Staunton, July 2 – On a day when the last freely elected governor in Russia’s Northwest was dismissed, a Moscow newspaper is reporting yet another step being taken in Russia’s retreat from democratic procedures: cities across the country are voting “one by one” to give up their right to have popularly elected mayors.
That pattern is worth noting for two reasons. On the one hand, it shows that Vladimir Putin’s attack on democratic arrangements is not slowing down but if anything accelerating. And on the other, it reflects Moscow’s increasing propensity to take such steps in ways that attract less attention and hence generate less comment and opposition
In an article in yesterday’s “Novyye izvestiya,” Vyacheslav Ryabykh reports that yesterday the deputies of the city council in Blagoveshchensk voted to eliminate direct election of a mayor – in the future, the deputies will decide on who will serve in that role -- and to introduce a city manager (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-07-01/129158/).
A day earlier, Ryabykh writes, deputies in Perm took a similar decision, as had their counterparts in Ufa, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Saratov, Ryazan “and many others” earlier, thus eliminating competitive elections in yet another part of the Russian political system and denying the opposition the chance to gain more victories at least at this level.
The vote in Blagoveshchensk showed that this initiative comes from the party of power, United Russia. The 21 deputies there from United Russia and Just Russia, arguing that such a change would save money, voted unanimously for this step, while the six deputies from LDPR and KPRF voted against.
“The first case of the real replacement of direct [mayoral] elections took place in Nizhny Novgorod in November 2009,” Ryabykh reports. (Earlier, he points out, it occurred in Ufa, but there the change had to do with the status of the city within Bashkortostan.) In Nizhny, the governor wanted the change, but even United Russia deputies resisted.
Oleg Shein, the deputy chairman of the Just Russia fraction, said that there is a consistent pattern in this approach to ending mayoral elections. “United Russia,” he notes, “ever more often is beginning to suffer defeats in regional voting,” falling below 50 percent most recently in Bryatsk and Irkutsk and losing control of the mayor’s office to Just Russia and the KPRF.
Given that almost everywhere United Russia has an “overwhelming” majority in city councils, he continues, the party of power can count on continuing to control city governments under superficially democratic conditions by allowing the councils to choose the city head, something that won’t get Russia in trouble with its European partners.
Another group interested in this change, Vyacheslav Glazychev, the head of the Social Chamber’s commission on regional development, says, includes the governors, who want to eliminate any independence that city heads have had up to now. With council-chosen city leaders or city managers, the governors will increase their control.
But Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition politician, insists that “the initiative [for doing away with mayoral elections] came not from the governor but directly from the federal center.” This is an “intentional” policy, he continued, and represents the latest attack on local self-administration and open politics.
Not surprisingly, United Russia officials reject that suggestion. They say that calls for doing away with elections have come from the regions, but the ruling party members says, they “do not see anything bad in this.” Sergey Neverov, secretary of United Russia’s general council, says that the new arrangements still allow citizens to express their views.
And he says that what Russian cities are doing now reflects international practice, including the way in which voters in the United States vote for electors for president rather than for the president directly. If these electors don’t perform as promised, Neverov continues, they can be voted out the next time around.
But Ryzhkov says this is an incorrect analogy. In Europe and the United States, “there are real multi-party systems and there is no monopoly by one party.” And he and others add that “a mayor who bears responsibility before deputies and not before electors will be much less effective.”
The real question now, Moscow experts say, is whether the party of power will be able to engineer this change throughout the country on a piecemeal basis. Some think it will, but others like Ryzhkov are certain of the opposite. He says that if United Russia continues its push in this direction, it will sooner or later encounter “massive street protests.”