With the constitutional amendments to extend the terms of office of the president and Duma deputies in hand, President Dmitry Medvedev has moved quickly to the next phase of political-system reform that he announced on November 5 (full text here). Now he has turned his attention to the country's regional executive-branch heads and how they are selected. Today "Kommersant" reported that Medvedev has submitted his reform proposal to the Duma.
You will recall that until 2005, governors were directly elected, in odious elections that were grossly abused by incumbents in order to secure their control over virtual fiefdoms. This, however, gave them power bases that were independent of the Kremlin's control. They forged their own ties with oligarchs whose business interests reached into their regions. They controlled local media and often foisted blame for local problems off on Moscow. And sometimes they raised their heads on the national stage in ways that didn't quite fit into Vladimir Putin's scenario of managed democracy.
After a spate of horrific terrorist incidents in Russia in late 2004 -- culminating most vividly with the Beslan school hostage taking -- Putin decided that one of the measures needed to fight terrorism was the elimination of direct gubernatorial elections. He thought the country would be safer if he decided who would control the regions. So he instituted a system under which his envoys to the regions would supposedly submit a couple of candidates to Putin; Putin would pick one and send his or her name to the regional legislature; and local lawmakers would confirm or reject the selection. If the lawmakers rejected it, Putin could simply disband the legislature and install his candidate on his own. Not surprisingly, things never reached that point.
Governors -- even those whose terms were nowhere near expiring -- rushed to get Putin's seal of approval. The lines of political loyalty became direct and clear -- from the governor's office, through the envoys, to Putin.
But now, for some reason, that system doesn't seem to work? Is it because the line of loyalty now, theoretically, extends from the governors not to Putin, but to Medvedev? Or is that this system is opaque, undemocratic, and not worthy of a modern open society? Luckily, we don't need to sort out these questions, because Medvedev hit on a solution that solves both these problems!
On November 5, he told the country: "I consider it possible that only those parties that received the greatest number of votes in regional elections should be able to submit candidates for future executive-branch heads of the subjects of the federation to the president. No one else. Thus, the exclusive right for nominating candidates will be secured to public, open political structures representing the majority of the population."
Under the bill that Medvedev submitted yesterday, the party holding a majority of seats in the regional legislature in question must submit three candidates to the president at least 90 days before the expiration of the current governor's mandate. If the president rejects that list, the party must submit another three candidates. If that list is unsatisfactory, the president will begin talks with all the parties represented in the regional legislature, as a result of which another three candidates will be selected. After that the process remains the same -- the president submits his or her anointed one for confirmation by local lawmakers.
But there are few particulars that attract attention. For one thing, there is the important detail that it is not the actual lawmakers in the region who will be making the selection, but the "permanent management organs" of the majority party -- that is, the party leaders in Moscow.
In Russia, at present, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party -- no doubt as a result of its outstanding program -- holds majorities in 79 of the country's 83 regional legislatures. The chairman of the Unified Russia party is, of course, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "Kommersant" quoted A Just Russia Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov as saying Medvedev's bill would be more honest if it just said: "governors are appointed by the Unified Russia politburo." Right Cause co-leader Boris Nadezhdin predicted that "President Medvedev will only be able to appoint governors that have been named by the leader of Unified Russia, Putin."
To be fair, it was actually Putin who first hit on this solution. He floated the exact same idea in October 2005. Only then, perhaps, Russian democracy wasn't ready for it. After all, back then Putin wasn't the formal head of the party, it didn't have a constitutional majority in the Duma, it controlled majorities in only 47 regional legislatures, and the Moscow headquarters hadn't fully established its control over the party's own regional branches. Putin was a few years ahead of his time, it seems.
The bill clearly represents a major strengthening of Putin's control of the political system through the mechanism of Unified Russia. These crucial cadre decisions -- and the lavish opportunities for bribes and corruption and crooked "business" dealings that attend them -- will clearly and openly be in Putin's hands. When Russia elected a president in March, Putin's vote was the only one that really counted. Now he's done it again.
And as is so often the case in Russia these days, only the Communists can be heard ironically calling for free, fair, direct elections by secret ballot.