Why Ekaterinburg needs a directly elected mayor; One of Russia’s biggest cities is losing the right to elect its mayor. The position may be symbolic, but so is its loss.

Yekaterinburg file photo

(opendemocracy.net – Dmitry Kolezev – April 5, 2018)

Dmitry Kolezev is deputy editor of Znak.com. He lives in Ekaterinburg.

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At the beginning of this week, several thousand residents of Ekaterinburg attended a demonstration against plans to cancel elections for the position of city mayor. People held placards bearing democratic slogans. Prominent city residents spoke from the stage, including the current mayor of Ekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, whose term will end in September 2018.

In 2013, Roizman, an independent politician who had gained popularity for his anti-drug campaign, unexpectedly won the city’s mayoral elections, beating a candidate from United Russia. He could have put himself forward for a new term, but Sverdlovsk regional governor Yevgeny Kuivashev decided to revoke direct elections for the city’s mayor via the regional legislature. Instead of city residents, the mayor will now be chosen by a special commission formed by deputies from the city council and officials from the regional administration. It was against this legislation that thousands of people came out in protest, some of whom shouted “Roizman is our mayor!” and “The governor should resign!”

However, deputies in the regional legislature didn’t hear these calls. The day after, on 3 April, 42 out of 46 attending deputies voted in favour of cancelling the elections. Even a few opposition deputies (in Russia, “opposition” is a figurative concept) didn’t risk going against the will of the governor. It might seem paradoxical, but the decision about how the city administration is formed in the 1.5 million-strong Ekaterinburg isn’t taken by the city council, but the regional legislature, where a significant number of deputies represent very different municipalities.

Why the elections are important

It’s important to understand that Ekaterinburg’s mayor doesn’t run the city in the full sense of the term. In Ekaterinburg, as in many other Russian cities, there’s a “two-headed” system. Formally, the city is headed by an elected mayor, while a city manager runs the city administration. This means that the city manager is below the mayor in the pecking order – he’s a contracted official who is chosen via a recruitment process. But in fact, it’s the city manager who runs the city budget, works with subcontractors, decides issues relating to construction, trade and land – that is, they have the real economic power in the city. In Russia, everything happens where the money is.

In this scheme, the elected mayor isn’t left with much. They lead sessions of the city council, receive citizens and their problems, meet with foreign diplomats and participate in various ceremonies. Local journalists call this kind of mayor an “English Queen”, meaning that they have no real power, despite their high status.

For a bystander, this might seem strange: why are city residents against the cancellation of elections for a position that doesn’t really decide anything in this town?

There’s a few reasons. First, elections are important in terms of a democratic procedure: ideas and the city administration’s record are discussed during an election campaign; new leaders emerge in the process, and there’s a debate about the city’s present and future.

Second, even these kind of elections keep the authorities in check. When Roizman beat the United Russia candidate in 2013, it became a clear reminder to the authorities that you have to reckon (somehow) with public opinion.

Third (and probably the most important), these elections are important to Ekaterinburg as a symbol. It’s thought that the city has strong democratic traditions. More people usually vote for liberal parties here, and there’s a lot of journalists, intelligentsia, students – basically, there’s an active political life. It was in Ekaterinburg that the career of Boris Yeltsin, first president of the Russian Federation, started, as well as those of his allies. This might just be my hope, but I think the idea of democracy, freedom, elections aren’t just empty words here.

It should be said that Yevgeny Roizman is a far from ideal mayor. There’s a lot of points to criticise him on. In the first place, the fact that over the past five years he hasn’t discussed the city’s problems nearly enough, choosing instead to agree with veteran public officials who have been in the city administration for a long time.

People expected that Roizman would “poke the hornet’s nest”, expose corruption in the mayor’s office and make the authorities more transparent and honest. This hasn’t happened. But still, the city has no other politician comparable to Roizman in terms of his popularity. Plus, it should be citizens that evaluate Roizman’s work, not the regional legislature, which has simply removed the city’s right to elect its mayor.

What the governor’s supporters say

According to a recent poll run by Sostium, 62% city residents surveyed were against the law on revoking the mayoral elections. Nevertheless, the regional legislature passed it. So how did they explain it?

Regional vice governor Vladimir Tungusov, who presented the bill to the legislature, said that one of the arguments was about saving money. According to the authorities’ figures, the mayoral elections cost 150m roubles (£1.8m). But though Russia’s economy isn’t experiencing the best of times, and cities need every penny, Ekaterinburg can clearly afford this kind of sum. The city’s annual budget is 36.5 billion roubles (£450m), which means that we’re talking about 0.41% of the city budget for an important procedure that happens every five years. Indeed, the mayoral elections are held at the same as the city council elections, so it’s unclear what money could be saved.

Deputy Alexander Kadygin, from the Russian Communist Party, is one of four who voted against the legislation, says that the city authorities recently spent 400m roubles (£4.9m) on relaying cobbles on the city square – when the square is in a fine enough state as it is.

Another argument in favour was made by United Russia deputy Alexey Korobeinikov. According to him, “there should only be one politician in the region, the governor.” This is quite a strange statement. Surely deputy Korobeinikov himself is a politician? But behind this statement, I suspect, lies the fear that United Russia and Governor Kuivashev feel towards Roizman. Although the mayor hasn’t conducted an opposition campaign, the very existence of a popular politician – one who hasn’t dissolved inside the system and could theoretically become a threat- creates anxiety. In my opinion, this is evidence of the weakness of the Russian political system and the state, which feels itself to be a colossus on clay legs. Even Roizman, who has neither resources, nor a team, nor a political platform, frightens the authorities.

The third argument is that other municipalities have already cancelled their mayoral elections, and that this didn’t lead to a deterioration in their situation. Here, the fact that councillors in these situations aren’t criticising their mayors is cited as evidence. But, in my opinion, this is more likely evidence of the fact that the political field has been cleared in these municipalities, that their council leaders walk a fine line, don’t bring conflicts out into the open, and focus on the needs of the governor and the ruling party rather than their electorate.

The fourth argument is that the elections aren’t actually being revoked: after all, city residents will still be able to elect deputies to the city council, and they will elect the mayor. Here, you can object that it’s not the deputies who will elect the mayor, but a special commission (of which they will form half). Moreover, practically all deputies are dependent on their sponsors, political patrons or other business interests. Few of them are ready to come into conflict with the governor. So they’ll do what they’re told, not what the electorate tells them.

I suspect that not all deputies who voted for this law are playing the governor’s game. Some of them definitely believe that democracy and elections work badly in Russia. “The mayor should be a good manager, understand how the roads are cleared and the sewage system works. They don’t have to get involved with politics,” – this kind of opinion is quite popular in Russia. But as a result, the Russian state is corrupted and acts without feeling, and is powerless and helpless in the face of a real emergency, as became clear in the recent shopping centre fire in Kemerovo.

What’s next?

Supporters of direct mayoral elections say that they’ll continue the fight. Roizman has said he’s not going to give in. But it should be said that he hasn’t got much in the way of chances. Now the governor has to sign the legislation into law, and formal changes will be made to the city’s charter.

Theoretically, it’s possible to block this procedure. It includes public hearings, where supporters of the elections can try to make themselves heard once again. But these hearings are only recommendatory in character. Moreover, Roizman himself, as the chairman of the city council, can refuse to sign the amendments into effect. But as lawyers have suggested, this will not influence the outcome – the freshly passed legislation already has a certain weight, and this means that the elections have already been cancelled. It can’t be excluded that there might be alternative legal interpretations… So, there’s a chance to save the elections, but it’s fairly slim.

Perhaps if the protesters have the energy to organise a few more big rallies in Ekaterinburg, this could scare the Kremlin enough to reverse the process. But Roizman’s supporters don’t have those kind of resources. And businesspeople, who could help fund this action, are afraid of getting involved with the opposition. Plus, anybody who’s involved in opposition politics in Russia can face legal problems. Even Roizman himself could find himself the focus of a criminal prosecution. A former city council deputy, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2016 for the murder of an elderly woman (and was an ally of the current mayor), recently gave new evidence in his case, and this testimony could become the basis for an investigation against Roizman.

Other Russian cities have already been through this, but in Ekaterinburg, the cancellation of mayoral elections is turning out to be a painful process. In some sense, the city has to be “broken”. Even if city residents lose the battle for local democracy, the public’s level of trust in the authorities will suffer. They will look at the governor and United Russia as people who were too weak to hold onto power in an honest competition. A weak state is always under threat.

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