Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Window on Eurasia: A New Role for Presidential Representatives to Russia’s Federal Districts?

Paul Goble

Tallinn, December 9 -- Even as President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday named one of his classmates as plenipotentiary representative to the Urals Federal District, statements by Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have led some to question whether such representatives will play a major role in Russian political life in the future.
In the current issue of “Versiya,” commentator Il’gar Musakhanov pointedly asks what such officials are likely to do now that both Medvedev and Putin have elevated the role of United Russia in the selection of governors and thus reduced one of the key levels the plenipotentiaries had exercised in the past (versia.ru/articles/2008/dec/08/polpredy_prezidenta_v_regionah).
In his message to the Federal Assembly, Medvedev had suggested that governors should be assigned on the basis of the parties who won elections in the regions. “Does this mean,” Musakhanov asks, “that the institute of plenipotentiary representatives will be liquidated or that these presidential representatives will be given new duties?”
According to his sources, Musakhanov writes, “United Russia has already hurried to prepare its list of candidates for the regional heads which ought to be changed in the near future. But up to now, the arrangements remain as they were and candidates are put forward [not by the parties] but by the presidential plenipotentiaries.”
If these officials lose that power – and Medvedev’s own comments suggest that is the direction in which Moscow wants to move – there is the possibility that the plenipotentiaries will acquire other responsibilities including supervising government agencies in such a way as to reduce the size of bureaucracies in the regions and thus increase efficiency.
But if that happens, then calls for their elimination will increase. Federation Council Chairman Sergey Mironov has already suggested that they should be given that they have played their role, but others like United Russia’s Artur Chilingarov continue to say that they will only be reformed and their functions changed.
Vladimir Putin created the seven federal districts with their presidential plenipotentiary heads in May 2000 as part of his effort to undermine regional separatism, to ensure the consistency of laws and regulations across the territory of the Russian Federation and to establish what came to be called “the power vertical.”
In large measure, Musakhanov continues, these officials accomplished this initial mission and so they either need a new one or they need to be disbanded. One possibility of their future activities was hinted at by Medvedev himself in his statement to the Federal Assembly: using these offices to determine “the optimal location” of territorial structures.
What that means is not clear, the “Versiya” writer points out, but it could mean that the plenipotentiaries will take the place of the branches of various Moscow ministries and committees, something that could give them more power but only at the cost of creating new bureaucratic confusion and competition.
But cutting bureaucracy is an imperative now given the economic situation. “According to certain statistics,” Musakhanov says, there are now more bureaucrats in Russia than there were in the entire USSR,” some 1.6 million in all – a figure that former Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says has risen 60 percent over the last eight years.
Moreover, most federal bureaucrats live not in the Russian capital but in Russian regions, a pattern that the central authorities would like to change by cutting the latter and possibly transferring their responsibilities to the regions, an arrangement that could leave the latter with unfunded liabilities or allow regional heads to play a more independent role.
Such a shift would make regional divisions of United Russia happy, he says, because “they are to a much greater degree connected with local elites than with those presidential representatives sent from the center. And it would please many regional elites as well who would have more control over local affairs.
In this situation, the plenipotentiaries would acquire greater supervisory responsibilities even as they gave up one of their key control mechanisms, the appointment of governors. And consequently, if this happens and while they continue to be in office, many of the problems the institution of plenipotentiary representatives was created to address could re-emerge.
Indeed, as Musakhanov impllies, it could even intensify if the presidential representatives are thus transformed as some regional leaders want into lobbyists for the regions, with the seven federal districts becoming a new challenge for the center, one potentially more difficult to counter than those emanating from the much smaller oblasts, krays and republics.

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