Scanning the Political Developments of the Past Year Provides Insights for the One Ahead
When the newspaper Gazeta asked Russian political experts to name the main political development of 2005, most of them cited the new system of running local politics in Russia, in which the president nominates candidates for governors to local regional legislatures for approval instead of having governors elected by direct vote as had been the case since 1993. The other major developments cited by the experts included the growing role of the state in major industries and a gradual dismantling of Soviet-era social guarantees in Russia. Some experts stressed the link between all these three issues. Russia can expect these changes to be subject to widespread international scrutiny during the coming months as the country prepares to take up the mantle of the G8 presidency.
“My impression is that the Kremlin is trying to shift the burden of social obligations away from the federal government, making the regional authorities responsible instead,” said Maria Levina, a legal expert for an EU-financed program on social aid in Russia. “After law 122 [which abolished a lot of Soviet era privileges, replacing them by cash payments] was enacted last January, the regions became responsible for most of the social payments without getting any important new taxes or property under their control.”
Igor Bunin, the president of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank focusing on regional political issues, does not think that transferring the responsibility for social aid to the regions will be achieved in 2006, even if the federal authorities declare this to be the case.
“Even if the president had been trying to make life for the federal government and himself easier that way, he would not have succeeded,” Bunin said. “After the president in fact took upon himself the responsibility of choosing the regional governors, all the blame for the possible failures of the social reform will be put on him.”
Bunin, one of Russia’s leading spin doctors, does not think that 2005 saw the death of his profession in Russia, despite assertions that political consultants will no longer be needed now that regional leaders are appointed from the center rather than elected.
“Until 2005 we concentrated on federal presidential and Duma elections. The only regional campaigns which interested us were the gubernatorial races,” he said. “Now we take a keen interest in regional legislative elections or even municipal elections.”
Municipal elections to the Moscow City Duma, which were held in December, turned out to be the most important regional vote of 2005. President Vladimir Putin made the traditionally faceless race more important by proposing a law that would give the party gaining the biggest number of votes in a regional legislative election the right to suggest a candidate for governor to the president. Putin, however, would retain the right to suggest another candidate if he is dissatisfied with the winning party’s chosen. City posters encouraging people to vote declared, somewhat deceptively: “The Duma chooses Moscow’s mayor.”
“If we win the vote, we will make it politically difficult for Putin to appoint some guy from [the president’s native city] St.Petersburg as the mayor of Moscow,” Sergei Ivanenko, a member of Yabloko’s Central Council said in an interview before the vote. “We will suggest a candidate he will not be able to decline, and pass a city law making the selected mayor’s election obligatory.”
The Moscow race confirmed the stability of Putin’s gubernatorial election reform. If even in Moscow, traditionally the country’s most politically active city, the population did not challenge the new system, there is little chance that the reform will be challenged in other regions, despite the opposition to the new system coming from the regional elites.
“The local leaders are very unhappy with Putin,” said Georgy Satarov, the head of the Indem think tank in Moscow, which is known for its opposition to the current Kremlin administration. “He made them angry for the first time back in 2000, when he reformed the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, of which governors were members and which wielded enormous power. Now he made their well-oiled election machines redundant, basically making them dependent on the president and the local branch of the United Russia party.”
United Russia won the majority of seats in most of Russia’s regional legislatures in 2005 and this trend is likely to continue in 2006. The party dominated Moscow’s election, winning 47 percent of the vote, thanks in part to the popularity of current Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who headed United Russia’s electoral list.
In 2005, all 89 regional legislatures approved the new gubernatorial election system at their sessions, despite some bickering in Tatarstan and Chuvashia, the two autonomous republics in central Russia where several votes on the matter had to take place before the reform passed. The last hope for the new system’s opponents was a complaint to the Constitutional Court. On Dec. 21 the Constitutional Court ruled against this challenge.
The initial case in the Constitutional Court was filed by Vladimir Grishkevich, a private citizen from the city of Tyumen. The Union of Right Forces (SPS) party later filed a supporting challenge.
“We think that the new system contradicts the Constitution, which guarantees the right of a citizen to elect all organs of state power, both local and federal ones,” said Boris Nadezhdin, one of the leaders of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) party.
“I don’t agree with Nadezhdin because I know the constitution,” said Yelena Mizulina, the lawyer representing the State Duma at the hearings in the Constitutional Court. “There is the constitutional right that he talks about, but the constitution also enshrines the principle of the unity of the system of state power, which was not observed until the new system was introduced.”
Mizulina refers to the section of the Russian Constitution that discusses the boundaries of federal law on individual behavior. This section reads “the human and civic rights and freedoms of a person can be limited by federal law only as far as it is necessary in the interests of defending the foundations of constitutional order, morality, health, rights and lawful interests of another person, safeguarding the country’s defense and the state’s security.”
In Mizulina’s view, the need to fight terrorism, cited by Putin as the reason for the local election reform in the aftermath of the Beslan school siege in September 2004, is a good enough reason to enact the changes.
Mizulina agreed that the new system was a limitation on voters’ rights, but only a temporary one and necessary for fitting the framework of the Constitution and international standards.
“Of all the federal countries in the world, only in the United States are the governors of states are elected by direct vote the way we did it until recently,” Mizulina said. “In other countries, regional leaders are elected in some other form, for example by being appointed by the parties that win regional elections, which is the case in Germany. This system is very similar to the one we plan to introduce. Why should we try the American experience and disregard the German one?”
Nadezhdin counters, however, that under the new conditions, Russia should not be referred to as a federation in the first place.
“In 2005, the federative form of government was in fact liquidated in Russia,” he said. “Is it good or bad? Judge yourself. Among the big countries, the United States, Germany and Spain are federations. China, Indonesia and Iran are not. Whose company do you prefer?”
“The principle of the unity of executive power is also enshrined in the Constitution,” commented Sergei Popov, the chairman of the State Duma’s committee on public organizations. “This principle was not upheld under the old system and we reconciled ourselves to that. The situation when governors are elected indirectly removes this problem. The legislature had the full right to introduce such a system.”
The Constitutional Court, however, refused to rule on the argument with regard to the power of the president to dismiss governors or to dissolve regional legislatures, stating that, since neither of the measures had yet been used by the president, there was no case in fact on which to judge. The Constitutional Court has the jurisdiction to hand down rulings in connection with concrete cases.
The argument over regional power is likely to continue into 2006, and most experts agree that the outcome will depend not only on the ruling of the Constitutional Court, but also on political developments in the country.
In another trend that may continue into 2006, the pro-government parties pose as the enemies of extremism, while critics of the authorities unite even if their views are incompatible, solely on the basis of their opposition to Putin’s regime. This may be explained by the toughening of the electoral legislation, which included changes to 13 federal election laws in 2005. The new legislation makes it more difficult for small parties to get into the State Duma, raising the required minimum of votes to 7 per cent. The parties should have at least at least 50,000 members. The smaller parties garnering less than 7 per cent of the votes will only have a chance to get into the Duma if the parties which get into the Duma by the new rules will represent less than 60 per cent of the voters.
If discontent among the population grows, exceeding the narrow limits that the new laws assign to the opposition, Putin’s “vertical of power” will not hold over the long term. This time, however, it is unclear if the discontent will take the form of strong support for a liberal democratic movement, as the case was in 1990-1991, or if nationalist and leftist forces will provide the main challenge to the government. While the liberals had been unable to clear the percentage requirement to get into the State Duma in 2003, a coalition made up of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) campaigning under the Yabloko banner received 11 percent of the vote in Moscow, winning three seats in the City Duma and gaining momentum for 2007. The Communists retained their position as the country’s primary challenger to United Russia, winning 17 percent of the vote and four seats. In contrast, nationalist party Rodina was banned from the election after running a racially derogatory campaign ad and lost the nationalist vote to their rival, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). Even with this benefit, the nationalists failed to get into the Moscow Duma.
“It is interesting to note that the court complaint against Rodina’s ad was initiated by Zhirinovsky’s LDPR and Rodina’s most indignant anti-racist critics were United Russia politicians,” said Vladimir Khimanych, aКhuman rights activist from the Svoboda Voli group in Moscow, which specializes in fighting racial hatred.
The rapprochement between Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), who have been competing with each other since the founding of SPS in 1999, is an example of forces that are not necessarily compatible uniting. The sudden sympathy both of these parties showed to the plight of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), aКradical leftist-nationalist anti-government group banned in 2005, is another indicator of that tendency.
The National Bolsheviks have been known for smearing state officials with juice and mayonnaise, as well as occupying state buildings in the style of the 1968 Paris insurgents. Until 2002, the National Bolsheviks were also known for their actions at foreign embassies, which they bombarded with sour cream or ink in response to the anti-Russian policies of their governments.
In 2005, the NBP was banned after a prolonged legal battle in the Supreme Court. The court found all the participants of NBP’s occupations of government buildings guilty, but most of the young activists were set free, although without any compensation for the months that they spent in jail. The assumed leaders of the protests received additional prison terms.
“The authorities are trying to protect themselves from the NBP and even from Rodina by court rulings and tough party regulations,” said Boris Kagarlitsky, one of the leaders of the unofficial Left Front opposition group. But these moves just indicate the government’s fear. The authorities place themselves in the situation of the tsarist regime on the eve of the 1917 revolution, which tried to protect itself by random police actions. This trend will continue in 2006.”
© Russia Profile, 2011