A mayor issue

The issue of direct mayoral elections and of local representative democracy in general is triggering protest movements and referendum initiatives in several Russian regions. This is partly due to national and regional politics becoming less and less pluralistic. However, the federal government also has not been able to address or sidestep the issue.

The past months have seen a series of initiatives in favor of bringing back or introducing the direct election of mayors in several regions, notably in the Novosibirsk Region, the Komi Republic, Karelia and the Chelyabinsk Region. In Tomsk the city assembly adopted a resolution to this effect.

In Novosibirsk, Komi and Chelyabinsk – where this was far from the first such attempt – the movements followed a remarkably similar pattern: a popular initiative receives support from members of the local opposition (typically communists or independents), the regional electoral committee accepts the initiative, which however is then rejected by the pro-Kremlin majority in the regional legislative assembly. In Novosibirsk, activists then chose to sue. In Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, a handful of activists protested.

This series of events is also very similar to conservationist referendum initiatives, which swept regions prior to 2022 and were also rejected by regional authorities on various grounds. In both cases, the initiatives, even rejected, served to put the issue on the local political agenda and to offer local elites an issue to support. They are also the regional manifestations of wider cross-country issues, which allows these movements to be inspired by and learn from each other.

Cutting back on regional and local self-governance is a long-standing project of the Kremlin. Before 2014 several cities separated political power from administrative oversight and appointed “city managers” to oversee the day-to-day running of the cities. Since 2014 regional legislatures have had the right to eliminate direct mayoral elections altogether. As of mid-2023, only five regional capitals still elect their mayors in direct votes. The last two cities to see their direct mayoral votes scrapped were Tomsk (in 2022) and Novosibirsk (in 2023). In both cases, the move was likely a reaction to politics getting more conflictual and pluralistic in mid-sized cities in general, and to opposition successes in both cities in the 2020 municipal elections in particular. In Novosibirsk, the change also signaled the end of a power-sharing deal between the region’s United Russia governor and the city’s communist mayor.  

Pushing back

Unevenly and haltingly, but 2018-21 saw increasing pluralism in many regions as local protest movements sprang up around issues such as environmental regulation or corruption. Navalny’s regional networks expanded. Protest votes and later “Smart Voting” energized elections. So did, to a certain extent, even the emergence of Kremlin-sanctioned upstarts, such as the New People party. But after 2021 regional politics as an avenue of expressing dissent and engaging in political experimentation has been increasingly closed. The 2021 public administration reform tightened the federal government’s control not only over governors but also the appointment of key members of regional governments. Electoral engineering, including the introduction of multi-day and online voting, and electoral systems skewed towards majoritarian representation in legislative assemblies and city councils, favored the party of power.

Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the authorities cracked down further on local self-governance and local politicians critical of the authorities. Apart from the scrapping of direct mayoral elections in Tomsk and Novosibirsk, this included the arrest (or the arrest in absentia) of independent local politicians such as former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman, Moscow deputy Ilya Yashin or Novosibirsk deputies Helga Pirogova and Yury Boiko. Municipal deputies who openly condemned the war (the first open letter to this effect in February 2022 received 276 signatures) faced persecution.

The second stage of the 2021 public administration reform, which would both eliminate thousands of smaller municipalities as free-standing administrative entities and reinforce the vertical of power by subordinating mayors to governors, has not been adopted. The Duma will likely only continue discussing it after the 2024 presidential election, perhaps due to a preference for domestic political stability during the war. But this has not prevented several regions from experimenting. In the Pskov Region, for example, regional authorities pressed ahead with a law folding eight districts – and their representative organs – into one municipal area with an indirectly elected leader. In other regions the authorities increased pressure on mayors. The recent resignation of Smolensk mayor Andrey Borisov and his replacement with Alexander Novikov just weeks after the appointment of Vasily Anokhin as the new governor of the region shows how the system is supposed to work ideally (from the Kremlin’s point of view): governors – an increasing number of them outsiders who have usually brought their own core team with themselves from their previous station of service – would now also treat the mayor of the regional capital as a part of their team and thus take a pick when they are appointed.

One justification for this is that it would make it somewhat easier for newly appointed governors to remove entrenched elites from their positions (and thus avoid prolonged “cleanups” like the ones seen in the Belgorod Region and the Kemerovo Region after 2020 and 2018, respectively). The more likely purpose of it, however, is to extend the control of the regional, and by extension the federal government over a previously not fully controlled position.

In more pluralistic regions, such moves can also create backlash: in Tomsk a previous attempt to select a new mayor for the city ended in a fiasco after both the candidate supported by governor Vladimir Mazur and his designated also-ran opponent withdrew before the vote in the city council where United Russia does not have a majority. More recently, Mazur’s attempt to bring in a complete outsider – Dmitry Makhinia, the deputy mayor of Omsk, led to a backlash.

Why even care?

Municipalities have an even lower degree of fiscal self-sufficiency than the average Russian region, and this comes with consequences on their politics. When in 2021 Yakutsk mayor Sardana Avksentieva – one of those candidates who won offices essentially as protest candidates in the wave of 2018-21 – resigned, his successor was very clear about the fact that not even a regional capital could afford not to be on good terms with the region’s governor, as half of the city’s budget came from the region.

In several cities and towns this is proportion is even larger and reaches more than 66 percent on average across the country. Even though the amount of transfers from regional budgets has been growing over the past years, expenditures (which include education, housing and urban beautification), on the whole, have grown faster. In 2021 the aggregated municipal deficit was 31.9 billion rubles, a year later it reached 56 billion (the deficits are, of course, unevenly distributed across regions). What is more, it is more difficult for municipalities to access preferential lending backed by the government, than it is for regions, which have seen most of their privately held debt replaced with cheap budget loans over the past years. A shortage of money in municipal budgets constantly comes up in policy discussions at the level of the government. This year Putin himself instructed the cabinet to strengthen the financial base of municipalities by changing how tax receipts are distributed (albeit it is unclear how this will happen).

But while most municipalities control very little in terms of finances and political power, they are important for both the Kremlin and the opposition. For one, municipal councils are used to control regional elections through the institution of the so-called municipal filter, which is often used to get rid of “undesirable” candidates (see e.g. a recent example in the Altai Territory where the communist candidate for governor, Maria Prusakova failed to jump this hurdle). They are also the authorities closest to citizens, therefore they are often the first line of contact in case of brewing social upheaval – a mistake made at this level can lead to problems higher up the vertical. For the opposition and especially for independent deputies municipal councils provide not only a good campaign training ground but also exposure and opportunities to access information about municipal business.  In bigger towns and cities it is easier to build local networks and to monitor higher-level elections.

Local self-governance is of course not the only issue that has triggered local protest movements over the past year. Several regions also saw protests against growing public utility tariffs and environmental protest movements, while facing increasing hurdles, also continued (most recently in Bashkortostan and in Buryatia). But while the federal government can, in theory, apply symptomatic remedies to these problems – by e.g. increasing public utility and housing subsidies for the regions or occasionally cracking down on excesses and illegal activity. For a while, the government’s strategy regarding dissatisfaction with local governance in cities was the same: prior to 2022, it planned to prioritize city development plans in Russia’s development plans. However, the fiscal consequences of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine likely kneecapped these development plans (as well as many others).

Other attempts to address the issue of hollowed-out and unaccountable local governments have so far remained awkward and unsuccessful. They include plans to open a “School of Mayors” similar to the “School of Governors”, a program at the president’s public administration academy, promoted by Sergey Kirienko, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration; as well as a recent initiative, in the Presidential Council of Self-governance, to task «Senezh,» a center of political management under the Kremlin’s domestic policy administration, to extend the system of “Regional Management Centers” (TsUR) to local administrations. These solutions – just like the extension of the system of key performance indicators (KPIs) to municipalities – aim to sidestep the problem of non-representative governance starved of financial resources and it is very questionable whether they will improve the situation even temporarily.

Expect therefore the issue of local representative democracy to stay on the political agenda in several regions, especially those with more pluralistic politics and stronger traditions of self-governance. Given the increased crackdowns on various forms of political dissent, it is far from guaranteed that any of these movements will achieve successes in the foreseeable future, but they will be present and provide a cause for local elites to adopt.

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