Completing the vertical

The second part of Russia’s ongoing public administration reform will extend the power vertical further downwards. The bill does not only reflect a trust in the tools of digital authoritarianism, but also the goal of giving the federal center a veto over citizens’ votes on every level.

Next week, on January 26 the State Duma will discuss, in the first reading, a reform of municipal public administration. The law is the second part of a grand public administration reform, which implements the “unified system of public power” prescribed by the 2020 constitutional reform, and which started with a much-debated law on regions’ power arrangements late last year. Similarly to that law, this bill was introduced by lawmakers Andrey Klishas and Pavel Krasheninnikov – or as this incorrigible Central European likes to call them, “K. und K.” – and once it is adopted, it will be implemented over a five-year transitional period in 2023-28.

The bill, in a way, replicates the principles of the first law, inasmuch as it increases the subordination of the lower-level administrative unit – municipalities, in this case – to the one above it. But it does more than this. Municipalities, which have so far been administrative-territorial units on their own – that is, officially outside of the power vertical, will cease to exist in this form. So will urban and rural settlements, which existed in a non-hierarchical system, around eighteen thousand of them. In future, apart from “city districts” and “municipal districts” – which will be formed based on the total number and the density of the population – the law will distinguish territories belonging to “cities of federal significance”, that is, Moscow, St. Petersburg and the occupied Sevastopol.

Vertical integration

One consequence of this will be that the local administrations and councils of these settlements will also cease to exist: they will not hold new elections in the five-year transitional period. The heads of rural settlements will be appointed; and while theoretically they may have representation in municipal and city councils, these councils will likely have less freedom in choosing the heads of districts.

The bill allows district heads to be elected directly, chosen by district deputies, or appointed by them upon the proposal of the governor, but the authors have made no secret of the fact that they would prefer regional parliaments, which will ultimately decide how this happens, to go with the last version. Governors will also have the right to dispose of mayors, similarly to how, in the future, the president will be able to dismiss governors simply by declaring a “loss of trust” in them. Governors will be able to issue a warning to mayors for failing to meet performance indicators set by the region, and should a mayor not correct their ways within a month, the governor will be able to dismiss them.

Regional parliaments had until January 19 to declare whether they support the law. Unsurprisingly, unlike in the first phase of the reform, no region rose up against or requested major changes to the bill. In quite a contrast to its resounding “no” to the revamp of regional power structures, Tatarstan’s parliament was among the first to declare support for this bill. Several regions have already started revamping their administrative arrangements to meet the requirements of the reform: Chelyabinsk and Samara will reform their legislatures; St. Petersburg will reform its administrative divisions; some regions, e.g. the Tver Region had already created municipal districts similar to what the law foresees.

Enhanced manual control

The law’s authors have claimed that the reform will contribute to a more effective and more sustainable governance of smaller settlements, but there is little in the bill to suggest that this is going to be the case. Most municipalities across Russia are already very dependent on regional budgets for their financing, and the law does not address this issue beyond empowering regional governments to decide what a municipality’s duties are. If the goal was to make municipal governments more fiscally sound, a much less intrusive bill would have done the job.

The rigid power vertical between the federal government, the regional government and municipalities may align more with the newest direction of development policies, in which municipalities are expected to be little more than passive participants in projects administered by regional officials and financed by federal money. But more importantly, it will almost certainly also raise the risk of corruption, as direct accountability diminishes. In return – some Telegram channels joked – rural residents will be able to enjoy cheaper bus tickets to neighboring villages, as in future these will count as “intra-municipality” trips.

If the reform bill reflects any philosophy of governance, it is trust in the great centralized digital ruchnoye upravlenie (manual control) that Mikhail Mishustin’s government has been building: a system, in which information collection and aggregation is sophisticated and nimble enough that the federal center can not only support and supervise the execution of grand development schemes and the appointment of key officials all the way down to the level of municipalities, but also react to dissatisfaction and local movements before they could become a problem.

Arguably, by reducing direct accountability to a bare minimum, they may also seek to demotivate dissatisfied voters. Indeed, this seems to be a major objective of the bill. Even today, direct mayoral elections are only preserved in seven cities: Abakan, Anadyr, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Khabarovsk, Ulan-Ude and Yakutsk. Expect to see less of these in the future. Governors’ new powers over municipal district heads will also mean less chances for elite competitors with stronger local roots emerging within regions to challenge the Kremlin’s handpicked “varangians” (technocrats with no local links), and less chances for opposition and independent deputies to block or challenge policies set by the regional government.

Perhaps even more importantly, with the moratorium on local elections, candidates from opposition parties and those backed by independent campaigns will find it even harder than before to pass the “municipal filter” (requiring them to get the support of 5-10 percent of municipal deputies in a region) without making deals with United Russia.

Elections ahead (again)

This is all important because, as Stanislav Andreychuk pointed out in an excellent article last year, the 2020-21 regional and local elections have seen growing political pluralism in many regions, even as the federal authorities cracked down on the network of Alexey Navalny and did their best to intimidate opposition structures. Local and city-level politics has also been revived in recent years with ecological and local conservationist movements, competitive city-level campaigns, some of which saw United Russia reduced into a minority, a notable growth of dissatisfaction and protest potential in mid-sized cities, and burgeoning local citizen’s networks, all of which the Kremlin looks at with growing suspicion.

And in September 2022, Russia will again hold regional and municipal elections in several regions, which have experienced political upheaval in the past years. Apart from local councils in Moscow, voters will elect a new governor in the Vladimir Region, which in 2018 delivered a surprise electoral upset to United Russia, electing Vladimir Sipyagin, a politician of the Liberal Democratic Party (who was “convinced” to pick up his Duma mandate last year).

Further gubernatorial elections will be held in the Yaroslavl Region, where the governing party has had a consistently bad showing over the past years, and the Kirov Region, where the party’s results were embarrassingly bad last year. Both regional capitals will also hold local votes, as will the far eastern Vladivostok. And there will be further elections in regions with significant opposition activity over the past years: the Tomsk Region – where Navalny’s Smart Voting resulted in an opposition majority in the Tomsk city council –, the Saratov Region, where the Communist Party’s firebrand Nikolay Bondarenko is active – and the Sverdlovsk Region with one of Russia’s most opposition-minded cities, Yekaterinburg, and where the United Russia governor, Yevgeny Kuybashev, has gone out of his way to distance his image from his own party’s.

A crackdown on dissent, the securitization of domestic politics and the growing toolbox of digital authoritarianism have had a chilling effect on Russian politics. One of the aims of the public administration reform is to complement these by giving the federal center a veto over the decision of voters, even locally, using governors increasingly beholden to the president as a tool, and thereby containing the growth of political pluralism in the regions.  

2024 is only two years away, and to some in and around the Kremlin, it seems, the system is still not “stable” enough.

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