Various Russian media have reported that a bill will soon be introduced into the State Duma that will turn the post of city mayor from an elected position into an appointed one. According to the Gazeta newspaper, the proposed system for choosing mayors is likely to mirror the one that President Vladimir Putin proposed for choosing governors when he put forward a program of sweeping political reforms on September 13. Under that plan, the president would appoint a governor, to be confirmed by regional legislatures, and would be able to dissolve a regional legislature and appoint an acting governor if lawmakers twice rejected his gubernatorial nominee. Under the proposed plan for choosing mayors, Gazeta reported, the president or the regional heads will nominate a mayor for a given city, who will then have to be confirmed by the city’s legislative assembly (Gazeta, October 7). Last month, Stanislav Belkovsky, who heads the National Strategy Council think tank, predicted that the Kremlin would follow up its plan for appointing governors with initiatives to reduce the number of regions and to appoint the mayors of large cities (see EDM, September 24).
Ekho Moskvy quoted “informed sources in the presidential administration” as saying that the bill to do away with elected mayors would be introduced into the Duma before the end of October. The radio station reported that the head of the Sverdlovsk Oblast Election Commission, Vladimir Mostovshchikov, had recently confirmed that such a bill is being drafted (Ekho Moskvy, October 7). Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Constitutional Law and State Construction, denied that such legislation had been introduced in the Duma or that the issue of turning mayors in appointees will be considered later this month along with the legislation on changing the procedure for choosing governors. At the same time, Pligin said it might be necessary in the future to consider “equalizing” the regional head and mayors of large cities by ensuring they are chosen the same way — i.e., that both are appointed rather than elected. Oleg Tolkachev, deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on Economic Policy, Entrepreneurship, and Property also said he knew nothing about a draft law on appointing mayors (Newsru.com, October 7).
However, the Federation Council’s speaker, Sergei Mironov, gave a significant hint, albeit couched in bureaucratic language, that an initiative to turn mayors into appointees is indeed in the works. “In developing the proposals of the Russian president, I believe that later on it will be necessary to establish a norm by which the heads of closed administrative-territorial formations, and also municipal districts and city okrugs with populations of more than 100,000 people, are chosen by the representative organ of local self-government on the basis of the submissions [made by] the highest appointed official of a Russian Federation subject,” i.e., the governor (Vremya novosti, October 7).
Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said it was possible such an initiative is in the works, but stressed that the CEC was not its author and warned that any reform of elections for local self-government bodies must conform to the constitution. “Attempts to decide everything strictly through centralization, according to a [power] vertical, have never been successful,” Veshnyakov said. “To exclude . . . the possibility of the masses choosing their own government, influencing its formation, means to be shut off from the people, which is extremely dangerous” (Rosbalt, October 7). However, Dmitri Badovsky of Moscow State University’s Institute of Social Systems said that the constitution would not have to be amended in order to turn mayors into appointees: it would be sufficient, he said, to amend the law “On the general principles for organizing local self-government in the Russian Federation” (Gazeta, October 7).
Still, some observers voiced misgivings about any plan to abolish mayoral elections. Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, said it would provide another good argument for “those appealing to the Constitutional Court and saying that a constitutional coup is imminent” (Vremya novosti, October 7). On September 30, a group of opposition figures published an open letter asking Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin to assess the constitutionality of the president’s plan to appoint the country’s governors. The open letter’s signatories included independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-leaders Irina Khakamada and Boris Nemtsov, leftist economist Sergei Glazyev, chess champion Garry Kasparov, and Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva (Novaya gazeta, September 30).
Meanwhile, members of the opposition, including several of the open letter’s signatories, gathered yesterday (October 7) to discuss ways to oppose the Kremlin’s centralization plans. Khakamada said that Yabloko’s program would provide the best rallying point for opponents of the Kremlin’s plans because the party has “always had three components: freedom, democracy, and a social project.” Glazyev, who formerly headed the Rodina (Motherland) party and now heads a group called For Worthy Life, called for a referendum, a move he said would be complicated but the only way “to consolidate people in the protection of their interests” (Gazeta.ru, October 7).