Kremlin Targets the Governors Again

The president will have the power to fire any governor in the country for almost any reason if a bill sent to the State Duma on Thursday becomes law.

The bill was written by lawyers at the Interior Ministry. It permits the president, via the prosecutor general, to level any charge against governors -- and to dismiss them whether they are convicted or not.

"This measure, in our opinion, would help to strengthen the vertical of power in the Russian Federation as well as help to discipline" governors, a description of the bill posted Thursday on the federal goverment's web site said.

But a State Duma deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party was skeptical about the prospects of the bill as it now stands.

"I think this document will elicit considerable discussion and is unlikely to pass in the form it is being introduced in," said Gennady Gudkov, who sits on the Security Committee.

Gudkov also questioned the purpose of the bill, saying that regional governors "have already been turned into sergeants ordered about by the federal center."

The bill, which features amendments to the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedures Code, was discussed by the Cabinet on Thursday, according to the web site statement.

For now, the president has the right to suspend governors only if the prosecutor general requests that he do so and only if the charges are particularly grave.

The new measure also calls for harsher punishments for those officials whose negligence is blamed for a terrorist strike.

The bill would double the maximum prison sentence for officials convicted of forgery to four years, and it proposes that any violation of "individual and collective rights as well as of public and state interests protected by the law" be criminalized.

While no specific region was named in Thursday's web site statement, it was clear the authors had the North Caucasus in mind.

The volatile region suffers from a lack of steady leadership and remains a hotbed for terrorists from Chechnya and elsewhere. Even law-enforcement officers are known to have helped terrorists stage attacks on fellow police or militia.

No one at the Interior Ministry who helped draft the bill could be reached for comment Thursday.

An aide to Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the Duma's Legislation Committee, said the bill had not yet been officially received by the Duma.

Officials in the North Caucasian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan declined to comment on the bill, saying they haven't seen it yet.

The September 2004 Beslan school attack gave the Kremlin a strong rationale for strengthening central control. Soon after the attack, the Duma, acting at the Kremlin's behest, pushed through a measure eliminating the popular election of governors and giving the president the power to appoint them.

The new bill is hardly guaranteed to combat terrorism, but it would probably help federal authorities shift responsibility for terrorist attacks to regional or local officials, said Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Also, Malashenko said, the bill would give the president a useful political tool in the event of an attack; as the nation reeled from a horrific explosion or hijacking, the Kremlin would be able to act swiftly by firing a regional governor and appeasing the public's thirst for accountability.

This is essentially what the Kremlin did in North Ossetia after the Beslan tragedy -- but a full eight months after the attack. After aggrieved relatives of the victims staged rallies demanding Governor Alexander Dzasokhov's resignation, the governor was finally pushed from office.

Gudkov, the United Russia Duma deputy, said he would back provisions of the bill targeting officials' negligence so long as the term "negligence" is clearly defined.

Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, meanwhile, also on the Security Committee, said the new bill was hardly a surprise. Ilyukhin said the governors had lost the president's trust.

Neither Gudkov nor Ilyukhin have seen a draft of the bill.

In July, Putin fired Alexei Barinov from his post as governor of the Nenets Autonomous District after Barinov was charged with fraud and embezzlement.

The presidential decree removing Barinov from power cited a "loss of the president's confidence" in the governor.

And in March, Putin fired Vladimir Loginov, governor of the Koryaksky Autonomous District, ostensibly for his failure to provide heating to local residents during the winter.

Other governors removed from office include Tver Governor Vladimir Platov, Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov.

Yaroslavl Governor Anatoly Lisitsyn and Kamchatka Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev were also charged with abuse of office but subsequently cleared.

Last month, Khakasia Governor Alexei Lebed was charged with abusing his office.

That case has not yet been resolved.

While it was difficult to remove governors from office under President Boris Yeltsin -- when governors enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution -- Putin stripped the governors of that protection soon after assuming power, in 2000.