Medvedev takes a notion, and local lawmakers roll over to make it happen, squashing the voters who put them there.by Galina Stolyarova 14 July 2011
ST. PETERSBURG | Over the past week there has been a strange epidemic in Russia. Municipal councils across this big country, from St. Petersburg to the Urals, have been dissolving at an alarming rate.
This chain of dissolutions is not a result of local residents’ dissatisfaction with their councils. Nor have the council members come down with some highly infectious illness. Rather, it is part of an effort to help the governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko, become the speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.
Spotting the link is difficult until you hear the full story of what may become Russia’s biggest political farce of at least the past year.
In late June, Matviyenko was invited by President Dmitry Medvedev to give up her job and take over the Federation Council job left vacant after its previous holder, Sergei Mironov, was forced from office. Mironov is also a member of the St. Petersburg city council and had often clashed with Matviyenko.
But to take on this role, Matviyenko would have to become a member of a municipal council or a regional parliament, and no elections, municipal or regional, were due to be held anywhere in Russia before mid-autumn.
Not a problem. To put Medvedev’s idea into effect, members of several municipal councils in St. Petersburg, as well as in the Sverdlovsk and other regions, have proposed the following scheme.
A certain number of members of each council would resign, leading to the dissolution of the council and elections for new members.
Matviyenko would get elected to one of these local or regional bodies. Then the local governor would nominate her to become a regional representative to the Federation Council, the local council would confirm her, and Matviyenko would enter the Federation Council, where, in turn, a majority would put her forward as speaker. She would win that contest, too.
From stage one to stage five, everyone knows their part, even though it is all supposed to be a demonstration of free will.
This blatantly cynical scheme, which has infuriated the opposition, has caused no protest among the pro-Kremlin camp. Moreover offers from councils to self-dissolve have been flooding in: according to various sources, Matviyenko can choose where to stand for election from around 50 councils.
“I resigned from my job in order to help Valentina Matviyenko get elected,” declared Irina Barannikova, a member of a municipal council in the village of Alexandrovskoye, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.
Perhaps the most touching offer came from the small town of Verkhoturie in the Urals. The local governor, Alexander Misharin, told reporters that the town authorities “are capable of quickly and efficiently fulfilling the plan for Valentina Matviyenko to get elected to the Federation Council.”
A generous promise, but how can the authorities guarantee that Matviyenko will be elected unless they make some dodgy deal in advance with a sufficient number of potential voters?
Matviyenko herself appears happy enough to play the game. “The governor is still holding negotiations with the municipalities where she might hold her election campaign,” Yevgenia Altfeld, Matviyenko’s press secretary, said this week.
Although its constitution declares otherwise, Russia is in reality a country ruled not by law, or even by logic. This vast territory, it appears, is ruled by mere whim.
Some of the whims turn out to be difficult to put into practice. For more than two weeks I have been observing Russian officials of various ranks from several cities scratching their heads over how to make this presidential whim a reality.
Not a single serious politician has questioned the need for Matviyenko to be shoehorned into this role in the upper chamber. Nor has anyone come up with an alternative candidate. Surely, if not in the Federation Council, at least among the thousands of lawmakers in a country with a population of 143 million people, there is at least one other suitable candidate?
Where is the respect of these people for the citizens who elected them? And where is their regard for the already highly compromised electoral system in Russia?
I wonder what Medvedev is going to offer the residents of these self-destructing municipalities to get them to go along with this. Indeed, some people will surely be insulted to be asked to participate in an election organized and almost officially designed for Matviyenko to win, as if public opinion does not matter.
If Matviyenko successfully goes through the suggested procedure, it will set an important precedent. Could Medvedev at any time secure the self-dissolution of a wave of municipal councils, merely by deciding that some other government official must enter parliament? If so, it is surely proof that the entire system needs an overhaul.
To simplify things, and in order to save money, couldn’t Medvedev just dispense with elections and simply appoint all members of parliament, just as he appoints the governors? It would have been more honest to admit that it is time to return to a one-party system and to confess that the other political parties in Russia are permitted to exist for entertainment purposes alone.