The parade of 25 candidates
lining up to run in Sochi's mayoral elections is a sign of the times. Municipal government, it appears, is suddenly all the rage in Russia.
The opposition sees opportunity. The Kremlin sees danger. And the pundits have something new to talk about.
In recent weeks we have seen the ruling Unified Russia party lose city halls
in Murmansk and Smolensk. We've seen opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, businessman Aleksandr Lebedev, and former Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova
announce unlikely runs for Sochi's top job. And we've seen the State Duma pass a the first reading of a bill making it easier for governors to remove disobedient mayors.
In a thoughtful piece in Gazeta.ru
this week, Vladimir Milov offers some insight into this sudden wave of mayor-mania:
This fierce fighting for mayors' posts may appear odd. After all, the mayors of Russian cities...do not decide much in the country's political system and lack serious budget resources, while new legislation adopted by the State Duma in the first reading on Friday will actually enable local parliaments to dismiss elected mayors. On closer examination, however there is nothing strange about it. Russia is suffocating from the lack of real, open politics and the competitive political struggle. The vast number of systemic problems that have accumulated, problems that were not resolved during the years of oil prosperity and which are being laid bare today in a time of crisis, are creating an obvious demand for a protest vote.
Milov goes on to argue that by focusing on municipal authority -- with all the thankless unglamorous tasks like garbage collection, street maintenance, and public transport -- the opposition has an opportunity to embarrass the Kremlin and to demonstrate that they are capable of governing at the grassroots:
The mayoral elections are an important opportunity for the opposition, not so much to gain political influence...but more for the opportunity to strike a serious blow against the authorities' prestige and show that at the level of solving concrete problems -- rather than federal-level demagoguery and propaganda -- the authorities are failing in their work. Of course this opportunity is at the same time a test...The opposition will have to prove to citizens that they are capable of constructive, creative work, that they have something to offer in order to resolve the direct problems of citizens' daily lives.
And it is clearly for this reason that the ruling elite is moving at warp speed to make sure this doesn't happen.
The legislation currently moving through the Duma
allowing (appointed) regional governors to sack mayors with the approval of two-thirds of the city legislature (most of which are controlled by Unified Russia) is the first step in this process.
But as Boris Vishnevsky
writes in this week's edition of "Novaya gazeta," the Kremlin is considering an even more drastic step -- de facto scrapping mayoral elections in major cities altogether:
According to our information, a discussion is currently taking place in the Kremlin about declaring the capitals of regions to be not municipalities, as now, but administrative units...Such a scheme would make it possible to appoint the mayors of Russia's biggest cities.
If Vishnevsky's information is correct (and he tends to have very good sources in my experience), then this little grassroots revolution could get stamped out before it even gets started.
-- Brian Whitmore