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Russia: Geologist Takes Law Abolishing Election Of Regional Leaders To Court

Critics accuse Vladimir Putin's government of concentrating power at the top Russia's Constitutional Court has agreed to hear the first case protesting a law initiated by President Vladimir Putin that scrapped the popular election of regional governors. The plaintiff, a geologist from the Siberian town of Tyumen, says his rights were violated when his region's parliament granted the local governor another term without consulting the public.

Moscow, 17 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The plaintiff, Vladimir Grishkevich, says the Russian government had no right to abolish the election of regional leaders by universal suffrage.

Late last year, Putin proposed a new bill under which he would himself put forward candidates for approval by regional assemblies. The bill, which was swiftly passed into law, was part of a package of reforms designed to consolidate federal power -- a step, Putin argued, that was necessitated by a series of deadly terror attacks that year.

When the legislature of Tyumen Oblast approved Putin's proposal to extend the local governor's mandate, Grishkevich decided to file a complaint with Russia's Constitutional Court. He claims Putin's law breaches three articles of the Russian Constitution.

The legislation has come under fire both in Russia and abroad, but the Constitutional Court's decision to hear the case will make Grishkevich the first man to challenge it in court.
"This [reform] does in fact violate our right -- from now on, our elected representatives in legislative assemblies, not ourselves, will vote under the president's pressure because if they vote against the president's will, their assembly may be dissolved." - Alekseeva

Lyudmila Alekseeva, a prominent Russian human rights activist who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, told reporters yesterday in Kazan that she supports Grishkevich's case.

"Of course, the constitution does not explicitly state that governors should be elected directly by citizens, but the constitution prohibits issuing laws that constrict the rights of citizens," she said. "This [reform] does in fact violate our right -- from now on, our elected representatives in legislative assemblies, not ourselves, will vote under the president's pressure because if they vote against the president's will, their assembly may be dissolved."

Human rights advocates have strongly condemned the electoral reform and the general concentration of power in the Kremlin. They say Russia is composed of wildly diverse regions, whose inhabitants understand much better than the Kremlin what kind of leader they need.

Yevgenii Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow, says Grishkevich's case testifies to the growing frustration felt by those who live in Russia's sprawling regions. “It reflects the frame of mind of a significant part of the population in the regions, including the elite, who feel that their power is becoming very limited and that opportunities to influence local development are once again being handed over to the Kremlin," Volk said. "In practice, the federative state is turning into a unitary state.”

Observers have little hope of seeing the Constitutional Court rule in favor of Grishkevich, particularly since the court is largely viewed as loyal to the Kremlin. But for some, like Volk, the fact that the court has even agreed to hear the case is a small victory in itself.

“Of course, I consider that it is a positive step in any case," Volk said. "The very fact that the authorities realize both the need for some kind of dialogue and the unpopularity of this measure is already great progress. This means some degree of feedback between the population's attitude and the authorities does exist.”

Volk, however, does not see the case as a sign that Russians -- who are traditionally not inclined to contest the status quo -- are seriously rebelling against the government. According to him, the court's decision to consider Grishkevich's complaint might actually have been ordered by the Kremlin itself. Volk says the authorities might thus be seeking to ease social tension in Russia and soothe the West's worries over Russian courts growing too Kremlin-friendly.

The Constitutional Court announced yesterday it plans to hear Grishkevich's case towards the autumn, when the court ends its summer recess.

(RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)

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