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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Senators' Independence Up for a Vote

The State Duma is soon to consider a controversial bill slashing regional authorities' control over their representatives in parliament's upper house and making senators virtually untouchable for the first year of their terms.

The proposed legislation, submitted by deputies from three pro-Kremlin factions, would make it harder for regional governors and legislatures to sack their envoys to the Federation Council, while allowing the chamber to kick out its members -- in some cases, without the consent of those who appointed them.

"A trend is emerging whereby Federation Council members are becoming overly dependent on the possibility of getting recalled by the regional authorities who appointed them," wrote the bill's authors in an explanatory note. "This makes their position highly unstable, which hinders [them] from ... expressing the interests of the state overall, not just a specific region."

Under existing law, senators can be recalled for any reason by the regional officials who appointed them.

The new bill lists five violations for which senators can be sacked: (a) engaging in activity closed off to them under existing legislation; (b) absence from work for longer than six months; (c) missing more than three meetings in one session; (d) actions "disgracing" a senator; and (e) failure to vote as instructed by regional authorities on legislation falling under the joint jurisdiction of federal and regional government. However, such instructions can be ignored if the president, Cabinet or Federation Council feels they violate the letter or the spirit of federal law.

In all cases except for the first violation in the list, the senate's consent is required. The Federation Council can also initiate the ouster of any of its members if one-fifth of the chamber supports the idea.

The bill also calls for a simplified procedure for extending senators' terms. Under the current law, a delegate's term ends together with the term of the regional officials who selected him.

The proposed amendments will face a competing bill from the liberal Union of Right Forces party, or SPS.

While SPS lawmakers agree that senators should be protected from the caprices of regional leaders, they also believe representatives should be accountable to those who chose them.

The SPS bill lists three violations for which regional officials can recall their envoys: The first two are the same as the pro-Kremlin deputies'; the third is failure to act as instructed by regional authorities, regardless of what federal officials have to say about it.

The legislation proposed by SPS gives the right to recall senators only to the regional officials who chose them, as long as two-thirds of the regional legislature supports the move.

Both bills introduce a one-year moratorium on firing senators. But, in the bill submitted by the pro-Kremlin deputies, this restriction applies only when regional authorities want to sack their delegates for failing to follow instructions.

The non-SPS bill is widely believed to have Kremlin backing, although last spring -- when a first draft was submitted -- Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko criticized it as "groundlessly restricting regional authorities' right to independently appoint or elect their representatives, as well as to recall them before the end of their terms."

Matviyenko's doubts do not reflect the government's overall position. Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko slammed the SPS bill, in part for the same reasons cited by the pro-Kremlin lawmakers -- for making senators too dependent on the regions, while their duty was to the nation as a whole.

Some regional leaders agree that the procedure for firing senators needs to be clarified but have protested against a curtailment of their powers.

"Banning the regions from recalling their representatives ... would be direct interference in the jurisdiction of the [Russian] federation's constituent territories and a restriction of our rights," Nikolai Voronin, chairman of the Sverdlovsk regional legislature, told the Kommersant newspaper.

"On the other hand," Voronin said, "Federation Council members do need to be protected from arbitrariness and we could spell out more precisely in what cases regional governors or legislative bodies can exercise their right to recall their representatives."

Both bills are on the Duma's agenda for Friday but are slated for late in the day and could be bumped off the schedule by more pressing legislation.