One mayor down
December 21, 2022
For years, the Siberian city of Tomsk was one of Russia’s last remaining strongholds of local self-governance. But the recent decision by authorities in the Tomsk region to cancel mayoral elections in the capital city now puts this reputation in the past. 
Deputies in the Tomsk City Duma brought a definitive end to direct mayoral elections after approving changes to the city charter on December 6. Instead of a mayor, Tomsk will now be headed by a city manager, whom deputies, rather than voters, must elect by a two-thirds majority.

Tomsk was among just a handful of cities where voters could still elect their mayor. But following municipal reforms in 2014, which gave regional legislative assemblies the power to decide whether the heads of local government are to be elected or chosen by some other means, directly elected mayors as a political species have gradually died out. Meanwhile, powers and responsibilities have progressively shifted from the local to the regional level of government, increasing the degree to which the heads of cities are dependent on governors, whom today, while technically elected, essentially serve at the behest of the Kremlin.

So, in fact, the changes to Tomsk’s city charter were a formality. In late October, the Tomsk region’s legislative assembly had already passed a bill doing away with mayoral elections in the capital city. At the time of the bill’s passing, deputies from the ruling United Russia party argued that the city manager system – as opposed to the office of mayor – had “shown its viability and effectiveness in other regions.” Likewise, abolishing mayoral elections, so the deputies claimed, would help reduce expenses in the local budget.

But talks of saving money were neither here nor there. In reality, relieving Tomsk of its mayor was a power play by regional and federal authorities to further strip cities across the country of their chief political leaders and exert greater vertical control over all levels of the political system. Today, mayoral elections remain in the cities of Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Abakan, Anadyr, and Ulan-Ude – all of which, by the way, are located either in Siberia or Russia’s Far East.

“On the one hand, Siberia is geographically distant from Moscow. But it’s also far away politically speaking,” Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, told Russia.Post. “Political processes in a country as massive as Russia cannot take place all at once. The closer you are to the Kremlin, the more noticeable and public you are. So we see that in regions around Moscow political changes occur more quickly than in other parts of the country.”

The last elected mayor of Tomsk, Ivan Klyayn, who had held his post since 2013, was arrested in November of 2020. This summer his powers were officially terminated due to convictions for abuse of power and running an illegal business. Klyayn’s four predecessors encountered similar fates, by either facing direct criminal prosecution or being pressured by law enforcement officials to step down from office.

As Petrov said, many suspect that Klyayn was targeted by authorities higher up due to his failure to stop candidates backed by opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, from winning local office in the city’s 2020 municipal elections.

"Tomsk is a strong, relatively democratic region,” explained Petrov. “It’s no surprise that Navalny’s candidates [Ksenia Fadeyeva and Andrei Fateyev] were able to get elected to the City Duma. Tomsk is often called the Siberian Athens, a university city where many students go to study. It’s an educated city, with a long history of competitive elections and strong mayors.”

But a strong mayor can be a major thorn in the side for authorities higher up on Russia’s pyramid of power, especially in large capital cities, like Novosibirsk or Khabarovsk, which dominate over the rest of the region. This was especially true in the 1990s and early 2000s, when mayors of major Russian cities were influential political players, sometimes even ranking above governors in terms of their political stature and popularity.

“When a conflict breaks out between a highly popular mayor and a regional governor, the public usually shows support for the mayor,” said Petrov. “Of course, that’s not a pleasant thing for the governor. But when the head of a city changes once every two or three years [as in the city manager system], then residents often don’t even recognize the person’s face or name. He just becomes another bureaucrat in the regional administration.”

While mayors in Russia are financially hamstrung by highly centralized budgetary rules – as Petrov notes, 70-80% of a city’s budget comes from regional coffers – political weight can compensate for a lack of economic power.

Such was the case with the former mayor of Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk region) Evgeny Roizman, who butt heads with regional authorities over budget issues. In 2013, Roizman proposed breaking Yekaterinburg away from the Sverdlovsk region to form a new federal city – like Moscow or Saint Petersburg – after accusing regional authorities of underfunding the capital city’s budget by RUB 7 billion (USD 210 million).

As Petrov explains, although Roizman faced constant fiscal hurdles during his time as mayor, the politician managed to keep himself afloat thanks to his fiery personality, which granted him an uncommon degree of independence from the regional government. But in 2018 Roizman resigned from office after authorities scrapped mayoral elections in Yekaterinburg.

Back in August of this year, Roizman was detained by police for "discrediting" the Russian military after speaking out publicly against the war in Ukraine. Although he was later released from police custody, in November Russia's Justice Ministry placed the former Yekaterinburg mayor on its list of "foreign agents."

Returning to Tomsk: given the ease with which mayoral elections were eliminated in the Siberian city, regional authorities and the Kremlin are now reportedly flirting with the idea of canceling all remaining mayoral elections in the country. No final decision has been reached yet, but according to sources quoted by Vedomosti, one could come as soon as early 2023. To add fuel to the speculation, the governor of the Novosibirsk region, Andrei Travnikov, hinted on December 16 that a decision to cancel mayoral elections in the capital city of Novosibirsk may be just around the corner.

Among those said to support a complete ban on mayoral elections is Khabarovsk krai governor Mikhail Degtyarev. Vedomosti reports that Degtyarev, an outsider to the region, wants to appoint one of his own people as the head of Khabarovsk’s capital city due to ongoing conflicts with local elites who control the city duma. Vladimir Putin named Degtyarev governor in 2020 after then governor Sergei Furgal was arrested and removed from office on what many considered to be politically motivated charges.

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and mobilization, the loss of mayoral elections in Tomsk, as well as in other cities, might not seem of great importance. However, as Petrov said, even local political tremors can help explain how Russia’s political system works more generally, but also tell us what to expect from Russia in the future.

“When the current regime eventually collapses, the question will be: what comes next? When political institutions at the federal level are either gone or incredibly weak, what remains at the local or regional level can serve as the groundwork for the country’s future political development. If you have no elections and no mayors – when you get rid of all of this – it means that both society and the political system become more atomized. It means quickly rebuilding after the collapse of Putin’s regime will be far less speedy.”

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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