President Dmitry Medvedev sprung a surprise on many governors and regional leaders in the Russian Federation on New Year's Eve. While talking with Leonid Markelov, the head of the Republic of Marii El, Medvedev first congratulated him on a reappointment and then told him it was likely to be his last.
Medvedev said literally this: "A third term is something serious that needs to be filled to the best of your ability, because a fourth term is an exception. We will now be working to free vacancies for younger people. So the third term is the time to show your best."
None of the regions currently have legislated term limits. Nor are term lengths consistent from region to region, some with four years, others five. Eduard Rossel, the former Sverdlovsk governor, proposed a six-year term, but could never take advantage of this having lost his seat. Also, there were two overhauls of the relevant legislative framework.
Originally, some regions, 24 to be exact, had term limits but no law to back them. In October 1999, the State Duma adopted a law on the general principles guiding the administration of legislative and executive bodies in the constituent members of the Russian Federation. The result was that many regional and republican governors appeared to be serving their second terms as their first, and their third terms as their second.
This was the ruling of the Constitutional Court: the number of terms would be counted only from the day the new law was enacted. The parliamentary opposition berated the Court for the decision. But it was the right decision legally. It was clear that the law had no retroactive force.
The State Duma recently adopted amendments to the basic law, extending presidential and parliamentary terms of office. But these amendments will not take effect until the next presidential and parliamentary elections. The situation with gubernatorial terms in 1999 was the same.
In 2005, President Putin decreed the abolishment of direct popular elections of governors. That threw a monkey wrench in the works.
One by one, regional heads began asking the president if he trusted them. It looked like mild blackmail: if you do not trust me, I will step down, and the devil take the hindmost. Such behavior would not be tolerated and the president had to show confidence in all governors.
We are now left with a very mixed picture. Among regional governors there are seven long-termers who have held their positions since 1991 or 1992, and four more since 1993. But the process has been confused. Strictly speaking, with the current specific system of election/appointment, a governor's term is of no importance. The president can fire anyone at any time.
But this chaos needs unraveling. Medvedev seems to have decided to take on this job. His remarks are not legally binding; they merely state the Kremlin's position. The president gave another of his signals, this time to the regions: no one will be allowed to overstay his or her time. There will be two reappointments back-to-back, followed by stepping down in order to free the chair for young people on their way up.
What does this mean for regional heads who have been hugging their seats for more than two terms? Usually, presidents do not waste words, so most of them should be prepared to be put out to pasture, or better yet prepare for another appointment, though the last governor to move up the ladder was Sergei Sobyanin, and that was back in 2005.
On the other hand, Medvedev remarked that exceptions were not ruled out. As the saying goes, all governors are equal, but some are more equal than others. This does not contradict the law, just as all regions cannot be trimmed down to the same size.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Nikolai Troitsky)