Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Putin has Reduced Local Governments to ‘Fifth Wheel’ Status to Undermine Russians’ Faith in Democracy, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 21 – Over the last 15 years, the Putin regime has moved step by step to eliminate the democratic basis of local government and thereby reduce that part of the state to little more than a transmission belt for the center, Emil Markvart says, a drive intended to solidify Moscow’s control of the country and undermine popular faith in democracy as such.

            The specialist on local government at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service details the step-by-step process in which Moscow stripped local governments of their democratic legitimacy and power to make decisions, leaving them little more than extensions of the Kremlin (

            The first move came in 2003 when city managers who introduced alongside the mayors chose by the municipal assemblies. Then, officials from the regions were added to the commissions that selected candidates to head the municipalities. And overtime, the elections became more pro forma and less meaningful.

            With changes in 2008, Markvart continues, it became obvious to the population that local heads, “even elected by the population in direct elections” were without real power and could be removed at will by those above them.  But as bad as that was for local autonomy and democracy, worse was to come in 2014.

            In that year, the Duma passed a measure which drove the final nail in the coffin of local self-administration.  It gave the regional authorities new leverage over municipal heads by increasing the share of regional officials in the selection boards from a third to a half, a step that almost always guaranteed that the region, not the people, controlled who would be mayor.

            City managers became the real locus of power and they were no longer subject to any vote, even an advisory one. And these changes were ratified in 2015 when the Russian Constitutional Court declared that they were fully consistent with the country’s basic law rather than a violation of its provisions.

            No significant changes in laws regarding this sector have occurred since, but “this was enough,” Markvart says. As a result, he continues, at present, only 12 percent of the heads of districts (raiony) and 11 percent of city districts (okrugs) are still elected.  And of the 1800 districts now, there are direct elections of any kind in only about 1,000.

            “If in 2008, about 70 percent of mayors were chosen by direct election, in 2014, that figure was already down to 34 percent; and in 2019, to only 14 percent,” other Moscow experts say.  And power has passed to appointed city managers almost everywhere – with popular faith in democracy ebbing as a result.

            Markvart says that the center has achieved its goal of establishing complete control over the mayors; but in the process, Moscow “is losing a most important political institution” and increasing the distance between the government at all levels and the population, with officials looking up not down and the population having little confidence in local ones.

One municipal deputy, Pavel Yarilin of the Aeroport district, says that what Moscow has done is to go in exactly the opposite direction to the trajectories of other countries which are handing ever more authority to local officials who are best placed to make decisions about many issues.

According to Yarilin, “local self-administration in Russia is like a fifth wheel on the cart of statehood.” Like so many other things the Russian Constitution calls for, local governance is only “an imitation” of what it is supposed to be.  Markvart agrees: local governance in Russia now is “a completely decorative institution.”

Its role is minimal, and everyone understands this because “they are not idiots,” the Russian scholar says. But the consequences are immense: Russia is losing “the culture of elections” and a generation is rising which consists of “people for whom these democratic values are losing their significance.”

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