Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 6

By Ilya Malyakin

Center-periphery relations have been a live issue ever since Russia became independent nearly a decade ago. How the Russian Federation will look–whether, indeed, it will continue to exist–will depend on how this issue is resolved. Until recently, however, it has been buried in the long list of “problems postponed.” Everyone agreed it was essential to resolve the problem, yet all attempts to tackle it ended the same way: The interested parties cited the existence of objective difficulties; then came a public debate during which discussion of the various above-mentioned difficulties gradually replaced discussion of the original problem; and, finally, it all ended with a renewed statement that the difficulties were objective and could not be overcome within the framework of current legislation. After a while, the whole process would begin again.

The transfer of power which took place in Russia at the beginning of this year was seen by many as promising an escape from this vicious circle. As time goes by, however, everything which went before and everything happening now is beginning to look like a barely veiled struggle for power between the presidential administration and Russia’s regional leaders. There has been another clash of interests between these two parties, interests which, though they may not be polar, are far from identical. From this clash is emerging a new balance of power which, despite all the changes in the rules of the game, looks like just another transitional phase in the system.

The opening salvo of the federal authorities’ declared plan to build “a new system of relations” between the Kremlin and the regions was the declaration that Russia’s new President Vladimir Putin intended to restrict the governors’ powers and strengthen the influence of the president in the regions. These proposed steps were soon spelled out. First, the idea was to eliminate one of Russia’s more glaring legislative gaps–the lack of a clear procedure whereby a regional leader who had abused his powers could be removed from office before the formal expiration of his term. It is this gap which in many ways explains the legendary “supreme power” of Russia’s regional leaders in the territory they control. Without making openly separatist noises, many of them had long ceased to take note of Moscow’s interests; in their informal actions, whether openly or covertly, they had gone far beyond the bounds of the powers assigned them by federal law.

At first, Putin’s team did not propose anything new. The version which entered the realms of public debate not only contained nothing new, but plainly resembled a return to a plan which had already been tried and found wanting. This was the widely publicized initiative of former presidential candidate Aman-Geldy Tuleev, governor of Kemerovo Oblast. Back in February he declared that the Russian Federation was ungovernable because it consisted of no fewer than eighty-nine republics and regions; for the Federation to become governable, he said, this number should be reduced to thirty or thirty-five. Tuleev also stressed that administration leaders should not be popularly elected but should be appointed by the Russian president. Tuleev soon backtracked, however, explaining that he had not meant that the ethnically based republics should be abolished, but had called merely for elections to be suspended for the five years in order to stabilize the situation in the new “subjects of the Russian Federation,” that is, the eighty-nine republics and regions of which the federation is made up.

Many observers suspected that Tuleev had been put up to this move by the Kremlin, dressed up as an “initiative from below.” As far as was possible to judge, however, the idea was not a run-of-the-mill means of testing whether the regions were prepared to accept the proposed redistribution of powers. More likely, it represented an attempt to take advantage of the sense of uncertainty into which regional politicians had been plunged following by the transfer of national power from one president to another. This threw the regional governors into turmoil and threatened them with the possibility of an attack by the Kremlin and the collapse of their familiar terms of reference. In this way, Putin hoped to spare himself further problems during the elections. However, it would appear that the Kremlin was proceeding from a premise which did not reflect the actual state of affairs. There was no real threat to Putin from this flank: The governors had no alternative. They were less happy with the other presidential candidates and, more important, none of them believed that anyone other than Putin stood any chance of winning.

As a result, the main issues discussed at the subsequent negotiations were evidently not of fundamental importance to the Kremlin. There was probably discussion of securing victory for Putin in the first round, though the governors, as far as it is possible to judge, set some conditions in return for their display of loyalty.

The existence of such conditions may be deduced from the steps taken by regional leaders immediately after Putin’s election victory: The Federation Council introduced amendments to the law “On the principles of state power in the subjects of the Russian Federation”. Previously, the length of time for which the head of the local executive might remain in office had been limited to two terms, This restriction was now lifted. Instead, it was proposed that the constitutions of the federation subjects should determine how long governors might remain in office. It is no secret, of course, that most regional leaders have no trouble incorporating changes into their constitutions. The episode did not therefore fit at all well with Putin’s declared “tough” attack on the governors. On the contrary, the Federation Council’s resolution had the effect of enshrining an existing practice; somehow or other regional heads would have found a way of avoiding the introduction of restrictions on their terms of office. An example was provided by Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, who indicated his desire to stand for a third term, an example that could not but meet with the support of at least some of the governors.

What followed, however, resembled a demolition job. The time had apparently come for the president to switch from symbolic gestures to a real attack. Putin began by announcing his intention of dividing the country into seven “federal districts [okrugs]” and by issuing a series of decrees demanding that certain pieces of legislation of a number of federation subjects should be brought into line with federal legislation. Putin followed this by tabling three bills in the State Duma: (1) to change the principles on which the Federation Council was formed (proposing to replace the ex-officio members–the heads of the executive and legislative branches of power in the regions–with presidential “representatives”); (2) to grant the president the right to dismiss governors and dissolve regional legislatures; and (3) to grant the governors analogous rights with regard to local government bodies. This was followed by a series of actions designed to redistribute power over the federal organs in the seven new federal districts, the aim being that the president’s local representatives would be granted real powers. In addition, the prosecutor general’s office demanded that all regional legislation should within one month be brought into conformity with federal legislation. Meanwhile, the president’s representative in the State Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, threatened that several governors might soon be taken to court for various unidentified violations.

Yet each of the president’s attacks was met with approval by the governors. It seemed as though the regional leaders were capitulating without the fight which would be natural in such a situation, showing a curious willingness to relinquish at a stroke gains it had taken them years to accumulate. The papers were almost unanimous in declaring a victory for the president in a battle which had never really begun. In reality, however, the president had scored only a partial victory, triumphing only because the regional elites had not felt the need for direct confrontation.

The established system of relations between the Kremlin and the regions may be clumsy, but it is, potentially, extremely flexible. Most governors simply did not take the creation of federal districts seriously. They did not take fright at the creation of a new layer of middlemen between themselves and the center because it did not appear essentially to change the balance of power. Nor were the governors alarmed by Putin’s selective attacks on regional legislation–precisely because these attacks were so selective. Even the president’s bills did not frighten them. Changing the way the Federation Council is formed would lead only to the replacement of the governors and heads of regional legislatures by their nominees and close associates. The law giving the president the right to dismiss governors and dissolve legislative assemblies could, in the course of the parliamentary debate, be turned into something like the law on the impeachment of the president: That is to say, the law is on the statute books but the procedures it lays down are so complex that there is little danger they will ever be implemented. And the governors would of course be happy with extra rights with regard to local government bodies. But this is where the regional leaders made their mistake. Their amenability seems to have led the president’s team to believe that there was no chance of any resistance to its initiatives. So the Kremlin, thinking the battle won, began to act more and more decisively, no longer using persuasion, but resorting instead to diktat and intimidation.

Yet to start with Putin’s team had acted differently. Even the right to dismiss mayors was initially offered partly to offset in the eyes of the governors the president’s right to dismiss them. It was a concession worth having: Conflicts between regional governors and the mayors of their administrative capitals are widespread in Russia. The president was even prepared to trade reform of the Federation Council for the creation of a consultative State Council which would offer lifetime membership to any governor who had been elected for more than one term. Nor did Putin object to the removal of restrictions on the number of these terms. He would even have been prepared to make other compromises. But the governors agreed to everything so quickly that they unwittingly encouraged Putin to toughen his stance.

The latest pronouncements from Putin’s team involved removing control of federal institutions in the provinces from regional leaders by shifting these bodies onto the level of the federal okrugs, bringing all regional legislation into line with federal legislation within one month, reducing the proportion of tax that remains in the regions, and threatening swift prosecution for a number of unnamed governors. These ultimately forced the regional elites to go on the counteroffensive and to remind the Kremlin that they have not yet brought into play even a fraction of their potential.

For their counterattack, the governors chose an area which was not of major importance for them, but which held the maximum potential for resistance and barter. They proposed a package of amendments to the new law on the formation of the Federation Council. Essentially, these would have demolished Putin’s proposals. For example, the governors indicated their willingness to leave the Federation Council (to join the State Council), but only upon the expiration of their terms of office (very amusing in the light of the amendment adopted earlier) and as long as the guarantees of immunity which their status as deputies of the upper house of the Russian parliament currently grants them were retained. Essentially this meant that the heads of legislative assemblies, which are as a rule controlled by the governors, would stay in the Federation Council forever. Moscow has indicated that it is willing to agree to some of these proposals. This no longer looks like an attack on the regions by the center, but instead the reverse. The impression that the attacks are beginning to change direction is supported by the official explanations demanded by the Federation Council, from which it emerged that there are as yet no grounds for talking of a serious threat of prosecution for any of the governors. Kotenkov’s announcement was either an irresponsible piece of improvisation on his part, or a rather ill-advised PR trick. In either case, it was symptomatic of the fact that the actions of the president’s team are guided by anything but a positive program for developing new relations with the regions.

At last the governors have a logical basis for their point of view, which can no longer be spoken of purely as a product of their fear of losing power. The speech publicly criticizing Vladimir Putin’s initiatives, made by the Duma deputy and well-known businessman and “oligarch” Boris Berezovsky, served as a reminder that the governors are the only force capable of counterbalancing the ambitions of the Kremlin, which are looking increasingly dictatorial.

It is probable that the main battle between Moscow and the regions (or the main piece of bargaining, which is more likely) is still to come. Its most blatant manifestations may be observed in the Russian parliament. Of course, those observers who point out that the State Duma is capable of overriding the Federation Council’s veto if the upper house votes against the president’s bills are right: None of the president’s three bills got fewer than 300 votes in the first reading. This reasoning, however, is based on impressions of the desperate but ultimately futile pressure which the governors allegedly placed on the deputies before the vote. This information was indeed widely disseminated by a number of sources, but it is very similar to Kotenkov’s talk of a “legal threat” to the governors. In the current climate, the governors could put their money not on those deputies who might be pressurized into doing something, but on those who got into the Duma thanks to support from the regional leadership and who do not need to be pressed–they need only to be asked. It is no secret that plenty of deputies fit this description. Of course, this does not mean that there will be no “requests” in the future. Now that the governors have launched their counterattack, voting patterns could change considerably.

But does it make sense for the Kremlin to turn the present conflict into a long, drawn-out confrontation? By doing so, Putin would be risking a great deal. Above all, he would risk losing not the support of the electorate, which is an abstract concept between elections, but the concrete support of the regional elites, which are influential and which boast considerably more political experience than he does. In the end Putin may find he has backed himself into a corner from which he will be able to escape only via fresh crises and confrontations, fraught with more losses.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the president does not have any real support in the regions. The support he did have was sanctioned by the governors in the hope of maintaining the status quo and persuading the new president to refrain from making changes. Now that it transpires that Putin does want to make changes, it is becoming apparent that Putin moved too fast in starting to act before establishing full understanding with the regional leaders. The start of Putin’s reign is in danger of developing into a conflict between Moscow and the periphery, a conflict more confrontational than that which went before yet, ultimately, just as fruitless. Neither side has a positive program or a clear idea of its goals, nor does either side have full command of the situation. It seems that both sides understand this, and have no desire to venture too far into confrontation. But there is another aspect: The need to maintain control of sufficient resources in order successfully to curb the initiatives of the “opposition.”

Of course, Putin still has in reserve several moves which he may well make, reinforcing his status as a “strong hand.” But on the side of the governors is the flexibility, developed over several years, of their system of opposing the Kremlin. Putin could, for example, force the issue by trying to end regional leaders’ control of the federal institutions on their territory–the organs of the Interior Ministry or of the General Prosecutor’s Office, for example–but then the governors never had any legal powers allowing them to control these bodies. Their control was possible thanks to informal opportunities. Depriving a governor of such in his own region is almost impossible. Putin could dismiss one or two “strong” governors. In the past, however, the Kremlin has proved unable to carry through such plans. It is enough to recall the case of Ulyanovsk Oblast, where the governor appointed by Yeltsin in 1991 survived only a few months before obstruction by the regional elite caused him to be replaced by Vladimir Goryachev, former chairman of the oblast executive committee which had supported the August 1991 coup. Yeltsin dismissed the archetypal “strong” governor, Eduard Rossel of Sverdlovsk Oblast, when he tried to establish the Urals Republic. Rossel was soon voted back into power through the ballot box.

That leaves the chance of fighting the governors on an equal footing, using the federal center’s formal and informal opportunities and current legislation. The center is likely to win such a struggle only if it possesses a clear strategy for such a fight. To all appearances, the Kremlin does not possess such a strategy. Its absence was demonstrated by the gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg where, following some measures which were clearly ill thought out and doomed to failure, the president’s team was forced to concede defeat and support Putin’s old foe, incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

If this analysis is accurate, the vicious circle will not be broken. After another round of attack and counterattack, relations between Moscow and the regions will return to their former impasse, and the Gordian knot will remain untied. Russia has had much experience of such knots in its recent past: In 1993 the deadlock in relations between the president and the Supreme Soviet was resolved only with the aid of tanks. For the current president, with his tough-guy image, the temptation to resort to radical solutions must be great. But he cannot fail to understand that in this case it will not be enough to storm one building, and the consequences of such radical solutions may be much more catastrophic.

If relations remain unresolved, it will mean a continuation of the process of feudalization, in which the sole argument will be the possession of force, and it will not be just the regions that act as power players, but anyone that Moscow can rely on in its struggle with them–the special services, large corporations, local government bodies. All of these are quite prepared for such a development. There has already been talk here of the traditional conflict between governors and mayors, and the use of armed men to redistribute slices of industrial wealth by force no longer surprises anybody. Nor is it by any means certain that the Kremlin will not then find itself facing quasi-separatism not of the governors but of mayors and directors.

The choice between feudalization and the use of force now seems almost inevitable. The “third way” between these two extremes is narrow and far from easy to negotiate. For now, the actions of Russia’s leaders suggest that, instead of looking for this third way, they prefer either to grab as much as they can for themselves or to preserve the current situation, putting off a final decision “until tomorrow.” But “tomorrow” will soon come, and there is a risk that, by the time there is nothing left to grab, a third option–even a hypothetical one–will no longer exist.

Ilya Malyakin is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. He lives and works in Saratov.