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Analysis: Why Are Elected Leaders In Russia Ready To Give Up On Elections?

  • Julie Corwin

While the average Russian citizen might not be able to see an immediate connection between the Beslan hostage tragedy --> http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/9/94E355D2-B747-4EE3-AB9D-28A2CBE53429.html and regional elections, President Vladimir Putin apparently can; and that is why he has chosen this week to announce another overhaul of Russia's election system.

Addressing a cabinet session attended by the heads of Russia's regions on 13 September, Putin argued that in the aftermath of Beslan, "it is necessary to strengthen government structures, [increase citizens'] faith in authorities, and create an effective system for internal [state] security." He suggested that it is "in the interest of unifying state power and further developing federalism that regional leaders should be elected by regional parliaments on the basis of nominees provided by the head of the federal government."

The majority of Russia's regional governors have publicly embraced Putin's proposal, just as they have praised all of his previous initiatives to diminish their power. For example, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko said she supports the new system because she believes it will "improve the controllability of the state." She noted that today "a casual person can come to power and there is no mechanism to recall him" if the voters erred in having misjudged the situation and succumbed to populism. Ryazan Governor Georgii Shpak's aide, Anatolii Igumnov, called Putin's initiative "absolutely correct," saying that currently "many photogenic" individuals can become governor, regions.ru reported on 15 September. "They can speak well, but they cannot do anything," he said. Yaroslavl Oblast Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn noted that under the current electoral system, heads of executive bodies can be "pushed around" by voters during decision-making, according to ITAR-TASS.
"It is much easier to lick one boot than to clean 400,000."


While governors might privately voice reservations about government initiatives, they have to calculate the likely benefit of expressing opposition against the possible cost. And with upper and lower legislative chambers subservient to the Kremlin and public opinion solidly behind the president, they might often decide in favor of withholding any criticism. But in the case of the cancellation of gubernatorial elections, the governors' enthusiasm might in fact be genuine. In an article in the "Russian Regional Report" (http://www.isn.ethz.ch/infoservice/secwatch/rrr/) in March 2001, former presidential adviser Leonid Smirnyagin explained why governors might prefer to be appointed rather than elected. According to Smirnyagin, one unidentified Federation Council member told him that "it is much easier to lick one boot than to clean 400,000." Smirnyagin continued that Russia's regional elite has always been "adroit in the ways of the tsar's court" and that it is no accident that Communist Party Obkom secretaries often held their jobs for 15 years or longer at a time.

While governors might find it easier getting reappointed than reelected, they might also be hoping to recreate with Putin the kind of access that they once had with Boris Yeltsin. Since Putin has made his proposal to appoint governors, three of the strongest remaining Yeltsin-era leaders -- Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, and Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov -- have all stated that the system of seven presidential envoys, which Putin created, should now be dismantled. According to uralpolit.ru on 15 September, Rossel said he believes that governors will now become essentially the president's envoys to the regions. And, therefore, continuance of the current system of presidential envoys will not be understandable. According to Rossel, Tatar President Shaimiev suggested to Putin during the 13 September meeting that all layers of federal bureaucracy between the governors and the president should be eliminated. Speaking on 15 September, Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov agreed, noting, "If the president recommends the governor, why [would] presidential envoys be needed, who duplicate their functions?"

While governors might be willing to risk not getting appointed in order to save themselves the headache and expense of running in an election that they can never be 100 percent sure that they will win, Yeltsin-era governors like Ayatskov might run a better chance with the electorate. In an interview with RFE/RL, Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center suggested that the recent wave of criminal investigations against governors is simply a continuation of a previous Kremlin effort to replace regional-level officials, particularly those from the Yeltsin-era, who are used to ruling their regions with a free hand. Ayatskov's wife, for example, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation. According to Petrov, "these criminal investigations are used just like blackmail to make it understandable to Ayatskov, for example, that it isn't necessary for him to participate in the next elections."

In an interview before Putin's announcement of the proposed changes to Russia's electoral system, Petrov suggested that the Kremlin has been fighting on two battlefronts, one with the governors and the regional elites and one with social unrest as a result of poorly planned reforms "And now a third battlefront fight has opened up with terrorists," he continued. Petrov suggested that the wisest move for the Kremlin would be to decide on its priorities and not try to fight on three battlefronts but rather to concentrate its efforts and solve these problems step by step." Apparently, the Kremlin agrees.
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