Staunton, September 29 – Vladimir Putin’s decision to end direct elections for mayors in the name of increasing central control will in fact have the opposite effect, Roman Revunov says, because it will allow governors to amass unprecedented power and be in a position to challenge Moscow or even lead their regions out of the Russian Federation.
In a commentary on Kasparov.ru today, the Novocherkassk blogger argues that those who assume that Putin can control the situation in every case by removing any governors before they are in a position to act in this way are wrong because doing so could trigger even more instability in key locations (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=54291E9C5FADD).
According to Revunov, “besides everything else, direct elections of mayors defends the regions from the extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of the governor,” something that in Russian conditions is “a very important function” and one that Putin will override only at peril to himself and the country as a whole.
“This week in Russia, “there is becoming less democracy and more separatism,” Revunov says, but from an unexpected source: Moscow is pushing the regions to end the direct election of mayors lest someone from the opposition win and instead seeking to have the mayors chosen in effect by the regional governors.
That may seem a small change given that Putin has already eliminated the direct election of the heads of federation subjects, and as long as the center had money flowing in from the sale of oil and gas abroad, it may have been now more than that, Revunov says. But now the situation has changed, the money has run out, and that is affecting regional power arrangements.
Here is why that is the case, the Novocherkassk writer continues. “Let us imagine a situation in which a certain influential corporation” is able to “purchase” from the Kremlin a governorship for “some wealthy oil and gas region or some poor but border region or indeed in any of them.”
Under the new system which Putin is pushing, “approximately a year or 18 months later, the new baron will be able to replace the mayors of significant municipalities with his own people.” And having done so, the question will arise: “who really will run the province of our happy kingdom – the little father tsar or the governor in his name?”
It seems fairly clear, Revunov says, that it will be the governor. After all, “Moscow is far away and the governor is here with all his own people.”
To the extent that is true, he continues, “the elimination of direct elections in favor of the appointment of mayors represents a very suitable instrument for the formation of a system of personal power of governors in the regions and as a result a reduction of their loyalty to the central government.”
Such a governor may decide that he has more to gain from building ties with foreign states such as Japan or China than for maintaining them with Moscow, especially if they are able to provide him with more money than the central Russian government can.
Some people assume that Putin will be able to sense this sufficiently well in advance to be able to declare that the governor has lost his trust and then remove him, but in the worst case, “will the regional baron allow himself to be removed?” Or might he seek “protection” from “our Chinese partners” or someone else?
As the center’s ability to redistribute resources declines because the amount of resources at its command falls, giving regional leaders the power to appoint mayors “is a very risky step,” Revunov says, especially at a time when loyalty ends when the money does and when “everything has become a question of price.”