Maria Eismont: Moscow’s Municipal District Opposition

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Like other municipal district councils in Russia’s major cities, Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District Council has a meeting space and offices, and enough money to publish a newspaper and fund very minor improvements in the neighborhood, but it has virtually no political power and survives only at the mercy of city hall and the city’s legislative assembly. Photo by the Russian Reader

How Things Are Going for the Municipal District Opposition
New politicians searching for a new agenda
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

Sergei Sokolov was the only opposition member in the previous sitting of Moscow’s Konkovo Municipal District Council.

“I could not beat pro-regime council members when things were put to a vote, but I still managed to discourage them from doing things the neighborhood did not need,” says Sokolov, recalling his preceding five-year term on the municipal district council.

In September 2017, a team of Konkovo activists, led by Sokolov, won neighborhood elections, taking eight of the fifteen seats on the municipal district council. Sokolov was named head of the district, since Konkovo’s charter stipulates a simple majority of votes by council members to elect a district head, unlike other municipal districts. In other neighborhoods where the opposition won majorities on councils, their candidates for district heads ran into problems, since they needed the backing of two thirds of council members to win the posts, but they came up short on votes.

For the first time in many years, independent candidates won majorities in several Moscow municipal districts. In several instances, they won overwhelming majorities, but the question of whether grassroots self-government is possible in Moscow remains open.

The fact that Moscow’s municipal council members have scanty means at their disposal and insufficient powers was well known before and during the campaign. Yet now the new democratic politicians, who have taken power at the lowest level of Russia’s political totem pole, must show themselves and their voters that this is, in fact, the beginning of big and important changes in Russia.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, now head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District, has already gone public with the new council’s first legislative undertaking. They have suggested eliminating the current system of so-called golden parachutes for outgoing municipal district council members and municipal district heads.

Konkovo’s independent council members have gone further. Within ten days of taking office, Sokolov sent the Moscow City Duma a request for 19 million rubles [approx. 275,000 euros] in additional funds for Konkovo’s budget, paid for with an increase in the allocation of personal income tax revenues.

“There are no rational explanations for the inexplicably low, discriminatory amount of personal income tax revenues allocated to the Konkovo Municipal District’s budget,” Sokolov wrote.

Council members have proposed spending the money on neighborhood improvements, accessible legal aid for low-income people, and a Southwest Moscow History Museum.

Last week, Konkovo council members came out with a legislative initiative to amend the Moscow City Law “On the Budget’s Structure and the Budgetary Process in the City of Moscow,” proposing to set the amount of allocations to municipal district budgets from personal income tax revenues at five percent. (It is currently set at 0.96%.) Economist Vladimir Milov helped draft the bill.

“I had been thinking about this initiative for a long time, and our team was organized for this purpose,” says Sokolov.

There are traces of picture frames that once held photographs of the president and prime minister on the wall in Sokolov’s office. They have been replaced by a hand-drawn portrait of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I have no illusions about the bill. United Russia still has a majority in the Moscow City Duma,” says Sokolov. “I don’t yet know how we are going to lobby the bill, but we will  be employing our usual methods: media outreach, rallies, and similar public things.”

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Moscow city officials would meet the opposition municipal districts halfway, voluntarily giving up some of their money and authority. But it seems extremely important the reform of local self-government continues to be discussed and elaborated.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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.”

In Tomilino

Tomilino
Tomilino

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
Zhukovskie Vesti
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.

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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.

At the moment, the public hearings are continuing in Tomilino. Find out all the latest news at www.vtomilino.ru, the Tomilino group on VK, and the Telegram channel https://telegram.me/vtomilino.

Screenshot from the Telegram channel Vtomilino on December 7, 2016. “We’re opposed! 19:30.” “Ruzhitsky has threatened audience members with criminal charges if they continue chanting, ‘Opposed.” 19:31.” “Police are bullying people at the entrance. 19:36.” “Ruzhitsky has had nervous breakdown, is taking like hysteric. 19:37.”

Continue reading “In Tomilino”