Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 17

By Mikhail Zherebiatev

The deputies of the Krasnodar krai Duma have drawn up a package of draft amendments to regional legislation, spelling a change in the principles of local government. Essentially, these amendments amount to the local population being stripped of the right to directly elect the heads of town and district (raion) authorities. When the law is passed, town and district heads will be elected by the deputies of the corresponding municipal representative bodies from among their own number rather than by universal suffrage. A vertical chain of authority, consisting of executive committees, is also being established to restore to the federation subject control over the administrative-territorial units which form part of it. Both provisions of the draft law seem at first sight to contravene the Russian constitution, which stipulates that: first, authority is derived from the people’s will; and, second, municipal authorities are not the lowest level of state power–that is, they do not number among the organs of state power.

The political, ideological and economic motives behind the actions of the local legislators in the Kuban region are clear enough. The communist governor Nikolai Kondratenko, renowned for his pronouncements concerning Russia’s “Zionist” enemies, is attempting to use the legislature, which is loyal to him, to gain control of the towns in the krai, particularly Krasnodar itself, but also the coastal towns of Novorossiisk, Tuapse and Sochi, which administratively do not fit into the pattern of authoritarian rule established in the Kuban region by the governor and the local KPRF.

From the legal point of view (the issue will eventually be resolved in Russia’s Constitutional Court) it is not that simple. The local legislators will certainly be infringing on the rights of the population and violating individual provisions of the constitution and the law. At the same time, however, the ambiguity of current legislation prompts them to take extreme steps. Kondratenko and the head of the Krasnodar legislature are determined to pass their amendments and refer their brainchild to the Constitutional Court for the very reason that they are aware of the possibility of a dual interpretation of the provisions of the federal law on local government.

On the one hand, the Krasnodar-style amendments to local government legislation are a flagrant violation of civil rights. On the other hand, in broad terms, neither the election of municipal heads by the deputies of municipal representative bodies, nor the introduction of a chain of authority contravene the current federal law “On the general principles of local government organization in the Russian Federation.”

The chain of executive committees may be seen to fill a lacuna in current legislation, because the delegation of powers from state organs–the federal center and/or the federation subject–to the local authorities is a constitutional norm, and it is executive committees which are supposed to achieve it (alongside the treaties between federation subjects and their municipal authorities).

According to the current federal law “On the general principles of local government organization in the Russian Federation”, the method of electing municipal heads among deputies is also quite legitimate, however much it infuriates–and justly so–the leaders of Yabloko, the only Russian party which is alive to the danger of the local government reforms being planned in Krasnodar krai. By law, a leader who has experienced the rigors of a general election, and one elected to the post by local assembly deputies from among their number, are both legitimate heads of local government. It should be pointed out that very often, deep in the Russian provinces, selection among the deputies has procedurally very little in common with elections; such elections are basically appointments underpinned by a formal vote.

It will be difficult for the Constitutional Court to deliver a verdict on this issue, because the framework federal law (which is the only one of its kind–no further legislative acts on local government have been taken at federal level since 1995) allows for the existence of a federation subject’s own laws to regulate issues of local government on its territory. What is more, the framework federal law sets no deadlines for the transition from one form of leadership election to the other, nor does it lay down the basic conditions under which such a transition is possible. As a result it is a specific political situation, rather than the law, which determines both the conditions and the very possibility of transition from one system of election to the other. This is what happened this spring in Vladivostok, when deputies from the municipal representative body attempted to change the procedure in their attempt to get former Mayor Viktor Cherepkov reelected to the post. The Vladivostok deputies replaced universal suffrage with election by the deputies. Their resolution did not come into force only because, in their hurry, the deputies overlooked procedure, failing to publish the draft city charter in the press.

There is, however, one aspect of federal legislation which may provide an obstacle to the implementation of the legislators’ plans in the Kuban region. Changing the electoral system for local government heads is an issue which falls exclusively within the jurisdiction of municipal representative bodies. It was certainly no coincidence that in 1998-99 the regional authorities in Voronezh oblast came under very great pressure from the local governor Ivan Shabanov, who was calling for general elections for municipal heads to be abolished in favor of their election by deputies.

The likely outcome of the judgment (few doubt that the Krasnodar legislators will pass their package of amendments very shortly) is a compromise decision which will not discourage the federation subjects from looking for ways to take control of the local authorities. It will be possible to change the situation only by introducing new direct federal laws which regulate local government.

Mikhail Zherebiatev is a specialist with the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow and a regular contributor to various publications, including the weeklies Itogi and Russkaya mysl.