The Problem with Russia’s Governors

I happen to be one of those people who believes that the raw skills and pervasive cunning of enduring political leaders is independent of the given political system in which they operate (though it can certainly have an impact).  For example, at the height of his influence, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was politically maneuvering with the skill of Washington heavyweight – were he Mayor of Chicago, for example, you would never be able to get rid of him.  The same can be said of Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, and a variety of other leaders who have surpassed the 10-year mark.  Though these men for the most part lack democratic legitimacy, if you dropped them into a a real Senatorial or MP race they would likely excel handily, even with control over TV or the courts imprisoning the competition.

That’s really the beauty of term limits for all.  Whether you are Michael Bloomberg or Nursultan Nazarbayev, it’s tremendously beneficial to maintain the democracy kill switch to civilly remove power from one individual’s hands to pass to unrelated parties of popular choice, which can be seen as the penultimate expression of the last check and balance.  (Naturally the U.S. has nothing to lecture about here, with unlimited terms for Congress and Senate).

Putting aside for the moment the debate over Russia’s managed democracy at the top, and the bargain struck between the people and the state, exchanging voting rights for economic growth, etc., there are some troubling issues raised by the issue of term limits for the appointed governors of Russia’s regions.

This topic was raised in an interesting opinion article by Nikolai Petrov published in the St. Petersburg Times this week, who points to the curious appointments of several controversial governors by President Dmitry Medvedev over the holiday season when no one was looking.  Petrov also writes that that Medvedev recently said in a speech that he would like to see term limits for governors capped at three consecutive terms – which may or may not conflict with the views of Vladimir Putin.

Just to review, the direct elections of regional governors was abolished as a result of the terror attacks on the school of Beslan in 2004, which was followed by a very bloody and botched rescue raid, capped off by a speech by Vladimir Putin which connected insecurity with lack of discipline caused by democratic practices.  “We allowed corruption to undermine our judicial and law enforcement system,” he said in his speech, adding, “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.

This “weakness” would later turn out to be defined as democratically elected governors – it was much safer for the Kremlin to appoint such posts from Moscow.  Although some have reiterated the call for the return of direct elections, and potentially even Medvedev himself is showing his discomfort with the authoritarian format he inherited, there are still no changes on the horizon.

So Petrov’s article focuses on two particularly bad appointments of governors personally made by Medvedev over the holidays while no one was looking:  Sergei Darkin of Primorsky Krai and Alexander Berdnikov of Altai.  While Petrov writes that Darkin, who has been in power since 2001, is alleged to have numerous criminal ties and many associates arrested and jailed in recent investigation, it is Berdnikov who has the most colorful controversies.  One of his favorite hobbies came to light when a helicopter carrying a representative close to Medvedev, Alexander Kosopkin, and seven others crashed in Altai while on an illegal hunting trip he had helped organize … basically the elites are rumored to shoot automatic weaponry at several endangered species of mountain goats, sheep, and deer from the hovering helicopter.

Critics have called Medvedev’s reappointment of Darkin as “a slap in the face to the local population,” while others have said that the reappointment of Bernikov was “scandalous.

Ultimately it seems that the president’s vague definition of term limits (where fourth terms are allowed in exceptional circumstances) creates damaging ambiguity and uncertainty.  Even if the high authorities in Moscow are able to play around with their bait-and-switch game between the offices of Prime Minister and President for another decade, it seems like a distinct disadvantage to not have term limits for governors – at least providing the illusion to the people in the regions that a truly terrible leader can eventually be sacked and replaced with someone new.  It is a critical institutional shock absorber for the current format of sovereign democracy to continue, which will become more and more valuable if economic difficulties continue to be felt.  It’s also one of the few ways that corruption can be tackled.

Some observers argue that the only way the siloviki can obtain unobstructed access to perpetual rule is by granting it to other members of the United Russia party – that in order to abuse powers they must allow for others to do it also.  Others argue that the Kremlin enjoys holding kompromat against a governor, which can guarantee a speedy prosecution unless the politician is exceeding loyal to the instructions sent from Moscow.

But regardless of whatever benefits or convenience the Russian government sees in the current administration of regional posts, a recalculation is long overdue.  No direct elections plus no term limits makes for a toxic cocktail which does not bode well for Russia’s future stability.