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Number 4(8), autumn, 2003
Number 8 of the journal Kazan Federalist (in english)
/ Kazan Center of Federalism and Public Policy / Publications / Journal Kazan Federalist / 2003 / Number 4(8), autumn, 2003 / The Development of the Federal Okrugs and the Future of Federalism in Russia return to homepage
The Development of the Federal Okrugs and the Future of Federalism in Russia

  • Vladimir Lysenko
Russia is at a turning point again. Ten wild years that can be compared to a social revolution did not give the final answer to the questions: are we part of Europe or Asia? Are we moving towards a market economy or toward oligarchic bureaucratic capitalism? Are we moving towards a democratic form of organization or an authoritarian regime? Are building a federal or a unitary state? Is Russia being modernized through mobilization or innovation?

Vladimir Lysenko*

The Development of the Federal Okrugs and the Future of Federalism in Russia

1. Russia is at a turning point again. Ten wild years that can be compared to a social revolution did not give the final answer to the questions: are we part of Europe or Asia? Are we moving towards a market economy or toward oligarchic bureaucratic capitalism? Are we moving towards a democratic form of organization or an authoritarian regime? Are building a federal or a unitary state? Is Russia being modernized through mobilization or innovation?

The issue of the seven federal okrugs seems to be a special case, but in reality, all of the problems of Russias present and future mentioned above are reflected in it.

The federal okrugs and presidential representatives emerged two years after the new president of Russia, V.V. Putin, came to power. It was the first and, most likely, the most important innovation of Putin during the first two years of his government. The institution of okrugs forms the core of the rigid hierarchy of executive power, being the main instrument of presidential politics in regard to the issue of the territorial organization of the Russian Federation.

The key question is: is it a form of innovation or of mobilization? In other words, is it an institution of democratic, liberal modernization leading towards a free market, a legal state and democracy, or is it an institution of authoritarian modernization based upon external economic compulsion, single-party rule, ideological dominance, and political practicality rather than of the rule of law?

The second important question follows from the first one: does the institution of presidential representation in the federal okrugs lead to federal or a unitary organization of the country?

2. Though the institution of the presidential representatives is a new one, their function is not. Over the course of the last 300 years of Russias history, leaders have traditionally chosen officials to exercise the function of the leaders eye (i.e. extending the political control of the emperor, performing the functions of a secretary general, and supervising local authorities and regional elites). Since the time of Peter, I this institution has been used in Russia in different manifestations, e.g. as an instrument of authoritarian mobilization, modernization from above and establishment of a paternalistic regime.

2.1. During the time of the Russian empire, from the reign of Peter I until the downfall of Nikolai II, governors-general, who were appointees of the tsars, acted as the tsars representative in larger Russian regions. Governors-general took a middle position between the emperor and governors. Their main official functions included political control over the governors, strict enforcement of the political will of the emperor in provinces, and coordination of the local activity of the officers of central ministries and departments. In reality, the governor-general was directly in charge of all business in the territory entrusted to him.

The institution of governors-general was only universal from the governors reform of Catherine the Great, which occurred in the second third of the Eighteenth Century. This reform was one of the most successful reforms of local government in the history of Russia. Since the Nineteenth Century, the institution of the governors-general existed mostly on the outskirts of the Russian Empire (i.e., in the Polish Empire, the Great Finnish Principality, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, etc.) which needed to be controlled and integrated into the unified state. The 34 central provinces did not have this institution, as their governors were guided directly by the emperor through the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Beginning from the time of Nikolai I, the governors-general were also used to establish order in various provinces seized by strikes, riots and revolutionary action (factually, to introduce states of emergency).

Peculiar features of the institution of the governor-general (unlike the institution of the governor) included the personal trust of the tsar to each appointee, the political nature of the position and a military role.

2.2. In the years of Soviet power, the function of political mediator between the countrys leaders and regional executive committees (oblispolkom transl.) was carried out by regional (republican) KPSS committees headed by the first secretaries. In fact, the first secretaries of regional committees were full-fledged masters in their regions, truly governing all the processes beginning from politics and ending with business activity.

2.3. In the 1990s the representatives of President Yeltsin, appointed after the suppression of the attempted GKChP putsch in August 1991, took up the role of political commissars. Since the supporters of democratic reforms (mostly humanitarian and engineering-technical intelligentsia) did not include many professional regulators, the President had to appoint members of the old Soviet party nomenklatura (old pros) to the leadership of krais and oblasts.

This institution was instrumental from 1991-1993, when the old party-state mechanism was being broken, the new Russian state was being built and radical economic reforms were being implemented. After the dismissal of Yegor Gaidars government, a period of gradual decline of the institution of presidential representatives began.

With the adoption of the new Russian Constitution in 1993, a superpresidential republic was established and the need for political commissars greatly weakened. Yeltsin made a bigger bet on the faithfulness of governors.

From 1996-1997, the election of governors was instituted, replacing the method of presidential appointment. The hierarchy of power began to elude presidential control. At this point, the director of presidential administration, A. Chubais, drafted the first proposal for the institution of presidential representatives, which suggested the establishment of 24 federal okrugs. A second plan, prepared by presidential advisors L. Smirniagin, G. Satarov, and E. Pain suggested the establishment of 34 federal okrugs. The main task of the administrative reform was to move territorial federal structures (primarily military and financial organs) out of the control of the governors and to create temporary regulation- and control-friendly federal structures.

However, this reform never came to fruition. Yeltsin did not agree to the creation of larger federal okrugs but instead decided to create a federal board headed by a presidential representative in each federal subject. The board was intended to unite the directors of all federal services and coordinate their activity.

After the young reformers were dismissed in 1997, the polpredy became, in actuality, appendages of gubernatorial authority. Most were only formal figures in local regional elites.

3. The institution of the presidential representatives exists in other sectors in Russia as well. There are presidential representatives in the federal organs of power: in the State Duma, in the Federation Council, and in the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. When President V.V. Putin appointed V.S. Chernomyrdin as ambassador to Ukraine, he also gave him the rank of polpred. There is also a representative of the Russian President in the Rosvooruzhenie, the Russian Armament department.

The activities of the presidential representatives are regulated only by the President. They are not subject to statutory control.

4. The institution of presidential representatives in the seven federal okrugs was introduced by Presidential Act #849 on May 13, 2000, in order to provide the realization of the constitutional authorities of the President of the Russian Federation; to increase the efficiency of the activity of federal organs, and to improve the system of control over the implementation of decisions.

This reform was legitimized as a realization of the presidents power as guarantor of the Constitution. According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the President appoints and dismisses representatives of the President of the Russian Federation (Art. 83, Sec. K). The President takes measures to protect the sovereignty, independence and integrity of the Russian Federation and provides coordination and interaction between the organs of state authority (Art. 80, Sec. 2). Establishment of the federal system is the responsibility of the federation, according to the Constitution. It permits federal executive organs to create their own territorial organs and appoint corresponding officers (Art.78, Sec.1). Therefore, the powers of the President as state leader were delegated to his representatives in the regions.

In fact, the adoption of this act created a fundamentally new administrative-political institution which would change the existing government system in many ways.

5. Putin began his reforms by changing the balance of power between the center and the regions shortly upon entering the Kremlin because of the necessity to fortify a state seriously weakened by a decade of social revolution. The regional reforms were intended to reconstruct the hierarchy of executive power. The institution of presidential representatives in the seven federal okrugs seems like a logical solution following the historical sovereign traditions of our country.

Over the last two years, President Putin has utilized the polpredy in his attempt to perform the following tasks: 1) to bring the legislation of federal subjects in conformance with federal legislation and the Constitution of Russia; 2) to conduct necessary anti-crisis activities aimed at preventing technogenic disasters and social cataclysms; 3) to conduct urgent and not always popular socioeconomic reforms in the regions; 4) to cleanse regional organs of power, resist the coalescence of crime and authority and corruption (this latter by appointing military officers as polpredy); 5) to investigate the prospect of enlarging federal subjects on the basis of the federal okrugs; 6) to further interregional integration.

To achieve these goals, Putin vested the polpredy with several principal functions: 1) promotion of coordination of activity among federal executive organs in their okrugs; 2) in collaboration with inter-regional associations, creation of a program of socioeconomic development; 3) coordination of staff appointments in their okrugs; 4) control of the execution of federal laws; 5) analysis of the efficiency of the law-enforcement activity; 6) organization of interaction among federal and regional organs of power, organs of local self-government, political parties, and other societal and religious communities.

6. What are the main results of two years of performance by the polpredy?

6.1. I suppose that over the last two years, the presidential representatives in seven federal okrugs have solved the main problem outlined in Putins 2001 message of V.V. Putin to the Federal Assembly: they have secured the state. They helped to link the state in a cohesive whole and to restore the legal and, to some extent, the economic unity of the country. However, as was mentioned in the Presidents message of 2002, the state turned out to be bureaucratic rather than economic.

In his message to the Federal Assembly of 2002, President Putin also noted: The establishment and organization of the federal okrugs was largely completed in the past year. I consider it to be high time that we move the level of execution of some federal functions closer to the territories. This should happen primarily in the areas of financial control and coordinated appointment of candidates to positions in federal bureaus regional branches.

6.2. The polpredy scored the highest in the area of bringing regional legislation in conformance with federal law. This task is basically completed in most areas, except for a number of national republics (Tatarstan, Bashkortostan) where the corresponding procedure takes time and effort. Moreover, it was with the assistance of the polpredy that 28 subjects of the Russian Federation agreed to repudiate their earlier agreements with federal authorities. However, the remaining federal subjects, who gained significant autonomy from their agreements with President Yeltsin, are not anxious to do so (e.g., Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Sverdlovskaia oblast).

The bringing into conformance of federal and regional laws is one obvious success of the polpredy. Even though critics of the regional reforms claim that this result could have been achieved over the last decade if prosecutors and courts (that is, if the latter were organized around okrugs) functioned properly, nonetheless, it was not achieved until the accession of the seven polpredy.

6.3. The activities of federal agencies in each of the subjects of the federation were coordinated. The objective of coordinating actions was a new one for the federal agencies. Instead of lobbying for the governors interests in Moscow, the regional branches of federal offices started defending the federal interests in the regions.

At the same time, numerous branches of federal ministries and bureaus in the federal subjects (about 50 to 70 branches!) still exist and even duplicate one another, their staff often being bigger than the number of local officers.

The number of staff members in the okrugs structures has also grown quickly. Each polpredys staff includes 100 to 150 state workers (the actual number varies among the okrugs), not counting independent contractors and freelancers. The number of staff members in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, general prosecutors office, Ministry of Taxation, Ministry of Justice and other central bureaus is growing fast.

In fact, many branch offices in the okrugs do not coordinate but rather duplicate the activity of their local counterparts and even lack their own subject matter. In addition, every branch of a federal office is subordinate to its ministry rather than its polpred.

It should be specifically mentioned that in the seven capitals of the federal okrugs, basically all organs of state power are concentrated (except for the representative power). Seven mini-states have been formed. World experience demonstrates that such a situation can be a threat in an emergency situation, when a state falls apart into self-sufficient parts. This is what the federal okrugs have now become. It is not by accident that okrugs almost never coincided with the borders of governments-general in the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire included seven military okrugs, six educational okrugs, five law-enforcement okrugs, ten railway okrugs, etc. The number and sizes of regional subdivisions incorporated in modern federal states also varies

It is also necessary to pay attention to another danger. In order to coordinate the various kinds of activity of the different federal ministries, bureaus and other structures, the presidential representatives have created more than 30 councils, collegiums, assemblies and committees. Not all of the coordinating structures are headed by the presidential representative himself (some of them are led by his deputies), but still, a huge portion of time is spent in lengthy sessions with low efficiency.

The current situation resembles the one in the Russian provinces at the end of the Nineteenth Century, when the governors and governor-generals complained of having to be in attendance at a huge number of different councils and tribunals. In fact, the practice of most polpredy, who strongly desire to direct and coordinate all sides of the federal subjects life and activity and to influence the most important decisions of the okrug and of every federal subject, but who do not have the resources to do so, will lead to an increase paperwork and bureaucratic procedures.

6.4. Anti-crisis activity has taken the lions share of the presidential representatives time. It is connected, on the one hand, with objective reasons, i.e. with the worsening of virtually everything in the regions, but on the other hand, it is also caused by the lack of a system of crisis prevention and prophylaxis.

However, there also exists a positive experience, the Volga Federal Okrug. The Center of Anti-Crisis Management that includes committees monitoring the sociopolitical and the socioeconomic situation and preventing technogenic disasters has been working for two years now. The center is staffed on a competitive basis. As a result, the problem of spring floods and a number of other questions have been solved. The management of financial flows in Ulianovsk region, which was unable to pay its energy sector debts, was governed externally for the first time in the country. In the Volga Federal Okrug, a draft of a law introducing external management in bankrupt regions has been prepared.

6.5. The presidential representatives are now trying to support interregional integration something that was not done by interregional associations for socioeconomic collaboration in 10 years. To achieve that goal, they develop strategies, concepts and programs for the socioeconomic development of their okrugs. Today, most such programs are complete; the program for the North Caucasus region was even approved by the federal government and came into effect in 2002.

It is still not clear what will happen with other federal programs, since the government of Russia treats only four regional programs as priorities until 2005. In addition to the North Caucasus program, these programs include Kaliningrad, the Kurile Islands, and the Far East region. A separate program for Chechnya has also been articulated. Programs for the other federal regions are not mentioned in the governments plans. Perhaps the government hopes that the other federal okrugs will create and support their programs with their own internal funds rather than those of the federal government? This is the most probable outcome; as an example, the Federal program for the Far East was approved without mention of support from the federal budget, while for Siberia, only strategies not a budget for the regions development were approved by the government of the Russian Federation.

Since the presidential representatives came to power, interregional associations have basically stopped functioning. The polpredy consider associations to be either competing political structures or useless horizontal power structures. As a result, most associations (with the exception of the Siberia Agreement and Big Volga, perhaps) either became an appendages of the polpredys own hierarchy or have not gathered for a long time.

In this connection (without dwelling on the decade-long complicated and contradictory history of the associations), it should be noted that federalism (as well as democratic society in general) cannot exist without horizontal connections. They are highly developed in the USA, Canada, and in European federal states, where they function as a crucial mechanism for self-regulating vital processes in society without interference of the central authorities. They take a huge part of the load off of the federal center and counteract the central bureaucracys attempts to concentrate power in its hands. In the USA, all states are grouped in nine large regions which in turn comprise three main economic regions. There are no federal government structures in the large regions. The Federal Government favors state coordination and interaction but keeps them under Federal supervision at the same time. Central authorities skillfully channel the activity of consultative organs in the necessary direction and repress any attempts of the federal subjects to expand their rights.

In our country, in spite of the federal law On general principles of the activity of economic interaction associations in the subjects of the Russian Federation and the Act of the President of the Russian Federation of May 13, 2000, prescribing the polpredys collaboration with associations, the latter turned to be persona non grata in most okrugs.

6.6. The question of improvement of the administrative and territorial division of the country. Since Putin came to power, rumors about the future enlargement of the federal subjects have not quieted. I do not support this idea and consider the current stage of the countrys development to be an inauspicious time for such a development. The attempt to enlarge regions on the basis of seven federal okrugs is unacceptable and highly dangerous in principle.

On the other hand, I would like to note that the Dumas Committee on Federation Affairs and Federal Politics adopted the federal law On the procedure of the acceptance and inclusion of a new federal subject in the Russian Federation. In my opinion, this law describes a perfectly legal and quite democratic mechanism of enlargement of the federal subjects through public referenda in the regions aspiring to be joined.

Therefore, I support the suggestion that a working group of the Government of Russia be created to improve the administrative and territorial division of the Russian Federation.

6.7. It is most difficult to conduct reforms in the subjects of the Russian Federation. Today most okrugs, except for the Volga Federal okrug and, partially, the Siberian okrug, develop along a mobilizational rather than an innovational model. The main efforts have been targeted toward concentrating all controls and resources in the hands of the state, resulting in the construction of a rigid hierarchy of power that includes, unconstitutionally, local organs of self-government as well. Instead, creating favorable legal, political, economic and financial conditions for the development of small and medium-size business and raising the level of independence of local governments, including the institutions of civil society, are overlooked. In addition, programs of socioeconomic development in the federal okrugs mostly resemble directive planning for solving the main problems of the region.

We should also add to this that some polpredy have a dangerous tendency to concentrate the main financial flows of the okrug around themselves and thus turn into the main arbiters of huge regions. At the same time, they do not demonstrate any visible success in developing small and medium-sized business, improving the investment climate, conducting any consequential anti-monopoly policy, de-bureaucratizing the economy and fighting corruption and organized crime.

We have not seen any decisive steps of the polpredy targeted at ensuring democratic governments in the federal subjects, ensuring the separation of powers, developing multi-party system, preserving the independence of the mass media in other words, getting rid of the regimes of leaders of a number of the federal subjects. It is becoming more and more noticeable how the polpredy of Primorie, Yakutiia, Ingushetiia and other regions exercise administrative interference in election campaigns, imposing certain candidates on the population and using the influence of the federal structures, the courts included, to disqualify unwanted candidates. This discredits the character of the election in the eyes of voters and leads to political absenteeism.

The polpredys participation in creating regional branches of the party Edinaia Rossiia and selecting regional leaders of the party in power is also quite questionable. Such activity contradicts the Constitution of Russia and the federal law On political parties, which prescribes the equality of all political parties in front of the organs of state power.

7. The introduction of the principally new administrative-political institution of presidential representatives in the seven federal regions has had the following consequences:

Firstly, the polpredy assisted in the restoration of national government, the creation of legal and economic unity (the last only partially successful), the direction of the representatives of federal agencies in the regions toward protecting federal interests rather than local ones, the consolidation of financial control, and the improvement of staff selection.

Secondly, the actual position and activity of the polpredy leads not just to the consolidation of the state but to its domination over civil society, brought about by a radical change of the political regime toward centralization, or an evolution from a federal or confederate model toward the unitary organization of the state. Chapter III Federal organization of the Constitution does not mention the institution of federal okrugs when distributing powers and authorities of the federal center and federal subjects. The principles of federal okrugs creation are different from those of federal subjects, even though the the subjects are incorporated into a new power hierarchy and lose a substantial part of their political, legislative and administrative independence.

In the last two years, the State Duma has received more than ten bills and suggestions to include the institution of the presidential representatives into federal laws and thus give them legislative legitimacy. Some of these bills would have delegated the authority to initiate the recall of the governors, etc., to the polpredy.

Our position on this question is quite clear: the institution of presidential representatives and federal okrugs was initiated by the president and therefore its activity can only be regulated by the presidents acts. I strongly oppose the polpredy receiving executive and regulatory functions, as well as their interference with the authority of the power organs of the subjects of the Russian Federation.

So far, the institution has only been mentioned in the federal laws On the state of emergency and On the military situation.

Thirdly, the introduction of the polpredy and federal okrugs questions the constitutional mechanism of division of powers in the regions. As experience has shown, the use of the open and hidden powers of the polpredy significantly reduces the authority of the federal subjects elected leaders. The authority of the constitutional institutions of regional power is actually delegated to extra-constitutional administrative institutions, the latter thus significantly expanding their control over the former. Thus, presidential representatives have functions comparable to those of the governor-generals, i.e. the ability to coordinate the activity of military structures and to make decisions on strategically important questions on behalf of the President, avoiding local legislative and executive authority.

Thus, the institution of presidential representatives contradicts the constitutional principle of subsidiarity, which assumes legislative division of authorities between the three levels of power but not a single hierarchy of power from top to bottom. Only the hierarchy of federal executive power is lawful.

Fourthly, the existing mechanism of decision making in the federal subjects has undergone serious modification. It was previously based upon the rather broad characterization of the constitutional independence of the subjects of the Russian Federation, which were described to possess full authority in areas not shared with or delegated to the federal government. (Art. 73).

Domination of the polpredy over the political elite of the federal subjects is becoming one of the important consequences of the introduction of the system of federal okrugs.

This analysis permits us to approach the polpredy and the federal okrugs as primarily institutions of crisis management. Born from a desire to secure the country and vested with significant authority, they can only work under conditions of centralization and a rigid power hierarchy. Accordingly, for their competencies to be realized fully, other regional power organs must be weakened. This is possible only under a direct presidential government or in a state of emergency, i.e. when localities are governed directly from the center. Therefore, the functions of the institutions are quite ambiguous. During stable periods, they is an instrument of control, coordination, staff selection and collection of information. In crisis periods, they are the core of the administrative mechanism and an instrument of imposing the directives of the central government over the wishes of the heads of local authorities. Therefore, they first of all present an institution of the presidents hidden powers which concerns mostly the authority to protect the Constitution and state sovereignty (art.80) and the introductions of states of emergency and martial law (Arts. 87 and 88).

The two-faced character of the institution of the polpredy sheds light on the nature of contradictions, i.e. the vast territories of the federal okrugs (which encourage strategic management of a big territory), and their discrepancies with historical, economic and political borders (which interfere with efficient government). On the other hand, the okrugs conform to the military okrugs; therefore, the authority of the polpredy becomes vast and undefined (tending to become absolute in crisis conditions), their functions parallel with those of the subjects of the federation (tied up with the doubled control), and the style of government reflects military structures.

Thus, the presidential representatives comprise an institution of the guided democracy epoch, or of a semi-authoritarian regime, rather than being an ordinary administrative organ. They also let the president realize direct government that requires complete coordination of all military structures in the regions. The creation of such an institution demonstrates that central power is weak rather than strong, as it strives to secure itself without civil society, developed legal institutions and political pluralism.

This is why most polpredy have not yet significantly advanced their reforms and have not created modern, self-regulating systems of government and self-government. It seems more likely that during the last two years, the country moved backwards towards a centralized system of government in a unitary mobilized state.

This is a typical phenomenon in periods following revolution. It is connected with bringing declarative constitutional norms in accordance with harsh social and political realities.

8. Thus, the institution of the presidential representatives might have the following fate depending on the changes happening in the country: 1) if paternalistic, centralizing, unitary tendencies are strengthened, it might be changed into a fourth level of presidential authority (it would then be an analog of the institutions of governors-general and sovnarkhozes); 2) if the country moves to a authoritarian regime, the federal okrugs will be changed into administrative-territorial units; 3) if Russia evolves toward the free market and democracy, and the polpredy institution fulfils its transitional tasks of securing the state, the federal okrugs will be liquidated, while the institution of presidential representatives might be used in case of an urgent state of emergency in some regions of the country; 4) if the existing political regime stays stagnant and conserved, the institution of presidential representatives might be preserved in its current appearance.

The publicly-declared tasks of the polpredy seem to have a temporary, transitional and concrete character. Beginning from this coming fall, one of those tasks will be elaborating (in accordance with the results of the presidential commission headed by D.N. Kozak) a new distribution of authority between the three levels of power. This task may be accomplished in the two years left before the next presidential election.

However, the history of Russia demonstrates that there is nothing more constant in our country than the temporary. Only time will show what will happen.

* Vladimir Nikolaevich Lysenko, Doctor of Science (politics), second director of Committee of Federation Affairs and Regional Politics of the State Duma of Russia, president of the Institute of contemporary politics.

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