One of the riddles of the first year of Vladimir Putin’s “new” presidency has been the return of direct gubernatorial elections and their subsequent rollback. One can find a great many analytical materials on this subject in Russian media, but the “home kitchen” remains off-screen. Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the analytical department at the Center for Political Technologies and an IMR advisor, considers why the Kremlin reversed its own decision.
Last Fall, the Kremlin began preparing for the possible abolition of direct gubernatorial elections, but at the time it went almost unnoticed. “Anonymous sources” in the presidential administration were already doing their work: there was active talk in the media that “ethnic republics” are not ready for real political competition, and that direct gubernatorial elections can destabilize them both politically and socially. The Kremlin seems to have established a tradition of forwarding the most controversial bills to the Duma not on behalf of the president, but through the deputies themselves. And the more indignation the bill arouses, the more lawmakers endorse it. For example, on the website of the lower house, one can see that almost all State Duma deputies are among the authors of the “Anti-Magnitsky Law,” a situation that is plainly ludicrous. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that representatives from all four parliamentary caucuses backed the bill that gives any regional legislature the power to abolish direct gubernatorial elections.
Until June 1, 2012, there was a special procedure for the “empowerment” of regional governors. It was introduced after the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, and was directed at building the “power vertical” at both federal and regional levels. In reality, it was a series of counter-reforms aimed at tightening the political regime. Initially, presidential envoys to federal districts would put forward candidates for governors, but when the institution of “envoys” proved unworkable due to its administrative redundancy, the duty to select the governor was formally delegated to the party that won elections to the region’s legislature—in other words, to United Russia. In reality, the selection of governors was made in the presidential administration. It was a system whereby the governors were de facto appointed, with some elements of decorative (mock) democracy.
A 120,000-strong rally in Moscow came as a shock to the regime’s political consultants. The administration obsessively searched for a way to let the people “blow off steam.”
For seven years, this situation worked fine for the Kremlin. The gubernatorial corps has become completely loyal—it was “cleansed” of charismatic politicians, who were replaced by representatives of federal clans, technocrats, “managers,” businessmen, or just commonplace bureaucrats. The Kremlin was indifferent to the fact that this situation resulted in a sharp decrease in the efficiency of state management, the soaring of corruption, and a decline of the regime’s legitimacy. As soon as unpleasant questions attached to the governor emerged (concerning, for example, conflicts within the elite, the rise in protests, or the failure of economic and social projects), he was to be replaced by another one—not because he failed, but because if he stayed in office, the president would be blamed for his failure. By appointing governors, Putin, one way or another, assumed responsibility for their actions.
Then came December 2011. The Kremlin was seriously frightened by the outburst of protest activity and a changed atmosphere. A 120,000-strong rally in downtown Moscow came as a shock to the regime’s political consultants. The administration obsessively searched for a way to let the people who came into the streets “blow off steam.” The return of direct gubernatorial elections and the liberalization of the law on political parties were aimed at reducing tension and showing the regime’s readiness to conduct a dialogue with society.
In due time, the Kremlin has come to view these steps as signs of weakness. The decision to restore direct gubernatorial elections was poorly thought-out and planned, and had to be reconsidered several times. Today, few people remember that elections were initially supposed to be accompanied by a so-called “presidential filter,” whereby candidates put forward by parties had to undergo “consultations” with the presidential administration. In other words, the Kremlin was to have a veto over gubernatorial candidates. Then-President Dmitri Medvedev was against this “filter,” and supported the possibility for independent candidates to run for governor. Vladimir Putin had a different view. As a result, the idea of a “presidential filter” was rejected and replaced by a “municipal threshold”: gubernatorial candidates had to collect signatures from between 5 and 10 percent of local legislators (the exact number to be determined by each region), most of whom are loyal to the regime.
Between December 2011 and June 2012, fearing election losses, the Kremlin replaced or reappointed some two dozen regional governors. In any case, the electoral system was so “twisted” that the opposition had a very small chance of winning. This system looked like a mockery of democracy. Even references to France (which, in fact, had little in common with the scheme proposed by the Russian government) did not help the Kremlin. The administration pointed out that in France, a presidential candidate has to collect at least 500 signatures from elected officials (of whom there are 42,000 throughout the country), provided that they represent at least 30 administrative departments. Five hundred signatures is a little more than 1 percent of elected officials, and it is not difficult for politicians to cross this threshold. In 2012, 10 candidates (real candidates, not floaters)took part in the French presidential election. Because of the evident disparity between the systems, Russian audiences quickly lost interest in references to the “French experience.”
Yet even this controlled system had the potential to spell trouble for the Kremlin. In October 2012, gubernatorial elections were held in 5 Russian regions. In every one of them, the administration backed incumbent governors, who were eventually reelected. But this came with a price. In order to allow Oleg Kovalev—the weak governor of the Ryazan region—to win, his competitor Igor Morozov, supported by the All-Russian People’s Front, had to be removed from the race. To achieve this goal, Morozov was offered a seat in the Federation Council, which he accepted. In the Bryansk region, the government made a complete fool of itself: Vadim Potomsky, a businessman and the Communist Party’s gubernatorial candidate, nicknamed “trash king” for his projects on trash recycling, succeeded in removing Governor Nikolai Denin from the ballot by court order. Given that Potomsky had the support of regional law enforcement agencies, the division of administrative resources was evident. As a result, the Kremlin had to intervene to return Denin on the ballot by order of the Supreme Court, and reelect him through large-scale mobilization.
The “municipal filter” posed problems as well. Ryazan Governor Kovalev chose to collect 1,500 signatures instead of the 241 necessary to get nominated, and did not give opposition candidates a chance to participate in the election. The regional government helped the sham opposition get signatures in order to legitimize the election and imitate competition.
In the past year, the Kremlin decided that a further “tightening of the screws” is a better way to retain “political stability” than a weakening of the regime. Even if the presidential administration has a good chance of keeping the situation under control and getting the “right” candidates elected in most regions, there are areas where direct elections, even when pared down, presented the risk of real competition, scandals and crises, to which the Kremlin is not accustomed. This is why the administration decided to acquire a sort of lifebelt: in regions where victory is not certain, governors will be appointed.
The bill, passed by the State Duma on the first reading, stipulates that each party caucus in the regional parliament can put forward three gubernatorial candidates for the president’s consideration. In turn, the president chooses a total of three candidates, and proposes them to the regional parliament. Under the current political conditions, this procedure is not that different from the one that existed before, when the president had to consider candidates put forward by the majority party in the regional legislature. It has become traditional that, among the three candidates “selected” by the president, one will be the favorite and the two others will be “dummies”—and the United Russia majority will vote as required.
The principal intrigue is in which regions direct elections will be abolished. Several governors are already rejoicing at the idea of receiving popular legitimacy. As Grigory Golosov, Russia’s leading specialist on electoral systems, notes, Medvedev dismissed almost half of all the governors under the old appointment system. What the president gives, he can also take away. The current law also prescribes a procedure for dismissal, but it is complicated, inconvenient and morally inconsistent. If voters elected the governor, they should be the ones to remove him from office.
The Kremlin does not want to give governors the opportunity to receive legitimacy “from below,” because in this case, even a technocrat can start delivering ultimatums to the federal government.
The Kremlin is already realizing that it will not be that easy to abolish direct elections in the regions. Even Dagestan, which is usually cited by the opponents of direct elections (different ethnic groups have specific quotas in the republic’s government), came out in support of direct elections. Having hastily criticized the system of gubernatorial appointments, Magomedsalam Magomedov, the head of Dagestan, annoyed the Kremlin and lost his position. However, his successor, Ramazan Abdulatipov (a politician from the 1990s), also talks about the necessity of direct elections.
It is already certain that the question of abolishing direct gubernatorial elections will be raised in the legislatures of the Orel, Sverdlovsk, Kaliningrad and Perm regions (the governors of these regions are not in a strong position). In the Krasnoyarsk and Ulyanovsk regions, United Russia deputies are supporting direct elections.
This situation suggests several conclusions. First of all, it turned out that the Kremlin is not ready for competition, even in a “pared-down” form with powerful filters. Secondly, the government does not understand what it wants in reality. This is why it so often reconsiders its own decisions in accordance with circumstances. The present situation, when each region decides the system of selecting its governor, may also be reconsidered. Thirdly, the Kremlin does not want to give governors the opportunity to receive legitimacy “from below,” because in this case, even a technocratic manager can declare his political ambitions and start presenting ultimatums to the federal government. The administration prefers to appoint both governors and gubernatorial candidates. In the latter case, even in those regions where direct elections will be preserved, the destiny of the candidates will be in the hands of President Putin. And nothing can change this system as long as an authoritarian regime is in power in Russia.