When, some time ago, President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin with Alexei Machnev, who chairs the parliament of the Republic of North Ossetia, a region in the North Caucasus, few paid attention to this seemingly routine meeting, and even fewer – to what Machnev had to say.
Citing chronic instability in the North Caucasus, he suggested that Russia’s regions could themselves decide whether their residents need to directly elect a head, or whether they could do with one elected by the local legislatures.
What was in fact proposed is the elimination of what is considered to be one of the main gains of the protest movement in 2011 and 2012.
In no time at all, the State Duma in Moscow prepared a draft law that fulfilled the North Ossetian visitor’s wish. The law passed the first reading at lightning speed and garnered a tally that could shame the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
More than 400 deputies out of 450 voted for the draft law, with less than a dozen rejecting it. The count was staggeringly reminiscent of last December’s vote, which banned US citizens from adopting Russian children in retaliation for the so-called Sergei Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress.
This prompted one of the popular commentators, Stanislav Kucher, to remark in a column that party differences in the Russian parliament have become irrelevant, and that it should be considered just a giant department of the presidential administration.
There is little doubt indeed that Machnev expressed and the Duma legalized what the Kremlin wanted to hear and realize in practice.
And it is pretty certain that the regional legislatures will soon start banning direct elections of regional heads, citing all sorts of flimsy pretexts, like saving money on elections and preventing organized crime from coming to power.
All of the country’s regional assemblies are controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, so an effective ban on the direct elections of regional governors is a foregone conclusion.
The Kremlin is bent on reversing all the achievements of the democratic movement and on regaining total and monolithic control of the political system, in which choices exist only on paper.
Putin was apprehensive of direct gubernatorial elections, ostensibly because they were among the very few routes for new political leaders to emerge. And although elections to the regional parliaments remain, they traditionally attract much less attention than those of the governors. In the Russians’ view, elections to executive positions are nearly always more important than those to legislative ones. A low interest and a low turnout mean the authorities have more scope for vote rigging.
The Kremlin is keen to pull Russia back to the age of the so-called “sovereign democracy,” in which political life is tightly controlled and no surprises (along the lines of 2011 to 2012 protests) are possible.
This seems to be a flawed and self-defeating strategy in the long term. Moreover, denying the people a real say in the regional affairs and making gubernatorial elections into something arbitrary saps the foundations of the constitutional order. It is an implicit admission that the tribal and factional political practices of the North Caucasus can impact the whole of Russia.
But more importantly, in order to achieve “victory” over the otherwise weak and disheartened opposition, this strategy blocks an important regional outlet for socio-economic grievances.
The federal executive and the president feel they can patch up any regional problem with cash, without recourse to democratic means. It may well prove to be a costly and dangerous miscalculation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.