Direct Elections Might Not Be So Bad After All

The election of governors -- cancelled nearly four years ago under a Kremlin initiative -- has again become a theme for public discussion. It might well be that several United Russia members who raised the issue last week are not talking about the type of competitive elections that we saw in the 1990s, in which many local leaders lost their posts. United Russia might have in mind something similar to the federal elections of 2007 and 2008, which did not give too much legitimacy to either the politicians who were elected or to the institutions the politicians served.

It is difficult to compare direct gubernatorial elections with the practice of appointing them from Moscow. The 1990s and early 2000s were difficult in economic terms, but not because regional and federal elections were conducted on a competitive basis.

More likely, just the opposite was the case. The country's economic problems forced the Kremlin to allow voters the opportunity to replace governors and Duma deputies. Elections are ultimately the most peaceful and effective way to placate public discontent over the way politicians manage the country's affairs.

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Direct elections of governors would not create serious problems for the Kremlin. First, many Russians have raised their living standards not so much by the fruit of their labors, but by the luck of nature since so much of the country's wealth is from natural resources. A country dependent on natural-resource wealth needs a powerful federal center to administer and control these resources in addition to carrying out its usual government functions.

Second, with the Kremlin playing such a prominent role in the economy, there is practically no threat of governors promoting regional protectionism the way they did a decade ago. The integration of the country's economy is happening for the same reasons so many nations are moving toward globalization.

Third, the country's diverse ethnic and geographic makeup further supports the case for instituting direct elections. Of course, some ethnic regions or republics might require more control from the center than others.

In good times like these, direct elections are not a critical issue. But if conditions were to worsen, gubernatorial elections could serve as a "safety cushion" for all Russians. Thus, it would not be a bad idea to have an extra insurance policy in case there is an unexpected shock to the current economic and political stability.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.