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Russia: State Duma Approves Putin's Centralization Reforms

After weeks of wrangling with hostile governors in the upper house, the lower house of Russia's parliament has adopted two bills aimed at centralizing control over the regions. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 19 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past several years, as federal authorities sank into economic and political crisis, Russia's regional leaders often took matters into their own hands. Some of the governors and presidents of the 89 regions effectively ran their own fiefdoms.

That era is now at an end. Russian President Vladimir Putin scored a victory in his efforts to curb the power of regional leaders when the Duma today adopted two laws stripping the governors of some of their powers.

The Duma overwhelmingly voted to eject regional leaders from the upper house, the Federation Council. They are to be replaced by appointed legislators.

At present, the Federation Council seats 188 representatives, two for each of Russia's regions, although the two seats allotted to Chechnya are presently empty. The governor or president of each region gets one seat and the speaker of the regional legislature the other.

The upper house has the power to approve the imposition of martial law or the stationing of troops abroad. In the past, governors have wielded significant power there.

Now they are barred from the Federation Council as of 2002. Under the new law, the governors will now appoint one of their region's two seats in the upper house, but the regional legislature has the right to reject or dismiss the appointee by a two-thirds vote. The second representative will be elected by the regional legislature.

The second bill passed today overturns a Federation Council veto of a provision allowing the president to fire regional governors if they break federal laws or come under investigation.

A third bill, adopted earlier, considerably increases the power of the federal authorities with regard to mayors.

Together, the measures strengthen federal authority and consolidate power in the Kremlin. President Putin has been strongly pushing the reforms, which he presented to the public in May in a special television address. At that time he warned that measures had to be taken against what he called regional separatism.

Proponents of the reforms argued that the governors were too busy with their local responsibilities to fulfill their obligations as federal legislators. And they said some governors used the immunity from prosecution given by their parliamentary status to break federal laws.

Most Duma deputies agreed with these arguments. The little opposition in the lower house came from some of the Communists and some of the democrats, including Boris Nemtsov. Almost all of the governors in the upper house were opposed.

Critics of the new laws warned darkly that the reforms are a step towards an authoritarian state.

Business tycoon Boris Berezovsky stepped down from his Duma seat today, partly out of protest against the reform. He called it Putin's biggest mistake and a step towards the destruction of Russia.

Another Duma deputy, Vladimir Ryzhkov, was recently kicked out of the pro-Putin Unity faction for criticizing the reform. Ryzhkov argues that by barring the powerful governors from sitting in the upper house, Putin is considerably weakening parliament and depriving the political system of the only check on presidential power.

This battle may not be over yet. Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed points out that the Federation Council could still veto the law barring governors from seats. That would send the bill back to the Duma.