At the height of its panic in December 2011, as tens of thousands of protesters in Moscow demanded free elections and political reforms, the Kremlin announced several concessions, the chief of which was the reinstatement of direct gubernatorial elections, abolished by Vladimir Putin in 2004. Having ceded ground to the opposition, the regime tried its best to limit the damage. Between January and June 2012, while the old rules were still in effect, the Kremlin made a slate of gubernatorial appointments, reducing the number of regions that were supposed to hold elections in October of that year from ten to five. Among the provinces that were denied the right to elect their governors in 2012 were the Yaroslavl and Sverdlovsk regions, where Putin’s United Russia party—even according to official results—received, respectively, 29 and 33 percent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary election.
This move temporarily spared the regime embarrassment, but left the need for a more permanent solution. Putin and his entourage understood the stakes: the election of opposition candidates as regional governors would greatly accelerate the process of the regime’s disintegration, which began with the 2011–2012 protests. Gubernatorial elections were qualified by a so-called “municipal filter,” which required candidates to collect the signatures of between 5 and 10 percent of local legislators before being allowed on the ballot. In practice, this meant that genuine opposition contenders would be neutralized before the vote even took place—as happened last year in the Novgorod region.
But even this precaution appeared insufficient. Whereas local legislators in the provinces are almost fully controlled by the executive, there are enough opposition or independent municipal deputies in Moscow and St. Petersburg to allow Kremlin critics on the ballot. Needless to say, the loss of either city would be a disaster for Putin’s regime. The incumbents’ chances, meanwhile, do not appear to be strong: Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin stands at 36 percent in the polls, while St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko is at 37 percent. The Kremlin is also afraid that splits in the local elites, which are bound to increase as the system weakens, may lead to “undesirable” voting results in other regions of Russia.
It seems that the solution has been found. Last week, the State Duma passed a bill that allows regional legislatures to abolish gubernatorial elections and opt for presidential appointment. Considering that all regional legislatures are controlled by Putin’s United Russia party, it is the Kremlin that will decide which system will be used in which region. In places where pro-regime candidates’ chances are low, the governors will—just as before—be appointed from Moscow. The vote in the lower house was a whopping 403 to 10. “We don’t need too much democracy,” Duma member Alexander Tarnavsky affirmed without a hint of sarcasm.
The Kremlin’s apparent face-saver, however, could badly backfire. The trigger for Russia’s largest pro-democracy protests in two decades was a stolen election. One could only imagine the reaction of Muscovites if they were—officially—deprived of the right to elect their chief executive, while residents of other regions still had that opportunity. It is likely that the ensuing mass protests would topple the regime much faster and more dramatically than any gubernatorial election ever could.
Photo Credit: Victorgrigas