- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2000

Russian President Vladimir Putin isn't satisfied with his presidential powers. In addition to the traditional authority vested in his office, Mr. Putin would like to have the power to fire incompetent governors and dissolve local legislatures that stray from constitutional law. As part of his plan to consolidate centralized power, Mr. Putin is also sending out Kremlin envoys to assert control over seven newly established districts.

On Thursday, Mr. Putin announced he would be integrating his new district envoys in Russia's Security Council, which would place them firmly under his own jurisdiction. Generally speaking, these envoys would carry out the will of the Kremlin in their districts and help ensure that laws passed at a local level are in keeping with Russia's constitution. But Mr. Putin has left vague their specific powers. According to a presidential decree, their main function would be the "realization by the organs of state power of the main directions of domestic and foreign policy of the state, as determined by the president of the Russian Federation." They would have the right "to enter any organizations on the territory of this federal district," said the decree. The envoys would also monitor law-enforcement, supervise hiring and coordinate executive organizations.

The president's plan is unsettling because it would devolve power from elected officials to representatives appointed by the state. While it is true that some Russian governors run their regions like fiefdoms, Mr. Putin should have brought these officials to heel by fortifying the power of the judiciary. The courts are in dire need of more and better equipped agents to enforce their rulings. Instead, the president saw regional unruliness as a perfect excuse to consolidate his own power. Although Mr. Putin has said he wants to establish a "dictatorship of law," it is sounding more like dictatorship and less like law by the day.

Also noteworthy are the individuals Mr. Putin has selected to become his new envoys. Most of the new envoys have a background in the military or secret service. Mr. Putin has strategically chosen rather intimidating characters to look over the shoulder of governors. That should go a long way to bolstering his power over far-flung districts.

On top of it all, Mr. Putin's request for authority to fire governors, presumably without judicial review, is very troubling. This type of centralized power harks back to Soviet days. He equally wants the president's call to have the power to dissolve local legislatures if they approve unconstitutional laws. Mr. Putin has yet to specify just who would judge the constitutionality of these laws. If that is left in Mr. Putin's power, he would, in fact, become "the law" in Russia. Fortunately, these two proposals are subject to legislative approval.

Mr. Putin has also said he wants to reorganize the upper house of Russia's legislature, which would strip governors of their federal, lawmaking authority. If governors are replaced with full-time, elected lawmakers, the plan might be a positive change for Russia. If they are replaced instead by appointees, then this scheme would represent another power grab by the president. This proposal is also subject to legislative approval.

In general, Mr. Putin has demonstrated that he is seeking to increase the reach of his power as far as possible. The real question is whether he can achieve it. It will not be for want of trying.

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