The “Federal Face” of Nuclear Regionalism: From Spent Force to Spent Fuel?

Adam N. Stulberg
Assistant Professor
Sam Nunn School of International Affairs
Georgia Institute of Technology
August 17, 2008

Almost immediately upon assuming office, President Putin launched a concerted campaign to redress the problem of center-periphery relations in Russia. In reaction to the politically expedient asymmetrical deals cut with independent-minded governors and the ad hoc devolution of jurisdiction under President Yeltsin, the Putin team arrived in office determined to take back federal power from the regions and restore the “vertical dimension” of control. This shift entailed the introduction of a series of institutional and policy reforms aimed directly at curbing the political autonomy of regional leaders. The main elements of this assault include the:

Establishment of seven federal districts across Russia. Each district is headed by a presidential envoy empowered to coordinate federal field offices and to monitor the performance and consistency of regional administrations with federal laws.

Phased overhaul of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russian parliament. This change effectively strips regional leaders (executive and legislative) of ex officio membership and their attendant legal immunity, and introduces new procedures for regional leaders to appoint full-time representatives to the chamber.

Formation of the State Council. Chaired by Putin and including all 89 regional leaders, this body constitutes a “weak” substitute for regional membership in the Federation Council because it is strictly consultative, devoid of a clear mandate, beholden to Putin for its agenda, and meets only once every three months.

Implementation of new legislation to dismiss regional leaders. New laws effectively grant the Russian president the right to impeach popularly elected governors and to dismiss regional assemblies that are found to be in violation of the constitution or who are under criminal indictment.

While Putin succeeded early on at restricting the scope of regional autonomy and imposing new rules of the game, the reforms have not translated into effective tools to prevent or punish regional opportunism. In practice, Putin must rely on arbitrary bargains of reciprocal loyalty and non-intervention to secure local implementation of national policies. At the same time (and much overlooked in the extant center-periphery debate), Putin’s reforms have afforded regional influence at the-front end of national policymaking. Having seized upon special privileges and newly revamped institutions for representing their interests, the governors have been able to lay down political markers to constrain the general contours of federal policy. This second dimension of regionalism is distinguished by the mobilization of select provincial interests and their integration with important federal groups in the formulation of national policies.

This second, “federal face” of Russian regionalism affects nuclear policymaking in two nuanced but distinct ways. First, newly streamlined federal institutions provide regional authorities with indirect channels for setting the terms to advance reform of the nuclear energy sector. Because federal ministries and agencies (such as Minatom) must submit policy initiatives for review and approval to the Federation Council, where regional dissention can be anticipated, they have incentives to avoid certain issues and build selective regional preferences into proposals at an early stage in the policymaking process. Second, both the Federation Council and State Council provide venues for building alliances between organized regional interests and other highly institutionalized federal-level interest groups whose preferences converge on specific nuclear energy issues. Together these new federal institutions secure regional influence in the process of formulating federal nuclear energy policies that is both more subtle and effective than otherwise revealed by formal voting and direct legislative action.

Amendments of Spent Nuclear Fuel Legislation

The process of amending Russia’s legislation on the import of spent nuclear fuel illustrates the dynamics of “preemptive” regional influence over Minatom’s policies. On the one hand, regional leaders seemed to crumble with the failure to hold formal debates within the Federation Council on two of the three critical amendments that paved the way for implementing Minatom’s $21 billion plan for storing and potentially reprocessing thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel from abroad. This deference stood in stark contrast to heated debates within the Duma and opinion polls, which revealed that over 90 percent of the Russian public opposed the government’s amendments. Yet upon closer examination, the threats by over 30 regions to reject outright the ministry’s proposals and the ambivalence shown by others provoked Minatom to revise its original strategy on the eve of the parliamentary vote in an attempt to avert a regional backlash and co-opt specific support. In particular, Minatom assumed formal obligations to remit 25 percent of the profits to those regions that will store the fuel and to spend 75 percent of the remainder on environmental remediation in those regions most severely damaged by the Soviet nuclear legacy. In addition, regions with nuclear power stations and fuel production facilities, such as Sverdlovsk, Krasnoyarsk, Saratov, and Chelyabinsk, were wooed by promises of receiving additional investments and discounted energy prices.

The Politics of Electricity Reform

The politics surrounding Russia’s electricity reform reflect the coalition-building dimension to regional influence. On its face, Putin’s official endorsement of the reform program proposed by RAO EES, the state monopoly of electrical power generation and transmission, and his rejection of the alternative energy plan advanced within the State Council, signaled a defeat for prominent regional interests. In practice, however, the debate over energy reform was neither a strictly “center versus regions” issue, nor was it settled without regard for key regional interests. At its core, this was a bureaucratic battle that pitted the competitive interests of Minatom against those of the unified energy grid (RAO EES) for larger shares of the national electricity market. Eager to break the monopoly of RAO EES, the governors from regions such as Tomsk and Chelyabinsk were adroit at exploiting the State Council as a forum to forge a political alliance with Minatom to lobby for an alternative energy reform package. Without dictating the terms of energy reform, the regional-Minatom coalition succeeded at raising the political costs to the Putin administration of embracing the electricity monopoly’s preferred platform, as well as secured future executive branch support for loosening the grip of RAO EES over the national grid system.


An important consequence of the burgeoning “federal face” of regionalism has been the introduction of greater transparency into Russia’s nuclear energy policymaking. Putin’s final approval of the spent nuclear fuel amendments, for instance, was contingent upon Minatom’s honoring its commitments to the regions. In deference to public and regional pressure, Putin also submitted to the parliament a new bill proposing that all spent nuclear fuel import contracts must be approved by a newly formed government commission, headed by a Nobel laureate and empowered explicitly to monitor revenue flows from specific deals. As a direct result of these measures, Minatom has been forced to justify the details of the arrangement to import spent nuclear fuel from Bulgaria, as well as to present valid certification for the deal, return prohibited components, and publicly commit to disbursing 25 percent of the revenues to the Krasnoyarsk budget. This deal included disclosures of specific transit routes, contract prices, and the role of suspicious offshore intermediaries that the ministry initially hoped to keep quiet, as it appeared to violate the new legislation and undermine Minatom’s earlier claims of commercial success. Such efforts also have provided a political impetus for non-governmental and environmental lobbies to seek court rulings to rescind Minatom’s waiver for accepting nuclear waste from Hungary and to organize local referenda on the construction of new spent nuclear fuel storage facilities in key regions, such as Krasnoyarsk, during the upcoming regional election season.

Finally, the politics surrounding nuclear energy reform demonstrate an emerging horizontal dimension to regionalism in contemporary Russia. As economic and political interests in Russia increasingly cut across federal and bureaucratic frontiers, regionalism is manifest in tactical alliances between the governors and highly institutionalized federal-level interest groups. Viewed from this perspective, Putin’s initial federal reforms indeed may have succeeded at arresting the devolution of authority and promoting political integration in Russia–but in a manner that has left the center less prone to imposing federal directives and more inclined to work directly with organized regional and economic interests within the national policymaking process.

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