Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov made ringlets on the surface of Russian politics with a television statement last night that seemed to indicate he would like to see the return of the direct election of executive-branch heads in the federation subjects.
Some observers noted that Tatarstan President Minitmer Shaimiyev made a similar statement in June and concluded that cracks were appearing in the facade of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Powerful regional heads are turning on the Kremlin!
But not so fast. For one thing, since Putin abolished the direct election of governors in 2004 , there is no such concept as "powerful regional heads" in Russia. None of them have any base of support beyond the central apparatus in Moscow, which binds governors both through the presidential envoys to the regions and, increasingly, through the Unified Russia party system.
Luzhkov's statement was quickly rejected as "his own opinion," by Duma Speaker and Unified Russia head Boris Gryzlov. Then today Luzhkov himself said his remarks had been misunderstood, adding that given the global financial crisis, "now is not the time to be talking about this."
Clearly, Luzhkov's original statement runs against the tide in Moscow these days. As the political elite gets ready for the November 20 Unified Russia party congress, which holds the promise of some surprises from Putin, all the evidence is that the country is moving in the direction of further centralization. As I have written before, constitutional amendments to extend the president's term of office and that of Duma deputies are being fast-tracked with unseemly haste. In addition, on November 5 President Dmitry Medvedev -- far from promising more elections and greater accountability -- proposed tying the nomination of governors to the will of the majority party in the regional legislatures, which just happens to be Unified Russia across the country.
It is interesting that the statements on direct elections came from Luzhkov and Shaimiyev, of all people. These men were the leaders of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc of powerful regional leaders (back in the day when Russia had powerful regional leaders) that in 1999 and 2000 presented a serious challenge to Putin's emerging Kremlin-siloviki centered state. After the pro-Kremlin Unity party won the 1999 Duma elections and Putin became president in 2000, Fatherland-All Russia was swallowed up into the Unified Russia juggernaut, and Luzhkov, Shaimiyev and the others largely sank into obedient obscurity.
With the Unified Russia congress looming, it is possible the elections trial balloons emerged in order to put the old Fatherland folks on the defensive. Now, when the motions start rolling in at the congress for various centralizing measures, their "loyalty" to the party line will be subject to scrutiny. And if the past is any indicator, they will fall all over themselves to demonstrate they are, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the pope.
-- Robert Coalson