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Russia: Putin Takes Control Of The Status Quo Through Gubernatorial Appointments

Russian President Vladimir Putin 8 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The 31 May resignation of North Ossetia President Aleksandr Dzasokhov and the 2 June requests for reconfirmation submitted by Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and Rostov Oblast Governor Vladimir Chub means that 24 of the Russian Federation's 89 regions will soon have undergone a change of administration under the new system adopted at the beginning of this year. In response to the wave of terrorism last summer that culminated in the Beslan school hostage taking in September, President Vladimir Putin replaced the direct election of regional executive-branch heads with a system under which regional legislatures confirm candidates who are nominated by the president.

In a major speech on 13 September 2004, Putin announced this political reform, arguing that the war on terrorism necessitated "securing the unity of state power and the logical development of federalism." At the time, many critics commented that they failed to see the connection between the struggle against terrorism and the system of selecting regional executive-branch heads. National Strategy Institute head Stanislav Belkovskii wrote on on 14 September that Kremlin appointments are based on "mediocrity, cynicism, and lack of talent." Independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov argued that governors would be weakened by the loss of their popular mandates, rendering them ineffective if a crisis struck their regions. (For more on the criticism that followed Putin's announcement, click here.)

Putin's supporters -- and many regional governors rushed to applaud the reform in the days following Putin's speech -- savaged Russia's flawed elections. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko told ITAR-TASS on 14 September that under direct elections "a random person can come to power and there is no mechanism to recall him," adding that voters are easily swayed by populist rhetoric. Ryazan Governor Georgii Shpak told the same day that elections merely bring "photogenic" people to power. "They can speak well, but they cannot do anything." Yaroslavl Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn said direct elections mean that governors can be "pushed around" by voters.

A Pattern Emerges

In the five months since the reform was adopted, the pattern of gubernatorial appointments has clearly shown that the reform was not intended to replace ineffective governors who had come to power by manipulating a flawed electoral system. In the first 20 regions to pass through the new system, Putin reappointed 17 incumbents. (For a Fact Box on those appointments, click here.) Only Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov and Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev were rejected, while Koryak Autonomous Okrug Governor Vladimir Loginov was dismissed under accusations of incompetence. In effect, Putin has seemed to be endorsing the choices made by the people in almost every case, but he has made their political fortunes dependent on him rather than on the electorate.
Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote in "The Moscow Times" on 6 June that the new system has developed into a major cash cow for the Kremlin.

Analysts have noted that the success rate of incumbents under the new system -- which has had the additional effect of abolishing term limits -- is considerably higher than the already-high rate seen under the old direct-election system. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 June, only 13 of the 21 incumbents who faced re-election in 2004 managed to hold on to their posts.

After Putin announced his reform, many observers felt that the new system could be used to remove entrenched leaders in many of the country's so-called ethnic republics, leaders who so thoroughly control the local political machines that the oppositions have no hope of winning an election. Oppositionists in the Republic of Bashkortostan were particularly encouraged and took to the streets in a campaign to urge Putin to oust republican President Murtaza Rakhimov. However, these hopes have largely backfired, as Rakhimov and others have used the unrest as evidence of the need for a firm hand and stability. In the Republic of Tatarstan, President Mintimer Shaimiev, who has called the shots there since 1991, was given an unprecedented fourth term in March.

Kremlin 'Cash Cow'

Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Nikolai Petrov wrote in "The Moscow Times" on 6 June that the new system has developed into a major cash cow for the Kremlin. According to Petrov's sources, governors pay tens of millions of dollars to secure access to Putin's endorsement, and governors -- even those with many months remaining on their old mandates -- are lining up to pay and receive the Kremlin's blessing. Petrov wrote that his sources tell him that some governors pay for their endorsements not in cash but by placing Kremlin-selected figures in key positions in their republics, meaning that the corruption in the system is seeping deeper into local administrations. As Petrov warned, the potential for explosive instability in such an opaque and corruption-riddled system is considerable.