Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Sends Elections Chief Packing

APAlexander Veshnyakov
Long-serving Central Elections Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who has criticized Kremlin-backed election laws and political tactics, lost his job Tuesday, after President Vladimir Putin chose not to renominate him for the post.

On Tuesday, Putin named five members who will sit on the commission during the December State Duma elections and the March 2008 presidential election. Veshnyakov, whose four-year term is set to expire, was notably absent.

Commission members and political analysts agreed that Veshnyakov's criticism of new laws eliminating the "against all" option on ballots and raising the bar for parties to run candidates, among other measures, was the likely reason for his dismissal.

"Maybe the Kremlin wants the new commission chief to be more ruthless about making political decisions or, alternatively, to stay out of politics altogether and just deal with the logistics of voting," said Igor Borisov, one of the new commission members.

The Kremlin said the commission simply needed new blood, a Kremlin source told Interfax. The source added that Veshnyakov deserved "the highest possible praise" for the work he had done.

The commission is composed of 15 members -- five of whom are chosen by the president, five by the State Duma and five by the Federation Council. The State Duma also named commission members Tuesday.

After the dust had settled, the elections commission had six new members. Four of those new members came from the president; two were tapped by the Duma. The remaining nine members currently sit on the panel.

The chairman is chosen by fellow commission members.

Former commission chairman Alexander Ivanchenko told Interfax the commission may tap Federation Council member Stanislav Vavilov as its next chairman.

The outgoing commission is scheduled to hold its last session March 26, Borisov said. He added that the new commission might hold its first session on the same day, at which time it would elect a new chairman and other senior officers.

Veshnyakov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Veshnyakov, who became commission chief in 1999, has presided over a period in which key democratic institutions have been rolled back, democratic activists say.

Under Putin, who took office Jan. 1, 2000, gubernatorial elections have been scrapped; smaller parties have been marginalized; and the Kremlin has created two pro-Kremlin parties, United Russia and A Just Russia. In a sign of United Russia's strength, the party won 13 out of 14 regional parliamentary elections Sunday. The party also maintains an iron lock on the Duma.

Borisov speculated that one reason for Veshnyakov's ouster may be his criticism last summer of United Russia-backed election measures -- including elimination of a minimum-turnout requirement and provisions making it easier to disqualify candidates. "Undesirable candidates could always be removed from the ballot using this law, and the courts are not likely to be of much help," he warned in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio in July.

Indeed, many opposition candidates were barred from running in Sunday's elections due to technicalities in the election law. Parties that saw their candidates sidelined included Yabloko, which was prevented from running candidates in St. Petersburg. The party appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the court ultimately shot down Yabloko's request to be on the ballot.

Yabloko officials insist they were cut out of the political process because they oppose construction of a Gazprom skyscraper in St. Petersburg.

While Veshnyakov supported barring Yabloko from running candidates in St. Petersburg, he was not always happy to see other parties banned from taking part, Borisov said.

With presidential elections -- and the question of Putin's predecessor -- to be decided next year, the Kremlin wants a "less autonomous" elections chief, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

"He is a relatively independent political figure with certain ambitions," Makarkin said. "The upcoming presidential elections will be difficult, and the Kremlin needs someone less ambitious."

Political opposition leaders were dismissive of suggestions that Veshnyakov was fired for being too liberal-minded.

"During Veshnyakov's tenure elections simply ceased to exist," Yabloko head Grigory Yavlinsky said. "He did his job by executing every order he was given by Putin. It really makes no difference who will replace him."

Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov concurred, saying Veshnyakov is "directly responsible for helping to destroy democracy in this country."

"The fact that he spoke critically two or three times does not make him a liberal," Ryzhkov added. "He fulfilled his mission, and now he will probably be given some government post or sent off to be ambassador somewhere."

When Veshnyakov was unanimously named commission chairman toward the end of President Boris Yeltsin's administration, analysts described his appointment as a boon for democracy and clean government.

Throughout much of the 1990s, elections were widely viewed as corrupt.

Under chairman Nikolai Ryabov, a 1993 constitutional plebiscite and the 1996 presidential election were marred with allegations of fraud.

After the 1996 election, Ryabov was removed from his post and made ambassador to the Czech Republic. He was replaced by Ivanchenko. While Ivanchenko was viewed as less of a stooge than Ryabov, he was criticized for not cracking down on regional election controversies.

Duma Deputy Alexander Babakov of A Just Russia said Tuesday that the new pro-Kremlin party would welcome Veshnyakov into its ranks, although, he added, party leaders would have to have a say. "The party is interested in these kinds of professional people," Babakov said, Interfax reported.