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Kremlin 'Reforms' Usurp Local Elections, Self-Government

As the Russian Foreign Ministry continues to issue Orwellian statements demanding immediate “federalization” in Ukraine, the Kremlin is moving to dismantle what little remains of federalism and self-government in Russia. This week, the State Duma passed a bill that abolishes direct elections for mayors and legislative councils in 67 cities across the country, including 56 regional capitals. The leaders of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party who spearheaded the municipal “reform” did not even pretend to provide justification.

With federal and regional elections closely managed to avoid any surprises for the Kremlin, municipal polls remained the last opportunity for Russian citizens to express their views. In the past two years, the Kremlin faced a whole series of humiliating defeats in mayoral elections across Russia, including in Yaroslavl, Togliatti, Petrozavodsk, Yekaterinburg, and, just this month, Novosibirsk. It seems that the regime has had enough.

According to new rules, Russia’s cities will be run by appointed “city managers.” Mayors will become mere figureheads, and, in any case, will not be elected by the people but rather chosen by city legislators—who, in their turn, will no longer be directly elected, but “delegated” by municipal deputies. This three-tier system is almost guaranteed to shield the Kremlin from unwelcome surprises.

People’s Freedom Party leader Boris Nemtsov, himself an elected legislator in Yaroslavl, called the new rules “the destruction of local self-government.” Civic Platform, the center-right party whose candidates won the mayoralties in Yaroslavl, Togliatti, and Yekaterinburg, denounced the abolition of direct elections, while the liberal Yabloko Party pointed to the fact that new rules clearly violate the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which is binding for Russia as a member state of the Council of Europe.

The new bill does not apply to Moscow and St. Petersburg, whose status as separate subjects of the Russian Federation means their elections cannot be abolished. But the Kremlin has not forgotten about the two capitals. The upcoming September election for the Moscow City Duma has long been seen as a potential problem for the regime, given that opposition candidate Alexei Navalny received nearly 30 percent of the vote in last year’s mayoral election. So the authorities are reverting to time-tested methods of controlling ballot access. A separate new bill being considered in the State Duma would force all parties that have not surpassed 3 percent in the last federal election to collect signatures in order to get on the ballot. “Invalid” signatures have long been the surest method for the regime to bar its opponents from participating in the vote.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow political analyst, has noted that new restrictions on elections are yet another reaction by the Kremlin to the Ukrainian revolution and an attempt to prevent similar events in Russia. But, he warns, Russian citizens will tolerate the crackdown “only up to a certain point.” The Kremlin would be wise to listen.

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