Senators Andrei Klishas and State Duma deputy Pavel Krashennikov propose to change the system of local self-government in Russia. They have developed a law which should bring local self-government in line with the new version of the Constitution.
On January 25, the State Duma adopted the document in the first reading. During the discussion, the draft caused a lot of controversy, but the majority supported it: 294 «for,» while deputies from the KPRF and Just Russia voted against it.
Let’s see what’s going to change and what it might lead to.
The most significant innovations in the bill are the transition to a one-tier system of LSG and the expansion of the powers of governors in relation to local government. What does this mean?
Governors will have the right to single-handedly choose mayors and dismiss them for failing to meet the targets. Now, some of the heads of settlements are elected in direct elections, while others are selected by a competitive commission, formed by the local Duma and the head of the region.
Currently, the powers of local government are distributed between settlements and municipal districts. That is, every settlement or small town has its own deputies and heads. Districts that include several settlements have their own governing bodies. This system is called a two-tier system. The norms of the new law stipulate that by 2028 all such settlements must be merged into larger municipal or urban districts. That is, deputies will exist only at the district level, while the institution of village headmen will be introduced in settlements.
In the explanatory note, the authors rationalize these changes by describing the one-tier LSG system as one that is tied not to the territory, but to the population. In their opinion, the new system will increase the effectiveness of local structures and strengthen their financial base, as well as equalize the rights of urban and municipal districts. The explanatory note does not provide any details or reasons for the increase in efficiency.
Also, supporters of the law talk about reducing election costs and increasing the political importance of district deputies.
By the first reading, the bill was approved by the Duma Committee on State Construction with a number of insignificant comments.
The left-wing Duma opposition has criticized the law. KPRF notes that local government reform is overdue in Russia, but disagrees with the bill. The Communists are especially dissatisfied in the regions. Their common criticisms include the following concerns: that the reform will reduce the independence of LSG bodies; that the access of citizens to governing power will be reduced; and that the transition to a new administrative division may cause territorial disputes.
Sergei Mironov, head of A Just Russia — For the Truth, also criticized the bill. According to him, the adoption of the law would allow governors to dismiss mayors for vague reasons, and the transition to a one-tier LSG would lead to the degradation of the political system.
«New People» and the LDPR supported the bill during the vote. According to «New People» deputy Vladislav Davankov, it is important to find a balance of resources and powers between the municipal and regional authorities.
«Municipalities have to fulfill responsibilities within their authority. But to do this they need resources. And if they do not have them, then a number of functions should be transferred to the regional level. This will solve many of the problems that have accumulated. When people seek help from the state, it does not matter what level of government it is. It’s important for them that the issue is solved,» said the parliamentarian at the Duma session.
The new version of the law on LSG was criticized by Zemsky Congress (Земский съезд), the largest association of independent municipal deputies in Russia. The organization released detailed feedback on the draft law. According to them, the adoption of this law will concentrate real power in the hands of the executive branch, causing an outflow of people from small localities, and suppressing grassroots initiative. Citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to independently decide issues of local importance, and local deputies will lose their independence.
Independent municipalities believe that an important problem is the significant facilitation of the transfer of regional and even federal powers to municipalities without the ability to refuse, while at the local level there is a shortage of qualified personnel to implement them.
Yakov Yakubovich, head of Moscow’s Tverskoi municipal district, believes that the bill will pass, and he doesn’t expect protests from local elites, as was the case with a similar law on regional authorities.
«Protests will take place in the media sphere. Politicians and public figures are actively speaking out about it. Many subject matter experts are publicly speaking out against the bill. Local elites are unlikely to protest. Even now, in fact, local administrations are subordinate to the regional authorities,» Yakubovich said.
In his opinion, there are two instruments of subordination of LSG bodies. The first is municipal budgets: when there is a confrontation with the governor, the local treasury begins to fall short on regional subsidies. The second is participation in regional and federal programs.
According to Yakubovich, the new law will not directly affect the participation of the opposition in local elections: «Another question is what local deputies will be able to do. They have little power as is. Even those who manage to get a mandate are exposed to all sorts of persecution. United Russia already controls most municipalities across the country through its party vertical,» says Jakubovich.
There are no large-scale protests against the LSG law because people do not have the skills to fight politically, and many are afraid, believes Yulia Galyamina, a former deputy of the Timiryazevsky District of Moscow and one of the leaders of the Zemsky Congress. «There are statements from a number of organizations and local councils, but many people do not understand the consequences of the law. When the law starts to work citizens will feel its negative sides, then the hidden level of social discontent will grow,» Galyamina states.
«Soon there will be 18,000 fewer elections in the country — this will affect both the government and the opposition equally. It will become much more difficult and expensive for independent candidates to participate in elections. When you are elected in your village, you can win without any money at all, just bypassing the voters, but you can’t do that at the district level,» sums up Galiamina.
The new law on LSG violates the fundamental principles of local self-governance. Iurii Gurman, Director of the Association of Rural Municipalities and Urban Settlements, agrees with this thesis. «Local self-governance and the self-organization of people are possible, there is a common infrastructure and common interests. Due to this, the synergetic effect of local self-governance is realized all over the world. But to do this, people must live compactly on the same territory,» says the expert.
Russian self-governance needs a one-tier system directly in the settlements where people live, says Gurman. The new law essentially eliminates it. The transfer of LSG bodies to the district level kills residents’ interest in self-governance, the expert believes.
«LSG must be the framework for the economic development of the country. Self-governed settlements must compete for resources, people, and businesses. With the adoption of the new law, this will not happen,» Gurman reasons. «There was an example in Chelyabinsk Oblast when regional authorities tried to eliminate self-governance at the level of settlements. Back then, at popular gatherings, villagers told regional officials that if they ever came back to them with such proposal, they would pick them up on pitchforks and throw them out of the countryside,» says the expert.
According to Gurman, the new law suggests that village heads will not be able to compensate for the gap between the authorities and the population. Elders will be appointed, not elected, which means that they will not be responsible to the population. Elders will not even be municipal employees, and their activities will only be performed on a voluntary basis.