Dmitry Oreshkin: “Luzhkov thought he could consolidate the interests of governors”

Election results depended on governors in the ‘90s in Russia, so the Kremlin had to negotiate with regional chiefs

Dmitry Oreshkin: “Luzhkov thought he could consolidate the interests of governors”
Photo: gaidarfund.ru

A week has passed since the death of Yury Luzhkov, meanwhile the merits and role in the history of Russia of the heavyweight politician continue to be actively condemned. Realnoe Vremya together with political expert Dmitry Oreshkin recalls the role played by influential governors in the difficult Russian decade, whether they were heroes of the country along with their colleagues, and why Yury Luzhkov as a prominent “heavyweight governor” lost the fight for supreme power.

“The regions were generally more influential than the centre in the ‘90s”

Mr Oreshkin, the deceased Yury Luzhkov was a prominent figure in the 1990s, he was one of the “heavyweight governors”, whom the federal centre in the person of President Yeltsin and his team looked up to. Did he influence the maintenance of the normal state of the country in those difficult economic years and how?

I'd look through a broader lens here — not how many “heavyweights” there were but the centre-regional relations: in the 1990s, the regions were generally more influential than the centre, and regional development was more intensive — regional cities were growing, regional economy and the influence of the governors were growing, though not only in good but also in bad sense. For example, in the Republic of Mari El, the governor was a criminal character, and in other regions where a huge role played by organized criminal groups they could also put their people on the position of governors. Despite the costs of democracy, expressed in the victory in the elections of regional leaders of doubtful people, the regions were influential, and the Federation Council, where the governors were sitting, was also an influential body that could interfere even with President Yeltsin, when he tried to dismiss Prosecutor General Skuratov — the Federation Council did not “give up” Skuratov until they published a scandalous video with his participation.

Certainly, among governors there were heavyweights — Shaimiev, Rakhimov, Rossel, and I think, such governors were 5-10 from 89 heads of subjects. A proof of the influence of the regions and their leaders was that immediately after Vladimir Putin came to power, he removed them from the Federation Council, limited their power and strengthened the role of the federal centre in the concentration of resources — after all, previously the tax base between the centre and the regions was divided roughly in half, and under Putin, two-thirds of taxes began to go to the centre: the governors agreed with this because the economy was growing very well. The political and economic role of the regions soon waned. Was it serious in the ‘90s? Look, in those years, there were up to 25 regions in the country, and now there are about a dozen; yes, the population approves of the idea of a strong centre, but few people think that this has to be paid for by slowing economic life at the local level.

Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky
In 1993, 14 per cent came to the federal elections in Tatarstan, and in 1995, after the conclusion of the Treaty — almost 60: this indicated that Shaimiev was a serious and independent political player and Yeltsin understood this

Besides, in the ‘90s, the election results depended on governors, so the Kremlin had to negotiate with regional chiefs. You all know the story that Tatarstan President Shaimiev told Yeltsin in 1993 that until there was an agreement on the distribution of powers between the republic and the centre it would be difficult for Tatarstan to support the electoral procedures of the federal centre. In 1993, 14 per cent came to the federal elections in Tatarstan, and in 1995, after the conclusion of the Treaty — almost 60: this indicated that Shaimiev was a serious and independent political player and Yeltsin understood this. The same applied to the elections of 1996 — then the governor's corps in general split in two: urbanized regions such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Perm, Nizhny Novgorod supported Yeltsin's course to renew the country, although there were a sea of economic problems, and the second part of this corps supported Zyuganov. Although in some regions Zyuganov won in the first round, Lebed, Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky took third, fourth and fifth places respectively — it became clear that Yeltsin would win in the second round, since the three candidates after Zyuganov were anti-Communists, and many governors who had previously supported Zyuganov supported Yeltsin in one way or another.

“Most worked for Yeltsin, and here Yury Luzhkov tried the most”

And why, by the way, some governors decided to go against Yeltsin?

Some regions — for example, Dagestan, Mordovia, Mari El Republic, Orel Oblast and some other regions ruled by the “Soviet” elite, for example, Orel Governor Stroyev had been a member of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee, and he relied on the Communists. The governors of the “Soviet caliber” called the reforms of the Russian leadership “Moscow nonsense”, they did not understand why all this perestroika was needed — they were happy in the USSR, and they wanted to live as before, they did not believe that the market economy must necessarily win, they did not believe that private initiative was needed. But such governors were still few — most worked for Yeltsin, and here Yury Luzhkov tried most of all.

But the middle of the 1990s is the time of the conclusion of contracts on differentiation of powers between the centre and regions, and why some regional leaders didn't think of such prospect of independence?

Actually contracts were only with several regions, but with the others the centre had only formal arrangements — Yeltsin tried to appease governors of such regions, but you understand, it was not enough. Well, besides, the signed treaty already tied the hands of the federal centre — if the Kremlin began to violate the treaty with the region, it could get into serious trouble — for example, in the same national republics, where nationalist sentiments would rise again, destabilization. The Kremlin also well understood this and respected the role of Mintimer Shaimiev in Tatarstan and the role of Rakhimov in Bashkiria.

Besides, regional chiefs were different — they defended the interests of their region, and the interests of the elites, and, of course, their own, and applied different policies. Of course, everyone saw this in the Kremlin, and Yeltsin wanted to “strangle” this regional Fronde, but he did not have the resources for this, and second, he was still a supporter of democratic ideas, so he tolerated these governors and endured — until the story with Skuratov.

Photo: sovtime.ru
After Stalin's death, Khrushchev and Malenkov tried to give a lot of powers to the regions — Khrushchev tried to move from the sectoral method of management to regional, creating Sovnarkhoz (regional governments of Siberia, the Far East): this approach in the same ‘50s caused a surge in economic development of the country, but there was a feeling of loss of vertical control, and in 1964-1965 this method was curtailed and the country with new leader Brezhnev returned to the centralized method of management

The 90s were a time of almost real federalism. Was it possible to talk about any success of this model, or would it be an exaggeration?

Here we come to the eternal theme for our country junction of values. Under Stalin, the country was super-centralized, the regions had no authority, the ball is ruled by sectoral ministries which carried out their policies, not interested in the opinions of regional elites and the local population: it is necessary to build a defense plant — they did because comrade Stalin told this, but if the local population did not like it, they went to Siberia behind barbed wire. This approach is good for those who think in terms of state power — the vertical of power, militarization: they are strengthened, at the same time supercentalization is bad for economic growth. After Stalin's death, Khrushchev and Malenkov tried to give a lot of powers to the regions — Khrushchev tried to move from the sectoral method of management to regional, creating Sovnarkhoz (regional governments of Siberia, the Far East): this approach in the same ‘50s caused a surge in economic development of the country, but there was a feeling of loss of vertical control, and in 1964-1965 this method was curtailed and the country with new leader Brezhnev returned to the centralized method of management.

The new centralization ended with that in the late ‘70s the economy again stalled — the central government could no longer manage the regional economy properly, and as the Estonians expressed it, the recipe for chocolate cream for Tallinn cakes had to be agreed in Moscow, where this issue was delayed for a whole month, thus inhibiting the development of the confectionery industry, for example. And the next step was an attempt to give economic powers to the regions under Gorbachev, but it ended with that the centre did not have the resources to resolve the destruction of the Union.

In the 90s, Russia painfully but got on the track of pseudo-capitalism, then on the track of state capitalism, and Putin began to restore the vertical. You see, it all depends on priorities — from the perspective of the unified state policy like the transfer of rivers to the south, space programmes, missile production, this requires centralization, and if you are interested in the development of the territory — urban growth, rising levels of living, the satisfaction of material needs of people, most of the authority is necessary to give to regions because they know better what they need than in Moscow. Why was economic growth good by the end of the ‘90s? The regions had an incentive to develop — the more they raised funds, the more they had incentives to develop, because taxes were divided in half between the Kremlin and the regions.

And at the beginning of the 2000s, the regions fall into hibernation — what was the sense to fight for something if the centre took away the most part of taxes? Since the 2000s, the governor had only to build good relations with the centre and beat out subsidies or entry into the federal programme — they had no opportunity to build something at home, to invite investors from abroad, but they had to bow to the ministries for the priorities of the region. As you can see, the fluctuations from one system to another lasted 70 years.

Photo: kremlin.ru
It is not surprising that when he came to power, Putin said that the country needed to strengthen the federal government — not only for some competent tax policy but also to stop the growth of crime, to ensure the rule of law

“Dorenko ‘was beating’ Luzhkov shamelessly, but effectively”

Why did Luzhkov lose in the struggle for access to the top of the federal government? Didn’t he have enough resources?

Luzhkov had enough resources — he had his own TVC channel, the channel was federal, which he actively used in the fight for a seat for his party in the parliament, he had a lot of money — even Berezovsky had less of it because Berezovsky liked to play politics more than money, strange as it sounds. But Berezovsky well disposed of personnel — Dorenko ‘was beating’ Luzhkov shamelessly, but effectively, and Luzhkov did not have such people.

In general, Luzhkov acted reasonably in his struggle — he thought that he could consolidate the interests of governors, and to a large extent he succeeded in this, although not all regions worked for him. But having financial and administrative resources, he did not have power resources, and in our country power resources mean a lot — in the struggle for power it is necessary to rely on people in the security services, on people in the army, and at the same time, to promise them a piece. Luzhkov even under Primakov's premiership decided that the symbol of interaction with the security forces would be Prime Minister Primakov, and Yeltsin and Berezovsky decided that such a symbol would be a young, advanced, athletic, besides former chekist Vladimir Putin, who was the head of the FSB, and then also became Secretary of the Security Council. The struggle here was serious — the Moscow chekists treated St. Petersburg haughtily, and Putin here had a serious problem with internal resistance, but he coped with it: someone was fired, someone he attracted to his side in one way or another and thereby ensured control over the security forces. The focus on Primakov did not work, and when the Channel One was used, the Yeltsin-Berezovsky group through the Unity Party won in the 1999 elections — I would note that in general, fair elections. Therefore, Luzhkov had to bend his proud head. Why didn't they displaced him? Because Luzhkov still had a strong position in the security services, and it could be possible to get rid of Luzhkov only through unpleasant stories.

Photo: kremlin.ru
As for Luzhkov, he really took control of life in Moscow, he was a popular mayor, and did a lot as mayor, but Luzhkov had other ambitions at the federal level — he wanted to be Prime Minister under President Primakov

Luzhkov was dismissed in September 2010 by presidential decree for “loss of trust”. Was it the result of that he clashed with the then President Dmitry Medvedev and the fact that Luzhkov believed that the same Putin appreciated him no less than Medvedev?

Not without this. Perhaps, Luzhkov lost his instinct, mismanaged political resources — in some cases he behaved too brazenly, and in some — behaved not very smartly.

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev