Many of Russia's far-flung and diverse regions have been stubbornly going their own way for almost a decade. But freshly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin has taken the tiger by the tail with a sweeping, but risky, scheme to curtail the powers of local governors and enforce Kremlin writ over the world's largest country.
In a decree issued last Saturday night, apparently to attract as little attention as possible, Mr. Putin ordered Russia divided into seven administrative super-regions, each headed by its own Kremlin representative.
The representatives are tasked with taking direct control of all federal agencies - such as security and taxation - and ensuring that Moscow's directives are strictly carried out. As yet, there has been no overt move to tamper with the country's 68 provinces and 21 ethnic republics, where local leaders often rule like satraps.
The Kremlin claims at least 30 regions have enacted laws that contradict the Constitution, and several have implemented almost insurrectionary policies, such as local customs barriers or withholding tax revenues from Moscow.
The mainly Muslim Volga republic of Tatarstan has its own Constitution, which its leader says should take precedence over Russian law. The Urals republic of Bashkortistan operates an almost Soviet-style state control over the local economy. "The reality is that some regions enjoy unlimited legislative freedom, which in some cases borders on full independence," notes the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
But few doubt the new measure will disappear into Russia's bottomless bureaucratic sands, as have many such plans in the past, unless swiftly followed by tough steps to wrest power and privilege from entrenched local elites.
"Putin's decree is only the beginning of reform to restore federal control in this country," Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Putin's closest aides, told state-owned RTR television on Monday.
"If Putin is serious about this plan, it will require sweeping amendments to the Constitution and major changes to the power structure in Russia," says Sergei Tarasenko, an analyst with the independent Fund for Realism in Politics in Moscow. "This puts him on a collision course with local powers."
The initial response of many regional governors has been to welcome the new scheme and praise Putin's decisiveness.
"Don't be fooled by that," says Mikhail Vinogradov, an analyst with the Center for Current Policy in Moscow. "That's the old game of local leaders. They turn an obedient and worshipful face to the Kremlin, but actively sabotage its orders in their own regions."
According to most Russian experts, Putin is aiming at recreating the czarist administrative system, in which territorial units known as gubernia were each ruled by a governor-general appointed by the czar in St. Petersburg. No regional or ethnic differences were recognized under that system, which stretched from Poland and Finland in the west to Chinese lands around Port Arthur and Manchuria in the east.
Moscow is awash with rumors that Putin intends to curtail the upper house of parliament, dominated by regional governors, which has the power to veto all national legislation and constitutional amendments. The liberal Vremya Novostei reported on Tuesday that the president has asked the Duma, the tame lower house, to pass a law giving the Kremlin authority to hire and fire regional leaders at will. The first dismissal of a key governor "is scheduled for this summer," adds the daily Izvestia.
Putin has warned repeatedly that Russia is being ripped apart by the forces of economic regionalism and separatism, and urgent steps will be required to reverse the decay.
One of his first acts upon being named prime minister last year by former President Boris Yeltsin was to launch a ruthless military campaign to crush Chechnya, the only republic that has so far attempted to secede.
"Putin's people have this belief that the main threat to Russia is national disintegration," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies. "They see the ethnic republics, in particular, as hotbeds of separatism."
The problem is not imaginary.
The Soviet Union developed an elaborate constitutional facade that granted varying degrees of self-determination and autonomy to the bewildering array of Eurasian peoples that were conquered and assimilated into the Russian empire over centuries. In reality, the country was run strictly from Moscow.
Post-Soviet Russia inherited built-in instability. It no longer possesses the totalitarian means, but its Constitution still recognizes different levels of local autonomy and special ethnic privileges.
Mr. Yeltsin did little to address the problem, preferring to let local leaders control their own turf as long as they paid public homage to the Kremlin. On a stop in Tatarstan during the first Russian presidential election in 1991, Yeltsin told a crowd that regions should "take all the sovereignty they can swallow." It turned out they had quite an appetite.
"The ethnic issue is very delicate in Russia," says Mr. Piontkovsky. "It was one of the flashpoints that led to the breakup of the czarist empire, and then to the collapse of the Soviet Union decades later."
But if the Kremlin does not move decisively to claw back power from the regions, the reforms may create nothing more than a new layer of corrupt and arrogant bureaucrats. "The Kremlin is in a state of euphoria right now thanks to all its recent victories. Elections won, Chechnya is subdued, oil prices are high, and the economy is growing. But this euphoria can lead them into big mistakes," says Mr. Vinogradov.
"Even if the plan succeeds, and these super-region administrators get real power, what will change?" asks Vladimir Pribiulovsky, director of Panorama, a leading political consultancy in Moscow. "Russia needs effective market reforms and economic development. Simply rearranging the lines of authority can't accomplish much."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society