Fresh rumblings of dissent are erupting in the power vertical's increasingly soft underbelly.
According to recent reports in "Gazeta.ru
" and "Novaya gazeta
," newly elected opposition deputies in Moscow's district councils are already wreaking havoc -- blocking the election of council chairs supported by United Russia, creating alternative legislatures, and seeking to increase the power of municipal authorities.
When most eyes (and administrative resources) were focused on the March 4 presidential elections, a quiet rebellion was mounting below the decks. Opposition candidates of various stripes -- including members of the Communist Party, Yabloko, A Just Russia, and a handful of independents -- managed to win a third of the 1,500 or so district council seats in Moscow alone.
And united by the common enemy of the ruling party, they are showing an unusual inclination to cooperate with each other.
In about two dozen councils, the opposition control enough seats to block the election of a speaker and paralyze the local legislative process. In some councils, they actually hold an outright majority.
Mikhael Velmakin, a deputy in the Otrodnoe District Council, told "Novaya gazeta" that the result -- real politics -- is something that hasn't been seen in over a decade:
Over the past ten years, nothing like this has happened. The election of the chairman was strictly a formality and took ten minutes. It was conducted by open vote rather than by a secret ballot as the regulations stipulate. Now in many districts we are trying to truly elect a chairman rather than just appointing one. Independent and opposition deputies are agreeing among themselves to do everything possible to prevent United Russia-supported chairs from being elected.
Aleksei Gusev, a member of the Cheremushky District Council, described to "Gazeta.ru" how United Russia tried -- without success -- to cajole them into supporting their preferred candidate:
We refuse to elect Yekaterina Minayeva -- who is supported by United Russia and by the city government -- as chair of the municipal council. This doesn't suit us. We have been pressured and attempts have been made to get us to agree to electing her in exchange for some vague favors in the future. But if we agree, they will clearly never take us into account again.
Opposition and independent deputies across Moscow have also decided to form a group called the Council of Deputies to coordinate their work city wide.
The first item on the agenda, according to Velmakin, is to restore to the district councils some of the authority that was curtailed by city authorities back in 2002.
They currently only have authority over sports, leisure, and youth policy.
And, as "Gazeta.ru
" reports, the upcoming expansion of Moscow to include parts of the surrounding region, will also entail changes in legislation governing district councils. Unlike in districts currently part of Moscow, councils in the soon-to-be-incorporated suburbs enjoy broader powers.
Legislation currently being considered in the Moscow City Duma envisions allowing them to keep their authority. If this is the case, the city will be pressured to increase the powers of councils in old Moscow districts.
The authorities were clearly caught off guard by the little revolution in the councils. But there are fears that they will soon take steps to reassert their authority before the situation gets out of control.
A number of stealth United Russia candidates -- who ran as independents -- also managed to win seats in the councils, for example.
There is also speculation that United Russia deputies may resign en masse, forcing new elections in which the authorities' administrative resources can be used more effectively.
As I have blogged here
, the battle between the power vertical and the fledgling power horizontal has gone local. The authorities can clearly stifle this rebellion in its tracks, but in today's environment they risk a backlash by doing so.
-- Brian Whitmore