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Moscow Times
November 1, 2004
Electoral Reform Is Bazaar
By Nikolai Petrov

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

On Friday, the State Duma overwhelmingly approved, in its first reading, the presidential bill scrapping direct gubernatorial elections in Russia's 89 regions. Only the Communists and a handful of independents voted against the bill.

The Kremlin secured passage of the draft law without difficulty. Deputies guard the interests of those that got them into the Duma: There was a time when deputies would represent the interests of regional authorities and even their electorate, but now their hopes for re-election are almost exclusively tied to the Kremlin and thus their loyalties are, too.

This explains, by the way, why the Kremlin decided to combine gubernatorial electoral reform with reform of the parliamentary electoral system.

In the month since the bill was submitted to the Duma, roughly one-third of regional parliaments have discussed it and forwarded their conclusions to the federal parliament. The overwhelming majority approved the general concept of the bill, while criticizing or proposing changes to specific provisions. Only the parliaments of Chuvashia and Ryazan actually opposed the bill.

There was criticism of the bill from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, while the parliaments of Kaliningrad and Astrakhan tried to block it, only to back down under pressure from the Kremlin.

Leaders of the ethnic republics, the most prominent being Mintimer Shaimiyev and Murtaza Rakhimov, adopted their usual tactic of individual bargaining with the Kremlin -- which for them personally may well be completely rational.

It's worth pointing out that Moscow, although long having monopoly power over the appointment of law enforcement and security agency heads in the regions, even now is unable to exercise that power in full in the republics. Even in Kalmykia, the federal authorities encountered serious problems when trying to remove the head of the republic's interior ministry, which took several months to resolve.

Only Chuvash President Nikolai Fyodorov, who has consistently opposed all President Vladimir Putin's anti-federal reforms since 2000, really raised the stakes.

The essence of the amendments proposed by regional legislators can be summarized in several points. The main one concerns the impermissibility of dissolving regional parliaments that twice refuse to approve the president's nominee for governor. Half the regional parliaments so far have opposed this dissolution procedure or supported amending the procedure.

The second point concerns introducing elements of competition into the process of choosing a regional governor, including preliminary consultation with regional legislators about candidates. The most radical proposals are to allow regional parliaments to put forward their own candidates, as was the case in the early Yeltsin years, or even to elect governors from the ranks of regional deputies. Other proposals involve establishing selection criteria for gubernatorial candidates, such as the introduction of a residency requirement that would exclude the possibility of non-locals being appointed.

There have also been suggestions to make the new scheme temporary, ending it in 2010 or even 2008.

When the bill was introduced to the Duma, the question arose as to why the Kremlin needed to bully regional legislators with the blatantly unconstitutional threat of dissolution. Now the answer is clear -- it was all part of the bargaining process. Just as at a bazaar, by initially insisting on an excessive price, the Kremlin has given itself room to make "certain concessions." However, there should be no illusions: Regional parliaments may be spared the threat of dissolution, but they will not be able to prevent the appointment of a candidate they do not want (albeit perhaps with the qualifier "acting" before their name).

Now, before the second reading scheduled for Dec. 1, the real bargaining gets underway. The regional elites have stated their position. It has also been announced that a number of amendments "strengthening the accountability of regional heads before the electorate" are being prepared by a working group under presidential aide Igor Shuvalov. There is hope that some of the amendments proposed by regional legislatures will make it into the final draft of the law.

The whole process has been one of bargaining between the central and regional political elites, while the voice of ordinary citizens is almost inaudible although it is really their rights that are being violated.