Putin Tightens His Grip

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During his rapid march to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin vowed to raise Russia from her knees by building a "dictatorship of the law." Last week, Putin took a sudden step that shows he really meant to add after the word law ... "as I choose to rewrite it." In a surprise, late-night television address he declared: "We are talking about laws that will strengthen and cement Russian statehood. The period of forced compromises leading to instability is over."

This was no fireside chat. Seated squarely at his Kremlin desk, Putin faced the camera straight-on to lay out his plans to radically reform how Russia is ruled. Earlier in the week, he had dropped his first bombshell, signing a decree to group Russia's 89 regions into seven federal districts, each run by a presidential envoy. All federal services would come under the purview of these Kremlin proxies, rather than under the governors.

And so Putin enjoined the often unruly regional leaders in a fight for power and federal largesse. Although the draft laws have yet to be published, Putin's blueprint calls for replacing, by next January, the current members of the Federation Council (the parliament's upper house), 178 elected governors and regional leaders, with political appointees from the regions. He also wants the right to dismiss elected governors, and disband regional governments, should courts find their policies to be in contravention of federal law.

Putin's seven new federal districts would follow the same lines as Russia's military districts. This is no coincidence. His intention is to remove the internal troops, responsible for domestic security, from the Interior Ministry, reform them as a National Guard and keep them stationed in the regions but under the President's direct command. By week's end, he had named the men who will enforce his writ in the seven districts. Five are generals: two are veterans of the war in Chechnya, and three come from the security services. One of the two civilian apparatchiks is a token liberal, former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko.

In all, the new laws would grant Putin greater presidential powers than Yeltsin enjoyed under his hand-tailored 1993 constitution. Although many of his wishes require the Duma's approval, few doubt he will get his way. Many in Moscow's political elite greeted the steps to clean up Russia's feudal bedlam warmly. After all, ever since Yeltsin encouraged regional bosses "to take as much sovereignty as you can swallow" in order to buy their loyalty, Russia has become a loose confederation of feudal barons, nominally presided over by a weak king. But, says Lilia Shevtsova, senior analyst with the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment, "There are two ways out of this predicament: the first is the painstaking process of drafting legislation, firmly dividing federal and regional responsibilities, strengthening the courts and resolving issues among federal, regional and local authorities through the courts." The second, quips Shevtsova, "is the traditional Russian way to build an administrative hierarchy: you construct a transmission belt of power and connect it to a single engine."

Putin clearly has chosen the second approach. Before making his TV address, Putin held a three-hour, closed-door session with 26 key regional leaders. He drew the party line for them sharply: Either you are with me or you are against the state. Although many governors last week bowed obediently to his wishes, some promised defiance. "No matter what they write in decrees, we will rule in the regions," fumed Mintimer Shaimiyev, the powerful president of Tatarstan, a mostly Muslim, oil-rich and virtually autonomous, ethnic republic in central Russia.

Russia's parliament, however, seems positively supine. On Wednesday, in a record majority vote, the Duma rubber-stamped Putin's choice for Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. The 42-year-old technocrat, who won the approval of 325 of the 450 deputies, was Putin's first choice. While Putin's long-awaited economic recovery plan has yet to materialize, Kasyanov did outline to the Duma his priorities: tax reform and a balanced budget. Like an old Soviet era leader, Putin has commanded that the economy grow. "He made his instructions clear," says one adviser working on the economic plan. "Make sure that GDP doubles in 10 years."

In last week's flurry of decrees and declarations, Putin, once considered an opaque man of mystery, made the direction of his nascent presidency abundantly clear. Authority, and loyalty to the man who holds it, are fast becoming the leitmotiv of the new regime. By now it is clear that Putin wishes to do more than take spins in fighter jets and submarines. Embarking on a path toward a more muscular presidency, he aims to regain the power that seeped out of the Kremlin and into the fractious fiefdoms during Yeltsin's paralytic reign. His predecessor may have tolerated disobedience and disorder; Putin has a fondness for discipline and order. Particularly when he gets to run the show.