20 years under Putin: a timeline

The question of whether or not the Kremlin will abolish direct mayoral elections in major Russian cities is likely to be one of the major political intrigues of 2014. Although the Russian Constitution prohibits cancellation of direct mayoral elections, as does the European Charter of Local Self-Government, circles close to the Kremlin have already figured out how to circumvent these legislative obstacles. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya believes that the Kremlin has a strong incentive to succumb to the temptation of extending Russia’s “vertical of power”.



During the period of active political reforms that took place in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s first and second terms, local government remained largely untouched by the transformations. Under the Russian constitution, local government is not included in the state’s formal system of government, and thus receives minimal political and economic resources. Upon the completion of the formation of “Putin’s regime,” the local level remained virtually the only option for independent politicians to participate in elections.

Mayoral elections in major Russian cities have always been a headache for governors, as governors tend to be in constant, institutional conflict with heads of regional centers. In the 1990s, the Kremlin actively exploited the conflict between regional and local authorities—using the latter as counterweights to the “red” governors who were often beyond the Kremlin’s control. In the 2000s, after the construction of Russia’s “Power Vertical,” the Kremlin stepped back from such conflicts: local and regional authorities were politically loyal, and any developing conflicts were of a purely local and often “economic” nature.

Perhaps the Kremlin would have left local government alone, were it not for a few important factors:

The first was the formation of political protests at the end of 2011and the beginning of 2012, which provided a realm in which new political leaders could express themselves—leaders without the reputational problems of the 1990s liberals. Prior to 2011, the federal government lost mainly to representatives of A Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya); but in 2012, new charismatic leaders of the local elite, who were not linked with traditional parliamentary forces, began to appear. The new political threat posed by the “angry urban class” made the Kremlin look more closely at opportunities for political participation on the municipal level. The cities became a battleground between the government and the non-systemic opposition; local campaigns became campaigns of a federal scale.

When it comes to Russian politics, party affiliation has grown increasingly irrelevant in recent years, as the main criterion for success has become noninvolvement with the party in power. It is no coincidence that members of the ruling party United Russia, almost without exception, run as independents in local elections; the campaign conducted by opposition leader Alexei Navalny in December 2011, “against the party of crooks and thieves,” was highly effective. One of the biggest losses experienced by the ruling power was the March 2012 mayoral election in Yaroslavl, when independent candidate Eugene Urlashov, supported by billionaire and former independent presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, came in first. A year later, he was arrested on bogus charges of bribery.

In order to compensate for the ruling party’s weak position at the local level, authorities reformed the model of local urban governance. United Russia relied on this change in the model of management by local entities. City managers started to be introduced everywhere, and the practice of direct mayoral elections was squeezed out. According to the Ministry of Regional Development (an analysis of the implementation of the city manager model is published on the ministry’s official website), in 94.7 percent of the local entities where the city manager model is applied, the mayor is elected from among the city council deputies, by the deputies themselves; in 5.3 percent, the mayor is elected directly by voters. The city manager model is in operation in 21 percent of all the municipalities on Russian territory. In large cities, the regional government pushed through United Russia’s amendments to local charters, separating the mayor and the city manager: political functions were delegated to the former, economic functions to the latter; the first was elected (either directly or from among the local deputies), and the second was hired on a contract. This bifurcated model for municipal control, however, resulted in a diarchy and permanent political conflicts within the cities. And such conflicts, often associated with competition between local clans, highlighted the contradictions between regional authorities and the ruling party, United Russia. Gradually this model has begun to decline.

At the end of last year Putin made ​​it clear that he will allow deeper editing of the Russian Constitution, foremost concerning the relationship between the federal and local government.

Which leads us to the second factor: the regional authorities’ attempt to achieve political control over the major cities and their subjects through the introduction of a city manager was not productive.

The third factor has been a slow transformation of Vladimir Putin’s political mindset. He is now looking favorably at things that were previously unacceptable to him—in particular, editing the Russian Constitution. At the end of last year, as part of his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Putin made ​​it clear that he will allow deeper editing of the basic law, foremost concerning the relationship between the federal and local government.

The fourth factor lies in the fact that while United Russia is losing its position in local representative bodies, the entire system of political control and leverage in Russia is built on the basis of the ruling party’s dominance in local councils. An interesting situation developed in Moscow after the local elections of March 4, 2012. Independent municipal deputies from different districts in Moscow reported to Gazeta.ru that problems arose in nearly two dozen of Moscow’s municipal districts during the respective chairman elections. In those areas where the opposition, according to the results of the local government elections on March 4, possessed the same number of seats as United Russia and its supporters (the same situation also transpired in Zhulebino, Dorogomilovo, Troparyovo-Nikulino, Cheryomushki, and other areas), or at least a little more than a third of seats, the party in power failed to get its chairman elected. In total, candidates from A Just Russia party, the Communist party, the Yabloko party, and those who ran as independent, self-promoted candidates, won about a third of the thousand available seats in the municipal election.

In general, the situation at the local level gets more noticeably out of control every year. Governors, who are elected rather than appointed, now receive additional political resources, and with them, growing ambition: the need to “subdue” the mayors of major cities is increasing. The Kremlin faces a difficult decision: it can either allow the non-systemic opposition to continue its successful use of local-level elections for high-profile campaigns, with immediate ramifications on the federal level, or it can cancel the elections. Otherwise, the strikingly high 27 percent of the vote obtained by Navalny in Moscow’s September 2013 mayoral election—and the simultaneous victory of Evgeny Roizman of the Civic Platform party (sponsored by Mikhail Prokhorov) in the Yekaterinburg mayoral election—will become an everyday norm.

On November 8, 2013, Putin made ​​a request to the government to take inventory of the various municipalities and prepare proposals for necessary changes to the local self-government legislation. As we all know, Putin prefers to let others implement bad decisions for him. That’s why the abolition of elections conducted in major cities is being carried out not by United Russia, but by the Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies (ISSI), which is led by Dimitri Badovsky and is considered to be close to the Kremlin. The institute prepared an analytical report, which was given to the presidential administration and the national authorities and put out for public consultation, Kommersant newspaper reported.

This reform could take about two years. In this case, the non-systemic opposition squeezed out from the federal level to the township-level elections, which will probably make the Kremlin and the governors quite happy.

The document’s authors offer two basic models for reform. The first involves the creation of territorial forms of governments instead of the existing urban districts and municipal regions (the so-called “second level” of local self-government). The local self-government (LSG) status would be retained only by urban and rural settlements, intercity municipalities, and inter-settlement areas (the “first level”). The heads of the territorial authorities (former mayors of the “second level”) would be appointed by the governor (an agreement with the deputies of the “first level” is possible through a vote of confidence); city councils would be abolished. However, these heads would be accountable to the public and to members of the LSG of the “first level,” which might require a resignation of the governor based on the results of the year.

The second model proposes the creation of “urban agglomerations”—a new kind of municipality in the capitals of the Russian Federation’s subjects. In the agglomeration, it would be possible to maintain two levels of LSG. The heads of the agglomerations would be appointed by the governor, and could also be revoked by the representative body (which would not be elected, but would rather be a self-governed delegation of deputies of the “first level,” and would have very limited powers) or by the public on the basis of the annual reports. The agglomeration is partly similar to the in the LSG model in the federal cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, although these metropolitan areas have direct elections for chief executive, adequate legislatures, and the full right to approve their own budgets.

The authors believe that neither model would require amendments to the constitution and that both comply with the European Charter of Local Self-Government, ratified by the Russian Federation. It is advised to test the model in the country’s trial territorial forms. In some conflict with this, the authors point to the usefulness of implementing the reform prior to the 2016 elections to the State Duma, as well as of reducing the level of “accountability and transparency” of LSG activities in anticipation of the reform.

The abolition of major city elections was supported by the Civil Society Development Foundation (FoRGO), founded by politician Constantine Kostin (whose wife, Olga Kostin, was a witness for the prosecution in the first Yukos case); FoRGO is also thought to be close to the Kremlin. Kostin, however, offered to give the region an opportunity to choose from different models, providing for, for example, “the co-existence of the elected mayor and the head appointed by the governor.” Legislating the reforms, Kostin has said, will take at least a year, and then there should be a several-year transition period.

Vladimir Putin, refusing to call a spade a spade, even indirectly, supported the reform. At his recent end-of-the-year press conference, he said: “We have a two-level system; it is, of course, cumbersome and ineffective. Take a city, for example, that has half a million people. How can an ordinary citizen gain access to his or her superiors? But this is a quasi-management level, quasi-municipal.” To prolong the intrigue, he chose not to speak of his personal opinion on the abolition of mayoral elections. The reform debate is in full swing. According to Kommersant, a pilot project could be launched in Volgograd.

This reform could take about two years. In this case, the non-systemic opposition squeezed out from the federal level to the township-level elections, which will probably make the Kremlin and the governors quite happy. The heads of major cities will de facto enter the system of government; they will be the part of the “Power Vertical.”

I wonder, in implementing this reform, is the Kremlin thinking about its potential effect on the protest movement? The narrowing of legitimate opportunities for political participation unfortunately historically leads to growing protest activity, and the result of this could be much more destructive for the regime than losing a mayoral election.