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Moscow Times
October 19, 2004
A Plan for Reinventing the Wheel
By Sergei Mitrokhin
Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the Yabloko party, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

To date, the discussion in the press of President Vladimir Putin's proposals for government reform has been restricted to a few details: Should regional leaders be appointed or directly elected? Which electoral system is best suited for the State Duma? Yet there is reason to believe that Putin's proposals are just the first step in a process that will fundamentally alter the Russian state.

On Sept. 13, Putin revealed the main reason for the state's inability to defend the people against terrorism. It turns out that we're to blame for electing the "wrong" governors. The answer is for the president to appoint regional leaders, subject to confirmation by regional legislatures. For the siloviki, this is a major victory. Not only will they avoid taking responsibility for allowing the most horrific terrorist attack in Russian history, they will see their dream of a state run by the security services come true.

In the past 3 1/2 years, the Kremlin has assembled an impressive array of levers for bringing the regions to heel, including the power to dismiss governors and mayors from their posts. Moscow can also suspend them for six months and temporarily take charge of regional finances. The Kremlin has established complete control over regional budgets as well as state television affiliates in the regions.

The "dictatorship of the law" -- the manipulation of the legal process by the Prosecutor General's Office and the so-called power agencies during elections -- is a threat to any regional or local leader who enters into conflict with the Kremlin. The federal power agencies occasionally single governors out for punishment as a way of dispelling any doubts as to the seriousness of this threat.

The most powerful weapon available to the so-called power vertical, or executive chain of command, is United Russia, with whose help the Kremlin has forged the federal, regional and local bureaucracies into a single, vertically integrated corporation built on the principle of a strict hierarchy. With all these levers at its command, the Putin administration could keep the regions under control with one arm tied behind its back. And this makes you wonder why Putin decided to implement reforms that clearly violate the federative principles contained in the Constitution.

Putin's proposals were probably motivated by a faulty assessment of the security services. The president blames their failures not on poor training, incompetence or a breakdown of command and control, but rather on what he sees as their insufficient powers. A major expansion of their powers could only be achieved at the expense of civilian agencies, primarily in the regions. This explains Putin's enthusiasm for filling the key jobs in regional government with alumni from the security services.

On the pretense of fighting the war against terrorism, Putin likes to appoint intelligence agents. People who could never win an election are given easy access to power in the regions. The "new governors" will clearly play a key role in putting the entire country on active-duty status. The anti-terrorist commissions that Putin plans to create will report directly to the governors. The commissions' real job will not be to combat terrorism, however, but to take advantage of terrorist attacks as a pretext for increasing the state's control over its citizens.

Putin's reforms will undoubtedly weaken the already fragile structure of political power -- a structure now marked by the extreme weakness of federal institutions and the far greater importance of Moscow's levers of direct influence on the regions. Relations between the federal and regional governments have never acquired an institutional foundation. They are built instead on informal agreements, the result of horse-trading, political influence and arm-twisting. Moscow's unilateral review of all laws related to the federative structure of the state, including dozens of federal and hundreds of regional laws, will only increase the role of force in these relations to the exclusion of all other factors.

A serious imbalance will arise between the huge number of powers and duties -- mostly in the social sphere -- heaped on the regions and the miniscule political authority of their appointed leaders. The entire political system of the country will become exclusively dependent on one man -- Putin.

A decline in the president's approval rating would automatically reduce the effectiveness of a whole range of levers built into the executive chain of command. In the absence of federal institutions capable of resisting such centrifugal forces, this process will inevitably be accompanied by the rise of opposition leaders in the regions who will waste no time issuing a challenge to the president's appointees. Under the current system of direct gubernatorial elections, even the most bruising conflicts between governors and regional legislatures do not spill beyond the boundaries of their respective regions. Under Putin's system, even the slightest tension will be perceived as a conflict with Moscow.

The new regional opposition will likely put forward a program of resistance to pressure from Moscow and the restoration of equity. The groundwork for such a program has been laid by the Kremlin's policy of centralizing financial resources, compounded in the last two years by the Kremlin's decision to shift the burden of social programs onto the regions. The ethnic republics, where nationalism is on the rise, will likely lead the charge. The disintegration of Russia into separate states and the emergence of a fascist regime promising to restore national unity are equally likely outcomes of such opposition.

I am firmly convinced that neither Putin nor the majority of his inner circle want dictatorship. The tragedy of their rule lies elsewhere. Rather than building institutions -- the norms and rules that regulate the independent actions and interactions of the people, business, cities and regions -- they are building the instruments of repressive, bureaucratic control over all of the above. The addiction to quick fixes demonstrated by the Kremlin's attempt to bring the entire country into line removes any motivation to undertake the hard work of creating the building blocks of a complex, federative mechanism without which in the future it will be impossible to preserve the integrity of the country.

The much ballyhooed "rebirth of the state" boils down to the implementation of primitive, archaic forms of governance long ago rejected by advanced countries. You can't get results in the early 21st century using mechanisms created in the early 20th century. The federative model for distributing power in a modern democratic state has about as much in common with the appointment-based model as the computer has with the typewriter. And yet the typewriter itself is less alarming than the time we're going to waste reinventing the computer.