It has been a long time since anyone paid much attention to the Federation Council, the putative upper chamber of Russia’s legislature. Although its chairman, A Just Russia head Sergei Mironov (now on Twitter!), occasionally makes headlines for some odd statement or other, the body itself plays its role in Russia’s faux-democratic political system almost unnoticed.
But that doesn’t mean the Kremlin, the bureaucracy, and United Russia are ignoring it. As I said in an earlier post, this long quiet period in the valley between the peaks of national elections is exactly when some of the important changes are put into place that will produce the desired results when the next act of electoral theater is played out (Duma in 2011 and president in 2012).
It should be noted that the Federation Council long ago ceased to be an elected body. Under the Putin-era system, the council comprises two delegates from each federation subject, one supposedly representing the region’s legislative branch and one representing its executive branch. Of course, the regional legislatures are all in the stranglehold of United Russia and the governors have been appointed by the Kremlin since 2005, so the Federation Council has pretty much been turned into – well, we don’t usually like to cite Wikipedia, but… -- “a rubber-stamp body for the executive branch and the ruling United Russia party, similar to what the Soviet of Nationalities was during the Soviet period.”
But, theoretically, the council has some interesting powers. The council approves, for instance, a presidential decree of martial law or a state of emergency. It can – again, very theoretically – impeach the president. It also approves the use of the armed forces abroad, although the Kremlin recently made moves to weaken that control and allow the president to make such moves unilaterally (see August 2008).
And there have been some interesting moves recently that show the upper chamber is not off the radar. Regular readers of The Power Vertical will recall that in February, President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Natalya Komarova as governor of the oil-rich Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug (“oil rich” is an understatement – the okrug produces more than half of all Russian oil). Before being sent into the wild, Komarova served as chairwoman of the Duma’s natural resources committee, where she cooperated closely with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin in handing out perks to the energy industry.
This week Komarova raised eyebrows by nominating Federal Security Service General Nikolai Fedoryak to be her representative in the upper chamber. The 60-year old lifetime security-services veteran has no connection of any sort with Khanty-Mansiisk and has recently been serving as deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District. Last year he was being touted as a likely candidate to replace then-Volgograd Oblast Governor Nikolai Maksyuta. In fact, according to “Kommersant,” Komarova and Fedoryak had never met before United Russia arranged a meeting in late March to inform the governor that he was her man. Komarova’s press secretary told the daily that Fedoryak’s appointment makes sense because “a fresh view on the problems of the region is always good.”
(Interestingly, Fedoryak replaces Gennady Oleinik, a veteran of Khanty-Mansiisk politics who took on the utterly thankless job of heading the Federation Council’s Committee on the Far North and Small Minorities.)
Some may be wondering is this FSB general Putin’s man or Medvedev’s? After all, he served as the deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, so he must be one of the president’s men, right? Well, he picked up that post in 2004, under the last president. He told a 2009 conference on development in the North Caucasus that the region “in general doesn’t need to modernize – it has lived its own life for many centuries.” No modernization! What would Medvedev think?
Analysts have been speculating for some time that people who manage to get the Kremlin’s nod to become governor return the favor to those who lobbied for them with sinecures in the Federation Council. If Sechin, the leader of the hard-line siloviki faction within Putin’s entourage, was indeed Komarova’s patron, then her appointment of a nearing-retirement-age FSB general to the Federation Council would make sense.
On the other hand, the appointment seems to indicate that United Russia is taking a stronger interest in the Federation Council. The party, it would seem, does not trust its own governors (virtually all of Russia’s governors are United Russia members or supporters) to appoint senators who will push the party line (although, of course, the Federation Council is supposed to be made of people representing the subjects of the Russian Federation and its demise is the most obvious sign of the destruction of federalism under Putin).
Last month, the party’s political council compelled the Voronezh Oblast legislature to appoint as its representative in the Federation Council Duma Deputy Nikolai Olshansky, a mining oligarch. Olshansky, incidentally, is 71, so something had to be done with him. As local United Russia spokesman Igor Surovtsev told “Kommersant,” “his age, most likely, will make itself felt and the next Duma elections are not far off.” (Interesting side note, Olshansky’s son, Igor, died in November 2005 when the private Cessna plane in which he was returning from a hunting (poaching?) trip crashed.)
Also last month, Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Mikhail Yurevich (who took office on April 22, replacing longtime Governor Pyotr Sumin) was forced by United Russia to name Ruslan Gattarov as his representative in the Federation Council. Gattarov is the head of United Russia’s Young Guard movement and, unlike Fedoryak and Olshansky, is just 33 years old. He became the third Young Guard leader – after Andrei Turchak and Aleksandr Borisov – to join the upper chamber. (You can watch him here on video complaining about migrant workers in Russia.) Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev says the success of the Young Guard in getting into the Federation Council attested to the influence of deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, who set up the ruling party’s youth organization.
In March, Primorsky Krai Governor Sergei Darkin unexpectedly and without explanation withdrew his candidate for the Federation Council and last month he named Interior Ministry General Vladimir Kikot, a nomination that also came directly from United Russia’s central organs. Kikot, 58, formerly headed the ministry’s personnel department and has no known connection to Primorsky Krai.
It seems most likely to me that he was viewed as an opponent of proposed personnel cuts in the ministry that have been proposed as part of the purported effort to combat police abuse or he stood to lose his post and was in need of a parachute. It would be interesting to know his role in the appointments of some of the many senior Interior Ministry figures that Medvedev has had to fire in recent months as one scandal after another made the headlines. As the Interior Ministry proceeds with its reforms, I think we can expect to see more and more siloviki from its ranks moving into other organs of power, state corporations, and the like (something like what happened to the KGB in the 1990s).
Primorsky Krai now has the distinction of being the only federation subject represented by two senators that have no connection whatsoever to the region: its legislature has been represented in the Federation Council by former hockey star and unofficial “sports minister” Vyacheslav Fetisov since 2008. However, according to local media in Vladivostok, “in a year and a half, Primorsky Krai lawmakers haven’t noticed any activity on his part in defending the region’s interests.”
Vladivostok-based analyst Pyotr Khanas describes these appointments as “spitting in the direction of the president.” “During his last address to the Federal Assembly, Dmitry Medvedev talked about the necessity of democratizing the processes for forming the Federation Council, and particularly about the need to nominate candidates exclusively from the ranks of regional or municipal legislators. A bill to this effect has already been presented to the State Duma. But it appears the bureaucrats are in no hurry to realize the president’s vision and are trying as much as possible to secure their own interests in the upper chamber before any possible reform.”