Governing Russia: Putin’s Federal Dilemmas

On December 11, 2004, three months after the horrific terrorist attack on School Number One in Beslan in North Ossetia, the war in Chechnya officially entered its second decade. The brutal assault highlighted the fact that after 10 years of the Chechen wars, the situation in the North Caucasus has become desperate. Russia must contend with the potential resurgence of ethno-political and inter-communal conflicts that marked the collapse of the USSR—including the conflict between the Ossetian and Ingush communities around Beslan—and the further deterioration of the region’s economy, social conditions, and political structures.

Moscow has long neglected the North Caucasus—especially since the outbreak of war in Chechnya. In the Soviet period there was no comprehensive attempt to promote regional development. Industrial sectors and key urban areas were prioritized, but rural areas where a large proportion of the population lived were essentially ignored. After the collapse of the USSR, the region’s problems were exacerbated by refugee flows and migration from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Although the rebound of the Russian economy after 1999 brought some improvement, particularly in larger urban and industrial centers like Rostov, the North Caucasus as a whole has continued to lag behind other regions of the Russian Federation—with Chechnya, obviously, in the worst state of all.

Economic crisis in the North Caucasus has been compounded by a crisis of regional leadership, which also dates back to the Soviet period. In the USSR, the autonomy of administrative units, like the regions and republics of the North Caucasus, was largely symbolic. All authority was vested in the Communist Party at the center. Capitals of autonomous republics were little more than overgrown provincial towns. The road to success led to Moscow with its educational opportunities, full-range of amenities, and influential jobs in the central bureaucracy. The most ambitious and capable members of non-Russian national elites gravitated toward the locus of power, becoming thoroughly Russified and losing ties to their native regions. Local leaders in the North Caucasus (as elsewhere in the USSR) were appointed to their positions by Moscow. Their political experience was limited to parochial affairs, and to executing directives from the center.

In addition, just as there was no planning for regional economic development in the Soviet period, there were no common regional administrative or political structures in the North Caucasus. (The region’s inclusion in the political framework of Russia’s Southern Federal District is an innovation by President Vladimir Putin from 2000.) The Soviet government was always careful to eliminate any potential regional power base and elites that could challenge Moscow’s rule. And after the collapse of the USSR, interest-based political parties (as opposed to narrowly-based ethno-political movements) failed to establish themselves in the North Caucasus.

As a result, North Caucasus elites now comprise parochial bureaucrats from the Soviet era; nationalists from the political fringes; leaders of the so-called “business mafias”; a handful of educated young idealists with no administrative experience; and the occasional leader, like former President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia, who achieved prominence at the center before returning to the North Caucasus. Aushev, however, failed to establish a regional base of support beyond his own ethnic group. In the 1990s, this jumble of elites proved woefully ill equipped to deal with the multiple challenges of creating new political institutions and a functioning market economy, and of forging a new relationship with Moscow.

In the immediate wake of the Beslan tragedy in September 2004, Moscow suddenly woke up to the scale of the North Caucasus problems. The Russian government correctly identified entrenched poverty and inadequate social conditions as major contributing factors to regional conflicts and the spread of militant groups willing to engage in terrorism. President Putin appointed his close aide, Dmitry Kozak, as Moscow’s new envoy to the Southern Federal District, charging him with assessing the socio-economic situation and devising a poverty alleviation and development plan for the region.

However, Putin also seized on Beslan as an impetus to press on with his five-year campaign to reform the Russian federal system as a whole by re-establishing a strong, vertical (centralized) state—a campaign that began with the creation of seven new federal districts and the appointment of presidential plenipotentiaries in 2000. Each of these new federal districts, or “super-regions,” brought together roughly a dozen of Russia’s existing territorial administrative units, and the new district capitals were intended to become regional centers for the subordinate territories. The presidential plenipotentiaries appointed to head each new district were charged with ensuring that the regional leaders below them complied with federal laws and budgetary policies, developing new social and economic programs, and collecting statistical data for the central government.

Putin hoped the new districts would increase the regions’ political economic and connections with Moscow and inject new efficiency into the administrative system. His announcement on September 13, 2004 that gubernatorial elections in all of Russia’s regions would now be replaced by the direct appointment of their governors by Moscow (subject to nominal approval by local parliaments) became the next step in this process of centralization. The proposal was approved by the Russian Duma and signed into law by President Putin on December 12, 2004, despite considerable criticism abroad for curbing regional autonomy and seeming to roll back democratic gains of the 1990s. The changes were also denounced as having little to do with the problems revealed in Beslan.

For Putin, however, there was a link—as he and other members of the Russian Presidential Administration made clear in a series of public speeches and in private discussions (including in meetings between Western analysts and President Putin, Defense Secretary Sergei Ivanov, and National Security Advisor Igor Ivanov that I participated in, in Moscow, just after Beslan between September 6-13, 2004). The Beslan events underscored the fact—already known to most Russian observers as well as the Kremlin—that the Russian state was rotting from within from corruption and private greed. It was petty corruption that permitted terrorists to bribe their way past checkpoints and into the school in Beslan, as well as onto planes at Domodedovo Airport, where two female suicide bombers brought down two passenger jets in the week before the Beslan attack. And it was unrestrained greed that moved former and present state functionaries to hive-off key state assets, thus adding to the hardships and alienating local communities.

Putin and other Kremlin officials saw all this as a product of the 1990s. For them, the 1990s were not years of emerging political pluralism—as they are generally viewed in the West—but a decade of chaos. From their perspective, regional leaders took President Yeltsin’s famous exhortation to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow” as a signal to create their own fiefdoms. These leaders defied Moscow, produced a myriad of new regional regulations, and both reduced and diverted revenue flows away from the federal government and into their own coffers. Electoral politics in the regions became irremediably corrupt as local mafias and business interests emerged as the primary backers of gubernatorial candidates and their campaigns. They called the shots in elections, not local publics, and not even Moscow.

From Putin’s point of view, decentralization under Yeltsin served to fragment the Federation and encouraged the kind of moves toward regional separatism that Chechnya embodied in its worst form. In his opinion, the self-interest of corrupt local elites, in Chechnya and elsewhere, came to replace the purported principles of self-determination that had led to the creation of Russia’s federal system in the Soviet period. Putin and those around him became increasingly frustrated at the growth of regional problems and disparities and at their inability to exert control over key parts of the Federation. As a result, the Kremlin became convinced that restoring Moscow’s firm grip over Russia’s regions was necessary to preserve national unity and public security from the twin threats of secessionism and terrorism. This conviction was bolstered by the tragedy of Beslan and the inability of local authorities to either prevent or respond to the attack.

In ending the direct election of regional governors, Putin has made it clear that his purpose is to ensure that governors will now answer to him, the President. They will serve the Russian state not regional mafias. In sum, from Putin’s perspective, his centralizing reforms are directed at rooting out the widespread corruption that facilitated the Beslan attack, at halting the manipulation of regional elections and politics that made regional leaders beholden to local interests rather than Moscow, and at making local leaders personally responsible to the President for the outcome of developments in their regions.

Although Putin’s administrative changes may have their own internal logic, they seem, from the outside—in specifically and deliberately removing local participation in decision-making through the electoral process—destined to complicate Moscow’s ability to govern the country effectively in the future. This is not least because the changes raise the question of whether or not Russia can ultimately continue to be designated as a federal state, where powers are delimited between the center and the regions/republics. The short answer to this question seems to be “no, it can not.” And if this is indeed the case, then Russia’s demise as a federation will constrain Moscow’s efforts both to manage the affairs of the North Caucasus and to re-integrate Chechnya into the state as a distinct entity. The administrative changes also seem likely to increase political tensions in republics like Tatarstan, where pro-independence movements in the early 1990s were defused by devolving authority over certain aspects of economic, social and political life from Moscow to Kazan.

In essence, under Putin, Moscow is moving away from the conception of Russia as a multi-ethnic/multi-territorial state. “Nationality” issues—which were a dominant feature of politics in the North Caucasus and Russia’s Volga region (including Tatarstan) under the Russian Empire as well as the USSR—are being concealed under the more neutral label of “regional” issues. National territories, like Tatarstan and the republics of the North Caucasus, are being demoted to “regions.” The autonomy of Tatarstan outlined in a February 1994 landmark treaty with Moscow has been diminished since Putin came into power in 2000. And Moscow has stopped concluding similar power-sharing treaties with other regions and begun to roll them back. The Russian Nationalities Ministry, which was essentially abolished as a ministerial structure in March 2004, was reinstated after Beslan as the Ministry of Regional Development. And during Moscow debates on the appointment of regional governors, further proposals were put forward to curtail the authority of regional assemblies, directly appoint mayors, and even to abolish autonomous republics and regions all together by returning to a modified form of the Tsarist-era provinces.

The idea of federalism from the bottom-up, which was championed by Tatarstan and its President, Mintimer Shaimiyev, and which promoted political parity between the center and the regions, has been rejected by Moscow. Putin has made it clear that federalism, if it is to exist at all, will be created from the top-down. It will not be based on mutual agreements between the center and regions, but on what Moscow decides is appropriate to delegate to the regions.

This is particularly problematic as just after Beslan (in a September 6 meeting with Western analysts at his residence in Novo-Ogarevo) Putin promised “more flexibility” in dealing politically with Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and “more autonomy” for Chechnya. But if the political framework for autonomy is removed, and Russia becomes a unitary state, is it possible to create and sustain Chechnya as a “special case”? Elites in Russia’s traditional autonomous republics, like Tatarstan and the republics of the North Caucasus, have consistently opposed the formation of a unitary state (not least because this would undercut their own power base).

Furthermore, in moving to build a new political and administrative system in Russia entirely from the top down, Putin is also trying to create a new cadre of regional leaders by inserting people from outside, that is from Moscow. In appointing presidential representatives and governors he has abandoned the task of developing and cultivating new leaders at the local level who can eventually win genuine popular support. Indeed Putin does not trust local elites who are not closely tied to Moscow (or to St. Petersburg). Too much local “initiative” and “leadership,” not too little, has been Russia’s problem in Putin’s mind.

The approach of imposing regional leaders from outside will also put a strain on Moscow’s own personnel resources. Putin’s vertical of power (vertikal vlasti in Russian) is not a conventional pyramid with a broad base of support. It is a narrow column extending down from the Kremlin. This is because, unlike the secretary-generals or presidents of the Soviet period, Putin does not have a party structure or a system of collective leadership to rely on. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has improvised with an informal system that has drawn on a coterie of colleagues from his service in the KGB and in St. Petersburg’s municipal government. The new governance reforms will tax the limited pool of competent people at his disposal. Dmitry Kozak’s appointment illustrates Putin’s dilemmas. Kozak is a close associate of Putin’s from his St. Petersburg days. He has already had a number of appointments in the Russian government apparatus and the Presidential Administration, and was formerly in charge of modernizing the federal government bureaucracy.

In essence, Putin has replaced power-sharing agreements with Russia’s regions and direct elections with a network of his own emissaries or viceroys, like Dmitry Kozak. International precedents, as well as Russia’s own historical experience of the Tsarist and the Soviet period, indicates that this approach will do little to resolve Russia’s long-term and deep-rooted problems in regions like the North Caucasus. It can provide a temporary fix at best. Trusted aides like Kozak cannot be shifted around from position to position indefinitely as new challenges arise. As a consequence, governance reforms based on central appointments run the risk of creating a hollow, watered-down state, rather than a strong or effective one at either the central or local level.