No serious observer can dispute the fact that Russia is no longer a “managed democracy”; it is a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime.
On September 13, 2004, President Vladimir Putin announced that the leaders of Russia’s regions would henceforth be appointed, not elected as they had been for the past decade. The president’s nominees must be approved by the regional legislature, but if they refuse three times Putin can dissolve that body. The reform effectively abolishes federalism and turns Russia into a unitary state. Putin also declared that all seats in the State Duma would henceforth be filled from party lists (currently, half are elected in single-seat races). New, more restrictive, rules are also to be introduced for party registration (a minimum of 50,000 members in place of the previous 10,000).
These measures were rushed into law by year’s end. They remove the last vestiges of voter choice from Russia’s already rickety democracy. Yes, many regional governors were corrupt and tyrannical: but in the past about half of the incumbents running for re-election were defeated. The often hotly contested single-seat Duma races gave voters another opportunity to express their discontent, and the system allowed a few independent-minded politicians to win a place in the legislature.
Now, these feedback mechanisms have been silenced. Why did Putin do this, given that he has stressed the need to modernize Russia and enter the democratic world community?
The ostensible reason is “the battle with international terrorism” — Kremlinspeak for the war in Chechnya. The reforms were announced a week after the Beslan attack. However, it is hard to see how the reforms will help fight terrorism. Governors had already been stripped of their main security functions with the introduction in 2000 of seven federal districts headed by presidential representatives. Nor was there any evidence that elected governors were soft on terrorism.
It is claimed that the authorities were “distracted” from the war on terror by the need to bargain with regional leaders. But countries like Britain, Spain, and India have managed to fight terrorism without destroying their democratic institutions.
In reality, Putin’s centralization of power began long before Beslan. That tragedy merely provided an impetus and a political cover to the final transition. For example, Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov had proposed abolishing single-mandate seats in the Duma as early as May 2004, four months before Beslan.
The abolition of elected governors may have had more to do with economics than terrorism. In a November 18 television interview, Putin linked the reform to concern over the role of economic “clans” in certain regions. The reform may be used to pry valuable assets out of the hands of regional bosses.
A country as large and ethnically diverse as Russia cannot be run effectively from a single center. No other democratic federation has such a centralized system of rule. Ukraine, fearful of fragmentation, never introduced the election of governors — perhaps that example, close to home, was uppermost in Putin’s mind?
Back in 2000 Putin gained the power to remove governors who were incompetent or corrupt (subject to court review). But he never did so, preferring to remove troublesome governors by promoting them to federal sinecures. This suggests that Putin will not use his new powers to remove incumbents. Where would he find the replacements, and how would such newcomers manage to rule effectively? Instead Putin will probably re-appoint incumbents — many of whom are nearing the end of their second and final elected term in office.
Thus the reform will not ensure greater accountability to the center — but will remove accountability to the electorate. In compensation, Putin simultaneously announced the creation of an appointed “Civic Chamber,” drawn from public organizations, that will provide expert commentary on legislative proposals. It will be a poor substitute for a real legislature.
Voters themselves seem resigned to the changes. According to one poll, 55% support and 36% oppose the abolition of governor elections (Novoe vremya, December 30). But one can expect political clashes in regions anxious to defend their ethnic identity, like Tatarstan. The regional legislature in neighboring Chuvashiya was the only one that formally recorded their opposition to the presidential draft (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 15).
Outside the ethnic republics, people protesting wage arrears or power outages used to vent their anger on elected governors. Now they will have to challenge the federal government directly.
As Nikolai Petrov has suggested, “The state has become Soviet in both form and content” (Moscow Times, December 28). But Putin no longer has a Communist Party of the Soviet Union to serve as a check on state bureaucrats and a training school for officials. The pro-government United Russia barely functions as an independent organization, and it is a pale shadow of its ruling party predecessor.
The left and right opposition parties have self-destructed, leaving United Russia the only party that can be sure of clearing the new 7% threshold for winning seats in the Duma (Romir poll cited in Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 28).
The new party law even strips voters of the quaint option of voting “against all.” In the future, citizens will have no option but support for the ruling party.
(Kommersant-Vlast, December 20; Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 22; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 28; Versiya, December 6-12).