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Russia: Putin Tightens Rule Over Regions

In a decree last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin created a new layer of bureaucracy, dividing the country into seven districts, each with its own presidential representative. Analyst Julie Corwin of RFE/RL's Newsline says the move means more direct presidential oversight and less autonomy for the regions.

Prague, 18 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Less than a week after his inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up on pre-election pledges to crack down on unruly Russian regions who flout federal laws. He issued a series of decrees rescinding local legislation, warning local lawmakers to pay attention to federal laws, and -- most important -- established seven new administrative districts subsuming Russia's 89 federation subjects.

The new districts will be headed by a new kind of presidential representative, who some regional leaders in their discussion of the new policy are already referring to as "governor-generals." The term suggests that the new mini-Putins might have greater powers than those of governors themselves -- or at least considerably more than their predecessors. There were more than 80 presidential representatives to the regions under the old system.

At least on paper, the seven new presidential representatives will have a wide range of responsibilities as well as resources. They will coordinate the activities of federal bodies within the regions and they can recommend to the president that he suspend specific local laws or decrees when they contradict federal laws.

So far, though, regional leaders appeared less than overwhelmed. Almost all of them responded to news of the new, improved administrative system with expressions of mild to enthusiastic support. For example, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev said that the new system will "serve as a more effective instrument for realizing the constitutional authority of the president of the Russian Federation."

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov echoed Shaimiev's sentiment, saying that the new system would increase government efficiency. Kurgan Oblast Governor Oleg Bogomolov called Putin's measure a "serious" reform and noted that "governors themselves had called for such steps long ago."

A number of regional leaders such as the governor of Lipetsk also expressed their hope that the large number of federal officials operating on their territory would finally be supervised by someone -- since Moscow is too far away to do the job properly.

One explanation for their nonchalance may be that the governors are confident that they can elude control of a new "center" even if it is as close as the next oblast rather than three or five time zones away in Moscow.

Tatar President Shaimiev said the new decree would not create super-regions.

"That is not realistic, it is not life. Even if someone wanted to divide Russia up again into some type of units, it can't be done."

Regional leaders may also be saving their fire for more important battles. Regional governors currently enjoy automatic membership in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. But the lower house Duma is considering changing that. And the Duma is reportedly also considering draft legislation requiring the dismissal of a regional governor or president should he violate federal law on more than one occasion.

That would be a real cause for alarm, says Ruslan Aushev, president of Ingushetia.

"[The authorities] gave an indication of what Russia will look like in the future. Several laws will be passed, on the accountability of governors and presidents when they violate the constitution. But what does that mean? You look askance at someone -- that can already be a violation of human rights -- you already violated the constitution. And then some [regional governors] will be intimidated, others will be afraid, others just won't want to get involved. [They'll say] sorry, that's the constitution."

It is not yet clear what will be the source of the seven district representatives' power. Joel Hellman of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development suggests that it is likely that Putin will give his new representatives a very effective tool: control over the money that Moscow gives the regions.

In Hellman's words, "The question is whether [Putin] just wants to improve the monitoring capacity of the presidential administration over the regions or whether he really wants to gain greater power over the governors." If he wants power over them, Hellman says, he'll use financial pressure.

At the very least, the administrative reform will probably mean fewer headaches for President Putin, as he will be able to delegate complaints from regional governors to his seven representatives. Provided that those mini-Putins don't develop independent power bases of their own -- a development which Putin's former colleagues in the Control Department will at least be able to monitor if not prevent -- Putin will be freer to concentrate on matters closer to Red Square.

(Sophie Lambroschini of RFE/RL and Ferit Agi, director of the Tatar-Bashkir Service, contributed to this report.)