Eliminating Local Government in Russia

An elderly woman pulling a metal container with water past a snow-covered wooden house with carved window frames in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS Россия. Омская область. 19 февраля 2017. Жительница села Кондратьево в Муромцевском районе Омской области. Дмитрий Феоктистов/ТАСС
An elderly woman pulling a container with water in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

Duma to Legalize Elimination of Settlements by the Regions
Maria Makutina
RBC
February 22, 2017

The Duma has tabled an amendment that would legalize converting municipal districts into urban districts. RBC’s sources have informed us the move to eliminate local government in settlements would be supported by the relevant committee. In Moscow Region, such mergers have sparked grassroots protests.

An “Elegant Way” of Eliminating Local Self-Government
Mikhail Terentiev, an United Russia MP from Moscow Region, has submitted amendments to the law on general principles of local self-government to the Duma Committee on Local Self-Government. (RBC has the document in its possession.) The MP has proposed amending the law to make it possible to merge all settlements, including rural settlements, that constitute a municipal district with an urban district. Under such a merger, the settlements and the municipal district would forfeit their status as municipal entities. Decisions about such mergers would be taken by regional authorities “with the consent” of local representative bodies.

Terentiev has also proposed changing the definition of an “urban district,” as stipulated by the law. Currently, it is defined as a urban settlement that is not part of a municipal district. The new draft law defines it as “one or more contiguous populated areas that are not municipal entities.”

Moscow Region authorities have found an “elegant and simple  way” to legalize the single-tier system of local government that, in recent years has, been established in a number of Russia’s regions, including Moscow Region, Andrei Maximov, an analyst with the Committee of Civic Initiatives, explained to RBC.

Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Protests
In November of last year, Andrei Vorobyov, governor of Moscow Region, announced plans to convert around twenty municipal districts into urban districts in 2016–2017. According to Vorobyov, the reform would save money by reducing the number of officials.

The proposed move sparked popular protests. Moscow Region municipal district council members, unhappy with the dissolution of local executive and representative bodies, held protest rallies. Public hearings on reforming local systems devolved into clashes with the Russian National Guard.

A Local Self-Government Congress was held in Moscow in February. Local council members from Moscow Region requested that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and law enforcement agencies investigate “numerous incidents in which local government bodies, including municipal districts, rural settlements, and urban settlements, have been forcibly dissolved.”

“The law does not provide for dissolving a municipal district or converting it into a urban district, so Moscow Region authorities conceived a way of getting round the law. First, they merge rural settlements with an urban settlement, and then they turn it into an urban district.  But the municipal districts are left in a limbo,” said Maximov.

The Presidential Human Right Council has argued that the reforms in Moscow Region violate the public’s right to local self-government. HRC deputy chair Yevgeny Bobrov said as much to Vladimir Putin at the council’s December 8, 2016, meeting. The president promised to “work” on the issue.

Nevertheless, in 2015, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the merger of two rural settlements and the Ozyory urban settlement into an urban district was legal.

Simplifying Governance
MP Terentiev explained to RBC that his amendments were motivated by the need to optimize the budget in Moscow Region.

“The governor and I realized that money could be saved on officials,” he said.

Thanks to the reforms, “there will be an overall approach to wage policies and the opportunity to reduce administrative barriers to business,” Terentiev argued.

The current law stipulates that Russia is divided into settlements, which are organized into municipal districts, and particularly large settlements, which are organized into urban districts, Maximov explained. According to Terentiev’s draft amendments, any territorial entity in Russia can be turned into an urban district, meaning it can be moved from the two-tier system to the one-tier system.

The authorities have been attempting to confer the status of urban districts on municipal districts in order to dissolve settlements and simplify governance. Rural authorities can interfere with the plans of regional authorities to implement urban planning projects and create obstacles to resolving land use issues, which currently require the consent of the settlements affected, political scientist Alexander Kynyev explained to RBC.

The Total Deterioration of Settlements
Experience has shown that populated areas lacking elements of self-governance deteriorate and disappear, RBC’s source on the Local Self-Government Committee told us. According to the source, the draft amendments would lead to the total deterioration of the settlement-tier of governance throughout the entire country.

“It is nonsense to eliminate settlements in densely populated Moscow Region. It doesn’t fit into any paradigm. It is just the governor’s whim. It will be easier for him to manage his affairs this way, and so the law has been mangled for this sake. He has to demolish everything so it will be easier to build it up again,” RBC’s source said.

The reform has been opposed by people of different views and parties. Local self-government as such has been threatened. As the 2018 presidential election approaches, the federal authorities want to avoid such controversies, argues Kynyev.

Through the Back Gate
Terentiev tabled his draft amendments as part of the second reading of a draft law bill that would abolish direct popular votes on whether to change the status of urban and rural settlements. The government tabled the draft law back in the spring of 2015. It was passed in its first reading the same year, after which the Duma has not returned to it.

Radical change in the territorial basis of local self-government has been brought in “through the back gate,” noted our source in the Duma, although the 2014 local self-government reforms were “seriously discussed” in society, he recalled.

Alexei Didenko (LDPR), chair of the Duma’s Local Self-Government Committee, agreed the draft bill could “eliminate the machinery of popular self-government,” and ordinary people would find it harder to defend their interests. According to Didenko, the draft amendments were at odds with what the president said during his 2013 state of the nation address: “Local governance should be organized in such a way  anyone can reach out and touch it.”

Didenko told RBC  the decision whether to support Terentiev’s draft amendments or not would be made by his committee, most of whom are United Russia members, in March. Two sources in the Duma told RBC the committee would approve the draft amendments.

How Local Authorities Have Been Stripped of Their Powers
In his December 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin asked that the organizational principles of local self-government be clarified. According to Putin, the quantity of responsibilities and resources of municipal officials were out of balance, “hence the frequent confusion over powers.”

In May 2014, a law reforming local self-government was passed, endowing the regions with the right to assume a considerable number of the powers previously exercised by local authorities in taking economic decisions.

The original draft of the bill called for the abolition of direct elections of big-city mayors and city council members. The final draft stipulated the heads of municipal entities could be either elected directly or appointed from among council members.  In the first case, the head of the municipal entity could lead the administration himself. (If the municipal entity in question is a city, he would become city manager.) In the second case, the head of the municipal entity would chair its representative body.

Regional legislative assemblies were accorded the right to divide cities and towns into intra-urban municipal entities. Two new types of municipal entities were introduced for this purpose: urban districts with intra-city divisions, and intra-urban districts.

First-tier council members (that is, council members of urban and rural settlements) are elected directly by voters. Second-tier council members (of municipal districts and urban districts with intra-city divisions) are either elected or delegated from among the heads of settlements and first-tier council members, in the case of municipal districts, or only from among first-tier council members, in the case of urban districts with intra-city divisions. The method of electing council members was also to have been defined by regional law.

In February 2015, two other methods for electing heads of municipal entities were introduced. The first method allows the head of a municipality, chosen by the municipality’s council from among its members, to lead the local administration. However, he surrenders his mandate as a council member. The second method allows a bureaucrat, chosen by council members from a slate of candidates suggested by a hiring committee, to lead the local administration. This had made it possible for city managers to become autocratic mayors.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my December 15, 2016, post on the same topic, “In Tomilino.”

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