20 years under Putin: a timeline

Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin replaced the head of the Russian Accounts Chamber, the state’s primary body of financial control, after thirteen years of continuous chairmanship by Sergei Stepashin. His replacement is “Russian budget queen” Tatyana Golikova, the former health and social development minister. Many observers believe that the Accounts Chamber will gain considerable political influence under her guidance. According to political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, such a scenario is hardly probable.

 

 

In the Russian political system, the Accounts Chamber (AC) is positioned as the supreme body of financial control. Such a body exists in most countries; however, upon closer examination, the legal status of the Russian analogue turns out to be rather unique. According to the international concept of how a country’s supreme body of financial control should function—in terms of its nature, legal status, and management—these institutions provide a way for society (taxpayers) to exercise control over the legitimacy, expediency, and efficiency with which state funds are used. In countries with developed democratic institutions, bodies of financial control represent an independent link in the integrated system of government bodies, possessing considerable authority and made distinct by their organizational and legal status.

In Russia, however, the AC has little authority. Furthermore, especially in recent years, its activity and management appointments depend entirely on the Kremlin. The Russian and English Wikipedia entries for the Russian AC describe it as a “parliamentary body of financial control.” This, however, is only partly true. Before the current Russian Constitution was adopted in 1993, the AC was indeed conceived as a body of parliamentary control. In 1991, the Chamber of Control and Accounts of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was created, which only a few months later was transformed into the Committee for Control and Budget of the Supreme Soviet. The 1993 constitution mentions the AC in its chapter on the federal assembly. Article 101 stipulates that “for controlling the implementation of the federal budget the Council of the Federation and the State Duma shall create the Accounts Chamber, the composition and the rules of work of which are fixed by the federal law.”

In its early days, the Accounts Chamber served the political interests of the Communists, who in the 1990s held the majority in the State Duma.

It was indeed parliament that formed the Accounts Chamber. In practice, however, the AC has always been independent from other branches of government, including the parliament. Until now, for the duration of its existence, the AC has had only two chairmen. Khachim Karmokov, former head of the Supreme Soviet of Kabardino-Balkaria, became the first chairman during the distribution of positions between caucuses and groups of deputies after the December 1993 parliamentary elections. At the time, the AC had nothing but a chairman. In fact, Karmokov organized its work from scratch.

In its early days, the AC served the political interests of the Communists, who in the 1990s held the majority in the State Duma, and auditors were used as weapons in “oligarchic” wars. And yet the AC failed to become an influential body in the 1990s; even its uncovering of billions of embezzled and wasted rubles brought no serious consequences. In addition, internal pluralism existed within the chamber, with some auditors acting independently of both Karmokov and the Kremlin. Deputy chairman of the AC and former member of the Yabloko party Yuri Boldyrev was much better known publicly than Karmokov.

In 2000, Sergei Stepashin, former head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, former justice minister, former minister of internal affairs, and former Russian prime minister, became the second chairman of the AC. Stepashin has never become a strong and influential figure in any of his positions. In the late 1990s, some interest groups tried to push him forward as Boris Yeltsin’s successor, but he only remained in the capacity of prime minister and heir apparent for eighty-two days. Wherever Stepashin has worked, he has never been fully accepted. Yeltsin considered him too sheepish. Putin, whom Stepashin met when he was heading the branch of the Federal Security Agency in Saint Petersburg, always believed him to be an unreliable person, one who couldn’t be counted on. In the Federal Counterintelligence Service, Stepashin was seen as Yeltsin’s “minion” and did not remain head of the agency for long. Upon becoming prime minister, Stepashin was politically destroyed by the group of Nikolai Aksenenko and Boris Berezovsky. The latter convinced Yeltsin to nominate Vladimir Putin for prime minister and heir apparent instead.

Stepashin was recommended for the post of chairman of the Accounts Chamber by the Duma caucuses of the Unity party, the Union of Right Forces, the Yabloko party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Fatherland-All Russia, as well as by the deputy groups Regions of Russia and People’s Deputy. Putin supported his recent competitor’s appointment, and his reason for doing so is clear: the current Russian president prefers to neutralize his potential enemies by appointing them to posts that are high profile but not very influential. As Kommersant newspaper wrote on March 25, 2000: “Stepashin seems to change his publicly reiterated positions like no one else. Let us not recall the wasted ‘words of an officer.’ His political biography contains two significant turns. After he was dismissed, Sergei Stepashin, with tears in his eyes, said to the camera that he would still remain on the president’s team. However, after having bargained, he left for the perennially oppositional Yabloko. He has taken his second turn just recently. Two days after having declared his ambitions for the post of the governor of Saint Petersburg during the funeral of Anatoly Sobchak, he executed the ‘to the rear, march!’ command and supported the candidature of Valentina Matvienko. The fantastic ‘flexibility’ of Stepashin makes him a very convenient figure.”

 

Under Tatiana Golikova, the Accounts Chamber will remain as loyal to he Kremlin as it was under Sergei Stepashin.

 

At the beginning of 2000, Putin began strengthening the verticality of the state’s power structure by changing the method of formation of Russia’s upper house of parliament and by putting the Accounts Chamber under his control. Despite the fact that the AC was then formed by parliament, the Kremlin already had effective leverage with lawmakers: after the December 1999 parliamentary elections, the presidential administration was able for the first time to form a rather stable pro-regime majority in the State Duma. In February 2000, Alexander Semikolennykh, who had worked under Putin’s patronage in the control directorate of the presidential administration, was appointed to the AC. There were also plans to strengthen the chamber’s administrative office in order to improve its efficiency and to rotate auditors.

Putin’s decision to rely on Stepashin paid off. In 2004, Stepashin initiated an amendment that gave the president the authority to nominate a candidate for the post of AC chairman and to dismiss the chairman. Stepashin “handed over the Accounts Chamber to the president,” Russian newspapers wrote at the time, noting once again the wonderful “flexibility” of the might-have-been heir apparent. During Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, when it seemed like he might run for a second term, Stepashin drew closer to the new president, participated in the work of the pro-Medvedev Association of Lawyers, and helped with Interior Ministry reform.

The Russian Federal Treasury and the Russian Federal Financial and Budgetary Supervision Service (which is a subordinate authority of the Finance Ministry and the main institutional competitor of the AC) de facto fulfill the responsibilities that in Western countries are assigned to supreme bodies of financial control. Although these authorities have been attempting to synchronize their work, it makes little difference, given that all Russian bodies of control and supervision are institutionally weak. A law was adopted this year, however, according to which the AC, the Federal Financial and Budgetary Supervision Service, and the Federal Treasury will form a unified system of budget control with broader powers. The Federal Treasury and treasury system will be responsible for internal control of compliance with budget limits and for reviewing the legality of financial obligations. The Federal Financial and Budgetary Supervision Service, as well as regional and municipal authorities of financial control, will inspect the accounts and records of implementation of state programs and execution of state and municipal tasks. The AC will be responsible for “external monitoring” and overseeing the legality of budget implementation. Amendments to the Administrative Offense Code establish an exhaustive list of two-dozen budget violations with increased penalty rates.

A new law that outlines the powers of the Accounts Chamber was also adopted this year. The Duma council, composed of the speaker and his deputies, will propose candidates for AC chairman and auditors to the Russian president at the suggestion of party caucuses; the council of the upper house, at the suggestion of steering committees, will propose candidates for the positions of deputy chairman of the AC and the remaining auditors. However, the president can appoint as AC chairman any other person not on parliamentary lists. According to the law, the AC chairman, his deputies, and auditors will only be able to remain in office for two consecutive terms. In addition, the AC’s authority was broadened. Law enforcement bodies have to inform the AC about the progress and results of an inspection if the documents indicating the constituent element of the offense were sent to them by the AC. The chamber can conduct inspections of federal acquisitions, and evaluate the necessity of such acquisitions and their influence on the efficiency of state authorities. The list of operations that the AC can freeze after agreement with the State Duma, including those concerning state acquisitions, was expanded as well.

The Accounts Chamber that is 100 percent dependent on the Kremlin cannot truly fulfill the responsibilities of a body of financial control.

In early September, Vladimir Putin nominated the former health and social development minister and assistant to the president Tatyana Golikova for the post of AC chairman. On September 20, she was confirmed by the State Duma. Golikova had worked for many years under Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and established a reputation as the “budget queen” thanks to her phenomenal memory for numbers and her ability to manage difficult situations. Golikova, however, has reputation problems due to a questionable connection to the medical industry, for which the media has nicknamed her “Madame Arbidol.” As an anonymous official close to the government told Vedomosti newspaper, Golikova is a tough administrator and could prove her efficiency, “But these same skills can be much in demand in the government as well, in case of a cabinet reshuffle: she is the perfect candidate for the post of deputy prime minister.” In other words, the post of AC chairman serves as a reserve slot for skilled specialists ready to “be promoted” if the need arises.

What this all boils down to is that the Accounts Chamber—as a body that is 100 percent dependent on the Kremlin—cannot truly fulfill the responsibilities that underpin the international concept of a “body of financial control.” Instead, it is a political instrument that the Kremlin can use to influence large state companies, Medvedev’s cabinet, and regional administrations. Under Golikova, the Accounts Chamber stands to become a sort of “financial Investigative Committee,” fulfilling political functions far more often than its direct duties. This will hardly make the state more effective.

Russia under Putin

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