Putin achieves centralized power

Russia: The Kremlin subjugates regional governors, moves to curb billionaire power brokers' clout.

July 22, 2000

IN JUST seven months as Russia's president, Vladimir Putin has consolidated power in ways Boris N. Yeltsin never could. The once-rebellious parliament now kowtows to the former KGB officer. The latest example: It is curbing the regional governors' pre-eminence.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin has strengthened its hand in other ways, too. Through tax audits and criminal investigations, it has moved systematically against the "oligarchs." Those shady money men became fabulously wealthy and politically influential when state properties were privatized. They further benefited from their close links to the Yeltsin administration.

As a result of these actions, Mr. Putin has crushed all the power centers that could threaten his primacy. In the way of Russia's white and red czars, he is now the unquestionable sovereign.

The governors' diminished status is a prime example. They will lose their seats in the upper house of parliament, reducing their visibility and influence in Moscow. They also will no longer be immune to criminal prosecution, which is going to be a real blow considering the shady activities with which they have been.

Recent raids on corporate offices suggest that the days of brazen robber-barons also may be numbered.

Government investigators have broadened their probes against the "oligarchs" since mid-June, when Vladimir Gusinsky was arrested on minor charges. His true offense seemed to be the lack of respect he showed toward the Kremlin by allowing his media outlets to criticize Mr. Putin.

In recent weeks, prosecutors have summoned a growing number of post-communist tycoons to talk about their tax avoidance and other suspected business irregularities. Among them is billionaire Boris Berezovsky, whose political influence was at its peak when he had a seat in President Yeltsin's Cabinet.

As a member of parliament, Mr. Berezovsky continued to be an important power broker. But he decided to give up his seat -- and the immunity that went with it -- to protest what he sees as President Putin's power grab.

"I do not want to participate in Russia's collapse and the establishment of an authoritarian regime," Mr. Berezovsky said.

For most of its history, Russia has been ruled by "the center," which was first at the czarist court in St. Petersburg, then at the Kremlin in Moscow. Through his quick consolidation of power, Mr. Putin has made it again clear that the center rules. The heady days of rival power blocs and other unrestricted democratic experiments are over.

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