Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Resisting Putin's Federal Reforms on the Legal Front

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Resisting Putin's Federal Reforms on the Legal Front

Article excerpt

President Vladimir Putin's first term in office has been marked by a quest for the legal unification of the Russian Federation. On assuming office, first as acting president and then as president-elect in early 2000, Putin inherited from his predecessor a situation of significant disparities between the constitutional and legislative frameworks of the federal government and its subnational components, as well as between the eighty-nine administrative regions and ethnic republics. To some extent, the fragmentation within the Russian legal system could be traced back to perestroika-era political reforms of the late 1980s that had given rise to the so-called war of laws, both within the USSR and its largest union republic, the Russian Federation.1

The fissures in the Russian legal sphere greatly widened during the first post-Soviet Russian Republic as President Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary opponents strove to outbid each other in concessions to the federation subjects to gain their political support.2 With the emergence of the second Russian Republic in early 1994, the fragmentation of legal space worsened as Yeltsin continued his policy of ad hoc giveaways to demanding republic presidents and regional governors, now for the purpose of securing political stability after the violent end of the first republic.3 The most salient aspect of Yeltsin's concessionary policy was several dozen bilateral, power-sharing treaties negotiated with various constituent governments, the first ones with the Republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.4

By the time Putin arrived on the political scene, the idea of the Russian Federation as a unified legal entity increasingly had become a fiction. A majority of the twenty-one republic constitutions, along with a number of the regional charters, were in conflict with the post-Soviet Russian Constitution of 1993. Additionally, tens of thousands of local legislative acts and executive decrees were at variance with, and even contradicted, prevailing federal law. Putin, a lawyer, diagnosed the problem as the progressive disintegration of the federation as a result of the weakened authority of the central state and the federal legal system. He prescribed a strong dose of recentralization by recapturing from the provinces federal powers unwisely delegated from above, or unlawfully appropriated from below. His intention was to rebalance center-periphery relations into a viable federal system.

Shortly after his election in March 2000, President Putin signed an executive decree that administratively divided Russia into seven large areas called federal districts, each to be led by an appointed presidential representative or envoy. The envoys were assigned various tasks, but their initial, primary mission was to restore legal order in the wayward provinces. That was considered essential if the country was to realize the rule of law, which to Putin meant bringing predictability, stability, and transparency to Russia's political system through law. For the new envoys, their mission entailed leading a federal campaign in their districts to harmonize power-sharing treaties, constitutions, and charters with the federal constitution and to standardize local laws consistent with federal legislation on issues where federal law enjoyed constitutionally mandated exclusive authority and supremacy.5

Although Putin's diagnosis and prescription for the malady of legal disorder were sound, getting the many constituent parts of the Russian Federation to take the medicine or, in effect, comply with the president's policy was another matter. As the presidential envoys soon learned, doing so would not be without difficulty as their efforts engendered pockets of persistent resistance on the peripheries of the Russian system.

Putin's Campaign on the Legal Front

By early fall 2000, the envoys and their staffs were in place, and the new federal districts were functioning. To assist the envoys' dual harmonization and standardization campaign, the procurator-general appointed seven deputy procuratorgenerals to direct and coordinate the work of republic and regional procurators within each of the federal districts. …

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