On Sept. 27, President Vladimir Putin began to implement the political reforms he had announced two weeks before. He introduced a bill in the State Duma that would cancel direct gubernatorial elections and introduce instead de facto appointment of regional leaders by the president.
On Sept. 29, the Duma Council promptly forwarded the bill to the regions, as required by law. The regions have one month to deliver their assessment of the president’s plan. Regardless of their reaction, however, a first reading of the bill in the Duma will take place Oct. 29.
The bill’s fate in the Duma is not in doubt. United Russia, which enjoys a constitutional majority in the lower house, came out in favor of the bill before it was even drafted. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats will back the bill as well; the party has been calling for the appointment of governors for a decade. Most of Dmitry Rogozin’s supporters are also big fans of the “power vertical,” Putin’s executive chain of command.
The only dissent will come from the Communists and independent deputies, about 60 votes in all. Some 370 to 390 deputies will vote for the bill, and the Duma may decide to hold all three readings of the bill in a single session. Approval of the bill by the Federation Council will inevitably follow. By the time the 87th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution rolls around, the Russian people may well have been stripped of one of their most important democratic rights—the right to elect their regional leaders.
Deputies will have no chance to amend the legislation. Conceptually, the law is so simple, even primitive, that the slightest change would alter its substance. The substance of the bill is this: The president can install anyone he likes as a regional leader. He can also remove those leaders at will. Regional legislatures must confirm the president’s nominees, but in practice this will amount to nothing more than a rubber stamp.
The process works like this: The president nominates a Russian citizen at least 35 years of age for approval by a regional legislature. A majority vote is required for confirmation. If a majority is not obtained, the president has one week to nominate a new candidate or to send the same name back to the legislature. If deputies again refuse to play ball, the president appoints an acting governor and has the option to dissolve the legislature. He can also leave well enough alone; the acting governor, you see, can serve for up to five years. In any case, the president’s man runs the region, not someone elected by the people or the legislature.
The procedure for firing governors is equally simple. If the president loses faith in his appointee, or feels that he isn’t up to par, he simply pulls the plug. Regional legislators have no say in the matter. The president merely informs them of his decision and submits a new candidate for their approval. Regional lawmakers cannot fire the governor. They can hold a vote of no confidence, but the president is entirely within his rights to ignore the result.
The problem is that Putin’s plan violates the Constitution—specifically articles 1, 3, 5, 10, 11, 32, 71, 72, 73 and 77—and weakens the state. It also runs counter to a number of Constitutional Court rulings, most specifically the Jan. 18, 1996, ruling in which the court held that only the direct election of regional leaders can be considered to satisfy the requirements of the Constitution.
The new political system created by Putin’s plan will have no legal foundation in the Constitution, and this will have disastrous consequences for the country. Nor will Kremlin-appointed governors enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Poll after poll has shown that a majority of Russians either don’t understand Putin’s proposals or don’t approve of them. Most voters want to carry on electing their leaders because they understand that elected officials care more for the interests of their constituents than appointed ones do. The Beslan tragedy made clear that the Kremlin-appointed leaders in Chechnya and Ingushetia have no connection with the people, and are therefore utterly impotent.
The examples of Chechnya and Ingushetia offer little hope for the future. Soon Russia’s vast expanses will be controlled by 89 Kremlin emissaries, each guided by the sentiments of a senior official under Emperor Nicholas I: “I know only the tsar, and I have no use for Russia!” Some will be functionaries, outsiders in their regions. Others will be aging bosses whose political lives have been extended by the Kremlin. But Putin will not be able to extend the people’s faith in them. Neither functionaries loyal only to Moscow, nor regional “khans” who have long worn out their welcome, will lend the new political system the authority and legitimacy necessary for Russia to become a stronger, more cohesive state.
Putin’s call for an active civil society will die on his lips. For how can society lift itself up when the president has denied it any role in running the country?
The new governors will be granted additional control over the regional offices of the so-called federal power ministries. But this will lead only to greater excesses and greater corruption.
What’s next? In November, a number of regional leaders such as Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev and Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, who are confident in their power and sure of the Kremlin’s backing, will resign before their current terms are out. The Kremlin will appoint them in short order, and the grateful emissaries will announce their intention to strengthen the presidential chain of command. Other regional leaders will have little choice but to follow suit, enabling the Kremlin to purge unsuitable candidates. The Kremlin will not wait until 2009.
Next on the agenda: including local government in the chain of command. The Constitution will be forgotten, and the Constitutional Court will once more remain silent. The bureaucracy will gain complete control of the country, while the people are removed from the loop. Things will be just as they were before 1917, and before 1991.
I’m afraid the end result will be exactly the same.