Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 2

By Mikhail Zherebiatev

Russia’s political scene in 1999 was marked by the fact that six elections for the leaders of executive authorities in Russia’s regions were held ahead of schedule. This “epidemic” affected Belgorod, Omsk, Tomsk and Novgorod Oblasts, and the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In each case the early elections were initiated by the incumbent leaders themselves, who got the go-ahead from their local legislative authorities. Significantly, these snap elections were called by the governors of territories which enjoy a relatively healthy economic position. In Moscow and in Belgorod Oblast the vote was held six months ahead of time, and in Omsk, Tomsk and Novgorod three months early. This sequence of early elections was in fact inaugurated the previous year by the president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov. By the time his reelection for a second term was due, Rakhimov would have been sixty-five; the republic’s constitution–which was not adopted until after Rakhimov was elected for his first term, and consequently did not take his career prospects into account–sets an upper age limit of sixty-five for oblast presidential candidates. Under these terms, Rakhimov would not have been able to run for a second term. The republic’s parliament, however, preferred to preserve this feature of the constitution, and to bring the election forward by six months.

In the five subjects of the Russian Federation where elections were held on schedule in 1999, three regional leaders lost–two of them did not even make it to the second round (1). Conversely, in every case the early elections were won by the incumbent governor. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov managed to win the support of more than 70 percent of Muscovites, despite the bitter criticism directed at him by the president’s administration, which made full use of the might of the nationwide television channels ORT and RTR (2). At the same time, the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, headed jointly by Yuri Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, made a somewhat unexceptional debut in the country as a whole, securing only third place in the party lists, with 13 percent of the vote.

The decision, approved by the Moscow City Duma in May 1999, to bring the mayoral elections forward from June 2000 to December 1999, solved a political dilemma for Luzhkov–whether to go for mayor or president. Luzhkov was more or less guaranteed victory in the elections for mayor, while a question mark hung over his chances of winning the presidency, and the law bars a candidate from running for mayor of the capital and for president simultaneously. Bringing the mayoral elections forward gave Luzhkov the opportunity to participate in the presidential race (3) from a position which guaranteed him a place in Russian national politics for several years to come even if he were to lose in the presidential election.

In Belgorod, Novgorod and Tomsk Oblasts, bringing the elections forward meant that the incumbent governors could avoid the danger of the “tandem vote”–for the KPRF in the party lists for the State Duma and for the KPRF candidate for governor. Just such a tandem vote ensured victory recently for the KPRF candidate and State Duma deputy Aleksei Chernyshov in the elections for the head of Orenburg oblast. His victory in the second round on December 26 was largely thanks to the KPRF’s success at the Duma elections in Orenburg Oblast the previous week. If the gubernatorial election had taken place at any other time, Chernyshov would not even have made it to the second round. The good showing of the KPRF in the party lists, which was forecast long before the Duma election campaign began, dramatically reduced the chances of victory for the incumbent governors. This is because when there are simultaneous elections, the KPRF works hard to ensure support for its candidate for governor both from its core voters (usually 25-30 percent of the electorate in the provinces) and from a section of the protest vote–often a very significant section.

Belgorod Governor Yevgeny Savchenko had more reason than his colleagues to fear the tandem vote for the KPRF list and the communist candidate for governor, which is probably why he was in a hurry to launch the season of early elections in 1999. Unlike Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak or Tomsk boss Viktor Kress, who have always openly opposed the communists, at the 1996 elections Savchenko enjoyed the support of the local branch of the Agrarian Party (which at the time was affiliated to the KPRF-National Patriotic Union of Russia bloc), and thus of a significant section of the communist electorate. The emergence of a KPRF candidate at the December 1999 elections–a former oblast party boss to boot–could have had unpredictable consequences for Savchenko because of the similar profile of Savchenko’s and Mikhail Beskhmelnitsina’s electorates. There were rumors that even at the early elections in 1999 the leader of the LDPR faction in the Russian parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky assumed the role of a stalking-horse to take protest votes away from Beskhmelnitsina. (Another version of events has it that when the campaign was already underway Savchenko came to an agreement with Zhirinovsky that they would take joint action against the communist candidate, and that the LDPR leader would lose–for Zhirinovsky could quite easily have won if he wanted to.)

Omsk Governor Leonid Polezhaev managed to kill two birds with one stone by organizing early elections: He insured himself against the communist candidate and kept the Omsk mayor out of the election race. The mayor was the first to bring his elections forward from December to September with the intention of running for governor three months later. As soon as the election date for the post of mayor was set, the oblast Duma acceded to Polezhaev’s request to immediately set the gubernatorial elections for the same day as the mayoral elections.

St. Petersburg boss Vladimir Yakovlev also decided to follow this tried and tested method. In autumn 1999, political analysts and sociologists were predicting an easy victory in December for Yakovlev, because none of his major opponents were ready for an election. The legislative assembly agreed by a simple majority (in other regions the decision to bring the elections forward was passed by an overall majority) to the governor’s request to hold early elections in December 1999. But it was the Petersburg boss whose plans misfired.

Current Russian legislation outlaws the arbitrary extension or curtailment of the term of office of elected officials or organs of state power. In 1996 Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Yeltsin’s decree extending the term of legislative bodies in the Russian regions was illegal. According to the presidential decree of 1995, the powers of the legislatures–elected in 1993-94 for two years, along the lines of the first post-Soviet Duma–were extended for up to a further two years. Meanwhile, no provisions at all were made for shortening the term of office of an official or organ until three drafts of the framework federal law “On the main guarantees of the electoral rights of citizens” were adopted one after another in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

As might have been expected, in each case, the opponents of those incumbent regional bosses who secured rulings from their legislature to move election dates in 1999 made legal challenges in the courts, calling for the respective rulings be declared illegal and, naturally, for the early elections to be canceled. However, the Russian Supreme Court (and, in two cases, even its Presidium [4]) examined only the integrity of the procedure by which the resolutions on early elections had been passed, rather than their conformity to the norms of federal legislation. In any case, the hearings in the high courts were based on similar rulings in the regional courts, which, purely on the basis of the integrity of the procedure, declared that the legislative resolutions were legitimate. The Chamber for Civil Affairs of the Supreme Court and the Presidium of the Supreme Court also took note of the financial factor: Budget funds had already been spent on the election campaigns, so they could not be stopped. There were some curious developments. Before the case concerning the early elections in Belgorod Oblast appeared before the Presidium of the Supreme Court, a statement declaring that the governor was stepping down early suddenly appeared among the documents submitted to the court by Governor Savchenko. Interestingly, this document had never been mentioned anywhere before this. It remains unclear why the governor needed to stand again if he had only just resigned.

Only in one case did the Supreme Court overrule the legislature, and again, the grounds given was noncompliance with procedure: There had not been a full complement of deputies in the St. Petersburg legislative assembly when they voted on the issue of early elections. It emerged that some deputies had given their voting cards to their colleagues, whereas the Supreme Court ruled that a condition for ballots on this issue was that deputies should cast their vote personally. At the same time, the Supreme Court issued a further ruling concerning previous authorizations for early elections: All such elections held previously, alongside those on which the Supreme Court issued a positive ruling, are considered legal.

Any legal ruling has political implications. In Russia, where the judiciary has not yet secured its independence from the executive, any legal ruling in the high court is first and foremost political in nature. By outlawing early elections in St. Petersburg the Kremlin demonstrated, on the one hand, that it was not entirely happy with regional leaders’ arbitrariness, which is capable of undermining the electoral plans of the president’s administration (5), and, on the other hand, revealed that it had a very limited range of options for exerting pressure on the regional leaders, for the situation in St. Petersburg, where governor Yakovlev faces formidable opposition in the legislative assembly, is quite unusual for Russia’s regions. The most natural way of changing the situation by adopting new, more clearly defined laws has almost no chance of success, because it would probably–at least in the current climate–be rejected by the upper house of the Russian parliament, of which the leaders of the regional executive and legislative bodies are ex officio members.

On 14 January, Russia’s Acting President Vladimir Putin made it quite clear on a visit to St. Petersburg that he had no objection to holding the presidential and gubernatorial elections concurrently. He even announced that he was prepared to support Yakovlev. This announcement was made on a Friday–the last working day of the week. It immediately emerged that according to the city’s charter the deadline for the deputies to review the date of the forthcoming elections was Sunday, January 16, and there was no way that a debate on the issue could be arranged at such short notice. It may therefore be assumed that the acting president’s comments only bore indirect relation to the specific situation involving the St. Petersburg governor and the canceled elections. The governors would definitely want to bolster their authority with an election win before presenting themselves to the new president (and nobody has any doubt that this will be Putin).

However, most of the gubernatorial campaigns scheduled for 2000–twenty-one out of forty-five–only finish in December (of the others, thirteen reach their conclusion in October, seven in November, two in September, one in May and one in March). This factor certainly gives regional leaders cause for concern, and it needs a gesture from the leading presidential candidate to resolve the confusion. The earlier the regional heads can reinforce their legitimacy, the better they can insure themselves against interference by the presidential administration in the regional elections. Putin is currently going out of his way to demonstrate his willingness to enter into dialog with the established elites in the center and in the regions, so it would be wise to view his Petersburg statement (which purportedly referred to a specific situation) within the context of the growing dialog between the elites. The protagonists in this dialog are the parliamentary factions and the leaders of the leading parties and political movements. Unlike in 1996, sections of the business elite, in behind-the-scenes maneuvers, have preempted other influential groups in throwing their weight behind the slogan of “order”, calling for guarantees that there will not be a redistribution of property.

Against this background, early gubernatorial elections immediately after the presidential elections (which are also being held early), would be fully in keeping with the logic of the political process following Yeltsin’s departure from the political scene. The presidential elections are more reminiscent of a vote of confidence in the concrete figure who already holds the highest post in the land. Theoretically, the elections for regional leaders should follow a similar pattern, although this does not rule out the possibility of surprises, since it is unlikely that any of the incumbent governors enjoys such a high level of confidence among voters as does the acting president.


1) On 19 December 1999–alongside the elections to the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the Duma–elections were held for the heads of Novosibirsk, Orenburg, Tver, Yaroslavl and Moscow Oblasts, and of the city of Moscow. The elections in all five oblasts were held according to schedule.