Putin aims to rein back Russia's defiant regions

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The Independent Online

The people of St Petersburg have re-elected their controversial governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, sending a message to Moscow that they prefer him, with all his faults, to anybody the Kremlin might think would be better for them.

At the same time, President Vladimir Putin has come up with a plan to carve Russia into seven large regions, in which his representatives will oversee the activities of local governors. The battle between the federal centre and the defiant regions is only just beginning.

The plight of St Petersburg is a prime example of what has happened to the provinces since the former president Boris Yeltsin told the regions to "take as much autonomy has you can handle". Governors have become like medieval princes and the conditions in their territory depend on their level of enlightenment, not on a central standard, as in Soviet times. Under Mr Yakovlev, St Petersburg, which was the capital of the tsarist empire and the "Hero City of Leningrad" to the Communists, has gained the dubious reputation as modern Russia's "capital of crime".

In elections on Sunday, Mr Yakovlev was credited with having won 70 per cent of the vote, although his liberal rival challenged the result. In February, supporters of the late liberal mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who included Mr Putin, tried to find a candidate with a chance of defeating the governor. But when Mr Putin saw the political winds were blowing in Mr Yakovlev's direction, he withdrew his support from the liberal opposition.

This showed that in the short term, the new Kremlin leader preferred to be pragmatic and would live with a governor who was distasteful to him. However, the decree he issued on Saturday, creating seven zones from which his envoys would supervise the regions, showed that in the long term he intended to be much tougher in cementing Russia as a strong, centralised state.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation was left with a vast, multi-ethnic territory of 89 regions. Mr Putin's seven federal districts will each cover several regions with their elected governors.

Governors gave a cautious public welcome to the plan, although in private they were possibly making their own plans. One regional leader to give a surface smile to Mr Putin was Mintimir Shaimiyev, President of Tartarstan, a Muslim republic that has won many of the freedoms that Chechnya would like, only by cunning rather than armed conflict with Moscow. Relations might now deteriorate.

Much will depend on whether Mr Putin stops at creating the zones, which may just be an instrument for his administration to watch over the country, or whether he starts trying to remove elected governors whose laws contradict federal law. For example in Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev's fiefdom to the west of Chechnya, local law takes account of Muslim traditions and allows polygamy, illegal in the rest of Russia. President Aushev has been told to change that.

Some regions of Russia, such as Samara, are forward-looking and relatively prosperous but most regions are more backward and illiberal than Moscow. Ironically, Mr Putin could be resorting to dictatorial methods to impose freedom and democracy from above.

But Russian history shows that the initiatives of central rulers often become bogged down in the provinces and Mr Putin may soon find the governors blocking him in all sorts of ways. Mr Yeltsin had a turbulent relationship with the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, but always received an easy ride from the upper house, where the governors sit. In Mr Putin's case, it looks as if it is going to be the other way round.