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Putin returns some powers to governors

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Vasily Kononenko) --

The celebrations to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad, which were attended by President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly ended with serious government decisions. Governors from different regions of Russia, who had arrived in Kaliningrad for a session of the State Council, witnessed the president signing a decree that overturned one of the key elements of the country's power vertical. Presidential envoy to the South Federal District Dmitry Kozak was probably the most disappointed person on this day of festivities. He had been the main author of the multi-level administrative reform that was being pushed by the federal authorities confronted with tough resistance by regional elites since the end of the last year.

In his address to the nation on September 4, 2004, in the wake of the Beslan massacre, Putin set out a program of action to strengthen the unity of Russia and create a government system capable of withstanding crisis. His decision to abolish the elections for governors was the most controversial element of this program. Putin's critics called it a "return to authoritarianism" and an attempt to "turn Russia into a unitary state".

And now on his own initiative, not due to pressure from domestic opposition or the international community, Putin has retreated from his decision. The new presidential decree gives the governors the right to supervise the heads of the power ministries (Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Emergencies and Ministry of Justice) in their respective regions. From now on the presidential envoys will consult the governors when appointing candidates for these positions.

Moscow has promised that in the next two months it will transfer 114 competences to the regions relating to forestry, water resources, environmental protection, veterinary services, licensing, protection of historical and cultural monuments, education, science, land use, and housing legislation.

President Putin explained the main reason for slowing down the administrative reform in his own inimitable way, "The delegation of additional competences to the regions is in no way an end in itself, nor is it a consequence of administrative restlessness. Responsibility must be taken for what has been done at all levels of power."

In fact, Dmitry Kozak had conceived the controlled power vertical to spare the Kremlin unnecessary criticism, so that it would not be held responsible for, say, the collapse of a sewage system in some taiga village or the failure to deliver fuel oil to Anadyr in time for winter. When the reform was in its early stages, Putin assumed some of the governors' responsibilities so as to restore Moscow's ability to control the vast country.

When Yeltsin let the governors assume as much power as they could manage, many governors became local kingpins. They were elected, but in no way did they fit into the top-to-bottom power vertical. Some of them even tried to blackmail the Kremlin by threatening to play the separatist card. This is what happened in the Maritime Territory under Governor Nazdratenko. And before that, local separatists from the Republic of Tuva had threatened Moscow that they might secede from Russia to join Mongolia. Also, some ethnic minorities from the north of the country took it into their heads that if they seceded they could extract more money from gas and oil companies.

Putin eventually managed to restore the Kremlin's control over the regional heads despite all the grumbling of malcontents. But the consequences of this rapid centralization proved to be more serious than the Kremlin had anticipated. The appointment of governors did not make it easier to rule the country. Signs of administrative chaos began to show. The governors were more concerned about who might overthrow them than about how they could improve life in their regions.

The Governor of Kuzbass Aman Tuleyev said at a State Council session in the Kremlin, "I cannot work when I have to constantly worry about my position. There should be certain criteria and mechanisms to protect the governors. There will always be rich men who will try to remove me."

In the last few months, the Kremlin received more and more of these appeals from the governors asking for their powers back. The Kremlin had to give them something. But in return Putin demanded that they share responsibility for economic reforms, make their budgets transparent, back up their powers with solid sources of funding, develop realistic social and economic programs, and attract investment to their regions.

There is an important new element to this decentralized structure: a bad governor, for example, one who has paralyzed his region, will no longer be able to ignore the Kremlin. Even though the governors are not elected, they are still to be held accountable. In effect, they are regional administrative heads and can easily be replaced. Now the main goal is to consolidate the new structure so as to prevent the system of checks and balances from tipping too far in favor of the Kremlin again.

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