Putin Power: Russia's Ruler Entrenches

Article excerpt

Following the deaths of hundreds of Russians during a school siege in the city of Beslan, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled on September 20, 2002, two major political reforms ostensibly designed to help Moscow combat terrorism. The proposals mandate presidential selection of regional governors and revoke the right of citizens to elect district parliamentary representatives. Many observers, including former heads of state Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, vilified Putin as using a national tragedy as an opportunity to further erode Russian democracy. Indeed, while the announcement does represent an extension of previous reforms of Russian federalism over the last four years, they are also consistent with an effort by Putin to consolidate power within the United Russia Party in possible anticipation of the end of his second term in 2008.

Reforming the relationship between the federal and regional governments has been a priority since the first days of Putin's administration. As a former director of Yeltsin's Main Oversight Department, a bureau responsible for monitoring legal violations within the republics, Putin acquired firsthand knowledge of the failings in center-regional relations. In May 2000, Putin undertook as one of his first major initiatives the organization of Russia's 89 regions into seven federal administrative districts, with a presidential representative appointed to monitor each district. In addition, regional heads no longer serve in the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, although they continue to consult with the president through the newly created State Council. Putin also reclaimed the right to dismiss individual governors--a power Yeltsin surrendered in 1996.

While many institutional changes were completed prior to Beslan, the newest round of reforms seeks to modify the selection process of individuals to those institutions. The two recent plans seem to be motivated not by current necessity or conflict but rather by an anticipation of future utility.

Essentially, the 2004 reform initiative targeted regional officials who had earned a general reputation for compliance and loyalty to Putin and placed them into the positions of highest authority at the expense of the people's autonomy. Yet even prior to the announcement, however, Putin found ways to interfere with the electoral process in Chechnya, Russia's most troubled republic. In the months preceding the October 2003 regional presidential election, the Kremlin orchestrated the victory of Putin favorite Akhmad Kadyrov by offering one challenger a Moscow post and charging another with petition fraud. …

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