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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Federalism And Its Discontents

Washington, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The presidential envoy system set up a year ago has helped President Vladimir Putin to recentralize control over some aspects of Russian life. But that system contains within itself the seeds of further disintegration of the country should Putin lose power or be replaced by a weaker leader.

Indeed, the Moscow newspaper "Trud" put that possibility at the center of its analysis. In an unsigned review of the work of the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts Putin established in May 2000, the paper said that on balance and at the current stage these have been "more useful than harmful." But it warned of possible dangers ahead, especially if these entities are enshrined in the constitution.

According to the paper, the dangers of these institutions arise because the seven federal districts "practically coincide with the military districts" of the country. That is no problem, it suggests, as long as the president is strong and the envoys are "thoroughly controlled by the federal government."

"But someday," the paper continues, "the president may become weak, or there may be no president at all. In this case, a serious regional crisis may start: Russia may be divided into seven independent countries. Thus, the country will overfulfill Zbigniew Brzezinski's plan. As is well known, he has long been suggesting that Russia be divided into three countries."

This risk and the central government's efforts to counter it have been very much on public view both during the twelve months that the presidential envoys have existed and during the entire history of center-periphery relations in Russia for almost two hundred years.

When Putin created the seven federal districts and named special presidential envoys to head them a year ago, many politicians and analysts in Russia suggested that this was a bold but potentially dangerous move. If Putin failed to give them real powers, these observers said, the envoys would become yet another dead layer of bureaucracy, one that would do little to promote greater central control.

But if Putin gave these figures enough room for maneuver, these observers noted, then the envoys would both build their own independent power bases and pursue their own agendas, even if they pursued his as well. That is what has happened. On the one hand, the envoy system has certainly helped to promote the harmonization of legislation across the country and weaken the power of the governors.

On the other hand, each of the current envoys appears to have his own agenda, a program that in the absence of a powerful leader could lead them to challenge the center. Putin's power of appointment and his own popular support limit that possibility for the time being, but these are personal qualities which a successor might not have or easily acquire.

Since at least 1825, when a Decembrist leader called for dividing Russia into thirteen states and Nicholas I responded by carving up the regions to limit their power to block central initiatives, Russia has seen a tug of war between the center and its far-flung possessions.

Throughout the 19th century, the tsars routinely redivided the regions and sent in outsiders as governors to try to control the situation. They also used the police powers of the state to break up regional challenges as when they tried and convicted the Siberian "oblastniki," or regionalists, in the 1860s.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet authorities did much the same thing, subdividing the regions of the RSFSR just as they did portions of the non-Russian periphery of the country to prevent challenges and using the crosscutting power of the Communist Party apparatus and the security organs to further limit regional challenges.

But with the decay of Soviet power first under Leonid Brezhnev and then under Mikhail Gorbachev, the regions assumed ever greater powers, frequently in areas such as foreign policy that represented a direct challenge to the center. That was summed up in Boris Yeltsin's famous injunction to the regions to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow."

Putin is trying to reverse this process, and he has had some notable successes. But as the "Trud" commentary suggests, he has not yet found a way out of the problems inherent in the history of Russian federalism, problems that make it difficult for either the center or the periphery to escape a zero-sum relationship and that create risks for the country's integrity whenever its leadership grows weak.