Public Hearings in Tomilino Snowball into Makeshift Protest Rally Outside School
On December 7, public hearings in the village of Tomilino on its incorporation into the Lyubertsy Urban District focused not on the announced topic, but on a confrontation between law enforcement and locals
December 7, 2016
Administrative reform in Moscow Region has come to Zhukovsky’s neighbor the Lyubertsy District, which the governor wants to transform into the Lyubertsy Urban District. The regional government and the governor believe this step will help decrease and optimize expenditures. Opponents argue that centralizing authority will simply leave the rural settlements without people to represent their own interests, which will lead to budget cuts and infrastructure collapse. Many experts argue that administrative reform of this kind is against the law. This, for example, was the conclusion reached by the State Duma’s Committee on Federal Organization and Local Self-Government. A similar stance has been adopted by members of the Presidential Human Rights Council. This, however, has not slowed down the determination of the governor and his team. However, others have not resigned themselves to this approach, and the residents of the village of Tomilino are a striking example.
On November 29, Vadim Lapitsky, head of the Tomilino village administration, resigned, and the independent website vtomilino.ru, which had served as a venue for expressing viewpoints opposed to the regional authorities, was shut down. Grassroots activists believe this was the response of authorities to resistance by locals to their top-down decisions. Indeed, discussion of the planned reforms has been the main topic of conversation recently.
The Tomilino town council decided to hold a referendum in which villagers would vote the reforms up or down, but this was met with objections from the Lyubertsy prosecutor’s office, which claimed that holding a referendum on an issue like this would be illegal. According to the prosecutor’s office, public hearings, which are advisory in nature, were sufficient to resolve the issue. A pressure group collected 2,800 signatures in favor of the referendum, but the authorities simply ignored the petition.
Ultimately, the villagers came to the public hearing, the only official event at which authorities had decided to listen to the voice of the people. However, the police, led by the police chief of Lyubertsy, were waiting for Tomilino residents at Prep School No. 18, where the hearings had been scheduled. The school’s large auditorium was unable to accommodate all comers. (According to the pressure group, around a thousand people came.) People stood in the hallways, and around a hundred people were left outside, since the police had barricaded the door. As a result, the people outside the school held a spontaneous protest rally at which they chanted slogans against unification with Lyubertsy.
Meanwhile, in the auditorium, Vladimir Ruzhitsky, head of the city of Lyubertsy, initially tried to explain the benefits of enlargement to the audience, but in the heat of ensuing discussion he got personal. The locals also expressed their opinions emotionally, without mincing their words. In the end, a detailed discussion proved impossible. The majority told the authorities exactly what they thought, while the authorities demonstrated the were indifferent to these opinions and that public hearings were conducted merely to comply with procedure.
The Self-Defense of Local Government
December 14, 2016
The controversy surrounding the conversion of municipalities into urban districts in Moscow Region has gone federal. The process, launched way back in 2014 as a humdrum regional municipal reform, has turned into a bitter confrontation among certain municipal leaders, local activists, and regional authorities, culminating in a discussion of the conflict at a meeting of the Presidential Human Rights Council.
The confrontation between regional and local authorities has been a permanent feature of Russian politics. Having suffered a tactical defeat in 2003, when Federal Law No. 131-FZ (“On General Principles of Local Self-Government”) was adopted, the Federation’s regions and republics ultimately scored a strategic victory in 2014, when the governors successfully lobbied changes to municipal legislation that gave them broad powers for manually regulating local governments. The defeat of the “party of mayors” in the war with the “party of governors” was, seemingly, utter and final.
During the seven years that have passed since Federal Law No. 131-FZ has begun to be implemented, charismatic leaders, often heads of municipalities in the 1990s and early 2000s, have gradually been squeezed out of municipal government, replaced by “professional” managers, appointed either de facto or, from last year, formally by regional authorities. Municipal councils, manned mostly by public sector employees and businessmen who are dependent on local officials, rarely come into conflict with them. Speaking in the most general way, what we have currently is not local self-government, but local bureaucracies controlled by regional authorities.
Yet many governor persist in viewing the current system of municipal government as less than optimal and have been taking steps to optimize it even further. We should realize that the regional heads have been doing this not due to tyrannical impulses, but guided by certain ideas about effective governance. Personally responsible, on the one hand, for the situations in their regions, and, on the other hand, having lost certain federal resources previously available to them, the governors have been trying to mobilize the domestic resources of the areas they govern. According to them, they can achieve this by simplifying the system of governance, by making it as verticalized and uniform as possible.
Conversion of municipalities, which often consist of several rural settlements and one or two urban settlements, into urban districts is a common technique for achieving this optimization. The regional authorities see urban districts as a convenient hub for governance in which they can concentrate authority while rejecting the diversity of self-governing rural settlements. For example, Magadan Region has used the technique to reduce the total number of municipalities from forty-eight (eight municipal districts, one urban district, eighteen urban settlements, and twenty-one rural settlements) to nine urban districts. Clearly, it is easier for the governor to work directly with the heads of nine urban districts than to interact with four dozen municipal leaders.
The political passivity of local authorities and the public has become so familiar that regional authorities consider optimizing their territorial and institutional framework an administrative operation akin to restructuring some regional ministry or agency or other. It matters not a whit that this approach ignores the opinion of locals. There is reason to believe, however, that surprises are in store for the “rationally minded” bureaucracy. Yesterday’s apolitical people suddenly remember the value of local self-rule and and their right to decide what goes on in their towns and villages. Often as not, these “awakened” citizens lack the time to organize themselves and the perserverance in facing down the bureaucratic machine. But Moscow Region has made more progress than others, having communicated through Human Rights Council deputy chair Yevgeny Bobrov the issue of preserving local government to the president.
The events of recent days in Moscow Region bear a certain resemblance to the events of the autumn and winter of 2011 in Moscow. The growth of grassroots political activism caught everyone by surprise, and what mobilized the protests was actions by the authorities that previously had not provoked such a negative reaction on the part of the rank and file. In Moscow Region, the process of systematically transforming municipalities into urban districts has been going on for two years. Until the precedent set by Tomilino, protests had been localized. Tomilino has been unique because of the broad response that has catapulted the issue of local self-governance in Moscow Region onto the overall federal agenda. On December 10, a forum in support of local self-governance took place in the Serpukhov District of Moscow Region. It was attended by several current heads of municipalities and municipal councillors.
“Latent” federalization, as expressed in the increasing financial and managerial independence of governors from the federal center, has had the effect of strengthening the interference of regional authorities in local affairs. This expansion has provoked resistance from certain municipalities, objectively generating the preconditions for a resuscitation of real local self-government, as well as a growth of grassroots civic activism. This, in turn, gives hope that public politics will once again return to the municipal sector.
Roman Petukh is a senior fellow at the Center for Complex Social Research, Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos and images courtesy of Zhukovskie Vesti and Fyodor Savintsev/TASS and Vedomosti. Thanks to Vera Uvarova for the heads-up