By Ilya Malyakin
In late April one of the most curious products of the reform of the power structures which began with the arrival of President Vladimir Putin reminded us of its existence. I refer to the “Federation” group, which was founded on March 12 this year in the Federation Council. This is the only deputies’ organization in the history of the upper house of the Russian parliament, and it appeared despite the fact that factions in the upper house are clearly banned by statute. The group’s organizers aimed to bring together members of the house who support Putin’s political course.
No sooner had the organizers issued their first statement of intentions than their group–which was not even properly formed yet–became a sort of generator of revolutionary expectations. Observers of all shades believed that the very fact of its existence would change the landscape in the upper house perhaps even more fundamentally than last summer’s reform, carried out on Putin’s initiative, of the composition of the chamber. But time went by, and while there were indeed political upheavals in the country, they had nothing to do with the Federation group. Only six weeks later did the group make its presence very much felt–in order to implement the very “revolution” for which it was evidently originally designed. But the revolution came too late: It dated from a different political era. In Russia these eras pass rather quickly, and the datelines are often hard for observers to spot, but with hindsight it can be said that the rules of play changed again, and the key moment went unnoticed not only by observers, but also, it would seem, by many of the players themselves. The story of the Federation group demonstrates this very plainly.
But first, a little history. The plan to form a pro-presidential group in the Federation Council was first announced on February 21 by the chairman of the legislative assembly of Samara Oblast, Leon Kovalsky, at a session of the Federation Council’s Constitutional Committee. He said that the first members to join this group–which was immediately named Federation, somewhat tautologically with regard to the Federation Council–were mainly senators delegated to serve on a permanent basis in place of the governors who had left the house.
The reaction from Russian politicians and the media was very skeptical. For the most part they either said nothing or registered their confusion, noting that the aims of the new structure were unclear. Then a sarcastic nickname for it was coined–“Putin’s fan-club”–which gained a wide circulation. But the skepticism fell on deaf ears: The group’s organizers were not at all interested in the opinions of others; they themselves had a perfectly clear idea of what they were doing. On March 12, the founding meeting was held in the President Hotel in Moscow, behind doors closed to the media. This secrecy only served to kindle the interest of the press, of course. But it was impossible to tell–either then or later–exactly what it was the participants of the meeting had to hide. Their true aims, perhaps?
Questions to this effect were asked at the very first press conference held by the “federals.” Journalists were interested in why the group was being formed at all and how exactly it was planning to support Putin’s policies. But its coordinators–Mikhail Margelov (representative of Pskov Oblast, and one of Federation’s real leaders), Valery Goreglyad (representing Sakhalin) and Aleksandr Nazarov (representative and former governor of Chukotka)–could not or did not want to say anything very much at all. Only Goreglyad offered some clarification, saying that the group had also been set up to avoid divisions during the period when the governors and speakers of regional legislative assemblies would be leaving the upper house to be replaced by those appointed by the regions to represent them. Again, nothing was said about the methods they planned to use to prevent such divisions. On the other hand, information was revealed about the proposed structure of the first ever faction in the Federation Council: Its leadership would consist of five coordinators who would work to a provisional charter; it had been decided not to elect an individual leader.
The group showed renewed signs of life in late March, although it concentrated its efforts during this period on organizational matters. The group began forming its own commissions, which to a large extent essentially mirrored the corresponding structures of the Federation Council. It was also decided who was to be responsible for relations with the factions and deputies’ groups in the State Duma. That was the extent of their activity during this period. The impression was that Federation members did not know what to do next. Many analysts shared this view, and even the speaker of the Federation Council himself, Yegor Stroev, agreed, saying that the “federals” had even come to ask his advice on this.
It is true that the group’s leaders occasionally made statements, some of which were about events taking place in the country. For example, as expected, the group welcomed the unification of Unity and Fatherland. But far more often the statements were about future plans. We shall therefore return to these later, when examining the aims–professed and actual–of the Federation group.
The reaction of the majority of the senate to what was happening under their noses was initially very much in line with the general skepticism. Indeed, it was not confined to skepticism alone; most senators were highly critical of the activities of Federation’s organizers. Deputy speaker of the Federation Council Vladimir Platonov was at a loss: “So what we have here is that those who support the president join this group; apparently everyone else doesn’t support him. We have always supported state power, but for some reason they’ve decided to support just the president.” Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who immediately declared that he would not join Federation, said that the president had no need of any organizations specially created to support him, because his position was “strong, and will remain so, God willing.” Even speaker Yegor Stroev let it be understood that he did not deem the creation of such a group in the upper house expedient. He claimed that the Federation Council always supported Putin’s policies anyway, and had “not fought with him once.” There were other similar statements. The most striking think about them was a naive insincerity, although it was unclear for whose benefit this was. In discussing the absence of conflict in their coexistence with Putin, Russia’s senators seemed to have forgotten about the battles of last summer, when the Kremlin pushed through the two houses of parliament Putin’s “federative presidential package” of bills, designed to undermine the position of the governors who at the time formed the core of the Federation Council.
Naturally, the founders of the Federation group plainly anticipated that their numbers would swell. Their main hopes centered on the newly appointed representatives of the regions, gradually replacing the governors and speakers of regional legislatures. As the numbers of these representatives increased, the group was supposed to gradually accumulate a majority in the Senate and assume full control of its activities. However, nobody seemed to have bargained for how things would actually develop.
When the group was formed it had about eighty members; “ten short of a majority of the house,” as was pointed out at the time (the Federation Council has a total of 178 members). The problem of attracting the remaining ten members was supposed to resolve itself in time. But in the event, no time was needed at all. This small but politically significant gap was breached instantaneously. Just one week later the number of members passed the 100 mark, and by May it had reached 120. The “new breed” of senators was not capable of providing such growth rates alone. Only in the early stages was it possible to say that the newcomers were superior in number to the old-timers; today the newcomers make up less than half the members, and they cannot shift the balance of power in their favor: As yet, appointed representatives make up just one-fourth of the total number of senators. Thus the main source of growth were heads of regional power structures who still remained in the house. These even included one of Putin’s adversaries in the presidential elections–Samara Governor Konstantin Titov. And Yegor Stroev suddenly performed a complete about-turn, announcing that all senators should join the group, “in order to vote properly and in concert.”
It looks like the governors remembered the old Soviet maxim, familiar to Russia’s administrators: “If you can’t stop a project, lead it.” Talking about their conflict-free coexistence with the president, they were not being disingenuous in one respect: The war against Putin was never fought openly. Most regional leaders accompanied any moves they made in this war with assurances of full support for the president’s policies. This is why their statements today should be seen first and foremost as a tribute to the same tradition. Meanwhile, Putin’s and the governors’ interests diverge not because of their individual features, but for purely objective reasons, and so one should not attach too much significance to the almost complete absence of aggressive attacks on the president. The fact that the Federation group was flooded with regional leaders could only mean one thing: Having finally accepted the new rules of play established for the Federation Council, the governors decided to play by them. Realizing that the quasi-faction had certain potential, they responded in the most rational way they could to neutralize it: They began to form part of its organizational core themselves. Naturally, in time the governors will have to leave both the Federation group and the Federation Council itself, but for the time being there is still a great deal they can do to stop the group from presenting a real danger to them.
It would be wrong to say that Federation’s founders did not understand what was happening. Back in mid-March the group was planning to approach the governors and heads of regional legislatures whose term in the upper house is due to expire on January 1 2002, with a proposal that they should step down early. However, they did not have the resolve to follow this plan through, for it would have looked ridiculous: The appeal would also have been addressed to the majority of the members of their own group.
The circumstances described above effectively doomed Federation to inaction, shifting the focus of its activities from the realms of politics to internal intrigues. However, as mentioned above, by May the group had matured enough to take its first action worthy of detailed analysis.
The group drew up some amendments to the statutes by which the Federation Council operates, limiting the powers of the speaker. One of Federation’s leaders, Valery Goreglyad, said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that, given that the new intake of senators would be working on a full-time basis, the speaker “should not have the extensive powers” that he currently enjoys. When the members of the house were not working full-time, many issues were resolved directly by speaker Yegor Stroev, and this, in Goreglyad’s view, was “objectively necessary:” While the senators were in their regions, “somebody had to take the decisions.” However, it was now time to give all members of the upper house the opportunity to “influence” its decisions. The Federation group believes that all decisions affecting personnel appointments in the Federation Council apparatus and the reading and passing of legislative acts should be transferred from the speaker to the council of the upper house.
Analysts had in fact been predicting Federation’s attack on Stroev for some time. It was even conjectured that the group would seek to have him replaced, although the group’s leaders regularly denied this. Then a new theory was developed: The presidential administration, lurking behind Federation’s back, would completely revise the rules of play, not replacing Stroev but turning him into a symbolic figure rather than leader of the house. It looks like this theory was far closer to the truth. Federation’s first serious initiative in fact only served to reinforce the existing situation. In the absence of other groups, when a majority of senators joined, it would inevitably become the real center controlling and coordinating the activities of the house. Stroev’s misfortune is not that he did not want to join Federation. Even if he had, no place could have been found there to match his status. The official view of the group’s organizers is that such important people as senators simply do not need an individual leader. As a result, Stroev, who in the old scheme of things was one of the most powerful figures in Russian politics, is left floundering in the wake of the ship which is now captained by other people altogether. His governor colleagues are unlikely to stand up in his defense. “The Moor has done his deed; the Moor may leave.” There is little point breaking a lance over somebody who will be relinquishing his seat to someone else in six months’ time, and it is quite possible that the governors will not like his successor at all. It would be far better to redistribute the powers in the Federation Council in such a way as to make the situation as a whole as manageable as possible whatever happens. Collective management is far more expedient from this perspective, which is why the interests of the governors coincided completely with the interests of their opponents.
It is relatively clear what Federation’s future plans are. But it is far less clear what the consequences may be if they are implemented. Members of the group think it is time for Russia’s senators to stop acting as the quality control department of the State Duma. The Federation Council’s main function should be active participation in making laws. In April Mikhail Margelov outlined Federation’s ideas for introducing amendments and additions to the Budget Law of the Russian Federation. Judging by his remarks, he and his colleagues seek far greater influence in setting Russia’s budget. According to Margelov, the senators, and the regions they represent, do not yet have an opportunity to play a full part in the budget process. “The Federation Council debates a budget which has already been passed by the Duma in four readings, and we do not have time to dispute it or to engage in a serious analysis of the document,” he says. For the “federals,” the solution is to involve the upper house in debating and drafting the budget “right from the start.”
It appears that the new faction intends to make the Federation Council compete seriously with the State Duma, and destroy its monopoly on lawmaking. There will naturally be a need to review the house statutes, legislation and even the current constitution. However, all the signs are that Federation is fully prepared to initiate all these measures. The time is ripe: The only people not discussing the need to amend the constitution are idlers. It is quite possible that the group will be successful, as long as it manages to come to an agreement with the Kremlin–and there is no reason as yet why this should not be possible.
However, there is one other point which should be taken into consideration. The plans to make the Federation Council more active are not only indicative of the ambitions of its new members, who are determined to become influential politicians. These plans suit the governors too. Leaving the upper house, regional leaders would not want to lose control of the course of federal politics. There is still the president’s State Council, of course, but there is still a battle to be fought over the status and influence of this organ–a battle it will not be easy for the regional bosses to win, as it will be fought on ground occupied by the Kremlin team. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the governors have almost lost control of the State Duma. Under these circumstances, creating a legislative “rival” for the Duma in the shape of the upper house would appear to be a very sound move. As regards the governors’ retaining control of the Federation Council, this is just a technical detail. It should not be forgotten that despite all the talk of the growing influence of the Kremlin in the Russian senate, the regional representatives are nevertheless appointed by the regions themselves. Any representative who fails to perform well in his main duty–protecting the interests of the governor who granted him his powers–may easily be replaced by a more reliable candidate.
As for Federation itself, even its founders do not see long-term prospects for it. Some observers thought that its future may involve the emergence of a second–communist–quasi-faction in the upper house. However, this theory can already be ruled out. The communist senators are in no hurry to unite, and the question of whether to join Federation or not is a relevant one for some, regardless of their own political persuasions. The “federals” are clearly looking for their own route into the party of power. Their main problem, as noted in several articles, is that there is no party of power as such; there are various groups doing battle with each other behind the scenes. More trouble is predicted for the group with regard to its lack of a unifying ideology. However, this problem is inherent in the entire bloc currently in power in Russia.
Even one of Federation’s leaders, Valery Goreglyad, has said that the group may be phased out of existence in the near future. “The house will adopt a new statute in January 2002, and Federation will dissolve,” he says. Indeed, what would be the point of a faction which by that time will probably be equal in size to the whole house?
To all appearances, the creation of this group was part of a bigger plan to restructure the Federation Council as a crucial battle in the war over the redistribution of power between Moscow and the regions. However, by the time this deliberate blow was struck, it was already out of date. As mentioned above, the realities had changed. The regional elites as a whole had managed to adapt to the new rules of play. They were “helped” in this by the electoral selection which took place during the long series of elections of last autumn and winter. The old strategy of Putin’s team in the fight against the governors has ceased to be effective. Something new is desperately needed for victory, but the Kremlin is stubbornly sticking to its old tactics, condemning itself to shadow-boxing, while its opponents have got to grips with this political aikido, and are delivering blows–sometimes into the air, but sometimes against their assailant. Perhaps the reason lies in the Kremlin’s slow reactions. Or perhaps Putin is simply looking for the opportunity to put an end to this tiring and unsuccessful war. The author’s view is that the second theory is closer to the truth.
This view was reinforced at the end of June, when the Federation group played a key role in turning back the State Duma’s attempt to legally reduce the number of governors who have the right to run for a third term. In order to neutralize this attack on the regional barons’ sacred rights, Federation managed to reach an agreement with the pro-presidential Unity party. Interestingly, a short time later representatives of Putin’s team said the Kremlin itself was against the attempt to limit gubernatorial third terms. Therefore it is entirely possible that in this case Federation was not simply acting in the interests of the governors, but according to the desires of the Russian president.
Ilya Malyakin is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.