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Russia’s gubernatorial elections remain one of the central themes on the internal political scene. It might seem that everybody has already got used to the idea the elections will be direct again, although through a number of filters. Now there has followed a new political zigzag. The State Duma on Wednesday adopted in the first reading a bill that gives regions a free hand to decide whether to elect governors directly or get back to the old pattern and appoint them through the regional legislature.
The latter option implies the legislature of this or that member territory of the Russian federation will get the right to select a governor from a list of three candidates, nominated by the country’s president, proposed by political parties.
The authors of the initiative explained this partial cancellation of direct elections by their wish to maintain inter-ethnic peace and accord in a number of multi-ethnic territories of Russia, first and foremost, in the Northern Caucasus. However, many are very critical of this type of approach, because it runs counter to the principle of equality of Russia’s constituent territories and may, in their opinion, split the integral political space of the country.
In 2012 the liberalization of the national political system President Dmitry Medvedev launched earlier restored the direct elections of governors, which President Putin had canceled in 2004. As a result, the elections turned out to be not very direct ones. The procedure of nominating candidates had to go through the municipal filter (each candidate was to collect five to ten percent of signatures of members of the region’s legislature). In the end, direct elections were restored and held in October 2012 in five regions of the country. However, in all these cases the incumbent governors managed to be elected for a new term.
However, the representatives of some ethnic republics in the Northern Caucasus began to voice their objections. They said they would like the head of their regions to be elected by the local parliaments further on. They argued that in their regions various ethnic groups have co-existed for centuries, but some were smaller than others, and there was the fear their candidates might never win direct elections.
In December 2012 the speaker of the North Ossetian parliament, Alexei Machnev, at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin voiced the opinion the elections should be canceled. He said direct elections “fuel social and political tensions, worsen the social and economic situation, incite inter-religious discord and pose a threat to security.”
At his major news conference in December 2012 Putin declared he believed that cancelling the direct elections of regional leaders in the Northern Caucasus was possible.
On the eve of the discussion of the bill on the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections the head of the Ingush Republic, Yunusbek Yevkurov, came out in support of this initiative. He believes that introducing such a procedure in some regions would be premature. Yevkurov believes that the appointment of regional leaders by the president of Russia was the best solution. “The presidential staff will never appoint a good-for-nothing, who would be doing a poor job,” Yevkurov said.
A source in the Kremlin earlier told the daily Kommersant that the partial cancellation of direct of elections made sense.
“There is a deeply ingrained fear that in some territories elections might spark social and political tensions, which should not be allowed by any means,” the official said. He sees three groups of territories – multi-ethnic, mono-ethnic but with internally split elites, and mono-ethnic border republics in the North Caucasus, where the risk of foreign influences on the election process is high.
The presidential staff official voiced the certainty that not one hundred percent of regions would introduce the appointment of governors or “indirect elections.” He described the selection of regions which are advised to cancel direct elections in this way, “As the election day draws near, it will become clear what threats exist there. We shall take a look together with local legislative assemblies.”
The chairman of the State Duma’s constitutional law and state affairs committee, Vladimir Pligin, on Wednesday voiced the certainty that at the regional level there will be no abuse of this right and most governors will be elected directly.
The head of the United Russia faction, Vladimir Vasiliev, said that the legislators cannot ignore messages arriving from some republics in the Northern Caucasus.
“The direct elections of governors are certainly in great demand from society and they fully match the interests of the state and they are highly welcome,” he added. However, the local, individual features of the ethnic republics should be taken into consideration by all means, Vasiliev said with certainty.
Although the bill received the backing of an overwhelming majority – 403 legislators against the required minimum of 226 while only ten were against, the discussion over the bill in the State Duma was very dramatic. Communist Legislator Anatoly Lokot said that letting the regions decide on their own how to elect their governors in fact undermined the integrity of the country’s political space.
As Lokot said, the federal authorities in this particular case agreed to cater to demands from some regions, which is reminiscent of the situation of the 1990s, when Russia’s territories were asked to take as much sovereignty as they were prepared to have. “That’s the first sign the state may collapse or the state system reconsidered,” he speculated.
“We are creating prerequisites for individual territories going sovereign,” LDPR legislator Vladimir Ovsyannikov agreed. In his opinion such steps would lead to a confederative state system.
“We should stop flirting with this idea. There must be one law for all regions,” Ovsyannikov said.
Federation Council member from St. Petersburg, Vadim Tyulpanov, too, suspects the decision might have negative implications.
“The cancellation of gubernatorial elections even in some territories of Russia might cause the country to fall apart, Tyulpanov stated in his microblog in Twitter. He regretted the legislators made such a decision.
“Last year saw a trend towards restricting all and everything just for the sake of matching the political logic of the day,” analyst Mikhail Zakharov said on the Polit.ru website. “The authorities think that preserving political stability is more important than any institutions and procedures. This is not exactly what one calls a far-sighted strategy.”