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Russia Report: April 5, 2000

5 April 2000, Volume 2, Number 13
The Federation Council has sent to the State Duma amendments to the law on forming legislative and executive bodies in the regions of the Russian Federation that would lift the restriction on regional governors and presidents serving more than two terms in office, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 30 March. According to the daily, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev and Komi President Yurii Spiridonov will be the first "victims" of the law if it is not amended. And in 2002-2003 the presidents of Bashkortostan, Ingushetia, Sakha, and Buryatia Republics as well as Amur Oblast, among others, would also have to step down. The daily, which is financed by Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group, suggested that "it is possible that the senators will make some concessions to [President-elect] Putin in exchange for his approval of the amendments." Sergei Sobyanin, chairman of the Council's Committee on Constitutional Issues, suggested that the regions themselves should decide how long their leaders remain in office. JAC

This spring may bring measures that prove to be unpleasant for regional leaders. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 30 March that, according to its unidentified sources, legislation is already being prepared that would steamline the process for removing local administration heads from power. Its sources also claim that the interfernce of the federal center in territorial matters will increase. Regional leaders will become dependent on "the flourishes of Putin's pen." The daily, which is financed by Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group, concluded that it is possible that this legislation will be introduced in the parliament soon after Putin's inauguration. JAC

"Tribuna" alleged in an article published on 30 March that the Putin administration has been using Vneshekonombank as a weapon against regions to ensure their loyalty in State Duma and presidential elections. According to the daily, centralized investment credits allocated to enterprises and region go through Vneshekonombank. The daily, which is financed by Gazprom, reported that not long after Roman Abramovich was elected a Duma deputy from Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, 100 million rubles ($3.5 million) of Vneshekonombank's own money was transferred to Chukotka. JAC

Yabloko party activist Dmitrii Khrustalev was detained by local police in Bashkortostan for failing to appear in court for a civil case connected with his distribution of Yabloko campaign literature, "The Moscow Times" reported on 30 March. According to the daily, detention for failing to appear in court, especially for a civil case, is rare. Khrustalev's sister told the daily that local police have demanded the names and addresses of everyone in the republic who worked for Yabloko during the State Duma campaign. In the week of the 19 December Duma elections, police received orders to confiscate campaign literature of those candidates who are not supported by the republic's authorities, according to RFE/RL's Ufa correspondent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December1999). JAC

"Vremya MN" reported on 4 April that the likely leading candidates in the gubernatorial ballot scheduled for later this year have recently been buying up media outlets in Nizhnii Novgorod. Incumbent Governor Ivan Sklyarov is reported to be currently holding talks on creating his own "Guberniya" media-holding. Several newspapers will belong to that group, as well as a dozen or so publications that receive paper free of charge from the governor. Nizhnii Novgorod Mayor Yurii Lebedev has acquired his own television channel, while former Prime Minister and Union of Rightist Forces leader Sergei Kirienko is now in possession of several newspapers as well as the popular local station Radio Randeva. And according to the head of Dialog television, the new owner of that station and the popular newspaper "Delo" (both owned by EkOil) is none other than Kirienko. JC

The chairman of the Nizhnii Novgorod municipal Duma has published a letter in "Nizhnii Novgorodskie novosti" berating several local newspapers for what he called their persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. Those publications, apparently all published by a well-known media holding in the city, have recently run articles critical of the Church, Patriarch Aleksii II, and the Metropolitan of Nizhnii Novgorod and Arzamas Nikolai. According to the city Duma chairman, the reason for the anti-Church campaign is political rather than ideological: the media holding was recently forced to vacate its offices in a prime location in the city, because those premises were located in a house returned to the Nizhnii Novgorod Eparchy. By publishing such articles, the Duma speaker commented, the offending publications are seeking to discredit the Church, compromise the metropolitan, and provoke a scandal "by any possible means." JC

Governor Leonid Polezhaev has been ordered to pay damages for slandering Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, following a trial which lasted nearly 10 months, "Versiya" (No. 5-6) and "Novoe Omskoe Slovo" reported. In an address to the oblast legislature last year, Polezhaev had claimed that the heads of two local security firms had links to criminal groups, had planted their "spies" in law enforcement agencies, and were gathering compromising material on senior oblast officials. Those comments were followed by numerous checks on former FSB officers carried out by the tax authorities, the prosecutor-general, and the internal affairs department. Legal proceedings were launched and then dropped for lack of evidence. The heads of the two firms, however, decided to take Polezhaev to court for slander. In accordance with the court ruling, Polezhaev is required to pay each of them 10,000 rubles ($350) and make a public statement withdrawing his comments. JC

Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov has said that voters in Vladivostok will hear at the end of next week his commission's decision on whether a second round of State Duma elections held there on 26 March are valid, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 1 April. On 30 March, the regional election commission declared that ballot invalid because of the exclusion of one candidate Orysya Bondarenko just two days before elections at the order of a krai court. Cherepkov, who had received some 27 percent of the vote, had earlier been declared the winner (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 29 March 2000). According to RFE/RL, voters in Vladivostok have already started gathering signatures for an appeal to President-elect Putin and to Veshnyakov asking them to find out who is guilty of disrupting the elections. One thousand signatures have already been collected. If the Central Election Commission upholds the regional election commission's decision, new elections will have to held in that district for a third time. Cherepkov told Interfax-Eurasia that the controversy around Bondarenko's candidacy "was a planned spectacle organized by the adminstration of Primorskii Krai in case of the undesireable victory of Cherepkov." JAC

According to the website "Vesti.Ru" on 31 March, the Smolensk Eparchy and the oblast educational authorities have joined forces in a bid to ensure that local teachers are well-versed in the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Both groups were instrumental in organizing a course for teachers from throughout the region in the "Fundaments of Orthodox Culture and Morality." Addressing the teachers at the beginning of the course, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill noted that the Church and educational establishments are "natural allies," while newspapers loyal to the oblast administration commented that such courses will allow teachers to educate their pupils in an "atmosphere of high morality and of the Orthodox tradition in Russia." A less subtle attempt at having the country's youth inculcated in Orthodoxy was recently undertaken in the other oblast under Kirill's jurisdiction. Kaliningrad Governor Leonid Gorbenko, who is seeking re-election this fall, was quoted as calling for the introduction of regular instruction in Orthodoxy in all the exclave's school. The local press subsequently chided Gorbenko for ignoring the federal constitutional provision that no ideology or religion may be considered official or compulsory. JC

Citing unidentified sources, "Segodnya" on 3 April reported that businessman Boris Berezovskii has concluded a secret agreement with Governor Vladimir Yakovlev ahead of the latter's bid for re-election next month. Berezovskii's part of the deal reportedly foresees no negative coverage of Yakovlev on Russian Public Television, which Berezovskii is alleged to control; the provision of spin doctors to improve the incumbent governor's image; and support for Yakovlev's election campaign. In return for those favors, Berezovskii is allegedly eyeing control over the St. Petersburg sea port, an important conduit for the import of oil products. According to the newspaper, the total value of oil products passing through that port is between $500 million and $1 billion annually. "Segodnya" is owned by Vladimir Gusinskii's Media-Most group. JC

"The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 31 March that in elections to the city's 111 municipal self-administrations, only about one-third of the 1,300 seats were filled. The reason for the shortfall was not low turnout--residents were asked to vote at the same time and in the same place as for the 26 March presidential elections--but rather an inadequate information campaign, according to the head of the City Election Campaign, Aleksandr Garusov. "When people received an additional ballot with 30 unknown names on it, they simply threw it away or voted against all candidates," Garusov was quoted as saying. Another reason for the failure of the elections may be that the municipal self-administrations have little impact on residents' life, having few powers and very little funds at their disposal. Their role was drastically reduced by legislation that lawmakers loyal to Governor Vladimir Yakovlev passed, while retaining gubernatorial appointees who preside over 21 larger municipal districts. Repeat elections to the municipal self-administrations will now have to be held at an estimated cost of 25 million rubles ($870,000). JC

Aleksandr Makarov gained some 54 percent backing in the 2 April second round of the Tomsk mayoral elections, beating his challenger, Yusup Galyamov, by a margin of almost 20 percent, Russian Television reported the next day. Some 10 percent of those who cast their ballots voted against all candidates. At 46 percent, turnout was significantly lower than in the 26 March first round. JC

By Julie A. Corwin

As Russia and the rest of the world waits for President-elect Vladimir Putin to make some decisive policy moves, leaders in Russia's far-flung regions already know what to expect. During his three months as acting president, Putin initiated changes in how Moscow manages its relations with the periphery. And in a marked contrast to how he began his tenure at the helm of Federal Security Service (FSB), Putin is making no assurances that a major overhaul will not occur.

Consider Putin's words at his first press conference when he took over as director of the FSB in 1998. He promised that "there will practically be no new approaches to work with the regions." He declared that control in the regions "will be strengthened but no extra tightening of the screws (zakruchivaniya gaek) will take place." Before his FSB assignment, Putin headed the Kremlin's Control Department, where, among other things, he uncovered 9,000 cases in which federal money totaling some 3 trillion rubles ($104 billion at the current exchange rate) had been spent by the regions for purposes other than those intended. Putin's rise to power made regional leaders understandably nervous.

Now, as then, regional leaders' anxiety is almost palpable. Governors of all political stripes moved with breakneck speed to back Putin's presidential campaign and form their own branches of the Putin-backed Unity movement. Some even suggested that the presidential term be lengthened and the federation reformed into a smaller number of more manageable units. But rather than reassuring the fretful regional poo-bahs, this time Putin started promising change from the very beginning.

Less than a month after taking over from former President Boris Yeltsin, Putin called for declaring a war against the "legal chaos" existing in regions where local laws often conflict with federal legislation. Later, he spoke about the need to place "all subjects of the Russian Federation in the same economic conditions vis-a-vis the federal center," noting that "several subjects have certain privileges that others do not." So far, Putin's only concession to the status quo was rejection of the idea of appointing--rather than electing--governors, as some regional heads had suggested. The president-elect noted that the Russian population has "gotten used to its right to influence who will be its leader."

But more important than Putin's words have been his actions and that of his government. One month after his appointment as acting president, Putin dismissed more than 20 presidential representatives to Russian regions, replacing them with his own appointees. In the weeks that followed, the Justice Ministry announced the formation of a commission to check the compliance of regional laws with federal legislation; the Interior Ministry reorganized its structure, subordinating all of its regional criminal police units to Moscow headquarters; the Finance Ministry announced stricter controls over regional finances; and the Tax Ministry announced expansion of its project to maximize information about the regions' tax-paying capabilities. And only last week, German Gref, the head of the Center for Strategic Research, the think tank charged with drafting Putin's economic program, told reporters that the relationship between the federal government and regional governors will be revised.

What all these diverse policies have in common is a tightening of control by the center over the regions. And it may be reasonable to assume that in the future Putin will seek to maximize control by supporting those regional heads who not only express loyalty but can themselves control outcomes on their territories and deliver on their promises to the center. Those leaders who did not get the vote out for Putin in presidential elections may find themselves in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis Moscow. One example might be Primorskii Krai, where Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko was one of the first governors to support Unity. There, Putin narrowly squeaked out a victory with some 40.08 percent of the vote, compared with Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov's 36.36 percent. Similarly, in Buryatia, Putin also performed poorly next to Zyuganov, 41.96 percent versus 40.53 percent. This occurred. despite the fact that three deputy prime ministers in the republic's government took three-month vacations so that they could head the local election headquarters for Putin.

Since Putin has rejected the notion of appointing governors, he may have to rely on less obvious means of controlling regional leaders. "Vedomosti" suggested last month that new legal measures being introduced to tighten federal control over regional finances may make regional leaders "docile" without the necessity of more overt administrative measures. After all, only a handful of Russia's 89 regions contribute more in revenue to the center than they get in return. But previous attempts at recentralizing Russia have generally failed--stymied in part by the sheer size of the federation. Putin may have one advantage that leaders since Stalin lacked: fear.

Putin's conduct of policy in Chechnya and in the presidential elections suggests he has a tendency toward "overkill" and is uncomfortable leaving anything to chance. In 1998, when Kalmykia's President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov challenged the then weak Yeltsin government by announcing that his republic considered itself outside of the federation and would no longer transfer its federal taxes, Moscow responded harshly, dismissing its federal treasury official there and suspending all aid. What is the likelihood that Ilyumzhinov or one of his peers will risk making even a less dramatic statement and discovering President Putin's reaction?