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Analysis: How Will Russian Governors Be Appointed?

The State Duma, by a vote of 365-64 with four abstentions, voted on 29 October to adopt in its first reading President Vladimir Putin's controversial proposal to eliminate the direct election of regional executive-branch heads, Russian media reported. Putin put forward the proposal in a 13 September speech outlining the government's response to the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, earlier that month.

"The outdated executive-branch system" is being renovated, Deputy Vladimir Pekhtin (Unified Russia) told RIA-Novosti on 29 October, in order to "enhance the unity of the country and to forestall the emergence of crises in Russia.

As adopted in its first reading, the bill would replace the direct election of all regional executive-branch heads -- including the presidents of the so-called ethnic republics -- with a system under which regional legislatures confirm candidates nominated by the president of the Russian Federation. Legislators will confirm candidates by a simple majority; in the cases of regions with bicameral legislatures, both chambers will vote.

If a legislature twice declines to confirm the president's nominee, the president has the right to disband the legislature and to appoint an acting regional head to serve until a new legislature is elected. The president would also have the right to dismiss any regional head for failure to fulfill his duties or if he "loses the president's confidence." Deputies were particularly concerned during the 29 October discussion of the bill about the vagueness of that formulation, "Gazeta" reported on 1 November.

According to media reports, the government and the Duma solicited comments from regional officials prior to the first reading of the bill. According to "Vedomosti" on 1 November, officials received 71 comments from local legislatures and 58 from local executive branches, all but one of which was positive. "The vote might not have taken place if more than one-third of the regional organs of power had sent negative conclusions about the bill," Duma staff member Yurii Ovsyannikov told the daily.

Political analysts were split over whether the bill would be significantly modified before its second reading, which is scheduled for 16 November. Some viewed the current bill as an intentionally harsh formulation that the Kremlin intends to modify in order to create the impression that it is responding to the concerns of legislators and the public. Others, citing unnamed sources within the presidential administration, said the Kremlin is in no mood to compromise on this matter. "The presidential side made it clear that the hopes of deputies that the bill can be softened for its second reading are in vain," "Gazeta" wrote on 1 November.

The one acknowledged dissenting review came from the legislature of the Chuvash Republic, which objected to the provision that would allow the president to disband recalcitrant legislatures. Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev and the Tatar State Council expressed the exact same concern on 25 October, Interfax reported, but they otherwise endorsed the proposal. A number of deputies also objected to this provision and expressed the hope that it could be modified before the measure is adopted, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 1 November. "Vedomosti" reported the same day that Bashkir legislative Chairman Konstantin Tolkachev has said that "the dissolution of regional parliaments might create political instability in a region or even a state of permanent crisis."
If a legislature twice declines to confirm the president's nominee, the president has the right to disband the legislature and to appoint an acting regional head to serve until a new legislature is elected.

However, the provision on disbanding legislatures is nearly an exact mirror of the constitutional provision that allows the president to disband a Duma that three times rejects his candidate for prime minister. With this precedent, it seems less likely that the Kremlin will feel obligated to compromise on this point. "Vedomosti," however, reported on 1 November that the Kremlin is prepared to agree to hold nonbinding consultations with regional legislatures prior to submitting nominees. Federation Council Regional Policy Committee Chairman Viktor Grishin told the daily that "if there are advance consultations, then the process for disbanding the legislature loses its sense."

Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told Interfax on 30 October that his agency has proposed four major changes to the bill. First, nominees for gubernatorial posts should be obligated to submit income-and-asset statements. Second, a mechanism should be codified according to which political parties would be able to suggest candidates to the president for nomination. Third, the current two-term restriction for regional executive-branch heads should be maintained. Finally, the law should expire automatically in 10 years.

As for the latter suggestion, presidential envoy to the Duma Aleksandr Kosopkin said that the Kremlin will not agree to a time limitation for the law, saying that the Duma can vote to change the law whenever it wants, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported. Kosopkin also reacted harshly to suggestions from some deputies that the so-called ethnic republics should be allowed to continue electing their presidents. "There can be no disparity among the subjects of the federation in this matter," Kosopkin told deputies, according to Interfax on 29 October.

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported that the Duma has received 120 specific suggestions for changes in the regions, and some of them might be introduced. Many Unified Russia deputies reportedly want the law to contain more detailed provisions for the process of selecting nominees, including a plan of mandatory consultations.

Other proposed changes reportedly include limiting the term of acting regional heads to not more than one year and including a more specific description of the division of authority between regional governors and regional legislatures, including a mechanism by which legislatures can vote no confidence in an executive-branch head. "Izvestiya" on 30 October reported that some deputies want the bill to include a solid definition of the term of the executive-branch heads.

All discussion of possible modifications of the bill, however, has been hidden behind a facade of overwhelming support for the measure. Virtually all of Russia's current governors have come out in favor of the proposed reform. The concerns expressed about certain provisions of the bill have been muted and tenuous, except for the objection of the Chuvash legislature. However, whether strengthening the executive branch can have the desired results of unifying the country remains to be seen. "The Russian Empire and the Soviet Union had no deficit of executive-branch power," Duma Deputy Nikolai Gonchar (independent) said during the 29 October debate, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 30 October. "And you know how those states ended up."

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