Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 55

Moscow is abuzz with rumors that Russian President Vladimir Putin will, by the end of the year, have acquired the power to appoint regional leaders (Russian agencies, March 13-14). At present, the presidents and governors of Russia’s eighty-nine republics, krais and oblasts are all popularly elected. Some regions require a minimum turnout of 50 percent of the electorate before the election is considered valid, but in many regions a turnout of 25 percent is sufficient. Last month, however, three of the most influential centrist factions in the Russian parliament–Unity, Fatherland/All Russia and People’s Deputy–called for the relevant legislation on elections to be amended so that a governor would be deemed to have been elected only if he (or she) won at least 50 percent of the votes. Last week, their initiative received the qualified blessing of Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Electoral Commission. Moreover, Veshnyakov suggested that, in regions where turnout was below 50 percent, the president should appoint the governor (Lenta.ru, March 13).

Veshnyakov’s proposal has attracted attention because he has shifted ground. Back in February, when the centrist coalition launched their proposal, he was very critical. Allowing the president to appoint governors, he argued at that time, would do more harm than good. It would inevitably give rise to conflicts the president would be unable to resolve, and the president would get blamed for anything that subsequently went wrong in the region (SMI.ru, March 13).

Now a compromise has emerged. Veshnyakov has reportedly said that he will support the idea of presidentially appointed governors in the following circumstances. Regional elections will consist, as they now do, of two rounds. They will be considered valid if at least 50 percent of the voters take part. If an election is invalidated by low turnout, the president will have the power to name the chief executive, but only for two years and only with the consent of the regional legislative assembly. Veshnyakov insisted that giving the president the power to appoint governors in these limited circumstances would not contradict the constitution, even though appointing governors is not one of the powers the constitution formally ascribes to the president (Kommersant, March 13).

Veshnyakov claims that the centrist deputies have given his proposal their preliminary approval, even though it is considerably milder than that originally put forward by the centrist parliamentarians (NNS.ru, March 13). Under his plan, it will be possible for a gubernatorial candidate to win election even if only 25 percent plus one of the electorate vote for him, whereas the centrists had called for a minimum of 50 percent (Vremya Novostei, March 13).

Even in its milder form, the change is potentially important. Some commentators consider that allowing the president to appoint governors would be tantamount to “canceling gubernatorial elections” (Obshchaya Gazeta, March 14). It is a fact that, as things stand at present, an election will be valid in many Russian regions even if only 25 percent of the electorate turns out to vote. Raising this threshold will create problems for many local electoral commissions. Since 1998, thirty-three regional elections have taken place at which turnouts were below 50 percent. Had the variant proposed by Veshnyakov and the centrists been in force, these regions would by now be headed by presidential appointees (Kommersant, Vremya Novostei, March 13).

Observers are accordingly viewing the compromise between Veshnyakov and the centrists as a critical turning point in the debate. There have been reports that the existing electoral law may be amended as early as the State Duma’s spring session (Novye Izvestia, March 14; Zhizn, March 15). At the same time, commentators warn that getting the change through parliament will not be easy. For one thing, President Putin has not displayed unequivocal support for the centrists’ proposals, leaving it to Veshnyakov to make the public statements (Obshchaya Gazeta, March 14). The proposals are, moreover, likely not only to meet a tough reception in the Duma; they may well be vetoed by the Federation Council, where the governors retain considerable influence, even though they no longer sit ex officio in the upper chamber (SMI.ru, March 13).

That such a threat exists can be seen from the position adopted by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who traditionally commands the support of a majority of members of the upper chamber. He declared in a March 13 press conference that he was against the idea of presidentially appointed governors. In his view, regional heads should continue to be elected by the population (Polit.ru, March 14). And while the centrists should be able to garner the simple majority in the Duma necessary to pass their proposed amendments, mustering the two-thirds majority needed to override a Federation Council veto is likely to be almost impossible. It is unlikely that the centrists have failed to take this into account. This prompts the conclusion that their activity may have been sanctioned by the Kremlin. It is in all probability intended to create the impression–in the absence of the reality–that the presidential team is winning its battle with the regions over the recentralization of power.