Resets for the ‘right people’ Russia plans to do away with term limits for regional leaders. Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev explains why the Kremlin needs this change.
The Russian State Duma is set to consider a new draft law aimed at lifting the two-term limit for the heads of Russia’s regions. This piece of legislation is almost certain to make it through parliament. Moreover, it will give the president more power to influence regional leaders, allowing him to reprimand them, issue warnings for poor performance, and, eventually, fire them (that said, a similar “no confidence” mechanism exists already). Regional leaders will also be given standardized titles, meaning positions like the “President of Tatarstan” will have to be renamed. What is the point of all these changes? Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains.
From the Kremlin to the Duma
The legislation was written by two State Duma lawmakers from the United Russia party: Andrey Klishas, head of the Federation Council, and Pavel Krasheninnikov, the head of the State Duma committee for constitutional legislation and state-building. According to a source close to the leadership of the Duma, this authorship suggests that the bill is certain to pass: “Klishas and Krasheninnikov only submit laws if they’re coming from the Kremlin.”
Andrey Klishas has penned many controversial and high-profile laws, including the legislation on resetting Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms (effectively lifting his term limits), a law about the “sovereign RuNet,” and punishments for spreading fake news online and disrespecting the authorities.
The main impact of Klishas’ and Krasheninnikov’s draft law is the lifting of term limits for Russia’s regional leaders. Right now, they can only be elected for two consecutive terms.
Direct elections of regional heads were canceled by Putin in 2004 following the Beslan school siege; he justified it as a necessary step in strengthening the “power vertical” to combat terrorism. As president, Dmitry Medvedev brought these elections back in 2012. This means that the contemporary two-term limit applies only to those regional leaders elected after 2012.
For example, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin was appointed to lead the city in 2010, while Ramzan Kadyrov was selected as the head of Chechnya in 2007. Their terms, however, only began once they were elected — in 2013 and 2016, respectively.
The term limits were originally imposed in 2015. At the time, corresponding legislation was signed by every parliamentary party. “We must finally sort out the problem of term limits for our governors” proclaimed the Duma’s vice-speaker, Igor Lebedev of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR).
Now, these term limits are being scrapped. The urgency of the new legislation is clear: in the coming years, 22 regional heads will reach the end of their second term and be unable to run for re-election.
Among them are Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and Moscow Regional Governor Andrey Vorobyov (their second terms end in 2023), Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov (whose second term ends in 2025), Crimean head Sergey Aksyonov (in power until 2024) and Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov (whose term ends in 2026).
Notable regional governors are in the same boat. The head of the Leningrad region Alexander Drozdenko and Rostov governor Vasily Golubev are set to remain in place until 2025. Meanwhile, the Tula region’s governor, Putin’s former bodyguard Alexey Dyumin, will see his tenure end in 2026.
There can only be one president
Nearly all of Russia’s regional leaders will receive a title change. Today the majority — 60 of 85 — are officially called “governors.” National republics are led by “heads of republics,” with the exception of Tatarstan, which retains the title of “president” for its leader. The Tambov region and Lipetsk region call their leaders the “heads of regional administrations.” Moscow keeps it simple, calling its leader the “mayor.”
The new legislation will standardize these titles — they will be the “head” of whichever region they lead. Still, the “governors” will not completely disappear.
First off, Krasheninnikov — the co-author of the law — has clarified that the refreshed titles will not apply to the leaders of Russia’s three federal cities. Saint-Petersburg and Sevastopol’s heads will remain “governors,” while Moscow’s leader will continue to be the “mayor.” Second, the law allows for “heads” to have a secondary title if they wish, so long as it’s permitted by the Constitution or the region’s Charter (it’s basic law).
The only prohibited title for a regional leader will be “president.” Until 2010, most Russian republics were led by “presidents.” Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov was the first to refuse such a title, and shortly thereafter laws were passed to strengthen the emerging norm of renaming regional offices. Still, Tatarstan’s leader managed to retain his title for a few more years. But now, Russia will only have one president.
‘Everything else is merely garnish’
“The purpose of this legislation, as it was with the constitutional amendments, is to ‘reset’ terms for the ‘right people.’ And everything else, like standardizing the titles and such, is merely garnish. There is nothing else deserving of serious attention — we’ve lived this long without the unified titles and we could keep going without them,” explained a Meduza source close to the United Russia leadership.
The “right people,” he suggests, are first and foremost Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, and Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as Moscow Regional Governor Andrey Vorobyov.
According to political scientist Alexander Pozhalov, this legislation broadens the “corridor of future opportunities for President Vladimir Putin and his administration in terms of the elite’s human resources — determining who serves in which position without artificial procedural constraints” like term limits. For instance, it would be hard to find positions for Sobyanin or Vorobyov that match their stature and importance.
“Looking forward, the legislation also removes any restrictions for Ramzan Kadyrov’s leadership of Chechnya. Finally, a fourth important leader of a resource-laden region is Tatarstan’s Minnikhanov. There’s a political trade-off here: Tatarstan’s elites are relinquishing their symbolic special status in exchange for future terms for their republic’s leader” explains Pozhalov.
Political scientist Vitaly Ivanov agrees that it would be tough to find equally prestigious and influential positions for people like Sobyanin and Minnikhanov if term limits remained in place. “Such offices are few and far between, and they are all occupied. Sobyanin and Minnikhanov enjoy their jobs, they want to keep working, and their ratings are not in trouble. I imagine that Andrey Vorobyov would want to stay put too.”
Ivanov points out that Russian law has been bent before to suit particular circumstances and individuals. For instance in 2003, governors’ terms were “reset” to allow Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev to seek third terms.
Alexander Pozhalov sees one more pragmatic benefit of this legislation for the presidential administration. “Given the Kremlin’s logic, it would restrain elite factions from seeking out successors for key governorships and thereby provoking infighting for a crucial region. Still, this doesn’t guarantee stability, or that a given governor will actually want to pursue a third term. Rather, the president will be able to make whatever decision he wants closer to the necessary date.”
Vitaly Ivanov concurs that decisions about any region’s leadership will still be made by Vladimir Putin. With this new legislation, the president will get even wider powers to influence the regional heads: he will be able to issue official reprimands and warnings (in the form of presidential decrees for “improperly conducting their duties”).
If the governor fails to address the reasons they were given a warning or reprimand within a month, they will be forced to resign due to “loss of confidence.” Though notably, the president can also “lose confidence” in a leader and demand their resignation even without any warnings.
Alexander Pozhalov likens this to penalty cards for governors, where a warning is a yellow card. Potential grounds for a penalty would be “if the approval rating of the federal government and the president worsens, or if a governor’s conduct prompts widespread criticism of the authorities” according to Pozhalov. “Warnings and reprimands will signal to regional elites that their governor does not enjoy full federal-level support, and that could prompt intra-elite competition to oust them.”
No more part-timers
The new legislation changes the work of legislative assemblies as well. In particular, regional deputies that work “part-time” (i.e. do not receive a salary for their legislative duties) will be considered “persons holding public office” — effectively prohibiting them from owning and managing a business. That would impact many businesspeople in regional assemblies, who often are the ones occupying such “part-time” seats.
“[State] Duma deputies hold federal public office, but the deputies of legislative assemblies do not hold regional public office. But why [not]? The spirit of the Duma and the regional parliaments is one and the same — these are legislative bodies of the state” Vitaly Ivanov argues.
“Every so often there is an effort to fight the presence of businesspeople in legislative assemblies. Now that the parliamentary elections have passed, the federal center has more leeway,” Ivanov adds. “The governors will probably have some issues with their loyal businesspeople, but I’m sure they’ll get resolved.”