Staunton, August 27 – United Russia, having suffered a series of defeats in city elections, is pushing hard in advance of the October 10 voting for replacing elected mayors with professional city managers, but that transparent power grab by the party of power is facing increasing resistance across Russia.
In today’s “Novaya politika,” commentator Olga Tropkina says the change United Russia is seeking not only represents “an instrument of politics,” despite the claims of its backers, but is rapidly becoming “one of the hot issues of the political season,” in some cases overshadowing discussions of the elections themselves (www.novopol.ru/text89062.html).
The basic argument of those pushing for a shift to city managers, she notes, say that this form of governance is already widely used as allowed by Law 131. But Tropkina points out that the drive to make this shift is clearly linked to the approaching State Duma elections that are scheduled to occur in 2011.
“And if in small cities, far from the center but strategically important for the governors, this change has taken place more or less without notice, then the reformation of power arrangements in megalopolises is invariably provoking scandals,” because everyone involved recognizes that it is about power rather than simple administration.
In Yekaterinburg, “one of ‘the hot spots’” in this regard, there is a real tug of war because everyone is aware that “in Sverdlovsk oblast,” of which that city is the capital, “United Russia has lost all the recent mayoral elections in the region.” The party of power wants to avoid that in the future by eliminating the offices it has not been able to win.
And opponents of this shift are convinced that United Russia will play hardball in order to get its way, much as the party of power did in Perm. And consequently there and elsewhere, the opponents plan to use “the courts, meetings, and [demands for] referenda” as they have in the past to slow this shift down, if not to stop it altogether.
The number of such “’hot spots’ on the map of Russia” is now massive, Tropkina says, adding that “their number will only increase,” as governors, convinced that they have been given a clear signal from above to take this step, try to appoint city managers rather than allow the population to vote for mayors.
Despite the obvious political conflicts over the shift to a city manager system, the supporters of that shift insist that once it is in place, there will be “no politics.” Leonid Davydov, head of the Social Chamber commission on local administration, argues that “a city manager will cease to be a politician; he will be an economic specialist.”
But opponents of this shift say that is not the case. On the one hand, city managers serve a clearly political purpose for those who appoint them. And on the other, the existence of such officials when there is also “a head” of the city elected by the local council in many cases creates the conditions of “dual power” in which the city manager has little choice but to play politics.
Vyacheslav Glazychev, who used to occupy the position Davydov now has, suggests that the real threat from this system is that the powers that be want to prevent the people from having a voice. Given United Russia’s electoral losses, he says, “it is understandable” that it wants to appoint rather than compete for jobs.
But, he continues, “as a result there occurs ‘a liquidation of local democracy’ which is a much more serious threat to the democratic institutions of the country than, for example, the appointment of governors.” But such a shift may also have a negative impact on local economic development.
That outcome is suggested, Tropkina writes, by Adrian Campbell, a University of Birmingham scholar who helped develop Yekaterinburg’s strategic plan. He told UralPolit.ru that after shifting from mayors to city managers, Britain recognized that the mayors were much better able to promote development. As a result, British cities are shifting back to mayors.
Whether that will eventually happen in Russia remains to be seen, but if those involved in the economy conclude that city managers are undercutting their chance for profits, then it is entirely possible that the proponents of elected mayors will gain additional support and United Russia will lose the backing of those on whom it has long counted.