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Governors Bow to Putin, OK Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russia’s powerful and petulant governors gave in to President Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday, agreeing to relinquish their seats in parliament as part of the president’s plans to weaken their powers and concentrate authority in his own hands.

Reversing an earlier ballot last month, the governors, who currently sit in the upper house of parliament, voted 119 to 18 to approve a new law that would give their seats to permanent representatives chosen by regional legislatures.

Many governors described the vote as an effort to swim with the new tide flowing from the Kremlin. They said they were acutely aware that there were more than enough votes in the pro-Kremlin lower house of parliament, the Duma, to override a vote in the upper house, the Federation Council, and that resistance was futile.

“Regardless of whether we vote it down or pass it, the law will come into force anyway,” Alexander Surikov, governor of the Siberian region of Altai, said before the vote. “Obviously, there is no need to try to vote this document down anymore.”

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After his inauguration in May, Putin launched a campaign to strengthen central power in Russia. He has said that only powerful central authority can prevent Russia from falling apart and ensure economic progress. But while Putin has spoken in vague terms of the need for an independent judicial system, his plans in effect remove checks and balances on presidential power.

Nikolai Fyodorov, president of the republic of Chuvashia, warned that by approving the law, governors are contributing to a climate in which the law of the land takes second place to the will of the president.

“Today the atmosphere in the society is such that the will of the emperor, the will of the president, is already the law. And the opinion of a Kremlin bureaucrat is more important than the constitutional stance of the Federation Council,” Fyodorov said. “All this is dangerous.”

Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute of Strategic Studies in Moscow, said that Putin’s “reform” of the Federation Council weakens both the governors and the parliament. It takes away governors’ responsibility for federal policy and installs “senators” who, unlike governors, are not directly elected or answerable to voters. They will be nominated by the governors and approved by regional legislatures.

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“The administrative system that Putin is trying to create is ridiculous--it is neither fish nor fowl,” Piontkovsky said. “Senators should be publicly elected, or the upper chamber is totally useless.”

Although Putin was nominated and promoted by former President Boris N. Yeltsin, the new leader has had a completely different relationship with parliament. The governors, who were fairly compliant with Yeltsin, have become the country’s strongest voices of opposition since Putin’s election.

The bill adopted Wednesday is a softer version of the one rejected by the governors. For instance, instead of taking effect next year, it will allow the governors to serve out their terms until Jan. 1, 2002.

The governors’ “logic is understandable--they hope that Jan. 1, 2002, is still a long time away and many things may happen before then,” said Dmitry Furman, senior political analyst with the Institute of Europe think tank. “Knowing that they can’t win the battle now, they decided to agree to the least pernicious version of the law and wait. . . . There may easily come a day when Putin will have to ask the governors for help. And this is when they will get back at the president. As of now, they will lie in wait.”

The bill on the composition of the Federation Council was the most contentious of three measures proposed by Putin to tighten Kremlin control over Russia’s 89 regions. The other two bills--which the Duma has approved--will make it possible for the president to impeach governors who violate federal laws and will give governors a stronger hand with mayors and other local officials who flout the law.

The Federation Council rejected the second bill--a vote overridden by the Duma--but failed to act on the third within the necessary time period. All three bills now go to Putin for his signature, which is expected.

Piontkovsky said the Kremlin and government figures such as Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov did a good job of wearing down the governors’ opposition.

“The Federation Council has been brought to its knees, just like the state Duma was before the parliamentary elections,” he said. “Federation Council members will now have nothing else but to join the motley crowd of those who laud Putin and his ideas to build a ‘managed democracy’ in Russia.”

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Piontkovsky suggested that the governors will not be able to regain the powers they relinquished.

“They have succumbed to the widespread sentiment that welcomes an iron hand and censorship. . . ,” he said. “When they see a strong ruler, their legs get weak, and their willpower evaporates. It was only enough for Putin to show them the whip--not even to crack it--and they came to him with their hats in their hands and voted for their own dissolution.”

The upper house also approved another key measure proposed by Putin--a new, lower, flat income tax of 13%. The lower tax, approved by a vote of 128 to 13, is designed to reduce tax evasion by slashing the 35% rate imposed on most middle- and upper-income taxpayers.

The new code raises the rate for the poorest Russians and will reduce the regions’ financial independence.

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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