Moscow's Last Stand in Regional Elections

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Russia held its latest national elections on Sunday. Five regions held elections for regional and local parliaments. In addition, mayoral elections were held in Vologda, Magadan, Stavropol and Khabarovsk. There were also dozens of regional by-elections — for example, in Chukotka, where the region's former governor, Roman Abramovich, was elected as a deputy to the local parliament.

A distinctive feature of this year's voting process was the fact that parties lacking representation in the State Duma were denied the opportunity to register for regional elections, effectively locking in a four-party system. Irkutsk set especially high barriers, requiring interested parties to gather 36,000 signatures — 2 percent of all eligible voters — or put up a 6 million ruble ($229,000) bond.

These parties were not allowed to participate in the elections because more than 10 percent of the signatures they gathered were deemed invalid: in Kemerovo, the Union of Right Forces and the Peace and Unity Party; and in Zabaikalsky region, the Democratic Party of Russia.

The greatest number of parties — seven — were permitted to participate in the elections in Chechnya. There, only the Green Party did not pass muster with its list of signatures, and immediately after being disqualified, it teamed up with United Russia. Thus, Chechnya was not only among the first to switch over to the recommended proportional electoral system, but also demonstrated the greatest political pluralism in the new tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. But at the end of the day, United Russia received nearly 90 percent of the votes.

These elections, in which not a single democratic party was allowed to participate, became part of the Kremlin's strategy for purging the political field and especially to force right-wing parties such as the Union of Right Forces to unite with other more politically palatable parties.

United Russia was the dominant force in the elections, and it has become tradition for its party lists to be headed up by regional governors.

If things have gone smoothly for the Kremlin concerning political parties, the single-mandate candidates have encountered numerous problems. In the Irkutsk region, where the competition is more intense, a number of United Russia members registered as candidates in defiance of a ban by party leaders, and they were subsequently expelled from the party. An even more complex picture emerged in Nizhny Tagil, the big industrial center in the Urals where several United Russia candidates competed for the mayoral spot.

Of course, it suits the Kremlin when the country's political parties are completely dependent on Moscow. The only problem is that regional parliaments filled with deputies chosen by Moscow will be capable of doing little more than passing along instructions from the top. That might have been adequate during an economic boom period, but it is at odds with the current economic and political realities.

The economic crisis began too late to influence these elections. Even in the Kuzbass region, rich in coal and metals, the authorities did everything possible to postpone the negative effects of the crisis that had already affected those sectors in other regions. But it appears that the Kremlin's plan to pare down the political playing field to a few parties has become morally obsolete.

Thus, this may be the last time that Moscow will be able to pull all the strings in national elections. The results are bound to be quite different after the next round of elections in the spring.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.