From Lords to Vassals: The End of Regional Executive Elections in Russia

By
Erin Trouth Hofmann

The elimination of regional executive elections has "advanced the centralization project in Russia, and we're seeing a continuation of the slide toward a one or one-and-a-half party system under the dominance of United Russia," stated Andrew Konitzer, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Baylor University, and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. At a Kennan Institute lecture on 25 April 2005, Konitzer discussed the ramifications of a December 2004 law that ended popular elections of regional executives. He argued that the new practice of "quasi-appointments" by the president replaced a highly flawed electoral system, but the old system, at least from 1996-2001, did make regional executives somewhat accountable to the electorate for economic conditions in their regions. It is unclear at this time whether the system of presidential recommendations will be an improvement or a step backwards in terms of accountability.

Under the new system, Konitzer explained, regional executives are recommended by the president and confirmed by the regional legislature. At the end of their terms, incumbents are considered for reappointment or removal. In addition, during the incumbent's term, either the President or a regional legislature can express "no confidence" in the incumbent and initiate procedures to appoint a new executive, or incumbents themselves may approach the president before the end of their terms and request reappointment to a new term. In any of these instances, Konitzer noted, the regional legislature can accept or reject the president's recommended candidate, but if the candidate is rejected three times, the president may disband the legislature and call new elections.

According to Konitzer, most observers have responded to these reforms in one of three ways: Putin's supporters argue that these changes are a long-overdue reform to a dysfunctional electoral system; his opponents call them a blow to democracy; and people in the middle of the road agree that this was an anti-democratic move, but argue that the previous electoral system was so deeply flawed that dismantling it essentially changed nothing. Konitzer explained that his own opinion falls somewhere in between the second and third responses—although the old system was far from democratic, it was not without some value, and its loss is a blow to democracy in Russia.

"I see the period from 1996 to 2001 as, oddly enough, being the golden age of regional elections in the Russian Federation," Konitzer said. "This goes against much of the conventional wisdom on the topic, because this was the period of wild decentralization and the consolidation of many of the regional political systems that we saw in the Federation." He argued that his research on regional elections indicated that during that period, regional executives were accountable for conditions in their regions, and were more likely to lose elections when their regions were performing poorly in comparison to other regions in Russia. Loopholes in election laws and other factors that favored incumbents decreased the level of accountability, but according to Konitzer, Russian regional executives were nonetheless more likely to lose their post for poor governance than were Ukrainian executives, who were appointed directly by the president.

In 2001, Konitzer explained, the Putin administration initiated a number of reforms that were supposed to address some of the shortcomings of Yeltsin-era regional elections. He argued that if reforms were "applied to every region equally no matter what its particular relationship with the Kremlin, we might have actually had a situation…where accountability would have even been improved through regional elections." Instead, regulations were strictly enforced against Kremlin opponents, while Kremlin allies were given a great deal of leeway. Furthermore, according to Konitzer, by 2003 United Russia had consolidated its power throughout the Russian Federation, and the party's support became an important factor in determining the success or failure of regional executives. "What we saw from 2002 to 2004 was actually a deterioration of the meager gains that had been made from 1996 to 2001," he contended.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about the effects of the new electoral system, Konitzer warned. So far, he noted, dire predictions that Putin would replace all regional executives with incompetent but loyal cadres have not been borne out. As of April 25, only three executives have been removed, and 12 reappointed. Konitzer argued that the Putin administration does not have enough trained personnel to replace 89 regional executives. In addition, loss of regional elections will not necessarily increase the power of the central government. Konitzer stated that in compensation for the loss of popular elections, the regional executives have been granted increased power and responsibility, and additional powers for regional executives are currently under discussion in the Duma.

One positive sign, Konitzer argued, is that thus far the president appears to take an executive's record in governing the region into consideration when making his recommendations. If this continues, the new system may promote an element of accountability. However, he warned, factors such as the executive's ability to "get out the vote" for United Russia candidates may play a stronger role when national elections occur in 2007 and 2008. According to Konitzer, the new system is a setback for democracy, but how severe of a setback it will be remains to be seen. "It's not clear at this point whether the current system will improve on or fall short of the level of accountability that we had in elections from 1996 to 2001," he concluded.

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