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Russia: One Year After, Federal Districts Win Praise From Regional Politicians

When newly elected President Vladimir Putin carved Russia into seven federal administrative districts last year, many political analysts called it a clear step by the Kremlin to strengthen its control over the regions. A year later, Putin's move to create a "vertical power" is his most striking political reform to date. And although it remains to be seen how effectively the regional realignment will shape Russia's administrative future, at least two regional politicians say that so far, the changes have been for the better. RFE/RL correspondent Francesca Mereu reports.

Prague, 2 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In May 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree aimed at halting the growing decentralization of powers in the vast and unwieldy country. The decree created seven federal districts -- the North Caucasus, Far Eastern, Northwestern, Urals, Central, Volga, and Siberian -- and appointed presidential representatives to lead them. It thus removed federal power from governors in most of the country's 89 regions.

In defending his reform, Putin said it was meant to rein in the Russian regions, many of which had adopted levels of autonomy the Kremlin found objectionable. Some regions, for example, had enacted laws contradicting the Russian Constitution. Others levied local customs duties and withheld tax revenues from Moscow. The Volga republic of Tatarstan even adopted its own constitution, which its governor, Mintimer Shaimiyev, said superseded its Russian counterpart.

Alexander Anpilov is the chairman of the Kursk regional Duma. He says that before Putin's federal district reform, the situation had become "unbearable":

"We live in the Kursk region [in the Central federal district]. In Kursk, we didn't like it that regions like Tatarstan or Bashkortostan didn't pay federal taxes. Our districts and some other neighboring regions used to pay [the federal government] 50 percent of our tax revenues. The constitution says that all federal districts are equal, but you had situations where some regions paid taxes and other regions didn't pay anything at all. This is why we're happy with the president's reform package. We have a good relationship with the presidential representative [Georgy Poltavchenko] as well."

Putin adopted his main package of federal reform because of three interrelated events. First, on the eve of numerous gubernatorial elections, many governors were feeling vulnerable and were eager to court federal support. Second, the regional elite was fragmented and public opinion was turning against it. And third, the center had been able to gather significant amounts of compromising material to put pressure on the regional elite.

Russian journalists -- even those who admitted that many Russian regions were enjoying unchecked legislative freedoms -- were quick to criticize Putin's reforms. They accused the president of wanting to recreate the czarist administrative system, in which territorial units known as "gubernia" were ruled by a governor-general appointed by the czar in Saint Petersburg.

Many regional leaders, however, welcomed the new Kremlin course of action. Vladimir Nikitin is the chairman of the Kaliningrad regional Duma in the Northwest federal district. He says the reorganization will help Russia to have the same laws working everywhere:

"I agree with the president's decision [regarding the vertical power structure] because his aim is to unify the federal law and the laws [regulating] the regional districts. I'm sure that the establishment of these federal districts and the establishment of the president's representative will help Russia to have the same laws everywhere."

Both politicians said it was common for regional authorities to create laws meant to supercede Kremlin control. Anpilov says the Kursk region was no exception:

"A lot of regions used to enact local laws that contradicted the federal laws. For example, our former governor, [Alexander] Rutskoi, used to forbid the export of our agricultural produce [to other Russian regions]. It happened every year: in autumn, [Rutskoi] ordered the police to stop the crops from being exported. Is it possible to have such a situation in a market economy?"

Many journalists wrote at the time that Putin's federal reform sought to bring the country under more centralized control and suggested the president wanted to alter Russian democracy.

But Nikitin says his region has never felt any undue pressure from the Kremlin. He says that the role of the regions and the state are clearly outlined in the Russian Constitution:

"In the Russian Constitution it is clearly explained what the responsibilities of the state and the responsibilities of regional institutions should be. The two institutions are separate. I don't feel any pressure from the center, and I have never felt it."

Anpilov says Putin's decision has not changed the way regional or democratic institutions work. He says many regions had already adopted an individual approach to democracy:

"Democracy in some regions like Primoriye [in the Far Eastern federal district] was understood in a very strange way. People had no heat and no electricity in winter, but at the same time they had democratic [institutions] like elections and election campaigns. But at the same time, their lives got worse and worse. This is the reason why politicians and citizens in Kursk support the new Kremlin decision."

Anpilov says that since last year's reform, his region has already altered 55 local laws that contradicted federal law. He says that the change of the local laws "has not weakened the Russian government, but strengthened it." Not all regional politicians, however, may feel the same.