Federation Council reforms unlikely until the next political cycle

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov has proposed an election procedure for the upper house: regional leaders and regional legislatures would be empowered to nominate two candidates each, and citizens would then vote to elect their senators.

The recent recall of four members of the upper house, along with the investigation into the activities of former senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan, which has already claimed a prominent place in the series of corruption scandals, appear to be reviving the idea of reforming the Federation Council. This was the tone of statements made by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, returning to the question of whether members of the upper house ought to be elected. Mironov said: “The Federation Council is the only government body which is never replaced. In order to change its membership procedures, the first thing we have to do is create conditions for uninterrupted rotation.”

Mironov sees the election procedure as follows: regional leaders and regional legislatures would be empowered to nominate two candidates each, and citizens would then vote to elect their senators. In other words, it would be a kind of symbiosis between appointments and direct popular elections.

Naturally, this raises the question of party influence on the election of senators. Isn’t it inevitable? In that case, Mironov says he can only hope that the Russian Party of Life becomes more influential.

It’s worth noting that Mironov’s reaction to the process of “cleansing” the upper house, in contrast to the Duma, trod close to the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette. According to Mironov, all these processes are taking place because the Federation Council has a procedure for recalling senators, but the Duma lacks any procedure of that kind. Mironov maintains that if the Duma did have such a procedure, similar processes (that is, Duma members being stripped of their mandates) would also take place in the lower house. For Duma members, in contrast to senators, immunity from prosecution is provided by direct elections.

According to our sources, the Kremlin has not sanctioned the start of a process for restoring upper house elections. All these initiatives are coming from Mironov himself. Of late, he’s been forced to resort to citing his rights as the head of the upper house as the sole explanation for all his political steps. Quoting Professor Preobrazhensky, Mironov even advised senators not to read the newspapers. A small disclaimer should be added here: Professor Preobrazhensky actually advised against reading “Soviet newspapers,” not newspapers in general – but that, as they say, is a minor detail.

All the same, few would now dispute that the upper house presents an unattractive picture in its present form, with its members appointed and the appointments approved by regional parliaments. Dismissed officials, business executives, former regional leaders… In short, it’s the product of regional lobbying. And, as the case of former senator Chakhmakhchyan shows, the lobbying isn’t always civilized.

What’s more, sometimes it turns out that regional authority isn’t enough to get a senator into office. Many appointed senators have had to wait months for endorsement by the upper house itself. Federation Council regulations permit its speaker to “suspend” endorsement of new senators, on entirely lawful grounds. At one point, the Duma was actually considering a bill that would have regulated procedures for newly-appointed senators assuming office – at least by setting a definite time limit.

Federation Council reforms are not only ripe – they’re overdue. However, they probably won’t take place until the next political cycle.

In order for Federation Council elections to be held simultaneously with the next Duma elections, legislation would have to be passed by January 1, 2007. This is unlikely to happen – since the United Russia party would hardly be able to conduct two election campaigns simultaneously. Neither would any other party be able to do so.