President Putin has identified the strengthening of the state as his first priority. This, he said over the weekend, will include establishing “a more rigid vertical of power” (Itar-Tass, May 6). It is generally assumed that Putin intends to tighten federal control over Russia’s self-willed regions. It now looks as if he means to begin by making an example of one of Russia’s most wayward governors–Aleksandr Rutskoi, Governor of Kursk Oblast.
Visiting Kursk on May 8, Putin revealed that he had received requests from local residents to investigate Governor Rutskoi’s activities. He said it was quite possible the Kremlin would conduct an audit of the region’s affairs (ITAR-TASS, 8 May). Rutskoi has had a colorful career. A courageous fighter pilot, he was shot down twice in Afghanistan and held for several months as a POW. Yeltsin chose him in 1991 as his vice president because Rutskoi’s brand of Russian nationalism appealed to voters who would not necessarily have supported Yeltsin himself. But Rutskoi proved immediately at odds with the young liberal economists (“the boys in pink trousers,” he called them) who formed Yeltsin’s first cabinet. Rutskoi accordingly joined the parliamentary rebellion against Yeltsin in 1993, declaring himself president in Yeltsin’s place. After a spell in prison, Rutskoi returned to politics. He won a landslide victory in the Kursk gubernatorial election in 1996, even though his opponents ensured that he was unable to campaign until the last 36 hours before the vote.
Kursk is part of Russia’s communist-voting “red belt,” and Rutskoi had flirted with the Communist Party throughout his career. Once elected, however, Rutskoi did his best to mend his fences with his former Kremlin foes and to curry favor with Russia’s new leader. Even as he tried to slap illegal export controls on foodstuffs produced on his territory, therefore, Rutskoi was one of the first to come out in support of Putin’s presidential ambition and to support the pro- Putin Unity movement; this provoked a corresponding deterioration in his relations with his former communist and nationalist supporters, who accused him of ballot-rigging in both 1999 and 2000.
Meanwhile, things were not going smoothly in Kursk. Rumors of corruption surrounded Rutskoi’s brother, deputy interior minister in the region, and his son, accused of using his father’s influence to secure lucrative state contracts for his pharmaceuticals firm. Criminal investigations were launched into the activities of two of Rutskoi’s deputy governors, who are now in prison. Even Rutskoi’s former wife appeared on TV, to tell how he left her on the eve of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and went off with a younger woman. Last month, the speaker of the oblast legislature and twelve local lawmakers appealed to Putin to defend them from what they alleged was the rampant corruption of the Rutskoi family and Rutskoi’s efforts to curb the powers of the local legislature (Izvestia, April 8).
During Yeltsin’s last years in office, governors of economically powerful regions increasingly went their own way. It came to be assumed that even the governors of economically weak regions, dependent on subsidies from the federal government, would be left in peace as long as they maintained order on their territory and paid lip service to the Kremlin leadership. If Putin now goes after Rutskoi, it will be a sign that these rules of the game are changing. Putin said local people had called on him during his visit to Kursk to remove Rutskoi from office. Russia’s constitution states that governors are popularly elected and does not give the president or anyone else the right to remove them. Putin is on record as saying that governors should go on being elected to office. He and his associates have, however, hinted that he would like to have the right to remove from office governors who can be shown to have infringed federal law. The humiliation that, to judge from this week’s statements, now awaits Rutskoi, could be the means whereby Putin stakes out that right. Having alienated many of his own former supporters, Rutskoi should be an easy prey.
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