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RIA Novosti
December 7, 2004
(Dr. Vladimir Lysenko, president of the Institute of Contemporary Politics - RIA Novosti)

In September 2004, President Putin proclaimed the launch of serious reforms in Russia. He decided to abolish a number of political institutions that have existed since the 1990s. The most important of these is the institution of elected heads of Russian Federation constituent members, which emerged in the mid-1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

In the ten years since the institution was established, 237 people have been sworn into office. They have had an immense responsibility and a heavy burden to bear - the implementation of crucial reforms. It would be incorrect to say that these men and women have always been successful. The regional heads have included individuals of different political inclinations, both democrats and adherents of authoritarian ways, brilliant people and mediocre economists and politicians. Working in close cooperation with the president, governors have followed his line lately. Indeed, during the 2003 parliamentary elections, 30 governors supported the pro-presidential United Russia party, which largely explains the party's current constitutional majority in the State Duma.

Therefore, Mr. Putin's initiative that governors, loyal to him as they are, should be proposed by the president and then approved by regional legislatures raised more than a few eyebrows in Russia. The Russian elite is split almost in half on this issue. So is the nation, according to an opinion poll conducted by Yuri Levada's independent sociological center, All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center. Just over half of the population wants to retain the right of electing governors, but the others back the president's move. The applicable bill has already been approved by the State Duma in the second reading and will come into effect before the end of the year.

What prompted this decision?

At first, in the wake of the Beslan tragedy, when terrorists seized a school taking hostage 1,200 children, their parents and teachers, we heard that it was necessary to consolidate society and the authorities against the threat of terrorism. However, the president recently said that the new gubernatorial appointment procedure was a strategic measure. In other words, it would have been taken even without the terrorist attacks.

Second, the Russian government is carrying out very important, though unpopular, social and economic reforms, such as replacing benefits in-kind with cash payments. Governors have often criticized reforms to win more votes in approaching gubernatorial elections. The new procedure will apparently put an end to this.

The third reason concerns the lobbying of those governors that have been in office for ten years or longer. In accordance with present legislation, they cannot stand for reelection, but the new law will change this situation.

Finally, there is the issue of the succession of power. Soon after this year's presidential election, Mr. Putin said he would solve the problem. In this aspect, he is borrowing from Boris Yeltsin, who helped him become president by naming him as his successor.

Now history is repeating itself. The appointment of governors is a good opportunity to enlist the support of the regional elites for Mr. Putin's successor in the next presidential election.

However, what are the risks? The reform is bound to weaken the opposition. This may lead to less discussion of alternative decisions and criticism of the government's and presidential administration's actions. If there is no criticism, the authorities will grow weak. Moreover, the reform shakes the foundations of federalism and enhances the unitary element.

In these conditions, it would be very dangerous if relations between Russia and the West were to deteriorate, as the latter often sees innovations in Russia as a return to authoritarianism. Improved relations with the West have been a significantbreakthrough in the recent years, opening up an opportunity for Russia to join the club of democratic countries. Therefore, the West's democratic influence is very important for Russia. If the West maintains proactive cooperation with Russia, helps the president and, if necessary offers constructive criticism, it will be far easier to keep Russia within the democratic playing field.