At the end of April, the Khural (parliament) of the Republic of Buryatia abolished the Constitutional Court of this federal subject (Kommersant, April 24). The decision was made on the initiative of the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, who last year was appointed by the Kremlin. The authorities justified the abolition of the Constitutional Court by citing the “high cost” of continuing to run this institution. But Dorzho Dugarov, a Buryat public figure who is now a political émigré, takes another view: “Tsydenov and the Khural, controlled by him, redirected the funds that had supported the work of the Constitutional Court for their own use [that is, to run the apparatus of the head of Buryatia]. This is the main reason for the need for ‘economy.’ ” Dugarov provocatively called this decision “an act of political genocide of the Buryat people by the Kremlin through the collaborationist administration in the republic” (Afterempire.info, April 26).
Buryatia was by no means the first such case. In 2014, the regional Statutory Court of Chelyabinsk opposed a tax measure passed by the local parliament. The judiciary ruled that the new legislation undermined the social safety net statutorily mandated for local residents. In response, the oblast’s parliament abolished the statutory court itself, similarly citing funding concerns (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 26, 2014).
The current authorities of Buryatia argue that the rights of citizens will not be violated as a result of this decision, because Buryatians will always have the opportunity to appeal their grievances to the Constitutional Court of Russia. However, each republic within Russia has its own constitution. And if the judicial institution that enforces it is abolished, this de facto makes republican law a mere formality.
Russia, according to its constitution, is a complex federation composed of subjects with different status. The republics have their own constitutions, while oblasts, krais and federal cities have statutes (ustav) with the status of a basic regional law. Constitutional (or statutory) courts were created in the 1990s in various regions to protect their own legislative specifics. At present, only 16 such institutions remain, even though there are 83 subjects in the Russian Federation (excluding Crimea and Sevastopol). Of these, 13 are constitutional courts in various republics, while the rest are statutory courts in the city of St. Petersburg and the oblasts of Kaliningrad and Sverdlovsk. In fact, they persist only in those regions that can still claim some minimum level of difference between their own legislation compared with federal laws.
Allegations by the authorities that it is too “expensive” to maintain the regional constitutional/statutory courts begin to look particular disingenuous when compared with the institution of federal district presidential plenipotentiaries. These federal districts are not provided by the Russian constitution at all. When first elected president, in 2000, Vladimir Putin divided Russia into seven federal districts, led by his appointed plenipotentiaries. This administrative innovation was a tool to institutionalize Putin’s “vertical of power” under conditions when the regional governors were still freely elected by the population. The plenipotentiaries were tasked with controlling those governors. But even after Putin himself began to appoint governors, the institution of his federal district plenipotentiary survived and remains in effect. Thousands of government officials work at the level of the federal districts, but Russian authorities never claim this arrangement is “too expensive for the budget.”
Today, the still-existing regional constitutional and statutory courts in Russia remain as vestiges of an era of federalism marked by genuine regional self-government. But as alluded to above, it is important to note that Putin’s Kremlin has worked to dismantle Russian federalism not only by attacking local judiciaries, but also executive branch institutions. During the 1990s, the mayors of all Russian cities were freely elected by the local population. This practice was generally accepted, although it was never codified in the Russian constitution. And now, under the conditions of Putin’s “power vertical,” instead of freely elected mayors, most cities are run by so-called “city managers” appointed by governors, who, in turn, are selected by the president.
Currently, only eight regional capitals still hold free mayoral elections (Vedomosti, April 4). Until recently, there were nine of them, but this past April the post of elected mayor was liquidated in Yekaterinburg. In protest against this decision, Mayor Eugene Roizman, elected in 2013, resigned (Interfax, May 25).
The same year, 2013, opposition politician Galina Shirshina was also elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. But already in 2015, the Kremlin-appointed governor of Karelia, Alexander Khudilainen, forced her resignation and entirely annulled free mayoral elections in the republic’s capital (Tvrain.ru, December 25, 2015). The next Kremlin appointee to head Karelia, Artur Parfenchikov put his former colleagues from the Federal Bailiff Service into several key positions in the republic (see Commentaries, September 28, 2017).
Observers sometimes suggest that President Putin is seeking to completely eliminate the national republics in Russia. As evidence, they point to the already abolished compulsory teaching of local state languages in republican schools (see EDM, May 27, 2015; April 13, 2017). However, the Kremlin is unlikely to make such radical changes to the constitution because of the civil unrest this would, in all probability, spark in the republics. Putin operates in a different style—one can expect that the interpretation of the federal constitution will be “softly” changed. Consequently, republics will officially remain, but their real rights will be lowered to the level of oblasts.
This trend was clearly demonstrated by the latest series of governors’ resignations and presidential appointments to “temporarily” carry out their duties. At the end of May, Putin changed the heads of the Republic of Yakutia, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, as well as the Tyumen and Magadan oblasts (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 29). All these changes were carried out according to the same scheme—the regions were assigned “temporary acting governors,” who will go through a formal election procedure on the “single voting day” (this year it will be held on September 9). Emblematic of the principle of “preventive democracy” (see EDM, November 17, 2017), these curated leadership reshuffles continue Putin’s slow-motion efforts to usher in ever tighter political centralization of Russia.