Putin's Reforms and Russia's Governors

By
Jodi Koehn

More than one year after Vladimir Putin became president, his impact on Russia's governors is unclear, remarked Robert Orttung at a 15 October 2001 lecture at the Kennan Institute. Orttung, Editor-in-Chief, Russian Regional Report, EastWest Institute, New York, stated that Putin's efforts to centralize state power and strengthen the federal government have brought reforms that often are quite different from what was initially planned.

Orttung discussed the impact of various areas of Putin's reforms as well as the impact on Russia's governors: the creation of the seven federal districts; Putin's ability to fire governors and disband legislatures; reform of the Federation Council; and areas in which Putin has had a large influence such as the overall evolution of civil society.

The creation of seven federal districts in May 2000, with their presidentially-appointed representatives, was an attempt by Putin to regain control of the federal powers lost under Yeltsin, Orttung noted. According to Orttung, the main accomplishment of these districts is their existence. They play a visible role in the media and are much talked about. Beyond that, Orttung argued, it is difficult to see the real impact of these institutions.

One unintended consequence of the federal districts has been the presence of two sources of power in each district: institutions of the federal government and the regional governor. The reforms weakened the governors, but did not fill the vacuum with equally powerful institutions. This situation creates an opportunity for other groups to pursue independent policy. However, this situation is only evident in the capital cities of the federal districts, Orttung noted.

According to Orttung, advocates of the federal districts have overstated their success. The districts are a legitimate part of the presidential administration, but in many ways lack legitimacy because the presidentially-appointed district representatives try to stand above the democratically-elected governors. In addition, ironically, there is very little coordination among the districts for a reform that was supposed to bring Russia together into a unified legal space. Orttung remarked on the poor choice of personnel named to head the federal districts. If a state's strength is determined by the people working in it, Orttung argued, then the Russian state is very weak. The generals and KGB officers appointed to key positions are unequipped to handle the complex economic problems of their regions. In addition, district representatives spend much of their time fighting with the presidential administration in Moscow. Also, Orttung noted, the government ministries do not appear to be interested in coordinating their activities with the presidential representatives.

The presidential representatives have largely failed in their attempts to alter the makeup of the regional elite by manipulating the gubernatorial elections. However, Orttung stated, the presidential administration is establishing ties with the business community in the regions. This connection might increase the administration's control over who is elected governor in the future. The second major reform, the ability to fire governors and disband regional legislatures has been more successful for Putin. While he has not fired any governors, he has "eased" one out of office. However, the law enabling Putin to fire governors is unwieldy, Orttung noted. Regarding the legislatures, the presidential administration is using this ability to encourage regional legislatures to do what it wants. Even if these changes are on paper, the threat to disband legislatures is effective.

The third major reform is the reorganization of the Federation Council and establishment of the State Council. Putin's goal in this reform, Orttung stipulated, is to reduce the power of the governors to influence federal policy. As a result, governors are no longer directly involved with budget making or in passing legislation. With less influence in the Federation Council, the governors are directing their lobbying power to the State Duma on budgetary issues.

The ability of the governors to act independently is determined by their strength within their region, Orttung argued. In weak regions, the presidential administration pressures governors to appoint an "appropriate" senator. Only powerful governors can appoint a representative to serve their interests, Orttung stated. On the other hand, Orttung noted, representatives appointed to the Senate are predominantly Moscow lobbyists, who are better at using the federal system to get resources to their region.

The State Council allows the governors direct access to Putin once every three months. Nevertheless, its policy impact has been minimal, Orttung remarked. The presidential administration controls much of what happens within this institution as well.

Finally, Orttung concluded, there is a strong movement in Russian civil society toward making government more responsive to the people. However, there is an opposite trend in the Russian state. Putin is striving for more centralized power, Orttung noted. Putin's policies are in conflict with what Russian society wants. Orttung argued that in the future, Putin will either have to adjust his policies to make them more in line with social pressures or he will have to take measures to reduce that social pressure.

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