20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 9, the bill "on the general principles of organizing public power" was passed by Russia's State Duma in the second reading. Its real goal is not to change titles or “zero out” gubernatorial terms, but to change the ways the federal authorities handle relations with regional elites. This makes it especially consequential and, by the standards of today’s Russian politics, hotly contested.

 

United Russia deputies Andrei Klishas (left) and Pavel Krasheninnikov are sponsors of some of the most controversial laws in Russia. Photo: legal.report.

 

A month ago, on November 9, the State Duma adopted, in the first reading, what is potentially one of the most consequential bills of its ongoing term: the bill on the organization of public administration, drafted by pro-Kremlin United Russia party deputies Pavel Krasheninnikov and Andrei Klishas, authors of several other controversial laws. The bill initially captured attention due to one of its main provisions, which allows governors to stay in office for more than two consecutive terms—similar to the “zeroing out” of Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms that was implemented in the 2020 constitutional reform. As many observers have pointed out, this will create opportunities for the “strongmen” governors who would otherwise have to resign soon and would be queuing up for new jobs—notably, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and head of the Moscow Region Andrei Vorobyov, whose second terms end in 2023. However, the “zeroing out” comes at a significant price. The bill reiterates and reinforces many existing political trends, but also introduces new patterns in the relationship between the federal government and regional elites.  

 

Manage, don’t govern

First of all, in the future, all regional leaders (except for the mayors of federal cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg and the occupied Sevastopol) will have a uniform title, likely glava (“head”) of the region. This was newsworthy because presently there is one region whose leader is called “president”—the Republic of Tatarstan. Its parliament, despite a United Russia majority, rejected the bill and became the only regional parliament among fifteen regions to do so (although two others suggested amendments and a total of seven offered some kind of criticism), which immediately framed the bill as a clash between the federal government and what is arguably Russia’s most autonomous region. Never mind that a federal law prohibiting titling governors “president” already passed in 2010—a law that Tatarstan has so far simply ignored without major consequences.

Second, the authority of governors will significantly weaken. This, again, simply represents the latest stage in a longer process of political centralization. Over the past two decades, save for the reintroduction of gubernatorial elections in 2012, which had been abolished in 2004, the Kremlin has gradually applied and reinforced the principle that the political legitimacy of regional leaders comes from above, not below. The stripping of political powers was partly done by legal means.

Federal districts and the position of presidential plenipotentiaries were created in 2000, to effectively oversee and steer politics in the regions. They are now supplemented by deputy prime ministers that coordinate development policies. Fiscal revenues were centralized while duties were decentralized, and the Finance Ministry received the right to steer the finances of heavily indebted regions. Despite the reintroduction of gubernatorial elections, the president preserved the right to dismiss governors and appoint “caretakers.”

This centralization of power was also driven by practical changes. The president has increased the rotation of regional cadres, especially since 2017, bringing in a pleiad of the so-called “young technocrat” governors, many of whom have little connection to the regions that they lead. The role of the regional directorates of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has increased in domestic politics, and officials in charge of interior policy often directly respond to Moscow (as evidenced by coordinated dismissals of regional domestic policy officials following the September Duma election). For major appointments of regional officials, governors often have to coordinate with the federal government or at least plenipotentiaries. In the past year and a half, the federal government has also centralized data collection and complaint monitoring. 

In the specific case of ethnically distinct regions, such as Tatarstan, a long list of federal measures was introduced to weaken their autonomy—from regional mergers in 2005-08 (according to a 2004 proposal by the influential SOPS think tank, this initiative could have culminated in the creation of 28 mega-regions instead of the current 85 regions) to the stealthier measures of the 2010s, including restrictions on teaching minority languages or, most recently, abolishing regional constitutional courts.

The Klishas-Krasheninnikov bill furthers these trends. In the future, governors can be dismissed by the president for “loss of confidence,” without stating the exact cause, which also means that they cannot be appointed to other regions for five years. In a similar vein, the federal government receives the right to appoint regional officials in areas such as finance, health care, education, or construction—or in any area that requires an overwhelming majority of the regional budget.

As such, the bill again de facto reiterates what the federal center has increasingly expected from governors: to manage the local political situation, keep voters happy, and turn to the president or his representatives in the event of conflict (the bill specifically names the State Council as an institution for conflict resolution). It is notable that in spite of the revamp, the Kremlin decided not to scrap gubernatorial elections altogether. This could be caution and, as such, a sign of weakness, but it could also just mean that the Kremlin wants governors to have a personal stake in the political management of their regions. For instance, Vyacheslav Gladkov, the recently appointed governor of the Belgorod Region, reportedly had to perform significant publicity stunts to embody the kind of governor that local voters wanted and local elites could live with following the almost three-decade rule of his predecessor. 

Third, the bill introduces a major shift in the federal government’s approach toward regional elites, which is perhaps most visible when it comes to control of regional parliaments—the institutions that regional elites often use personally to ensure political representation for their business interests. The bill scraps the regional parliaments’ right to form governments and, by granting more power over regional official appointments to the federal authorities, it essentially sets regional elites against a significantly more powerful negotiating partner. The president will even be able to initiate the dissolution of regional legislatures.

Elites will also have to watch their backs more than before: members of regional legislatures, even those who are only part-time deputies while running a business or pursuing another professional activity, will officially have the status of public servants, with all the transparency and reporting obligations that this entails. Furthermore, regional parliaments will lose much of their ability to influence federal legislation, as they have to review federal bills within fifteen days instead of the current thirty. They will also have to consider bills introduced by regional prosecutors who, according to the 2020 constitutional reform, are appointed by the president. As a fig leaf, the bill allows regions to take over some competences from municipalities, but, given that even now transfers from regional budgets provide most of the funds for municipal budgets, this is hardly a consolation.

 

Signals and blind corners

Tatarstan was the only region whose parliament straight out rejected the bill before its first reading, but other regions had reservations as well. The so-called “nesting doll” regions (they include autonomous districts with a considerable degree of budgetary independence) objected to the bill without making any reference to their peculiar budgetary arrangements. All of them are closely tied to the energy industry, and their lobbying was strong enough to enlist the support of Vladimir Yakushev, the Ural Federal District’s presidential plenipotentiary (and perhaps the support of Sobyanin, who was instrumental in creating the budgetary arrangement of the Tyumen Region with its two autonomous districts in the early 2000s). Unsurprisingly, the authors of the bill have already indicated that these provisions will be reviewed.

Other reservations were more substantial. Apart from Tatarstan, Yakutia’s Public Chamber also voiced criticism about the provisions affecting regional parliaments and the dismissal of governors, and adopted proposals to amend the law in its second reading. Among others, the “Zemsky S’ezd,” a forum of municipal deputies, and a group of lawmakers in the Novosibirsk Region’s parliament, raised similar objections, and so did the lawmakers of the liberal Yabloko party in the Moscow and St. Petersburg city assemblies. The Kremlin so far has shown no willingness to concede on these arguably much more important and systemic proposals. On the contrary, recent weeks saw a fairly obvious attempt to prevent the possibility of even a minor split in the United Russia group over the bill. For instance, Yevgeny Marchenko, a St. Petersburg deputy, was swiftly expelled from the party after he voted against the federal budget plan in the first reading—a move that was both highly unusual and unnecessary, given the ruling party’s supermajority. But it most likely served as a warning to other lawmakers. Shortly afterwards, rumors started circulating that Ayrаt Farrakhov, a United Russia deputy from Tatarstan who was critical of the Klishas-Krasheninnikov bill, may face the same fate as Marchenko if he were to vote against it.  

These pressures are not surprising. Tatarstan has a fairly large and independent deputy faction within the United Russia’s group in the Duma, not to mention a sprawling network of powerful public officials. Yakutia, being less populous and influential than Tatarstan, is punching above its weight in parliamentary politics. There is also probably a fear that regions’ defiant behaviors could prove contagious. In recent years, the Kremlin’s anxiety that has informed the thinking of the ruling elite since the 1990s over various forms of separatism, has grown, as security elite members have increasingly spoken about this risk. Even last year’s constitutional amendments referred to this issue.

In Tatarstan’s case, the bill cuts to the very essence of the region’s political identity. As political commentator Mark Galeotti recently pointed out regarding Tula, an important part of the job of regional governors is to “sell” their regions to the federal center (historically, to the president, but increasingly to the government) in order to garner financial or political support. Since the late Soviet era, Tatarstan’s main selling point to the Kremlin has been its position as a loyal first among equals. Even as in the past two decades the Tatar political elite almost always submitted to Moscow’s will, while the republic’s self-governing eroded, it fought back when it felt the need, including by keeping Tatneft, the region’s oil company and main cash cow, firmly in its hands (even as the petrochemical giant Sibur absorbed its Tatar competitor, TAIF).

While it is difficult to envision major protests erupting over this bill, which seems to be the Kremlin’s primary preoccupation these days, the fact that it opens up so many possibilities for the federal authorities to meddle in regional politics also means that it heightens the chances of a hard resistance from uneasy regional elites who fear what blind corners may lie ahead.

 

A health check

The bill and its reception highlight further issues and trends, which will no doubt become more pronounced in the coming months as the debate continues.

First, it has emphasized the economic and political inequalities between Russian regions. The regions that have raised objections have either privileges that they are keen on protecting (be they the “nesting dolls” with their economic privileges or Tatarstan’s political privileges) or a recent history of a vigorous opposition presence, such as in Yakutia or Novosibirsk, where there is a heightened risk of opposition parties turning the bill into a local protest cause (in Novosibirsk, the Communists proposed setting up a committee to prepare amendments to the bill) and where local elites have more maneuvering space. It is likely not a coincidence that regional parliaments will see their powers curbed precisely when many of them have become more pluralistic as a result of this September’s regional elections.

Second, the bill overall does not only confirm the Kremlin’s intent on further centralization, but specifically strengthens the powers of the president (and his appointees) as a source of legitimacy and an arbiter of conflicts, as well as the role of the government as policy planner and paymaster. It is unclear how, if at all, the role of the security services will change in the future. Given that dismissing problematic governors will not necessarily require the collection of kompromat, perhaps their focus will shift.

On December 9, the bill was approved in the second reading: over 400 amendments were submitted to the original version of the document. However, it is expected that the final version of the law will be adopted by the end of the year.

 

* This article was updated on December 9, 2021

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