Putin acts to curb Russia's governors

Plan would reduce their influence and strengthen his hand

May 18, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin launched a twofold attack on the power of Russia's regional leaders last night, with a plan to banish them from their positions of influence in the capital and to make them ultimately responsible not to the voters who elected them but to himself.

Putin wants to remove Russia's governors from the upper house of parliament, telling them they should tend to business in their districts.

He also announced last night that he will introduce legislation giving him the power to remove regional leaders as he sees fit. They, in turn, would receive the authority to remove local officials as they choose.

"The time of forced compromises has passed," he said.

Appearing on national television with his proposals, Putin briefly outlined a plan that would significantly strengthen his hand in running the country.

The plan goes far beyond measures he took last week to rein in the power of Russia's regional leaders. It would have sparked a political crisis if his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, had attempted it - but Putin is riding so high that he could get away with it.

Yesterday, the lower house of parliament, the scene of acrimonious debates and showdowns whenever Yeltsin nominated a new prime minister, cheerfully went along with Putin's appointment of Mikhail Kasyanov as the new premier.

Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the lower house, said last night that he fully supports Putin's plan to reconfigure the upper house, or Federation Council.

"I think this will be fairer," Seleznyov told Itar-Tass. "At least it will be more efficient."

In American terms, the notion that governors should be working at home hardly seems remarkable, but a long Russian tradition focuses all attention on the capital. To be in the capital is to matter. To be in the provinces, or in "the deep," as Russians say, is to be invisible.

The leaders of Russia's 89 regions have commuted between their homes - some as much as 10 time zones away - and their seats in the Federation Council.

Now, Putin is arguing that their places should be taken in parliament by appointed or elected representatives, who would inevitably lack the prestige and visibility of someone such as Alexander I. Lebed, governor of the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, or Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg.

The governors, up to now, have not been a force for change or for disruption. Yeltsin frequently counted on them to moderate the impulses of the State Duma, or lower house - but in exchange gave them the freedom to do pretty much as they pleased at home.

Putin wants to check that - and with the added authority to fire governors who cross him.

These changes would not require constitutional amendments, but could be enacted through regular legislation. Seleznyov said last night that he believed the new measures would be approved.

Already, Putin has moved to carve the country into seven super regions, each overseen by a presidential representative. It was not clear until last night whether those representatives could be effective in asserting control over the elected governors. Under Putin's plan, the new balance of power is clear.

In the past week he also overruled by decree the actions of two governors, in Ingushetia and Bashkortostan. Now it is clear he can make those decrees stick.

Putin said his measures, which must be passed by both houses, would strengthen the central government, which has been his overriding theme.

Mintimir Shaimiev, the president of Tatarstan, said last night that he supports the idea, and was particularly pleased with the prospect of gaining the power to fire local officials who displease him. Other governors who were briefed on the plan by Putin yesterday afternoon agree, he said.

The proposal comes just a year after Yevgeny M. Primakov, who was then prime minister, declared that it would be preferable to have Russia's regional leaders appointed by Moscow rather than elected.

He saw it as a way of attacking corruption and open disregard for the law among local officials who seemed to be answerable to no one. But the idea was roundly denounced as an assault on democracy.

Putin, wasting no time in consolidating his power, is leaving the elections intact but attempting to bring local leaders to heel.

With the possibility of removal hanging over every elected official's head, in a chain of responsibility that would run up to the Kremlin, no mandate by the voters would ever seem quite as solid again.

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