Municipal Reform in the Russian Federation and Putin's "Electoral Vertical"

By Ross, Cameron | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Municipal Reform in the Russian Federation and Putin's "Electoral Vertical"


Ross, Cameron, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: To truly assess democratization in Russia we need to study politics not only at the national and regional levels but also at the subregional level. A detailed examination of the implementation of the Federal Law, "On the Principles of Local Self-Government in the Russian Federation," which was adopted in 2005, shows that the political and financial autonomy of Russia's municipalities have been seriously compromised and that local self-government has been turned into nothing more than a third branch of state power. Moreover, an examination of municipal elections conducted from 2004 to 2005 shows that elections in Russia are far from free and fair. The instigation of what may be termed Putin's "electoral vertical" has thwarted the development of grassroots democracy and United Russia now dominates the municipal political landscape.

Keywords: municipal elections, municipal reform, Putin, Russia

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Since President Putin came to power in 2000 we have witnessed a radical assault on the principles and practices of federalism. More recently, Putin has turned his attention to politics at the subregional level. In October 2003 a new federal law, "On the Principles of Local Self Government in the Russian Federation" (hereafter, the 2003 Law), was adopted that seriously compromises local government autonomy. (1) After discussing the major features of the 2003 Law and the problems of its implementation, this article examines the most recent round of municipal elections, which took place in 2004 and 2005. Municipal elections in many federal subjects have been far from free and fair. State control over local electoral commissions and the courts have dealt a serious blow to the development of grassroots democracy in Russia. The consolidation of democracy has also been undermined by a series of laws on elections and parties that Putin adopted in the wake of the Beslan hostage crisis in September 2004. These new laws, ostensibly designed to strengthen Russia's party system, have, in practice, allowed United Russia to consolidate its hold over regional and local assemblies.

Federalism and Local Government in the Russian Federation

In theory, local governments in Russia operate outside the formal state hierarchy. Article 12 of the Russian Constitution states that, "In the Russian Federation local self-government is recognized and guaranteed. Within the limits of its powers local self-government is independent. Bodies of local self-government do not form part of the system of bodies of state power." However, municipalities have, in practice, been treated as a "third tier" of state power, subordinate to regional and federal administrations. (2)

Municipal government in Russia also operates within a quasi-federal system epitomized by high levels of constitutional and political asymmetry. Thus, to fully understand local level politics, the peculiarities of the Russian federal system, and in particular the massive powers that were ceded to the federal subjects in the 1990s need to be taken into account. Between 1994 and 1998 Yeltsin signed forty-six bilateral treaties with federal subjects that granted the signatories a number of extraconstitutional powers, including the right to develop their own forms of local government. By the end of the Yeltsin era, a highly politicized form of "contract" federalism had replaced constitutional federalism. "The result," Campbell stresses, "was not decentralisation but 'autonomisation' ... whereby the state was held together by a loose parade of treaties bargained between the centre and the individual regions." (3)

Daniel Elazar argues that local governments in federal systems are often able to gain "a substantial measure of entrenched political power" by capitalizing on "the spirit of noncentralisation--the spirit of federalism." (4) However, in Russia's quasi-federal system, regional elites have been able to subjugate local level bodies with impunity. …

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