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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Open Season on Mayors

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It sometimes seems like not a week has gone by in the past year without some mayor having charges brought against him for some crime or another. One by one these municipal leaders have fallen prey to the long arm of the law. Those who have run afoul of the law hail from small cities like Klimovsk, near Moscow, and Sakhalin Island's Kholmsk, or from huge metropolises like Volgograd; some were new to their posts, like the mayors of Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok, while others had been in office for more than 10 years, like the mayors of Tomsk and Tolyatti. At a recent State Duma hearing, it was noted that mayors in 14 regions are currently under investigation, although the actual number is higher when we include mayors in cities that are not regional capitals.

It is hard to believe this is a coincidence. Is the Kremlin orchestrating a deliberate attack on mayors as some analysts contend? These arguments draw a parallel with the government's campaign against Yukos and its battle to keep from getting taken over by the state. I think the case with the mayors is at once simpler and more complex.

There appear to be at least three reasons for this "persecution of mayors." The first is the significant curtailment of the role and influence of mayors as a result of municipal government reforms. As they lose their influence, a natural re-allocation of status and authority is taking place. Mayors are losing the relative immunity from prosecution they enjoyed as major figures among regional elites. Business groups that relied on local mayors for patronage have either lost out as their patrons lost clout or realigned themselves with other influential players.

The second factor is connected with the post-Beslan reforms, and in particular President Vladimir Putin's decision that governors should be appointed rather than elected. As governors are now within the vertical structure of executive power and functioning as appointed officials, mayors represent a certain counterbalance to their authority -- a fact that is not particularly welcome for the Kremlin. Mayors have drawn more attention from both governors and law enforcement agencies as a result. This is especially true for the mayors of regional capitals, who traditionally were second in power only to the governor.

The third factor is purely economic and is connected with the struggle developing over property ownership in regional centers. At stake is the most valuable real estate in each region, as well as the juiciest tidbits of municipal property that cities will have to divest themselves of in the near future in accordance with current reforms. Wherever there is business there is politics, and with little progress so far on the national project for housing, there is the temptation to try to label mayors as the primary culprits behind the delays. A significant precedent was established in this area by a recent Supreme Court ruling that land rights in Nizhny Novgorod fall under regional and not municipal authority.

With the formation of A Just Russia as the second party of power, the difficulties presented by independent mayors took on a new political dimension. This is something like what happened in the year leading up to the 2000 presidential election, when most mayors aligned themselves with Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia , in opposition to governors. Now mayors in a number of regional capitals have found themselves heading up local opposition parties. This kind of tactic is effective in cities where the politics are highly polarized and the governor's clan is aligned against a powerful clan surrounding the mayor, as is the case in Voronezh, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg, among others. For A Just Russia and, to a lesser degree, individual mayors, there is a growing desire to trade their now less prestigious and even dangerous jobs for a governorship, or at least the speaker's chair in the regional legislature. The mayor's job is losing its status as a relatively independent political position. In essence, the office of mayor is being forced onto the Procrustean bed of uniform vertical authority -- and anyone who doesn't fit the mold will be expelled from the mix.

There are no ideal mayors, just as there are no ideal governors or presidents. Mayors are simply executive managers working in Russia's very difficult and often contradictory conditions. Napoleon's condition that quartermasters working for less than one year could be summarily shot without a court hearing or investigation captures something of the flavor of the Kremlin's attitude toward mayors. In the continuing struggle between federal and municipal authorities, this purging and the increasingly primitive political environment have rendered the independent and relatively powerful mayor of the past an endangered species.

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