a little while, at the end of the summer of 1999, it seemed that Yeltsin had lost all hold on power; it was lying in the street waiting to be picked up by anyone who passed by. But as soon as a new, energetic and tough president appeared in the Kremlin, everything was put back in its place and nothing remained of the regional barons’ previous willfulness. As soon as the young president arrived in the Kremlin–a president who, it turns out, is not one for jokes–Yeltsin’s de-facto confederation of independent republics and regions immediately began developing into a normal, relatively manageable federation.

The impression gained is that since Putin’s election as president, the danger of the collapse of the Russian Federation–about which our political scientists have written so much–has subsided. Separatism is gradually dying down even in the national republics, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The presidents of the national republics are now just as loyal to Moscow as the old first secretaries of the communist party were in Soviet times.

Thus the gushing loyalty of the governors to the new president demonstrates that there was no serious political base behind their previous freedom and arbitrary rule. Because Yeltsin did not really want to run the country, he relinquished many of his powers to the regions. But it now transpires that Russia’s traditional potential for centralism was strong even during the Yeltsin period. As soon as a leader emerged with a real desire to change things, the regional barons turned suddenly into loyal Kremlin vassals.

Things have developed to such an extent that the senators themselves have begun undermining the basis of their legitimacy and, to some measure, of their former independence; they have started asking Putin to abolish the practice of direct general elections for the heads of regional administrations, and to return to the old practice of appointment so that he can reestablish the power hierarchy as quickly as possible. This masochism has its own logic and motives. People find it easier to part with what has been bestowed on them rather than with what they have earned by the sweat of their brow. As politicians, the current governors have not moved a finger to secure the broad powers they now enjoy. It was Yeltsin and his team who introduced a clause into the 1993 constitution allowing appointed regional leaders to confirm their authority through direct elections. It was Yeltsin himself, pandering to democratic fashion, who included a clause in the 1993 constitution whereby candidates for the job of running regional law enforcement authorities were confirmed by Moscow but by agreement with the governors.

Yet from the start it was clear that state discipline would be greatly weakened if those responsible for upholding the law depended on regional authority. Current legislation gives the governors the final word on the appointment of, for example, regional police chiefs. The Interior Ministry thus has neither the freedom to pursue an independent staffing policy nor the ability to develop the unified management structure inherent to power structures.

This practice clearly enables governors to secure their own power and to conceal the true criminal situation in their regions. It is equally clear that when Moscow allowed local judges, politicians and prosecutors to be paid extra out of nonbudgetary, regional funds, the entire local law enforcement system ended up entirely in the pocket of and dependent on regional leaders. He who pays the piper naturally calls the tune.

Now that the governors realize that their feudal freedoms will be taken away in any case, they are keen both to show their loyalty to the new president and to demonstrate that they are interested in discipline and in reinforcing the so-called power hierarchy.

In the name of reinforcing state discipline, Putin will indeed need to strip regional separatism of its legal basis. In the name of consolidating justice in the country it is essential that the heads of the regional prosecutor’s offices, the courts, local police authorities and even local tax and customs departments are appointed by Moscow and are answerable only to Moscow. Putin will simply have to re-establish control over the whole system of law enforcement. Only then will the governors and the regional financial structures backing them begin to fear that they, just like ordinary citizens, may be held accountable for illegal acts. In the name of reinforcing the power hierarchy, Putin will have to outlaw nonbudgetary regional supplements to the incomes of judges, prosecutors and local police chiefs. As soon as the guardians of the law in the provinces stop eating at the table of the governors and mayors, their principles and sense of duty will be awakened–particularly as the Russian Constitutional Court has declared the practice of nonbudgetary financing for regional law enforcement bodies illegal.

However, many analysts believe that in order to restore the power hierarchy Putin does not need to abolish the current practice of direct elections for governors and presidents of national republics. And it is now clear that there is no political or social need for this either. The high level of legitimacy of elected governors is no barrier to state discipline if the president has the right to relieve them of their duties for violations of the constitution or illegal acts. It is no coincidence that the president’s administration is currently developing legal mechanisms for removing governors from their posts. In Russia it is fear, above all, that forces people to observe law and order.

In the current context, when the governors are loyal to the president, abandoning the practice of direct elections for regional leaders would be seen not so much as a sign of Putin’s strength, but rather as a sign of weakness and fear of public opinion.

The practice of direct elections for governors and presidents of national republics is in fact one of the pillars of Russia’s young democracy. Through these elections, once every four years the population of the regions has the right to express their opinion on the work of the local authorities, and show their preference for the most popular regional leaders. Direct gubernatorial elections are one of the few manifestations of public opinion in Russia which the Kremlin must heed. Yeltsin and his entourage did not want Luzhkov to be reelected as mayor of Moscow, but they had to reconcile themselves with the opinion of Muscovites, the vast majority of whom respect and value Luzhkov as an effective economic planner.

Of course, when there was no proper rule under Yeltsin, and when the Kremlin did not have the funds to fully finance local law enforcement bodies, the practice of direct elections provided a stimulus for separatism and the feudal tendencies of the governors. Yet it also had a positive influence on our political life.

The legitimacy of elected administration heads as opposed to appointed ones contributed to a strengthening of the legitimacy of the executive branch of power in Russia as a whole, particularly when Yeltsin’s legitimacy as head of state was weak, up until 1996. From December 1991 to July 1996 Yeltsin ruled Russia as a newly independent country without having been elected president.

Free direct elections of governors helped consolidate the population of Russia’s regions and strengthen the independence of local government which, incidentally, was never very well developed in Russia. A legitimate governor, relying on the support of the population which elected him, was in a position to oppose the excesses of hasty mass privatization. Luzhkov was able to save Moscow from Chubais’ check privatization, which was both economically and politically ineffective for the capital. The head of Khabarovsk krai, Viktor Ishaev, saved the highly profitable Komsomolsk-na-Amur aviation company from privatization. Independent regions were also able to resist the rapid mechanical westernization of provincial Russia.

Whereas abolishing direct elections would be seen in the Russian regions as an attack by Moscow–and by Putin in particular–on political rights and freedoms, in the national republics, particularly Muslim ones, in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Kabardin-Balkaria, such administrative reform would be seen as an attack on the national dignity and sovereignty of local peoples. The psychological factor plays a major role here. Russia’s peoples want to elect their own national leader in exactly the same way as the leader is elected in the country as a whole, that is, by universal suffrage.

All that is needed for restoring the power hierarchy in Russia is already in place, without resorting to administrative revolutions or to force, and without backtracking on democratic freedoms with which Russians are now familiar. Now that the governors are eager to swear loyalty to the new president, there is every opportunity to make amendments to the constitution which would reduce the elective nature of the governors to feudal independence. By amending legislation, Putin can create a whole system of checks and legal limitations on the absolute power the governors currently enjoy. Such a gradual, constitutional process will contribute both to the preservation of local government and to a strengthening of democracy. At the end of the day, it is important for Russia’s survival that a certain decentralization of the regions should be maintained. Independent regions within a stable federation will be in a position to restore the links between them which were severed in Soviet times, and to form a Russia-wide market from below.

Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya gazeta.