One of the hallmarks of Vladimir Putin’s rule has been an attempt to “depoliticize” Russian government.[i] Rather than viewing governance as the art of reconciling competing claims by various groups and individuals, the current Russian leadership embraces the concept of government as a science of bureaucratic management.[ii] This approach requires insulating policy-making as much as possible from the “short-sighted” demands of opposition politicians, who are branded as populists and demagogues, and entrusting it to those–the current ruling elite, headed by the president–who allegedly have the long term interests of the Russian state at heart. It is easy, of course, to dismiss this perspective as a self-serving means of legitimating authoritarian rule and keeping the incumbents in power. Although it certainly serves those purposes, it is more than a cynical ploy; it reflects the worldview of Russia’s contemporary ruling class, which has a deep distrust, if not fear, of the common people, the narod, as political actors.
To move Russia from public politics to public management, the political leadership has employed a number of tactics over the last decade and a half, the most visible of which is the construction of what Putin has called a “power vertical” [vertikal’ vlasti]. In this system, the president sits atop a hierarchy of executive officials–from Moscow to the provinces–who are supposed to carry out policies introduced or negotiated by Putin in the center. Among the many factors complicating the operation of the power vertical is the presence of various elected officials, at the federal, regional, and local levels, whose loyalty to the president may be limited by their sensitivity to the views of constituents. In order to neutralize the constraints imposed by the election of other public officials, Putin has placed virtually insurmountable barriers in the path of opposition parties and politicians and transformed many elective offices into appointed ones.[iii]
Over the last year, President Putin’s team has revived a campaign to “depoliticize” local government through electoral reform. Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician assassinated earlier this year, asked facetiously in December 2014 what the political leadership was doing while the ruble fell 50 percent in value and 130 billion rubles fled the country? His answer: “The Kremlin…gave an order to eliminate the election of mayors of the capital cities [of Russian regions].”[iv] In fact, the shift to appointed rather than elected mayors had begun a decade earlier, though it had affected less than half of Russian territories by late 2011.[v] And it was not just regional capitals–where local governors often find themselves in disputes with popular local mayors–but larger cities throughout Russia that have been capitulating in recent months to political pressure from above to abandon elections for mayor. In many cases, the mayors are being replaced by city managers, an institution that appeared in Russia for the first time in 2003 as part of the depoliticization initiative.[vi]
Although President Putin had succeeded earlier in marginalizing the opposition in federal and regional politics, public politics remained vibrant at the local level, where mayoral contests were often genuinely competitive. In the race for Moscow mayor, for example, one of Putin’s harshest and most visible critics, Alexei Navalnyi, received over 27 percent of the vote in a losing but impressive effort. According to one source, “[o]ne quarter of mayoral elections held between 2001 and 2012 were decided by less than 15 percentage points….[and] in many notable instances, opposition mayoral candidates have been able to defeat United Russia candidates, although many of those opposition mayors were subsequently arrested.”[vii] It is no surprise, then, that a Russian president intent on eliminating pockets of resistance to the power vertical would seek to complete the depoliticization of local government.
There is a danger for Putin, however, that the attempt to strip mayors of public accountability will prove a pyrrhic victory. Not only are Putin’s tactics running roughshod over more than two decades of constitutional traditions on the autonomy of local government, they fly directly in the face of public opinion on the issue. According to a poll taken by the Levada Center in May 2014, 77 percent of Russians believed that mayors of large cities should be directly elected.[viii] In a survey conducted at the end of last year, 80 percent of Yaroslavl residents favored direct mayoral election.[ix] Even for a normally compliant population, many of the justifications offered by the regime’s representatives for diminishing the power of the ballot appear insulting. The governor of Krasnodar region noted that the government would save considerable money by not having elections, and at any rate the population was “tired” of all the campaigns.[x] The vice speaker of the regional assembly in Ulianovsk admitted that the elimination of direct mayoral elections would subordinate the office of mayor to the regional governor, which “will strengthen the power vertical, and that has never hurt Russia.”[xi] For his part, the head of the Karelian Republic argued that the reform would “remove unnecessary politicization from local government…”[xii] More convincing to some will be the opportunity that the new electoral rules provide for the formation of directly elected borough councils within cities, but the candidates drawn to these bodies are likely to resurrect “the image of milk-maids and lathe operators recruited in the Soviet-era local elections.”[xiii]
Students of presidentialism and semi-presidentialism traditionally focus on national politics and on relations between executive and legislative institutions. However, presidential power rests not only on political relations in the center but on the ability of the leader to command the loyalty of the periphery. Designed to ensure that Putin’s writ extends to the farthest reaches of Russia, the current attempt to depoliticize mayors’ offices tests the limits of the Russian power vertical. In Joel Moses’ words, under the new system, “…Russians will be denied accountable citywide institutions responsible for their daily lives and left with protests, demonstrations, and grassroots organizations as their sole political outlets….”[xiv] Given that the biggest winners in this reform are governors rather than the Russian president, one has to wonder if this initiative is a step too far for Putin.[xv]
[i] An excellent work of Russian scholarship on this subject is Viktor Mart’ianov, “The Decline of Public Politics in Russia: From Public Politics to Political Administration: The Depoliticization of the Regions,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 45, no. 5 (September-October 2007), pp. 67-82 [translation of “Padenie publichnoi politiki v Rossii: ot publichnoi politiki k politicheskomu administrirovaniiu. Depolitizatsiia regionov,” Svobodnaia mysl’, 2006, no. 5, pp. 5-18] The title of this blog entry and the framework for analysis were inspired by this piece.
[ii] This idea is developed with regard to Soviet-style regimes in A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
[iii] Although the public regained the right to vote for governors after almost a decade during which the president appointed governors to the country’s 83 regions, new, arcane rules all but ensure that gubernatorial candidates favored by President Putin will emerge as winners. See Joel C. Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 66, no. 9 (November 2014), pp. 1395-1424, and especially pp. 1414-1415 for the rules limiting genuine competition. Recently adopted rules also provide that certain regions may choose to forgo direct elections for governor, and that option has been adopted by violence-plagued regions in the Northern Caucasus. Here, the regional parliaments select the governor.
[iv] Boris Nemtsov, “Panoptikum: rubl’ rukhnul, a oni vybory otmeniaiut,” Ekho Moskvy, 1 December 2014.
[v] The provisions of Russian legislation on mayoral elections are complex, but essentially they allow cities to choose among several options, which allow for an elected mayor, a mayor-city manager tandem, or a city manager. Putin’s recent moves are effectively removing this choice and forcing locales to abandon the direct election option. See Noah Buckley, Guzel Garifullina, Ora John Reuter, and Alexandra Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 22, no. 1 (2014), pp. 93-98.
[vi] Vasilii Skalon and Maksim Rubchenko observed in 2010 that the introduction of city managers was “proceeding apace in places where United Russia [the hegemonic, pro-presidential party] has been unable to win mayoral elections.” Skalon and Rubchenko, “Local Government in the Grip of the ‘Power Vertical’,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 49, no. 4 (July-August 2011), p. 33 [translation of “Samoupravlenie v tiskakh vertikali,” Ekspert, no. 45 (15 November 2010). See also Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” pp. 1402-1403. The study by Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” offers fascinating detail on the differences in backgrounds between elected and appointed mayors in Russia.
[vii] Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” p. 98, citing http://echo.msk.ru/blog/tulsky/826429-echo/
[viii] “V Irkutske deputaty otmenili priamye vybory mera goroda,” NEWSru.com, 23 March 2015.
[ix] “V Iaroslavle otmenili priamye vybory mera,” Russkaia sluzhba BBC, 12 December 2014.
[x] Mariia Epifanova, Nataliia Zotova, “Izbrannykh vse men’she,” Novaia gazeta, 15 December 2014.
[xi] Sergei Titov, “V Ul’ianovske vosstanavlivaiut vertikal’ vlasti,” Kommersant, 27 June 2014.
[xii] “Karel’skie parlamentarii otmenili priamye vybory mera Petrozavodska,” TASS, 18 June 2014.
[xiii] Joel C. Moses, “Putin and Russian Subnational Politics in 2014,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 23, no. 2 (Spring 2015), p. 197.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 201.
[xv] In the Yeltsin era, the Russian president allied with the country’s mayors as a way of constraining gubernatorial power, but Putin’s gambit in this ongoing triangular game assures that local officials will not see the presidency as a protector. See Eugene Huskey, Presidential Power in Russia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), pp. 189-190.