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Reforming The Russian Bureaucracy: A Progress Report

By Julie A. Corwin

Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to make appointments this week to his newly restructured presidential administration. Like government ministers who had to trim their number of deputy ministers, Putin's administration chief, Dmitrii Medvedev, now has only two deputies. In addition, the administration's structure has become more pyramid-shaped, with the top being trimmed and additional directorates being created closer to the bottom.

Since appointments are still being made, it will naturally take some time to measure the impact -- if any -- these changes will have on the Kremlin's day-to-day operations. But it is possible now to examine another presidential institution that nearly four years ago Putin reformed, even created: the presidential envoys to the regions.

Putin inherited from former President Boris Yeltsin a system in which almost all of the 89 federal subjects had their own presidential envoy. In 2000, he introduced a streamlined structure of seven presidential envoys, each representing a federal district composed of the smaller regional units -- oblast, republics, krais, and autonomous okrugs (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 17 and 24 May 2000).

"Vremya novostei" reported on 8 April that in the opinion of some analysts, the institution of presidential envoys is at present "practically useless," in part because they have already fulfilled their primary function of bringing local legislation into conformity with federal laws. The general director of the Center for Political Forecasting, Konstantin Simonov, said that the institution has become a "form of political exile for visible figures in the government." Simonov is likely referring to the two most recently appointed envoys: former Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Yakovlev, who is now presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, and former Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is now envoy to the Northwest Federal District.

Dmitrii Oreshkin of the Merkator Group had a slightly different take. He said that, in theory, the envoys have additional spheres of activity, including exercising control over regional elections, "Vremya novostei" reported. However, the envoys' opportunities are limited by the way their powers were defined. They may not give orders to governors, but may only offer advice. Nevertheless, Oreshkin said he believes the office of the envoys will not be dismantled, since Putin will hardly want to destroy his own creation.

In an interview with "Novyi region" on 23 April 2003, Agency for Regional Research General Director Rostislav Turovskii also gave the envoys a mixed review. On the plus side, according to Turovskii, the envoys have contributed a "unique and exclusive" flow of information about what is happening at the regional level. In addition, the envoys have often played important roles regulating regional-level conflicts.

However, Turovskii added that the institution has some serious deficiencies. The office exists only within the framework of a 13 May 2000 presidential decree. It is not enshrined in the constitution or in federal law, which limits its legitimacy. Another drawback, according to Turovskii, is that the envoys are not sufficiently controlled by the presidential administration. "In the name of the federal center, the envoys have not infrequently simply pursued their own personal, mercenary interests, and none of them has ever been punished for this," he said.

Turovskii said that before General Viktor Kazantsev was dismissed from his post as envoy to the Southern Federal District last month. Kazantsev was sacked without being given a new assignment -- one of only a handful of government officials that Putin has ever fired without immediately offering them a new position. Some of the few other examples are former Atomic Energy Minister Yevgenii Adamov and former Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, both of whom were dogged by allegations of corruption. The latter is facing criminal charges.

Writing in a policy memo, No. 284, for the Program on New Approaches to Russian Security, University of Oklahoma Professor Brian Taylor raised another issue regarding the envoys. He reported that one consequence of reasserting central control over local law-enforcement organs has been that regional "law enforcement officials are now subject to manipulation by federal and district-level politicians and oligarchs." The Prosecutor-General's Office, for example, according to Taylor, has been unleashed against the political opponents of the Kremlin and the presidential envoys.

"The same problems that previously afflicted Russian bureaucratic behavior continue to exist under Putin, just at a different level," Taylor concludes. In other words, Putin might have reduced the number of presidential envoys, but he replicated some of the problems that have bedeviled Russian officialdom since long before Yeltsin -- cronyism and corruption.

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