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Russia: Putin Finds Support Among Governors

Among acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's most insistent supporters are a growing number of regional governors. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow on the different reasons for the governors' support.

Moscow, 18 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's regional governors, not always known for their loyalty to the Kremlin, are lining up to support acting President Vladimir Putin's presidential bid in March.

For some regional leaders, such as Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, the switch to Putin reverses a position held as recently as parliamentary elections in December.

The leaders' loyalty comes as a surprise given the recent difficult relations between the Kremlin and the regions provoked in large measure by Russia's economic crisis in 1998.

Just six months ago, regional heads held a rebellious vote against former President Boris Yeltsin by confirming the position of the Kremlin's arch-enemy: Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov. Skuratov was involved in an investigation into alleged corruption inside the Kremlin. The governors' support was seen as an expression of their growing strength and influence.

Some analysts see the governors' attitude as a purely pragmatic reaction to Putin's enormous popularity. Others see it as the result of behind-the-scenes bargaining, with Putin handing out threats and favors to win regional loyalties.

The governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Ivan Sklyarov, told Russian journalists that the regions never had an alternative but to follow the Kremlin's line. He says even if the governors themselves refused to participate, their regional bodies would nevertheless submit:

"I don't believe that nowadays regional leaders can stay out of big politics. So when we [governors] said [in the past] that we weren't taking any sides, we were in fact deceiving ourselves. Through our apparatus and some other organizations we followed the [government] line."

An economist with the Russian Institute for Globalization, Mikhail Delyagin, says the federal center retains enormous financial powers over the region. He told RFE/RL these powers can easily be abused and given what he calls a "political aspect."

"The financial levers are quite powerful and diverse. For one, a majority of regions receive donations from the federal center through transfers. More than 30 of Russia's 89 regions in principle cannot exist without the financial help of the center. So here is a situation of direct control: 'If you're not going to apply the policy that I choose, you might lose this money.' This is possible because transfers and other types of federal help [to the regions] is issued in an arbitrary way. The mechanism of their payment has not been really formalized. So this issue depends practically almost completely on the will of high-placed civil servants. It's very easy to give this issue a political aspect."

Such forms of pressure were also a favorite weapon of Yeltsin's administration, but Putin's popularity gives the Kremlin's authority new vigor. Delyagin says governors know that the time of Kremlin laxity induced by a weak center are over.

Delyagin says Putin may have another advantage stemming from a position he held a few years ago. Back then he was part of a Kremlin-controlled watchdog department formed to investigate the misuse of state funds. Delyagin says the position may have given Putin access to compromising material that he can use to blackmail reluctant governors.

Putin's overall plan for the regions has not been made public, although he is widely believed to favor a strong central authority.

A new security concept published last week includes a pledge to fight separatism, and a Russian television station (NTV) has recently aired footage from 1995 of Putin demanding that separatists face criminal charges. This appears to be a direct warning to regional leaders like Tatarstan's Shaimiev or Yekaterinburg's Eduard Rossel, both of whom have used the separatist card to extract power for themselves.

Our correspondent writes, however, that Putin has not relied solely on threats and intimidation to tame leaders.

The Kremlin's recent endorsement of a plan by St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev to move forward the date for regional elections was widely seen as payback for political loyalty. Yakovlev announced his support for Putin just days after the December parliamentary elections.

The Russian daily "Vedomosti" reported that Putin has promised to pay some of the regions' wage arrears, but that he will likely demand harsh terms -- including stifling regional freedom -- as repayment. According to the newspaper, the Kremlin is acting toward the regions in much the same way that the International Monetary Fund treats Russia.