Speaking to journalists in Sochi on Wednesday, President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that it might be a good idea to bring back the direct election of senators, as members of the Federation Council are commonly called:
I think we need to reform the political system -- gradually, but strictly...This does not mean that we should throw away all that has been done over the past ten or twelve years. But we need to make adjustments in all the institutions of the political system...With regard to the Federation Council, I would not rule out that it could be a good idea to go back to electing it.
Under the current system, each of Russia's 83 federal subjects gets two senators, which are appointed respectively by regional executive and legislative branches. Only those who are local or regional legislators are eligible (which is what made former St. Petersburg Governor Matviyenko's accession to the upper chamber so hilariously problematic).
Medvedev's unexpected proposal to change this came on the heels of another -- less radical -- plan to reform the upper house, which was made public last week.
The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that legislation is currently in the works that would make former or current State Duma deputies also eligible for delegation to the Federation Council.
The report notes that since the majority of these would be from United Russia, the legislation would significantly increase the ruling party's clout in the upper chamber -- as well as that of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It would also provide a dignified "golden parachute" for United Russia lawmakers who fail to make it into the next Duma.
The first Federation Council, which sat from 1993-95, was actually directly elected. But in 1995, President Boris Yeltsin changed the system so that regional governors and legislative speakers doubled as senators.
When Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, he sought to curb the powers of regional leaders, who had become a powerful force in Russian politics -- and a thorn in the side of the Kremlin -- by the late 1990s. Part of this campaign involved removing them from the federal parliament in favor of the current system of regional executives and legislatures delegating their senators.
The governors and legislative speaker initially resisted Putin's plan, but when the president threatened criminal investigations against them, they relented. BY 2002, the new system was fully in place.
Analysts are skeptical that Medvedev's proposal will gain any traction.
Evgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, told Gazeta.ru that Medvedev has proposed reforms aimed at democratizing the political system in the past, but they only resulted in cosmetic changes.
Likewise, Mikhail Vinogradov, director of the Petersburg Politics Foundation, notes that the trend in recent years has been to keep "non-system" candidates out of the legislative branch. And since an elected Federation Council would increase the upper house's status, such a move would be opposed by a majority in the State Duma, which would need to approve any changes. "This is unlikely to please either the State Duma or the political parties," Vinogradov told Gazeta.ru.
I would add a caveat to Vinogradov's assessment. Regardless of what the State Duma or political parties want, what will ultimately happen will be what the 30 or so people who run Russia -- what I call the "deep state" -- decide is in their interests.
Just like letting more parties into the Duma, elections to the Federation Council could provide a useful pressure valve for an increasingly restive society.
If the inner sanctum of the elite reaches a consensus that the benefits of such a move outweigh the costs and risks, and help them maintain their power, wealth, and privilege, then they will make the change. If not, they won't.
That said, I don't expect Medvedev's proposal to go anywhere in the near term as the elite is likely to se it as too risky.
The less risky proposal of allowing former Duma deputies to be appointed to the Federation Council -- for which a draft bill is already prepared -- is, on the other hand, quite useful to the elite and is likely to be enacted.
-- Brian Whitmore