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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Regions, Republics, And Reform

Washington, 16 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin's creation of seven new federal districts, explicitly designed to reestablish Moscow's control over Russia's regions, appears likely to have just the opposite effect.

Coming on the heels of his efforts to rein in regional governments in Bashkortostan and Ingushetia last week, Putin's decree on Saturday sets the stage for a new kind of regional politics, one that could lead to an intensification of the ongoing struggle between the center and the periphery.

And just as was the case at the end of the Soviet period, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to retake control over the union republics, that struggle in turn could have a powerful impact on Putin's ability to govern and to promote whatever reforms he says he would like to introduce.

There are three reasons for this conclusion:

First, Putin's decree on Saturday also calls for the elimination of the system of presidential envoys attached to the regional governments. That suggests that this decree itself was a compromise between those who hope to reestablish Moscow's control over the periphery and those who want things to remain as they are. But potentially more significant, Putin is removing the very stratum of officials his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had sought to use unsuccessfully to control the regions without creating a system that has any more powers, even on paper, to intervene in the actions of regional and republic governments.

Second, Putin's action over the weekend was after all by decree. To make this system work, the Russian president almost certainly will have to seek a constitutional amendment, a process that at the very least will spark a new regional politics and one that Putin and his allies cannot be sure of winning.

If these seven new federal districts are not constitutionalized, regional leaders are likely to view them alternatively as annoyance that they can typically ignore, the base for the projection of their own power if the district capital is the same as their own, or a new forum in which they can combine to advance their interests.

If regional leaders seek to ignore these new bodies, then Putin will either have to invest them with force or watch them turn into the latest stillborn creation of the post-Soviet period.

But if they either try to take control of these bodies or combine to oppose them, he may find himself confronted by larger and more powerful combinations of regions, hardly the outcome he and his aides say they want.

And third, so far at least, the actual powers these presidential representatives will have either legally or politically remains far from clear. Much depends on whom Putin selects, the powers he gives them, and their ability and willingness to work with the governors and republic presidents under their control.

If Putin names politically significant people to these posts, at least some of them are likely to take advantage of the situation to build their own power bases, especially since in the absence of force or other resources, they are likely to have to develop good working relations with the regional elites if they are to accomplish anything.

But if Putin names faceless members of the bureaucracy, the elected regional governors and republic presidents are likely to view these new representatives with little or no more respect than they did Yeltsin's envoys to their own territories, thereby severely limiting their utility to Moscow.

That in turn could prompt Putin either to reach new compromises with regional elites or turn to the use of force. Either of these strategies will limit Moscow's ability to pursue a countrywide pattern of reform, and both could represent a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Except for his military campaign against Chechnya, Yeltsin during his presidency tolerated both diversity and autonomy across the Russian Federation, arrangements that limited Moscow's power but purchased a certain amount of stability, decentralization and popular control.

Now Putin, having used even more force against Chechnya, has decided to rein in the regions. But his decree on Saturday seems more likely to set the center and periphery on a new collision course, one which may threaten even the limited moves toward democracy and federalism Yeltsin sponsored.