Staunton, May 16 – Vladimir Putin’s creation of federal districts 15 years ago at the start of his first presidential term may have been useful to him and the Russian Federation at the time, but some Russian experts say these institutions have outlived whatever utility they may have had and should be radically reformed or simply scrapped.
According to URA.ru commentator Konstantin Dzhultayev, those who say the federal districts and the presidential plenipotentiaries who head them should be scrapped are becoming increasingly vocal and even those who defend the institution acknowledge that it should be reformed on the basis of a new law defining their role (ura.ru/articles/1036264786).
Leonid Davydov, an expert at the Russian Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, says that the federal districts may have been useful to Moscow although it is less clear how much good they have done for the regions. “At least,” he says, they “haven’t spoiled anything.”
He says that over the past 15 years, the federal districts “have been converted into mega-regions connected by economic threads alone, and their capitals have become business magnets.” That may not have been obvious to those in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in Yekaterinburg and Novorsibirsk, this change has been significant in terms of investment and spending.
According to Moscow commentator Konstantin Kalachev, the utility of the federal districts and presidential plenipotentiaries was especially great for Moscow initially because they became “instruments of the federal center” for restricting the freedom of action of regional governors and suppressing “any manifestations of regional separatism.”
Aleksey Zudin, an expert at the Moscow Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research, says they played an even more important role: they allowed Putin to develop “direct ties with mass groups of Russian voters without having to involve the active mediation of the elites.” That became “the basis for the formation” of his current high ratings.
In Zudin’s view, these institutions “gave the chief of state the opportunity to appeal to Russian society and thus became a real source of presidential authority and allowed it to be strengthened.”
After the elimination of direct elections for governors, however, the role of the federal districts declined, Kalachev says, although he concedes that they remain “the eyes and ears” of the president in many places and notes that they can be a place for negotiations if for one reason or another the governors do not have close ties with the Kremlin.
If gubernatorial elections are restored, he argues, the role of the federal districts and the presidential plenipotentiaries will grow again. And Moscow is likely to view the tensions between the plenipotentiaries and the governors as a good thing, the kind of competition that allows the center to rule the country.
Nonetheless, the experts say in the words of Dzhultayev that “the future of the institution of plenipotentiary representatives remains cloudy.” Many have pushed for its dismantling, and now Davydov for example says that Moscow would find it far easier to manage the situation using federal inspectors rather than plenipotentiaries to run the regions.
But even those who thing the plenipotentiaries have outlived their usefulness do not expect them to be scrapped. Not only would that be a slap at Putin but the cost of these institutions – about three billion rubles (60 million US dollars) – is so small that keeping them around in case of need is not a major burden.
What is needed, they say, is a new federal law defining their role and boosting their responsibilities for fighting corruption and supervising development projects that are too large for any one region to handle on its own – although the experts remain unclear as to how the federal districts will interact with the rise of the new regional ministries.
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