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Russia: Attempting To Block The Blocs

Among the many amendments to Russia's law on elections that were passed in their crucial second reading by the State Duma on 15 April is one that would ban the formation of electoral blocs to contest federal, regional, or local elections.

This reform could play a central role in the Kremlin's drive to shore up the so-called vertical of power that was begun in earnest in the wake of September's school hostage taking in Beslan.

At the beginning of this year, Russia adopted a system under which the direct election of regional executive-branch heads was eliminated. Under the new system, these leaders are nominated by the president and confirmed by regional legislatures, giving those bodies a new prominence in a high-stakes political arena.

The presidential administration clearly does not want to see a wave of confrontations emerging between local legislatures and the president. Under the new system, if a legislature refuses to endorse the president's nominee, the president has the authority to disband that body and call new elections. Kremlin planners realize that legislators will clearly be less willing to go to such extremes if they know that the major political parties, especially the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, have the upper hand in elections.

Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies wrote on on 19 April that the reforms are "revolutionary" for regional elections and will lead to "the federalization of all political parties."

Facing The Challenge

The initiative to eliminate electoral blocs comes as such movements have managed to present considerable competition to Unified Russia in a number of regional elections in recent months. Moreover, there have been efforts by governors to stack local legislatures with their supporters through the creation of electoral blocs as a way of strengthening their positions vis-a-vis the Kremlin.

In Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, a coalition of Yabloko and the Russian Party of Life called For Our Native Taimyr placed a strong second to Unified Russia with 21 percent of the vote. In Tula Oblast, a bloc comprising the Motherland Party and the For Holy Rus party picked up 12 percent after receiving support from Duma Deputy Andrei Samoshin, who recently resigned from the Unified Russia party although he remains a member of its Duma faction. In Sakhalin Oblast, a bloc comprising the People's Will party, the Eurasia party, and the Agrarian Party won 19 percent with the financial backing of a local entrepreneur.

In addition, in regional elections in Amur Oblast, the Republic of Khakasia, Bryansk Oblast, and Ryazan Oblast, governors with strained relations with Unified Russia were able to put together blocs that won between 8 and 17 percent of the vote. And blocs of small parties in Irkutsk Oblast, Amur Oblast, and Arkhangelsk Oblast were able to overcome the 5-percent hurdle and gain party-list seats.

Tightening The Noose

If, as is all but certain, the ban on electoral blocs becomes law, it will serve as a big boost to Unified Russia's growing stranglehold on regional legislatures. This, in turn, will further increase the dependence of regional governors on the Kremlin, which is of particular importance as the Kremlin's policy of consolidating federation subjects goes forward.

Clearly, the administration does not want to risk creating a situation in which the Kremlin is at odds with the governors of large, economically viable regions. Increasingly, governors who were critical of Unified Russia, such as Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Petr Sumin and Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin, are signing up with the party of power in exchange for renomination by President Putin.