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Russia: Parliament Considers Overhaul Of Local Governments

The Russian parliament is considering legislation to clarify the authority of local and municipal governments. The Kremlin says the laws are necessary to bring order to the chaotic lowest levels of the administrative system that took shape after the Soviet collapse. But as RFE/RL reports, some say implementing the reform may create more chaos by giving rise to political infighting.

Moscow, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When tens of thousands of Russians were left shivering without heat in below-freezing temperatures this winter, officials were quick to point fingers at one another. The public generally allocated blame to regional and local levels of government, saying bureaucracy in the country's provinces has reached such a state of confusion that officials are allowed to misappropriate funds without assuming any responsibility. A number of politicians say they hope that may now change as parliament considers legislation that would revise the lowest levels of Russia's government: the local and municipal systems.

The Kremlin drafted the law saying it wants to clarify the responsibilities of the country's different levels of government. Most important, it says the new rules would set out clear budget structures holding all levels of administration accountable to the electorate for each of their duties.

Political experts agree the reform is necessary but say the government hasn't done enough to make sure the restructuring will proceed smoothly. They say a redivision of powers and jurisdiction at the local level will generate disputes between regional and local politicians eager to grab a bigger share of the pie.

The State Duma passed a draft bill in the first of three readings on 21 February, when the populist Russian Regions faction leader Gennadii Raikov had this to say to reporters: "The law is controversial. There are many points that need to be discussed before another reading. But if [the law] is left as it stands now the -- I'm sorry -- mess that exists now in local government will continue: when people give 2 million [rubles] for a football team but don't replace [heating] pipes, and then [people] freeze."

Presidential administration deputy chief of staff Dmitrii Kozak spearheaded the bill's drafting. He addressed Duma deputies on 21 February: "This legislation proposes to solve this problem, to delineate the zone of responsibility for each level -- federal, regional, and local -- to tackle specific problems of providing for the lives of citizens. Those problems have not been solved as of today."

The Kremlin says its legislation constitutes a first step toward codifying all the country's government structures. Reform on the local level was given priority, officials say, because it concerns services such as utilities and public transportation that affect daily life and have a direct impact on standard of living.

President Vladimir Putin has called local-government reforms "one of the most complicated and conflict-ridden questions of state building [in Russia]," Interfax reported.

The changes would ensure that the federal and regional governments earmark funds for those duties handed down to local governments, including education and health care. The law would also draw up a new map for local administrative districts, more than doubling the country's municipal districts to 28,000.

Partially in a bid to placate opposition by regional governors, the laws would give them greater powers at the expense of local officials, who would be left with little more than jurisdiction over maintenance of buildings and public spaces.

Aleksei Titkov is a regional-affairs specialist at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He said that while the legislation may cut down on the independence of local government, it may bring benefits by reducing the financial dependence of local governments.

Titkov said that most local governments -- aside from those of larger cities -- are currently not allocated enough financing to meet their obligations and have to scrape by with additional grants from regional and federal coffers.

Titkov said the new laws are part of Putin's overhaul of the country's state structures, which began in 2000. "On the whole, the law corresponds to the Kremlin's general strategy of creating a stricter order in the administrative and legal system of power. On the whole, the law fits into the logic of Putin's policies in that regard," Titkov said.

Titkov said the proposed law will not significantly change the current system of local government but rather codify some existing laws while expanding others.

Critics say the bill promises greater abuse of power by regional governors, as well as bloating the country's already swollen bureaucracy.

But Titkov said the chief problems will arise in the legislation's implementation, which may lead to disputes over property and debts. "The very process of liquidating some municipal structures and of creating others in their place on the basis of the new federal law may become significantly conflicting and [may] cause a number of problems for the federal government and many new points of tension on the local level. It's not yet completely clear how the federal authorities are planning on solving these problems," Titkov said.

Putin said the law would take effect in 2005.