Accessibility links

Russia Report: April 25, 2001

25 April 2001, Volume 3, Number 15
"Moskovskii komsomolets" on 24 April carried a long article discussing the draft legislation being prepared by the Ministry of Federation, Nationality and Migration Policy on regional borders and procedures by which regions can merge (see also "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 18 April 2001). The daily concludes that opening up the issue of borders is a risky proposition with "unpredictable consequences." The process could take on a life of its own, overwhelming the presidential administration with "a multitude of territorial disputes": "All subjects are going to rush in with their proposals on how this or that territorial dispute should be settled; no two of them will reach an agreement." According to the daily, the president will wind up having to intervene in the form of a presidential decree. "Kommersant-Daily" reported last month that under the draft legislation, regions will have a six-month period to agree on their borders. If they cannot reach agreement by that deadline, then the issue will be resolved by presidential decree (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 21 March 2001). JAC

"Moskovskii komsomolets" also polled a number of experts about the issue and their reaction to the draft law was fairly mixed. Aleksandr Dugin, head of the Center for Geopolitical Expertise, said that not adopting the draft law "would be very dangerous" because existing borders at this time are very "blurred." According to Dugin, there are several "projects" connected with the draft law such as one directed at reducing the number of regions, one on Eurasian federalism and one in which the subjects of the federation are determined not by territory but by peoples. Ramazan Abdulatipov, chairman of the Association for the Peoples of Russia and representative for Saratov Oblast in the Federation Council, told the daily that he found it difficult to understand "why suddenly we are starting to defend internal borders as if they were national ones." He continued, "within a single state, borders should not have a special significance. In Europe, they are opening up intergovernmental borders, while we speak about dividing the ones up inside our country. This is an argument of dinosaurs." Konstantin Zatulin, leader of the Fund for Regional Presidential Programs, said that "the essence of the problem lies in the very principle by which the country is divided. National-territorial construction -- that was an invention of the Soviet period. Today many understand the flaws of this principle. In order to ease the task of ruling the country, Putin thought up a system of federal districts, which does not replace the federation subjects [but] allows us to secure their uniformity." JAC

The Finance Ministry has prepared a program for revamping inter-budgetary relations, Russian newspapers reported on 20 April. According to "Kommersant-Daily," the Finance Ministry has developed a program for developing budgetary federalism up to the year 2005, which calls for financial breaks for the lowest level of local self-government, that is, small towns and rural councils. According to "Vremya novostei," the program also aims to increase municipalities' financial powers. Aleksei Lavrov, deputy head of the department for inter-budgetary relations at the ministry, explains that under the program budget expenditures will be divided on three different levels and subventions for the realization of social programs will be transferred to cities in full. Local budgets will be formulated according to the principle "My mandate -- my budget," according to the daily. JAC

More than thirty regions have their own laws on freedom of conscience, the majority of which conflict with the federal constitution, "Inostranets" reported in its issue number 13 citing a report of the Institute for Law and Religion. The Supreme Court has already abolished five regional laws but regional legislatures continue to pass new ones. For example, on 1 March, Belgorod Oblast's legislative assembly passed a law which states that a child may attend church only if carrying written permission from his or her parents. According to the publication, some regions are also making it difficult for religious organizations to register or re-register. For example, in Nizhnii Tagil, a Pentecostal church has been holding services outdoors after the city administration evicted them from their premises, which they had rented and restored. JAC

In a gubernatorial race that local observers in Tula Oblast had already labeled one of the dirtiest (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 11 April 2001), three candidates tried to withdraw from the race just days before the second round was scheduled to be held. The candidate whose name was supposed to appear on the ballots, Leninskii Raion head Andrei Samoshin, successfully managed to withdraw his name; however, the candidate tapped to replace him, Tsentrgaz head Viktor Sokolovskii was forbidden. Samoshin, Sokolovskii, and Andrei Brezhnev, grandson of the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, all said that they were withdrawing from the race to protest illegal tactics of incumbent Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev's campaign headquarters. Samoshin had come in second during the first round, Sokolovskii third, and Brezhnev fourth. As was expected, Starodubtsev ended up winning in the 22 April elections, polling 71.4 percent of the vote compared with just 17.2 percent for Sokolovskii, according to Interfax. According to Russian Television on 23 April, Sokolovskii plans to challenge the results in court. Anticipating Starodubtsev's victory, "Vedomosti" concluded that his win "confirms the assumption that the federal government is not very proficient in dealings with regional leaders, and whenever it has a success, it is usually by chance." Starodubtsev is a confirmed Communist and "anything but a [Kremlin] loyalist." JAC

As expected, former Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev managed to regain his seat in elections held on 22 April. According to NTV on 23 April, Tuleev polled 94.5 percent of the vote -- some 30,000 votes less than he gathered in elections held four years ago. The "none of the above" category came in second with 3.23 percent of the vote, since none of Tuleev's four challengers received more than 1 percent. Tuleev had resigned last February in an effort to move the gubernatorial elections forward, a ploy that may soon be illegal under legislation passed in its first reading last week by the State Duma (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 23 April 2001). Also on 22 April, elections were held for city and raion administration heads, and according to preliminary information, 12 of the 17 winners were supported by Tuleev, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 April. JAC

Mayoral elections in Sochi continue to be dogged by controversy. Last December, the Media Ministry ordered the closure of local privately owned television station, MAKS-TV, because of its alleged violation of election law (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 13 December 2000). More recently, two key candidates in the race, Vadim Boiko, head of the Fund for the Reconstruction and Development of Sochi, and a former deputy head of the krai government, Mikhail Kurkov, were disqualified as candidates by the city's election commission. The candidates were challenging this decision on the eve of voting in a raion-level court; however, the court delayed making a decision until almost midnight of 21 April, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 24 April. The election was held the next day. Local voters appeared to register their displeasure with the whole process leading up to the vote -- 28 percent of voters voted against all candidates, which, according to the daily on 24 April, is the largest protest vote ever recorded in Russia. Acting Mayor Leonid Mostovoi, who polled some 47.4 percent of the vote, will compete in a second round against a sanitarium director, Aleksei Gorbunov, who won 10.7 percent of the votes. Mostovoi would have had to win more than 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a second round. Staffers at the expelled candidates' headquarters told the newspaper the court intentionally dragged out the process of examining their complaints so that they would not have enough time to go to an appeals court. They also claim that the local election commission and courts have sought to ensure Mostovoi's victory, because he is backed by the Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev. JAC

One school in Omsk Oblast is trying out a different method for improving the behavior of schoolchildren, RFE/RL's Omsk correspondent reported on 21 April. Leading the experiment is the Tsvetnopolskaka middle school, which at the initiative of its director Elizaveta Graf, is cooperating with local enterprises. The enterprises have agreed to send the fathers of children that misbehave to attend their children's classes rather than to report for work. The fathers only have to miss work after monthly conversations with a local Commission for Children and Adolescents fails to resolve the problem. Graf's innovation leaves teachers free to teach while the commission members focus on resolving discipline problems. Commission members decided to focus on fathers rather than mothers, because in their opinion fathers are more likely the dispensers of corporal punishment in the family. JAC

The chief editors of three of the largest newspapers in Samara Oblast, "Budnii," "Samarskaya gazeta," and "Novaya gazeta v Samare" have spoken out against a new local law on state support for the mass media, RFE/RL's Samara correspondent reported on 14 April. The editors believe that the new law will enable local bureaucrats to distribute budget revenues only to those media that are loyal to local government. Chief editor of "Novaya gazeta v Samare" Sergei Kurtadzhiev told RFE/RL "the scheme [local authorities] have constructed is very simple -- divide and conquer. They will gather taxes from all mass media organizations, then they will distribute the tax revenue that they collected among those media that they themselves founded." According to the correspondent, the local law was worked on without the participation of local journalists and representatives of the Samara branch of the Union of Journalists have drafted an alternative law, which was based on the federal law on the media, which requires that "assistance and the distribution of tax privileges to the mass media should be absolutely equal." The deputy speaker of the oblast's legislative assembly, Nikolai Utkin, told RFE/RL that he believes local journalists are over-dramatizing the situation and that no pressure on the media is intended. However, chief editor of "Budnii" Arkadii Solariev fears that the law "will be passed by the local legislature very quickly, because elections are approaching and the deputies need a tame newspaper." JAC

If deputies do indeed need a "tame" newspaper, they perhaps should look no further than "Samarskaya Izvestiya," which is the region's largest circulation daily. The deputy editor of that newspaper, Gennadii Subotin, told "Christian Science Monitor" in its issue of 23 April that "The Russian people elected Vladimir Putin as president. It was completely wrong of NTV to continue criticizing the authorities after the people had spoken like that." According to the "Christian Science Monitor," "there is a gnawing awareness [among journalists in Samara] that their relative freedom could be temporary." Yelena Orlova, news manager for SKAT-TV, told the daily that "We don't have major problems with official pressure...but it's mainly because [Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin] Titov is an open and modern politician." She continued, "The key problem across this country is that we depend on the good will of the men in power for our freedom rather than firmly established rights." JAC

Workers at the Tyumen Elevator Company have launched a strike demanding higher wages and fulfillment of an earlier agreement negotiated with city authorities, RFE/RL's Tyumen correspondent reported on 14 April. As a result of the strike, more than a thousand elevators in the city's multistory buildings have stopped operating. According to the correspondent, city residents are divided over the situation, with some supporting the strikers and others believing that workers are "solving their own problems at the expense of others." Some pensioners have difficulty taking the stairs and complain that they cannot go to the store to buy bread. Tyumen elevator operators earn less than the subsistence wage, from 300-500 rubles ($10-$17) a month, despite the fact that tariffs on the use of elevators of 15 rubles per month in Tyumen are among the highest in Russia. Chairman of Tyumen Oblast's union center Vladimir Kholodov told RFE/RL that he is sure that the administration is hiding revenues somewhere. JAC

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta-regiony" on 24 April, the head of the Ust-Ordynskii Buryatskii Autonomous Okrug Valerii Maleev expressed his support for the full merger of his okrug with Irkutsk Oblast. Maleev declared that he favors the joining of the two regions "but it should occur, only if the residents of the okrug know about the advantages of an enlargement and the interests of the titular nationality are taken into account." According to Maleev, the okrug and oblast have already taken some efforts towards "unification" by joining together the tax police of both the okrug and oblast. Officials are also talking about joining together the two regions' committees for natural resources. According to Maleev, his region is quite poor with a low level of economic development: "Industry is practically absent," Maleev said. "The majority of okrug residents tend cattle and have revenue only for their personal household needs." According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 April, Maleev is a possible candidate for governor in gubernatorial elections that will be held in Irkutsk Oblast on 29 July. JAC


U.S. Experts Give Putin's Reforms Low Marks

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decrees establishing the seven federal districts and new presidential envoys (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 May 2000). "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report" asked a few leading specialists on Russian regions to evaluate the reform so far.

Jeffrey W. Hahn, Villanova University: Over the past year, the center, under Putin's leadership, has launched a battle against regional leaders to preserve the unity of the Russian Federation. Less than a week after his inauguration on 7 May 2000, Putin made it clear that his domestic political priority would be to establish central control over Russia's increasingly restive regions. This had to be done, he said, "to restore an effective vertical chain of command in the country." To accomplish this goal, Putin first revised the existing system of presidential representatives, imposing seven mega-districts on the eighty-nine regions into which the Russian Federation is divided. Each "macro-region" has its own "governor-general" to ensure compliance with federal law. A few days later, he sent draft legislation to the Russian parliament which would strip the leaders of regional executive and legislative bodies of their ex-officio status as members of the Federation Council, Russia's upper legislative house. Additionally, he sought authority to remove those executives who violated federal laws in their regions. Putin's proposals were adopted during the summer of 2000, but only after a bitter legislative fight and a presidential promise in September to create a State Council composed of all the regional executives which would meet with the president on a regular basis. Will Putin succeed in his efforts to rein in Russia�s wayward regions?

While any definitive answer to this question is still pending, the report card after one year is not encouraging, at least as measured in terms of the president�s stated objective. First, if one aim in creating the seven mega-districts was to put distance between Putin and the regional executives and thereby reduce the kind of direct and personal influence they wielded over his predecessor, it is hard to conclude this has happened. Direct access is ensured through the State Council and the representatives to the Federation Council are hand-picked by regional leaders to mirror their views. The "governor-generals" and federal representatives can�t stop regional executives from appealing directly to the president, so the ad hoc nature of the center�s relations with the regions continues. Secondly, not only has Putin been reluctant to use his authority to remove those regional leaders deemed in serious violation of federal law, but in the one case he did act, that of Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, the governor�s removal was followed by his appointment to an important federal post as chairman of the State Fisheries Committee, putting him in charge of the new policy on fishing quotas for the very region from which he had just been removed, the Russian Far East. Thirdly, the demand that regional legislation be consistent with federal legislation has in many cases been ignored or, as in the case of term limits for executives, bent to favor those regional executives the center favors, such as Tatarstan President Shamiev, who was allowed to seek a third term. Finally, it is not clear that the main reason for the center�s inability to create a single legal and economic space in Russia has been addressed, namely the dependence of federal officials on regional leaders for their material well-being and access to information.

What is to be done? One helpful step which appears under active consideration and which may happen by the end of the year is the consolidation of regions into fewer than the currently unwieldy and duplicative 89. This may rationalize the management of regional relations without necessarily endangering a balance of powers upon which stable federalism can be built. At a minimum, if the ten autonomous okrugs were abolished it would resolve the constitutional contradiction of having some constitutionally "equal" subdivisions subordinated administratively to others as is now the case for the Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets autonomous okrugs in Tyumen Oblast and elsewhere. Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree with those, including [Princeton University assistant professor of Politics and International Affairs] Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and [University of Leicester professor of Human Geography] Michael Bradshaw who argue that in creating a new layer of bureaucracy, Putin has merely reverted to the Soviet practice of administrative fixes that fail to address the real problems of how to create a common political, legal, and economic space. To do that would require, among other things, effective national political parties, the real independence of federal administrators, effective and fair federal taxation, laws that ban conflict of interest for elected officials, and a court system that ensures a level playing field for all. Unfortunately, as long as regional legislatures, executives, and other regional elites have more of interest in preserving the status quo than in reforming it, these measures will be slow in coming.

Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Princeton University: I would say that [the reforms] have probably been more of a failure than a success. In terms of bringing regional governments more to heel, one could argue that they are heeding the center more now than were a year ago or a year and a half ago. But I don't think it has anything to do with the creation of the new federal districts. And I'm also not sure so much that the center has brought regions to heel as much as regions have chosen to pursue a path at this point that happens to be coincident with the center.... I think Putin has misunderstood the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the coalition of forces at the local level, which is usually enterprise directors and regional politicians. His reform is not breaking down that coalition of those interests so that central institutions can function. The problem in Primore is representative of a lot of other places. It's not just the governor.

What Putin has done is very ineffective. It's a very Soviet-style reform that was not designed to properly correct the problem. Putin has created another layer of bureaucracy that can be moved aside when it proves not to be working, which is what I predict will happen in five years. The size of the Russian government has grown since 1994, so making it bigger doesn't actually make it stronger.... There is a lot of variation in the seven federal districts and in terms of what the presidential representatives or envoys consider their job to be. There are not very detailed founding documents establishing the original representatives, so they don't seem to know what they can do. This was a mistake that was made in the previous two iterations of this post and I think it's symptomatic of the epidemic of institutional flexibility in post-Soviet Russia.

Steve Solnick, Columbia University: I think Putin has succeeded in diminishing the influence of regional governors in Moscow (i.e., their influence over policies at the center) but not particularly in increasing central control over regional policies. On the one hand, governors are spending less time in Moscow, lobbying the [presidential envoys to the federal districts] instead of the ministers, not meeting in the Federation Council to create a corporate body, etc. On the other hand, the deal to permit [regional] governors and/or presidents to run for additional terms of office, the ongoing squabbles over "revised" regional constitutions, the continuing problems with "legal separatism," etc., all suggest that Putin may be content to let all but the most egregious regional regimes remain intact as the price of getting the regional leaders out of his hair in Moscow. That, I think, is what he's content to label "recentralization", at least for now....

Blair Ruble, Kennan Institute: A number of observers of the Russian scene declared a Putin "victory" over the governors when he established the new seven federal districts. A year later, such a confident pronouncement appears to have been woefully premature. The new "super-governors" have not been given sufficient independent control over state expenditures to impose any set of policy outcomes on local-level officials. Interestingly, they have become embroiled with central ministries as much as with local authorities as several "super-governors" have attempted to shape the activities of ministries in their regions. Local elite networks have largely rebuffed the "super-governors" while President Putin has often had to develop his own alliances with the very regional governors whom the new "viceroys" are intended to control.

Such a muddled outcome should not come as a surprise in a state as large, diverse, and fragmented as the Russian Federation that has created a largely underfunded federal bureaucracy. Both the "super-governors" in particular -- and the Russian central state in general -- have insufficient "carrots" at their disposal with which to nudge local officials to action (and not very many "sticks" either).

In retrospect, the imposition of the "super-governors" has proven to have been a typical Putin effort to paper over deep problems through heightened administrative controls. One might have hoped that Moscow's leaders -- especially a leader who himself held a senior regional post at one time -- would have learned a lesson or two from Soviet-era efforts to do the same.