"Interesting times" for Russia’s "managed democracy"

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A heated debate concerning President Putin’s latest political initiatives is underway in the Russian press. Each day brings new surprises.

Reports surfaced last weekend that the hierarchy of governance which is currently being formed may be extended to the level of mayors of Russian cities and towns.

“To all appearances, they are now to be elected like the regional leaders,” says Gazeta. That is, municipal legislature would approve a candidate for mayor nominated by a regional leader (the final version is being specified).

The bill regulating the new order of gubernatorial election was submitted into the Duma on September 28. The bill envisaging cancellation of mayoral election could be submitted into the parliament by the end of October, according to the rumors in the presidential administration.

According to Gazeta, the bill concerning the new order of mayoral election will help “balancing” the relations between various levels of executive power in the regions. “Otherwise, once a governor is appointed by the Kremlin and the mayor is being elected, a regional head may face difficulties if dismissing the subordinate officials,” Maksim Dianov, director of the Institute of Regional Problems explained. This is undoubtedly a noteworthy problem.

In the meantime, the bill concerning the appointment of mayors has been prepared at the Kremlin but some “liberals of the Kremlin” are hampering its introduction into the Duma, says Novye Izvestia. Under an anonymous statement by an above liberal, “the Constitution describes the scheme of state power and attempts of digressing from it may have unfavorable consequences for us.”

However, some experts of Gazeta say, the new order of mayoral election demands no peculiar amendments in the Constitution. Its Articles 130 and 131 proclaim independence of local administrative bodies from executive bodies. However, they provide for no clear indication that citizens elect a local administrative head. Therefore, says Dmitri Badovsky, an expert with the Institute of Social Problems of Moscow State University, amending the law on local government by envisaging a point under which the regional authorities will be determining the terms of a mayor’s contract, will be quite sufficient.

However, the Duma committee on constitutional legislation and state construction has another view of the problem. Committee member Sergei Popov stressed in his interview with Gazeta that “under the Constitution the local government is independent of the state and the amendments will therefore be rough violation of the Constitution.”

Central Electoral Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov also contributed into the polemics by saying to Novye Izvestia that his structure has no concern with this initiative. Moreover, Veshnyakov considered it necessary to warn the authorities of the aftermaths of unreasoned decisions. In the opinion of Veshnyakov, “attempts of solving everything in centralized manner, using a vertical, have never proved a success in our country. Ruling out the people’s creation and their ability of electing the power, influencing its formation means to cordon off from the people, which has always been dangerous.”

At the same time, Veshnyakov proposed his own method of implementing the idea of the mayoral election: in his opinion it is possible to assign the status of regions to cities with a population of over a million.

Only Moscow and St. Petersburg are now vested with this status, but over ten other cities are wiling to receive it, says Novye Izvestia. Nevertheless, this can’t be done without amending the Constitution under the “Veshnyakov model” – it would require fixing an increase in the number of federal subjects in the Constitution.

Meanwhile, according to Dmitri Rogozin, leader of the Motherland party, who was interviewed by Nezavisimaya Gazeta of late, the Kremlin’s plans are absolutely opposed to those of Veshnyakov.

According to Rogozin, after “all governors are reappointed” (allegedly by the end of 2005), the process of enlarging the regions will start in Russia: that is, a cutback in the number of regions, which are to be finally reduced to 30.

As for the local government, Rogozin is resolute in this respect. “Not only it is necessary to appoint the governors, but also prevent the habitual conflicts between mayors and regional leaders, for achieving which it is logical to extend the hierarchy to the level of mayors of regional capitals,” Motherland leader told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Like the governors, they will be appointed by the president “and further comes the local government as a stable matter.”

In general, the sooner the Kremlin stops hiding its intention for undivided authority “with a fig-leaf of regional parliaments,” the better, Rogozin thinks. “How can the legislatures elect governors when they have no choice, just one candidacy… This is not an election, but nonsense.”

Dmitri Rogozin says: “The president must be consistent and once he takes up something he must be appointing the personnel and be responsible for his personnel decisions. Why should he divide the responsibility with regional parliaments?”

In the meantime, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the political reforms recently announced by President Vladimir Putin have injected unprecedented drama into elections for regional legislatures. In all three regions which voted for their parliaments on October 10 – the Irkutsk region, Marii El, and Sakhalin – the level of emotion in these election campaigns was equal to that in any gubernatorial campaign. This is understandable: the role of the legislatures in the appointment of regional leaders is about to be boosted significantly.

However, if Rogozin is right and the president will be actually appointing all heads in the country (but for heads of regional administrations), it means that the regional parliaments be permitted to vote regional leaders into office “for a brief transition period” only, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta and will after that return to their previous unassuming role.

Thus, predicts Nezavisimaya Gazeta, it is not ruled out that many people are to be disappointed over next several months, not a multitude of PR experts and political consultants, “who supposedly found their role in the provincial parliamentary election” alone, but leaders of the political parties, primarily United Russia.

Valery Bogomolov, secretary general of United Russia, has said recently that the core of the party’s actions in the regions is aimed at winning the regional parliamentary elections. A danger exists that regional members of United Russia could be deprived of an interesting job.

However, it seems that the phase of United Russia’s victory march across Russian regions is over.

As reported by the Kommersant newspaper, results of the recent elections in three Russian regions proved to be highly unfavorable for United Russia. United Russia has performed worse than during the Duma elections, while the oppositional parties have improved their results.

Election for the Sakhalin regional Duma has brought a sensation: the “Bears” yielded the 1st place to Our Fatherland – Sakhalin and the Kurils bloc, which unites the local branches of Motherland, the Agrarian Party, the People’s Volition and the Eurasian Party. “The patriotic humors are ousting blues from Russia,” noted entrepreneur Andrei Zalpin, a leader of the bloc.

The bloc leaders are resolute: they have intentions to take charge in spending the revenues obtained from implementation of the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 projects, as well as obtain contracts for local companies.

There was a complete embarrassment in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where United Russia’s total was only half that of the CPRF.

The election in Irkutsk also involved some surprises: the candidate “against all” has ranked third, following United Russia and the CPRF. Besides, an electoral bloc founded by the URF and the People’s Party managed to overcome the threshold of 5%.

In general, serious debating is underway when the Duma mandates are distributed in the Irkutsk region.

Voting results in Marii El strongly resemble those of Irkutsk: United Russia comes first, followed by the CPRF and the candidate “against all” and the debuting in the region Party of Pensioners being 4th.

In the opinion of Kommersant, these data prove “serious shifts” in the political preferences of the voters.

The popularity of the ruling party has subsided and the votes it lost have been immediately picked up by the leftists, whose success hasn’t been prevented “by the disintegration into several columns.” Summing up of the votes gained by these “columns” we may find out that the advantage of the leftist forces to United Russia becomes evident.

So far, the Kremlin finds common language with the majority of oppositionists. “It’s hard to tell how Motherland starts behaving if its triumphant march continues.”

Besides, says Kommersant, the Kremlin’s plans unlikely include the mass dissolution of regional parliaments for declining the candidacies of governors sent down from the top. It is not therefore ruled out that contrived as a purely formal scheme of approving new regional leaders may become a “complicated process of compromising and agreements” for the presidential administration.

“Why are members of the hierarchy of governance sure that the new elections will give them new and docile deputies?” asks Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Many analysts think that the regional legislatures will be “broken over a knee” and no hardships with approval of the proposed candidacies are expected. “However, breaking over a knee is ungrateful. It is easy to imagine the resistance of the elite of an ethnic republic which has rallied under the banner of a recognized leader in case the central authorities encroaches on his or her powers,” notes the newspaper. In this case, the situation could be quite opposite to what has been masterminded: “The center becomes more dependent on the local authorities by nominating “its” president forcedly as to avoid any confrontation in the region.”

The things will be worse afterwards: the federal center will then be responsible for all failures and collapses.

Thus, concludes Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “very simple decisions like replacement of the gubernatorial election with appointing governors arouse serious problems, which require new more complicated solutions.” Meanwhile, the entire question shows extreme uncertainty of the power in the sympathies of the population “why should it then have no trust in provincials by sending in appointees to the regions?”

In the opinion of the newspaper, these doubts are explainable. Almost 50% of regional parliaments members belong to no political parties. Locally, riding high now is United Russia and tomorrow any party, which could rejoice its sponsors by higher efficiency, stresses Nezavisimaya Gazeta, rather than political parties and elites “which neglect the ideology and easily take the grip of any cell.”

“The parties which are not hardened by centurial struggle in definite strata of society but were released from the top could be changed like gloves.”

All of this are peculiar traits of the Russian state and public structure, all of which US political consultant Farid Zakaria refers to as “illiberal democracy,” as cited by Vedomosti.

Declining the term of “democracy” is impossible. “Everybody in the world now wants to be called a democrat – being a tyrant is out of fashion for a while,” says Vedomosti.

According to Zakaria, victory of the democratic ideology has become evident “when the Red Khmers declared themselves as the Democratic Republic of Cambodia.” Even North Korea is called the People’s Republic of North Korea, although it is not trying to imitate the Western principles.

Russia is trying to do that, which is the source of its hardships. As is widely know, the Western democracy is based not on the election as such, but also on what the US political consultant in his work entitled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” calls the “constitutional liberalism” -the rule of law, the separation of powers and basic human rights, including private property, free speech and religious tolerance.

“In the absence of any idea of the rights and the mechanism of rights protection introduction of the democratic rule instead of an oppressive or a totalitarian often results in excessive centralization or even usurpation of power,” Masha Lipman, member of the advisory council with the Moscow Carnegie Center says in Vedomosti.

This is exactly what is happening in Russia.

In the West, explains Lipman, civil rights are fastened earlier than political – not in the laws alone, but in the public views. “A Western person has been obtaining rights for oneself during centuries.” Therefore, once formed the democratic rule had a steady legal and liberal foundation.

In Russia, “which has no idea of the inalienable rights, for the sake of which it is necessary to limit the powers of a state, where the civil liberties are declared, but are not conquered and thus not protected, the state has been violating the civil rights in case of necessity and the public gives up quickly.”

In the innovations proposed by the president recently, says Lipman, “what’s most important is that indifferent citizens are deprived of the rights provided earlier, rather than the method of forming the government which is being offered to them. Both psychologically and politically, this could be perceived in no other way but arbitrary rule; it is just that the arbitrary rule is habitual in Russia.”

For this very reason Russia cannot be considered a full-fledged democracy. As a matter of fact, the 15 years of elections in our country are not altering the meaning.

Moreover, it is easy to restrict this opportunity in Russia. “The public opinion polls show that the citizens care for deprivation of the right to vote in the gubernatorial election but they doesn’t seem to have strong emotions concerning this fact,” notes Vedomosti.

Several latest gubernatorial and presidential election campaigns in the republics have shown that “the Kremlin’s support is the major advantage for any candidate for governor: the candidate supported by the president will win,” says Novoye Vremya magazine.

This was close to de facto appointment of regional leaders from Moscow. Therefore, the idea submitted by Putin that the “popular elections of regional leaders should be replaced with election by regional parliaments by recommendation of the president” was supported 55% of respondents, according to ROMIR Monitoring.

At the same time, the people are not expecting any real changes for the better, for instance an impact on the corruption level. According to ROMIR Monitoring, only one-third of respondents hope that the corruption level could be decreased; 43% think it remains unchanged and 17% more assume it will expand.

The people are more moderate about the president’s initiative concerning the abolition of Duma elections in single-mandate districts, says Novoye Vremya.

The transition to elections via party lists has the “implicit support” of 16%; 32% “more likely support” this initiative, i.e. 48% approve of this idea overall.

“At any rate, the majority of citizens support Putin’s reforms; the Duma support is ensured and these initiatives are more likely to become laws within next few months,” concludes Novoye Vremya.

The Russian business provides a peculiar assessment of these initiatives. As reported by Dengi magazine, “this purely political initiative has occupied the top place in the ranking of economic events which have long-term influence.”

The magazine publishes results of a study conducted in the framework of a joint project by the Association of Managers of Russia Kommersant Publishing House under the calculation of the business index. The results show that among 124 heads of Russian companies who have been polled only one announced that the regional political elites have high influence on his business. At the same time 60% of respondents said this influence is low and 39% qualified this influence as average.

Comparing these results with the opinion by the magazine’s experts who have given the top place on the ranking to Putin’s initiatives, says Dengi, a conclusion suggests itself that “the matter is more likely to be about creation of a new vertically integrated system of power which enables the center to have immediate impact on the economy, rather than replacement of the political elites.” As a matter of fact, stresses the magazine, the system Soviet-era “regional committees” may be revived.

“This is an interesting conclusion given the fact that the president has only mentioned purely political tasks for his reform of the state power,” notes Dengi.

“The authorities don’t seem to know how to govern the Russian-type capitalism. This generates a cascade of contradictory initiatives which more likely prove that the authorities are at a loss, rather than resolute,” says Vyacheslav Kostikov in Argumenty i Fakty weekly.

No “azure democracy,” of which Vladimir Putin has formerly dreamt, according to Vladislav Surkov, deputy director of the presidential administration, is coming out in Russia.

United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov admitted that the country still “has no reliable hierarchy of governance, Russia is insufficiently governable” – which accounts for the Kremlin’s present attempts to tighten the screws.

In the opinion of Kostikov, it comes to worse if under extra powers the authorities are again to be unable to cope with the situation, “ensure modernization of the country and improvements in the lives of people.”

The public is now prepared to accept the system of “managed democracy” or, as they say in the United States “illiberal democracy.” What if it proves to be insufficient?

The fear exists, notes Kostikov, that in this case referring to “new circumstances” and new threats (terrorism, collapse of the oil prices, social unrest, separatism, etc.) the authorities may demand “extremely managed democracy,” with the forceful accompaniment – “and this all will go under a different name.” In the opinion of Kostikov, it is inadmissible to allow the authorities to approach this border, which divides democracy of the dictatorship.

To all appearances, this very question – where will the authorities stop? – is the concern for many observers nowadays.

According to Yevgeny Kiselev, editor-in-chief of Moskovskiye Novosti, the Kremlin is obviously becoming more irritated and nervous due to constant failures, major and minor misfortunes. In his opinion, this may result in “impulsive, emotional, unconsidered decisions.”

Even worse: the “security structures” may face a temptation of urging Putin towards tougher, more uncompromising measures on screw-tightening.” If this fails, assumes Kiselev, “a temptation may appear to get rid of Putin.”

Therefore, editor-in-chief of Moskovskiye Novosti urges to think: who can succeed Putin?

The continuation is possible under which the incumbent Russian theater of absurdities in politics will in time be perceived as a quite “boring and regular classical staging.”

It wouldn’t be surprising, and would be quite within Russian traditions.

As the old Eastern saying has it, we are constantly living in “interesting times.”

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