On December 28, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed changing the federal law regarding the numbers of seats in regional parliaments throughout the Russian Federation. The new legislation is designed to establish rules governing the number of seats in regional parliaments, which stipulate a minimum and a maximum number of members the regional parliaments are allowed to have. Thus, Russia’s regions with fewer than half-a-million voters would be allowed to have not less than 15 and no more than 50 deputies. Regions with half-a-million to a million voters would be allowed to have 25-70 deputies, while those with one to two million voters, 35-90 members of parliament. And, lastly, regions with over two million voters would have 45-110 members of parliament. Regional parliaments will have to comply with the new rules by September 1, 2011 (www.news.kremlin.ru, December 28).
President Medvedev cited the need to cut the costs of having regional legislatures that are too large and at the same time to make small parliaments in large regions more representative. The Russian president gave the impression that he viewed the regional lawmakers as state employees, not people’s representatives.
Nineteen regions of the Russian Federation do not currently comply with the president’s proposed standards. Eleven Russian regions have too few deputies and eight regions have parliaments with too many deputies. The city of Moscow, with a population of 10.5 million, will have to expand its present 25-member parliament to at least 35, while republic of Tyva in southern Siberia, with a population of 300,000, will have to cut its current 162-member parliament by at least 112 seats. Predominantly ethnic Russian regions comprise the first group of regions with fewer-than-prescribed deputies and all but one of the eight regions with parliaments that are too large are ethnically non-Russian republics. In the North Caucasus, Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia will have to cut their parliaments if the newly-drafted legislation is passed by the Russian parliament (www.news.kremlin.ru, December 28).
Medvedev’s announcement evoked an unusually pointed reaction in the North Ossetian parliament. The head of the republican legislature, Larisa Khabitsova, stated: “I think it is wrong to regulate the number of deputies by mechanically comparing the number of voters to the number of deputies. In my view, this is not a question of mere arithmetic. It is clearer on the local level how many deputies will be enough to make a parliament representative” (www.region15.ru, December 29). North Ossetia’s parliament has 75 members and 25 of the seats will have to be shed if the new law comes into force, as the republic has only 490,000 voters (www.n_osset-alania.izbirkom.ru, July 6). Still, it was very unusual for the speaker of the republic’s parliament, which is normally considered to be the most obedient to Moscow, to openly express disagreement with the Russian president.
The head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, hastily softened the North Ossetian government’s reaction to the legislation, stating on the same day that Medvedev’s proposal was justified and that North Ossetia would cut the number of seats “painlessly.” However, he still called on the federal authorities to take into account local circumstances (Interfax, December 29).
By trying to systematize the rules governing the size of regional legislatures, Moscow seeks to undermine the rights of regions further and to show off its strength. However, the central authorities’ approach to the relatively insignificant issue of the size of regional parliament is likely to contribute to a further deterioration of the security situation in the North Caucasus. Local legislatures still represent a variety of political forces in the North Caucasian republics, but with drastic cuts, it will take some time to reshuffle them and reach another power equilibrium. Ethnic clan rivalries will become more evident, as new power sharing schemes will have to be worked out in a short period of time.
While North Ossetia has a firm ethnic Ossetian majority and Kabardino-Balkaria will be required to cut only two parliamentary seats, the mandated changes in the size of regional parliaments will likely pose a special challenge in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, as the republic will have to cut at least 23 out of its present 73 seats. This might spell trouble for tiny Karachaevo-Cherkessia, given that it is the second most multi-ethnic republic in the North Caucasus after Dagestan and is well known for inter-ethnic strife. Karachais and Cherkess have a recent history of fierce competition for power in the republic, while other native peoples, like Nogais and Abaza, also expect their share of power, and ethnic Russians, the second largest ethnicity in the republic after Karachais, cannot be disregarded. During a rally in Karachaevo-Cherkessia on November 26, the Cherkess demanded a separate autonomous republic, claiming that their rights are not being sufficiently defended in the joint republic. The protest action took place following the struggle of the Karachay and Cherkess political elites over the candidacy of the republic’s representative in the Federation Council (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 27).
A gradual expansion of the size of parliaments in the North Caucasus was one of the ways to include significant powerful groups into the regional authorities’ structure. It was also a way for the regional leaders to extend their power base during elections –that is, before 2004, when Moscow abolished popular elections for regional governors. Prior to 2008, the parliament of Kabardino-Balkaria had 110 seats, while North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov harbored plans to increase the republican parliament to 100. Most of those seats were meant not so much for parliamentarians in the usual sense of this word –lawmakers who work in the parliament full-time. Instead, the seats would be occupied by so-called part-time deputies who would gather for plenary sessions only once per month or even less frequently.
While Medvedev’s proposal has some rationale behind it, the way it is being imposed on society may backfire in the North Caucasus, which is already reeling from distorted political representation and related violence.