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The Reform of the Federation

 

In his drive to recentralize political authority, Putin’s government sought to deal not simply with Chechnya but with the more general phenomenon of a loosening of control of the center over the periphery. Under Yeltsin some provincial bigwigs had abused the power, which they had wrested from Moscow after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To reestablish a normal state, Putin needed to reverse a decade of fragmentation of Russia’s eighty-nine regions and republics and stop the confederalization of the country, when there were regions, which grew into independent fiefdoms or even claimed sovereignty. 

FEDERAL DISTRICTS OF RUSSIA

1. Central Federal District
2. Southern Federal District
3. Northwestern Federal District
4. Far Eastern Federal District
5. Siberian Federal District
6. Urals Federal District
7. Volga Federal District

In his first substantive policy move, Putin acted boldly to rebuild central authority and restructure the federation. He began by decreeing, in May 2000, a division of Russia into seven federal districts – Central, Northwestern, Southern, Volga, Urals, Siberian, and Far Eastern – under Kremlin-appointed governors-general. Their assignment was to establish “a single legal and economic space in Russia,” and the implied brief was to restrain the power of the regional barons, dismantle regional authoritarian regimes, and bring unruly governors into line by anticorruption investigations.

In economic terms, many of the constituent units of the federation are minuscule, and there is little cooperation between them by international standards. It is hardly surprising that regional bosses have become “oligarchs” on a local scale. Much of their power stemmed from their control of the local outposts of federal agencies such as Interior, Procurator’s, Federal Security Service, regional branches of the Central Bank, and tax police. Most of the local leaders used the regional offices of federal ministries to their own political and private advantage. Now these agencies were to be taken out of their hands and put under the control of the president’s plenipotentiaries.

In theory, the new scheme could create a powerful new layer of government, serving as a “buffer” between the president and the regional leaders and thus diminishing the latter in status and importance. Some commentators, concerned about the fact that five out of the seven presidential envoys happened to be generals of the security apparatus, interpreted their appointment to supervise the elected governors as an indication that the president was slowly reverting to the repressive police-state mentality that ruled the Kremlin in the Soviet Union.

Certainly, the institution of “supergovernors,” answerable only to the president, helps to strengthen the vertical structure, with the Kremlin at the apex. Whether this will lead to the return of a police state or will result in more effective government is too early to say. There are encouraging signs, however, that the new system does help to curb the arbitrary power of autocratic regional princes in some parts of the country, including the Russian Far East Maritime Province, where Governor Evgeny Nazdratenko’s notorious misrule continued unchecked for almost a decade. In February 2001 Nazdratenko was finally “persuaded” by the Kremlin to send in his “voluntary” resignation.

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