Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 38

Two of Russia’s most influential regional leaders, Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev and Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov, both of whom are candidates in Russia’s upcoming presidential election, have become embroiled in a debate over the future of Russia’s administrative-territorial system. The issue is a live one since Acting President Vladimir Putin has hinted that, if he wins the March 26 election, he will make adjustments to the way the Russian Federation is administered. Putin has not, however, yet revealed how he intends to do this.

On February 17, two days after the Central Election Commission registered his candidacy, Tuleev called for a reduction in the number of “federal subjects,” that is, the regions constituting the Russian Federation. The existence of eighty-nine separate regions, Tuleev argued, makes Russia ungovernable. The number should be reduced to between thirty and thirty-five by merging regions on the basis of territorial proximity and economic expediency. Moreover, Tuleev declared, regional governors should no longer be chosen in popular elections but be appointed by the president (Russian agencies, February 17). Later, Tuleev claimed to have been misquoted, saying he had meant only that gubernatorial elections should be suspended for five years, to give the new, smaller number of regions time to take root. Nor, Tuleev insisted, was there any need to reduce the number of Russia’s ethnically based republics, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. His idea, he said, was supported by only about a dozen governors and was therefore unlikely to be implemented (NTV, February 19).

Most regional governors and republic presidents chose not to react publicly to Tuleev’s proposals, apparently waiting to see how Putin would react. One governor, however, immediately criticized Tuleev’s proposals. Samara’s Konstantin Titov warned that Russia’s federal system could not be changed “from above,” given that the law states that such issues may be resolved only by a referendum. “This must be the expression of the people’s will, not Tuleev’s,” Titov asserted (RTR, February 17).

Tuleev and Titov represent opposing groups within the ranks of the governors. Their views are shaped both by their personal interests and by the situation in the regions they govern. Tuleev is less a politician and more an administrator of the Soviet school, prone to view elections as an ornamental superstructure bearing little relation to the way state power is really distributed. Thus, Tuleev used his first presidential bid in 1991 to turn himself into a national political figure; he came to power in Kemerovo only in 1997, when he was nominated to the post of governor by President Yeltsin. Titov, by contrast, belongs to the generation of “young reformers” who entered politics in the late 1980s. He has governed his large and important oblast for nearly a decade, having before that been the elected chairman of the Kuibyshev city council. In 1996, Titov won an overwhelming victory in Samara’s first gubernatorial election. As Russia’s main coal-mining region, Kemerovo Oblast is one of the country’s most economically troubled regions, whereas Samara is a strong exporter and a net contributor to the federal budget.

Thus Tuleev represents the interests of those relatively “weak” governors who are either uncertain of their positions and see loyalty to the center and abolishing gubernatorial elections as a way of keeping their grip on power, or believe that changing Russia’s administrative system will allow them further to extend their power and resource bases. Titov, on the other hand, represents the group of “strong” governors who expect nothing from Moscow other than attempts to encroach on their power. The influence of these governors often extends beyond the borders of their regions: Titov, for example, is the informal head of the “Great Volga” interregional association. He and governors like him feel sufficiently in command of their regions not to be afraid of running for election.

During a recent electoral swing through Irkutsk, acting President Putin weighed in as a kind of a referee in this dispute. Given Russia’s historical experience, Putin declared, it had perhaps been a mistake to rush into having elected governors. Because that was now a fait accompli, however, there was no need to go backwards or to “strangle democracy.” Besides, Putin said, returning to a system of appointed governors was not the only way to consolidate power in the country (Russian agencies, February 18). What other means were available, Putin did not say, other than to insist that the system must be characterized by a strong presidency: “Russia,” he stressed, “was created as a centralized state.”

Given that Putin is the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential election on March 26, it seems likely that his personal position is close to Tuleev’s. Even if governors are not to be appointed by the president, those close to Putin have indicated that he favors the idea of giving the president the power to sack governors if they misuse federal funds or allow the adoption of regional legislation that is at odds with federal law. At the same time, Putin undoubtedly understands that he has nothing to gain at this stage from picking a fight with the governors. Although the coalition representing the strongest regional leaders–Fatherland-All Russia (FAR)–did poorly in last December’s Duma elections, the governors belonging to FAR remain a significant force in many of Russia’s most important political and industrial centers. Putin has, moreover, at present few legal means of putting pressure on recalcitrant governors. The members of the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, can block legislation which runs against their interests; they can also, as the real holders of local power, sabotage any presidential decree. Putin’s statement in Irkutsk may therefore be seen as a call for dialogue with the governors. While it is not yet clear precisely how that dialogue will go, it will likely follow the established Russian tradition of working out a new set of mutual obligations between the president-sovereign and the governors-vassals. This feudal model has been functioning for several years and, while it may change in form, it is unlikely soon to change in any really fundamental way. In a few years’ time, when a number of influential governors will reach the end of their legally allotted terms in office, they themselves may grow interested in ceding some of their power to the center in exchange for the chance to remain in power without running for election.