The Streamlining of Loyalties

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The Beslan tragedy offered President Vladimir Putin a convenient excuse to launch a long-planned restructuring of the federal government aimed at strengthening the so-called power vertical, or executive chain of command. Putin is pursuing a policy of authoritarian modernization based in large part on Moscow having effective control over the regions.

As it turns out, this is not a task for one or even two presidential terms; completion has been postponed for another four years at least. For this process to continue, continuity is needed in the Kremlin. Whether it is Putin or members of his team who put a succession plan in place, it is vitally important for this regime that the Kremlin's candidates prevail in the 2007-08 election cycle. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the end of 2007, followed by the presidential election in March 2008.

The Kremlin foresees a number of challenges in the upcoming elections. Putin's own popularity, not to mention the popularity of his team, is not as solid as it was just a short time ago. The first signs of doubt and discontent have begun to emerge. The recent move to replace social benefits with cash payments, for example, has met with widespread opposition. Though the consequences of this reform are still unclear, it is the first of Putin's major policy initiatives to be met with hostility by the public.

The next major reform, the president's housing reform package, threatens not only to send his job approval numbers plummeting, but also to destabilize the entire society. A law came into force last spring that allows the eviction of deadbeats from state-owned housing. By some estimates, up to 20 million Russians don't pay their housing costs simply because they have no money.

Putin's proposition may seem simple: Pay your bills or hit the bricks. But many regard it as the height of injustice. In the Soviet era, families could toil for a generation or two before the state finally gave them an apartment of their own. And now that state, which failed to pay decent wages, is threatening to take away the only thing many people have: their apartments.

The regime's inability to protect the population from terrorists has not yet affected the president's approval rating. But people have begun to despise the top brass in law enforcement and the security services -- hand-picked and supported by Putin -- almost as much as they despise the Chechens. Sooner or later, this kind of animosity could spread to the president himself.

The governors (and state television, of course) are the key to victory for the so-called party of power in the next election cycle. In addition to the election, the issue of allowing Putin to run for a third term is likely to arise. On paper, regional legislatures would have to pass a Constitutional amendment for this to happen. In fact, the governors would be expected to deliver the necessary votes. The amendment process takes one year plus several days. The exact date of the next presidential election will be set sometime in December 2007, meaning that the process would have to begin no later than November 2006. Loyal governors could minimize the time involved; disloyal governors could drag it out.

At present, the regional leaders are extremely loyal to Putin, but their loyalty is conditional. If the president's approval rating starts to nose-dive, the governors will waver.

Under Putin's proposed government reform, the governors would no longer be dependent on the moods and opinions of their constituents. They would owe allegiance only to the Kremlin. Even the previously elected governors, who will remain in the majority for some time after the reform becomes law, understand perfectly well that their chances of serving another term depend on how successfully they have carried out the Kremlin's wishes.

The mayors of big cities also wield considerable influence on election day. Competition and enmity between mayors and governors presents the Kremlin with an unwanted problem. If it backs the governor, the mayor might well turn around and throw his weight behind opposition candidates during the campaign.

Under Putin's proposal, governors will appoint the mayor of regional capitals and major cities just as the president himself appoints the governors. The mayors will now owe their loyalty to the governors, and the chain of command will function smoothly at election time.

Putin's proposal to eliminate single-mandate seats in the State Duma serves the same end -- making deputies loyal to the Kremlin alone. To date, the Kremlin has fared well in single-mandate elections because in these districts the opposition tends to field fewer candidates. But Kremlin minders must continue to work with single-mandate deputies -- even those in the United Russia faction -- long after the election, bargaining with them over every piece of legislation. Like the elected governors, such deputies have divided loyalties: to the Kremlin and to their constituents. Deputies elected from party lists, on the other hand, have no constituents to worry about.

This is, in fact, the riskiest aspect of Putin's proposed reforms, because the voters aren't all that wild about United Russia, the party voters will be called upon to support in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the president. The Kremlin hopes to carry the day by streamlining the chain of loyalty within the government.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.