Yabloko, which has spearheaded grassroots efforts to defend the direct election of mayors in regions throughout the country, and other liberals argue that, unlike the abolition of directly elected governors, eliminating the election of mayors would require constitutional amendments. "The elimination of the election of mayors means eliminating the entire system of local self-government," said Saratov city legislature spokeswoman Galina Zaikina, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 October 2004. "And while the president could deal with the governors without changing the constitution, that won't work in the case of local self-government. In this case, they'll have to amend the constitution."
Specifically, liberals cite Article 32, Part 2, of the constitution, which reads: "Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to elect and to be elected to bodies of state governance and to organs of local self-government."
While amending the constitution is not an insuperable obstacle for a Kremlin that has secured a daunting majority in the Duma, it is certainly politically undesirable, as Putin, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, and others have all spoken out against changing the constitution. Moreover, it might not even be necessary, given the Kremlin's influence over the courts. The articles in the constitution on local self-government contain capacious statements such as "local self-government shall be exercised by the citizens through referendums, elections, and forms of expression of their will, through elected and other bodies of local self-government" (Article 130, Part 2) and "the structure of bodies of local self-government shall be determined by the population independently" (Article 131, Part 1). On 29 December, Novyi region reported that Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Petr Sumin, speaking for the oblast administration, had asked Putin to hold a national referendum on eliminating the direct election of mayors. Sumin told Putin it is necessary to complete the process of establishing a strong vertical of power.
Despite the claims of liberals, the tradition of directly elected mayors is weak in post-Soviet Russia. Some activists argued that Putin's reform regarding the governors was unconstitutional because it affected the executive-branch heads of the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but these arguments never got off the ground. Across Russia, cities have adopted various methods of choosing mayors, including many that do not involve direct elections, and these have not been challenged in the courts. In 2000, the city of Chita eliminated mayoral elections and adopted a system under which the city legislature hired a manager on a competitive basis. The city restored direct elections in 2004, and held an election in January 2005 in which incumbent Mayor and local Unified Russia branch leader Anatolii Mikhalev won with nearly 82 percent of the vote.
Saratov has adopted a system under which city council legislators elect the city's mayor from among their own number, with the mayor remaining a municipal deputy while also heading the executive branch. Oblast authorities are currently waging an all-out campaign to oust Mayor Yurii Aksenenko, who has been repeatedly accused of corruption. According to local prosecutor Anatolii Bondar, it has been impossible to prosecute Aksenenko because the city's charter is written in such a way that all executive-branch actions are considered to have been enacted collegially and no one individual bears responsibility for anything, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 6 October 2004.
As a result of this conflict, Saratov Oblast legislator Aleksei Poleshchikov initiated a referendum campaign in the city to ask residents if they would like a directly elected mayor. Despite the strict new laws on conducting referendums, Poleshchikov as able to collect more than the necessary 40,000 signatures (1/10th of the city's population) and the referendum will be held on 27 March. Poleshchikov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 February that if the referendum fails, he will run for a seat on the city council and seek the mayor's office from there under the old system.
A local court in Miass on 23 February rejected a case filed by Yabloko activists claiming that a system similar to the one used in Saratov was unconstitutional and seeking the restoration of direct mayoral elections, uralnep.ru reported. Yabloko argued in court that the elimination of elections in December was motivated by a desire "to promote the interests of a small circle of bureaucrats who feared losing the election in March." Yabloko issued a statement saying they would appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
The Omsk 'Trial Balloon'
The story of mayoral elections is also taking an interesting twist in Omsk. That city has registered 27 candidates for its 27 March mayoral election, including 22 workers from the local Popov Radio Factory who all registered together on 15 February, the last day of registration, "Novaya gazeta," No. 17 reported. All 22 workers paid the 150,000 ruble ($5,000) deposit rather than submitting signatures. A statement released by the 22 factory workers on 15 February applauded the efforts nationally and locally to strengthen executive-branch authority and argued that the ongoing demonstrations nationally prove the need for further steps in that direction. "We consider that a vote for any one of us is an indication that the citizens of Omsk support a referendum on appointing the mayor of Omsk," the statement said.
"Novaya gazeta" called the move "a Kremlin trial balloon," citing an unnamed source close to Omsk Governor Leonid Polezhaev as saying that Polezhaev recently received a phone call from Moscow ordering him to support the efforts of Popov Radio Factory General Director Ivan Polyakov. Polyakov, who is just 25 years old, apparently was transferred to Omsk from St. Petersburg just a few months ago and is considered to be connected to the Kremlin's so-called St. Petersburg clan. Last October, just weeks after Putin proposed appointing governors, Polezhaev pushed through his oblast legislature a declaration urging the president to end the direct election of mayors as well, "Vremya novostei" reported on 13 October 2004. According to the daily, he said that in 13 years as governor he had not been satisfied with the work of single mayor in the oblast.
The most serious trial balloon came in December. Utro.ru on 1 February cited local Yabloko activists in Kaluga Oblast as saying that in late December deputy presidential administration head Surkov visited the oblast to talk to newly elected Unified Russia Governor Anatolii Artamonov and to order him "to use the region as a sort of testing ground for the switch to appointed mayors." Artamonov is a Kremlin favorite since November 2004 when he was able to install his hand-chosen candidate as mayor of Kaluga and was able to secure 40 percent of the vote for Unified Russia in the oblast's legislative elections. According to politcom.ru on 19 March 2004, Artamonov won election in the oblast by running in close coordination with Putin's reelection campaign and that both campaigns in the oblast were headed by oblast Federal Security Service (FSB) head Valerii Loginov.
According to polit.ru on 22 December, Artamonov personally traveled to Obninsk, the oblast's second city, on 17 December and oversaw a session of the Obninsk city council during which deputies voted to eliminate the direct election of the city's mayor. The move has run into unusually stiff opposition so far, although the battle is far from over. Obninsk Mayor Igor Mironov promptly resigned over the move and a group of oblast and city legislators filed a court case against the new law. Again, Yabloko headed the resistance, arguing that the move violated the constitution and Russia's obligations as a member of the Council of Europe. On 8 February, an Obninsk court agreed with Yabloko and struck down the law eliminating the direct election of mayors. Artamonov's office commented only that the administration would decide what to do further after reviewing the court's decision.
The struggle over mayoral elections is likely to continue for some time in various forms at the local level, at least until a decision is made on a national strategy on the question. However, the conflicting court decisions and actions such as the mass registration of candidates in Omsk can only discredit the election process and prepare public opinion for changes, analysts believe. But liberals see the matter as something of a last stand for democratic mechanisms in Russia. As Omsk-based political scientist Vadim Dryagin told "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 February: The direct appointment of mayors will not happen "as long as Russia is considered a democratic state. As soon as we eliminate local self-government, we push ourselves from all European organizations, since Russia, according to UNESCO standards, will be considered an authoritarian country."