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Russia: Pro-Kremlin Party May Gain Voice In Appointing Governors

By Laura Belin --> Russia's State Duma (file photo) The current system for appointing governors or presidents of Russian Federation subjects is less than a year old, but already a proposal for changing it appears likely to sail through parliament.

Currently, when a governor or republican chief executive's term is near its end, the presidential envoy in the federal district containing that region submits two or more candidates to the president. After selecting a candidate from the envoy's list, the president submits the name to the legislature of the region, which then holds a confirmation vote.

Alternatively, a sitting governor or republican president may ask the president for an vote of confidence well before the end of his term. If the president agrees (and so far Putin has not rejected any regional leader who made such a request), the president submits the incumbent's name to the regional legislature for an early confirmation vote, bypassing any nominating role for the presidential envoy in the relevant federal district.

On 3 October, President Vladimir Putin submitted to the State Duma draft amendments to the laws on political parties and on the organization of legislative and executive organs of power in the regions. The amendments follow up on a pledge Putin made in his annual state-of-the-nation address, which he delivered to both houses of parliament in April.

Under his proposal, the political party holding the largest number of seats in a regional legislature would obtain the right to propose a candidate for governor or president of that federation subject. The legislature would consider that candidate and, if approved by a majority of deputies, the name would be submitted to the president along with names submitted by the presidential envoy in the relevant federal district. The bill states that if two parties have an equal number of seats in a regional legislature, both would gain the right to have a preferred gubernatorial nominee debated in the legislature. The candidate approved by the legislature would then go to the president for consideration. The bill would not affect an incumbent's ability to ask the president for an early vote of confidence, even if the party commanding a majority in the regional legislature did not support his candidacy, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 October.

Representatives of Unified Russia, including Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, immediately welcomed Putin's proposal. Since the so-called party of power commands a large majority in the Duma, there is little doubt that the amendments will pass. Even before Putin's proposal reached the chamber, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 29 September that Unified Russia approved the measure as a priority item for the fall session. Viktor Grishin, who chairs the Duma Committee on Federation Affairs and Regional Policy, has predicted that the amendments will pass in time to take effect at the beginning of 2006, "Vedomosti" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 4 October.

A Gift For Unified Russia

Supporters of Putin's latest reform have characterized the bill as a way to increase the influence of political parties generally. RTR on 30 September quoted deputy presidential-administration head Vladislav Surkov as saying the role of political parties in forming governing organs would be strengthened. In the same vein, Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov (Unified Russia) told RTR on 3 October that the reform was about "strengthening parties in the life of society."
The reform could set the stage for internal battles within Unified Russia's regional branches, between regional branches and the national leadership, or even among top party leaders.

However, politicians and commentators have unanimously concurred that among Russian political parties, only Unified Russia is in a position to exercise new powers to nominate gubernatorial candidates. Unified Russia controls more than half of the seats in 47 regional legislatures, and in 14 more regions the party controls a plurality of the legislative mandates, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 4 October. Legislative elections are scheduled in 15 regions later this year, "Vedomosti" reported on 4 October, and Unified Russia will benefit during those campaigns from various administrative measures designed to influence the election outcome. In the last year and a half, Unified Russia has been unsuccessful in only five regional legislative elections, "Vedomosti" noted, and of those regions, just one (Sakhalin Oblast) has a governor whose term expires in the near future.

Speaking to "Vedomosti" on 4 October, Communist Party Central Committee Secretary Oleg Kulikov expressed doubt that his party will gain influence over nominating governors, despite the fact that the Communist Party has a majority of seats in the legislatures of Nenets and Koryak autonomous okrugs. On the contrary, Kulikov predicted that greater administrative pressure will be brought to bear against opposition parties in future legislative elections. Similarly, Union of Rightist Forces leader Nikita Belykh told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 October that the reforms are intended to strengthen the hand of Unified Russia, since official interference in the election process makes it "practically impossible" for any other party to win regional elections.

Although Unified Russia appears to benefit from the new proposal for nominating governors, it is worth noting that the amendments submitted to the Duma do not specify how a political party with the largest number of seats in a regional parliament should agree on a gubernatorial candidate. Consequently, the reform could set the stage for internal battles within Unified Russia's regional branches, between regional branches and the national leadership, or even among top party leaders.

The draft amendments state that parties may leave the decision on gubernatorial nominees up to regional branches, "Vedomosti" reported on 4 October. But, ultimately, party charters will set out the procedure. Grishin speculated that party charters might require a regional branch to coordinate the nomination of a governor with the national party leadership, so as to avoid "regional tyranny," according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 October.

Assuming that Unified Russia leaders at the federal level will demand control over the process of naming gubernatorial candidates, a battle may ensue over which entity in the party will have the final say. "Kommersant-Daily" on 4 October speculated that at its party congress scheduled for November, Unified Russia may grant power to decide on gubernatorial candidates to the General Council. Doing so would give greater influence to deputy head of the presidential administration Surkov, at the expense of Duma Speaker Gryzlov, who heads Unified Russia's Supreme Council.

Will The New Procedure Make A Difference?

If the amendments become law, Putin's envoys in the seven federal districts would no longer be the sole gatekeepers in the process of nominating potential regional leaders for the president's consideration. Gryzlov on 3 October praised the emergence of "another center of discussion" regarding candidates to lead Federation subjects, Russian media reported. But skeptics doubt that the reform would do anything in reality to open up the process of nominating governors.

For one thing, the president would be under no obligation to pick the candidate suggested by the leading party in the regional legislature. "Kommersant-Daily" noted on 4 October that soon after Putin's address to the parliament this past spring, some members of Unified Russia tried to promote candidates for governor, such as State Duma Deputy Vitalii Shuba for Irkutsk Oblast. But Putin ignored those recommendations. Speaking to "Kommersant-Daily," Georgii Satarov, president of the Indem Foundation, remarked that Putin promised during his 2003 state-of-the-nation address that if Unified Russia won the 2003 State Duma elections, he would consider the views of party members when forming the government. However, he did not keep that pledge.

Even if Putin appointed candidates recommended by the regional legislature, would that signify a greater deliberative role for Unified Russia? "Kommersant-Daily" expressed doubt that regional affiliates of the "party of power" would endorse a candidate without clearing the move with the Kremlin in advance.

If the reform is designed merely to create the appearance of a greater role for political parties in nominating governors, the intended audience may be the Constitutional Court. Federal authorities twisted arms in Yaroslavl Oblast to persuade deputies in the regional legislature to drop plans to file a Constitutional Court appeal challenging the abolition of gubernatorial elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September and 7 October 2005). However, earlier this year the court agreed to consider challenges filed by individual Russian citizens, who say the new procedure for naming governors violates their constitutional rights (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 June, 29 June, and 22 July 2005).

By letting political parties into a process currently controlled by the president and by envoys he appoints, federal authorities may argue in Constitutional Court hearings that the public will gain a voice in naming governors. Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Krasheninnikov claimed on 3 October that voters' "opinion will be considered insofar as the victorious party [in regional elections] will represent it," Channel One reported. The same day, RTR quoted Krasheninnikov as emphasizing the importance of allowing not only "bureaucrats from the presidential administration," but also the party "that represents the largest part of the population of a federation subject," to propose gubernatorial candidates.

Alternatively, some reject the idea that Putin's latest regional reform is purely for show, saying that it would genuinely increase the power of Unified Russia representatives in regional legislatures. It would arguably give governors greater incentive to join Unified Russia or at least remain on good terms with regional representatives of the party. Vyacheslav Volodin, the secretary of the presidium of Unified Russia's General Council, told "Kommersant-Daily" that 53 governors are currently Unified Russia members. The party will "demand results" from such regional leaders, Volodin said, and may even demand the removal of governors with whom they are dissatisfied.

Some Unified Russia members want to parlay this proposal into greater power to influence the composition of the federal government. State Duma Deputy Andrei Klimov has drafted a bill that would give the party with a majority in the Duma the right to submit to the president a candidate for prime minister of the federal government, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 29 September. (Currently, the president submits a nominee for prime minister to the Duma without any input from the lower chamber.)

Although Duma Speaker Gryzlov is not backing this bill and has said the Duma will reject it later this month, many of Klimov's fellow Unified Russia members support the measure, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Oleg Morozov, a member of Unified Russia's General Council, claimed on 3 October that proposed changes in the way governors are named "are aimed at realizing the president's idea" of forming the federal government on the basis of a parliamentary majority, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day.

Maksim Dianov, general director of the Institute for Regional Problems, has suggested that the reform may be part of a greater long-term transformation. Speaking to "Kommersant-Daily," Dianov argued that since 2000 Putin has been copying elements of the German system. In Germany, the president selects the top executive in each of the lander (states) from a list of candidates submitted by leading political parties in a given region. Dianov suggested that Putin's next step may be to allow victorious parties in the State Duma elections to suggest candidates for prime minister. Doing so would not require a constitutional amendment, because the new power would be assigned to political parties, not to the Duma itself, the powers of which are enumerated in the constitution.

Volodin has also suggested that the reform to the system for appointing governors may turn out to be the first step toward forming the entire executive branch, including cabinet ministers and even the president, from the ranks of political parties, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 4 October. The newspaper added that under such a scenario, Putin could step down as president in 2008 in order to become leader of the country's ruling political party, retaining considerable real power over how the country is governed.

The State Duma and Federation Council are likely to endorse Putin's latest proposal quickly. Whether it will become more than an empty gesture toward Unified Russia will not be clear for quite some time.