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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

If You Build the Roads You Get All the Blame

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In any state, local government is the one people deal with most closely. So it is important to understand what prospects there are for the development of local government in Russia. In theory, local officials should answer solely to the will of local residents. Their responsibilities in most countries are funded by local taxes and protected from interference from higher levels of government.

Moves to develop local government in Russia have always been welcomed, but never actually realized. Attempts to create such bodies in the 19th century had barely been launched when they were effectively cut down, in the 1880s and 1890s, when decisions by the zemstvos (local bodies similar to today's municipalities) were rendered powerless unless confirmed by the regional governor or the Interior Ministry.

In post-Soviet Russia, the authors of municipal reforms set out to create full-fledged local government. Passed in October 2003, the relevant legislation broadened the responsibilities of rural and city administrations. But the local bodies did not receive the necessary fiscal independence and, according to one study, about 80 percent of the 25,000 municipal administrations survive on subsidies from above. A presidential initiative announced in September 2004 then began a process of limiting the independence of elected governmental bodies.

First, deputies in regional assemblies were allowed to replace the election of mayors with the appointment of administrators.

Then the governors and regional assemblies were allowed to postpone the implementation of the new law for up to three years. They may also make decisions concerning municipal taxes, construction and the sale of land until 2009, limiting municipal administrations to decisions concerning garbage removal and leisure activities for seniors. Some regions went even further. Moscow City Hall denied local governments the right to certify building plans within their jurisdictions.

Limiting the powers of local governments could severely undercut public interest in mayoral and municipal assembly elections. This may satisfy ambitious governors who consider the subordination to them of mayors and the heads of rural areas proper compensation for their own loss of elected status. But will this ultimately benefit the state? If Moscow or regional capitals take total responsibility for funding and overseeing the construction of schools, banyas and sewage systems, then public discontent in municipalities over lack of heat in apartments or the sorry state of the roads will be aimed not at the local managers, but at the governors and the Kremlin.

A longer version of this editorial appeared in Vedomosti.