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Russia: Putin Seeks Greater Control Of Regions

As Russia and the world wait for President-elect Vladimir Putin to make some decisive policy moves, leaders in Russia's far-flung regions already know what to expect. During his three months as acting president, Putin initiated changes in how Moscow manages its relations with the periphery. And as RFE/RL's Julie Corwin reports, he is making no assurances that a major overhaul will not occur.

Prague, 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Before Vladimir Putin became president, and even before he took over the Federal Security Service, he headed the Kremlin's Control Department. There his investigators uncovered 9,000 cases in which federal money totaling some 3 trillion rubles ($104 billion at the current exchange rate) had been spent by the regions for purposes other than those intended. Putin's rise to power has made regional leaders understandably nervous.

Governors of all political stripes moved with breakneck speed to back Putin's presidential campaign and form their own branches of the Putin-backed Unity movement. Some even suggested that the presidential term be lengthened and the federation reformed into a smaller number of more manageable units. But rather than reassuring the fretful regional chiefs, Putin as president has been promising change from the very beginning.

One month after his appointment as acting president, Putin dismissed more than 20 presidential representatives to Russian regions, replacing them with his own appointees. In the weeks that followed, the Justice Ministry announced the formation of a commission to check the compliance of regional laws with federal legislation; the Interior Ministry reorganized its structure, subordinating all of its regional criminal police units to Moscow headquarters.

As if to demonstrate that Putin could exert financial pressure on the regions to fall in line, the Finance Ministry announced stricter controls over regional finances, and the Tax Ministry announced expansion of its project to maximize information about the regions' tax-paying capabilities.

Only last week, German Gref, the head of the Center for Strategic Research, a think-tank set up by Putin to develop his economic strategy, told reporters that the relationship between the federal government and regional governors will be revised.

Mikhail Krasnov is an analyst at the Center for Strategic Research. He told RFE/RL that Putin's plan is to force regional bosses to implement federal legislation and put an end to differing local laws and practices:

"It's all about building in a sophisticated way a unified system of executive power. As far as sanctions go, they are absolutely needed because we are suffering incredibly, firstly because we do have a legal system, but there's no accountability. So from my point of view, we should not destroy the system for electing governors. What we should have are federal agencies that would not let anybody violate federal laws, and whoever violates them must suffer the consequences for his actions."

So far, Putin's only concession to maintaining the status quo has been rejection of the idea of appointing -- rather than electing -- governors, as some regional heads had suggested. The president-elect noted that the Russian population has "gotten used to its right to influence who will be its leader."

Since Putin will not appoint regional leaders, he may have to rely on less obvious means of controlling them. The Russian daily "Vedomosti" suggested last month that new legal measures being introduced to tighten federal control over regional finances may make regional leaders "docile" without the necessity of more overt administrative measures. After all, only a handful of Russia's 89 regions contribute more in revenue to the center than they get in return.

But previous attempts at recentralizing Russia have generally failed -- stymied in part by the sheer size of the federation.

Jean-Robert Raviot is a Russian-affairs analyst with the Paris-based Institute for Political Science. Raviot says that re-establishing tight central control over the regions may not be possible because the present, loose system is far more in keeping with Russia's complex realities:

"I think it's impossible, really. They (Russia) went too far away [from centralized government]. It's absolutely impossible. First, because the regions are very different, different economically, from the point of view of financial resources and even from the point of view of the population, demographically, etcetera -- the Russian Federation is a territory totally unequal."

Still, Putin may have one advantage that Russian rulers after Stalin lacked: fear.

Putin's conduct of policy in Chechnya and in the presidential elections suggests he has a tendency toward overkill and is uncomfortable leaving anything to chance. In 1998, when Kalmykia's President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov challenged the then weak Yeltsin government by announcing that his republic considered itself outside of the federation and would no longer transfer its federal taxes, Moscow responded harshly, dismissing its federal treasury official there and suspending all aid.

The likelihood is dwindling that Ilyumzhinov or one of his peers will risk making even a less dramatic statement and discovering President Putin's reaction.

(Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow contributed to this report.)