Risks Related to Local Government Reforms in Northern Caucasus

In December, in Russia the prospect of a serious local government reform on which experts already started working was outlined.


At present, two possible ways of carrying out the above reforms have been named. The first one suggests liquidation of municipal districts and urban districts, transfer of their functions to territorial structures of regional authorities and preservation of local government at the level of settlements, while the alternative way, preservation of local government in rural areas in the present form, but introduction of a specific system in large cities where municipal governments forming an urban agglomeration are established, while management of the above agglomeration is assigned to regional authorities.


Each of the proposed options of the municipal reform entails special risks to Northern Caucasus. In principle, the above risks are related to the fact that there is high probability that political conflicts may arise or aggravate in the course of the reform or as a result of it.


Let's consider the option proposed for large cities. Division of large cities of Northern Caucasus into territories where local government is to be carried out will sooner escalate conflicts which exist now in those cities.


The thing is that at present a number of regional centers of Northern Caucasus includes a large number of urban settlements or villages (for example, the city of Makhachkala includes 10 urban settlements with the total number of over 100,000 people, while Nalchik, 3 villages with the total number of over 25,000 people). In the past few years, the current status of cities and the policy of city and regional authorities in respect of those urban settlements has been the cause of conflicts. So, in 2005 inclusion of Balkarian villages of Belaya Rechka and Khasanya in the territory of the city of Nalchik triggered protests on the part of Balkarian public organizations. At present, protests of residents of the above villages are mainly related to decisions of the Nalchik Town Council as regards land issues, particularly, difficulties related to securing of land plots for private development. As regards urban settlements in the territory of Makhachkala, their conflicts with the town council repeatedly resulted in mass protests due to the fact that residents of those settlements accused the town council of selling the land to "strangers" against interests of local people.


As a result of those conflicts on settlements and villages which are part of large cities of Northern Caucasus, a "nucleus" of local activists acting on behalf of local residents was formed. Those activists are largely supported by ethnic public organizations. It can be forecasted for certain that in the course of the expected municipal reform conflict villages and settlements will demand that they should not be included in the composition of larger urban districts, but granted local government of their own within the city. Also, it is logical that city and republican authorities will be against that as they do not want to grant their opponents in villages the status of municipal leaders and deputies. Thus, determination of territorial borders of local governments in large cities of Northern Caucasus may cause serious political escalation.


As regards the expected reform of local government in rural areas, its political consequences may include the following.


Firstly, networking of the state with local government in case it is left only at the level of rural settlements will alter dramatically as compared to the current situation where local government in its networking with the state is represented mainly by district leaders. According to our field research, leaders of villages in Northern Caucasus are less involved than, for example, district leaders in unofficial relations with officials of different levels, however, their political capital is actual support of residents of the village. It can be forecasted that leaders of villages will not show infinite readiness to delegate local government authorities to state government institutions. Regional officials should expect a hard talk with them on that and other issues.


Secondly, if the reform of local government enhances the role of the leader of the village as the only governing position at the municipal level, the struggle for the office of a village leader may have a negative effect on interethnic relations. At present, an absolute majority of villages in the flat land of the republics of North Caucasus (except for Ingushetia and Chechnya) are multinational. However, there are unofficial agreements on the nationality of the leader, his deputy and even deputies of the rural assembly and it is to be noted that those agreements are strictly observed. Thanks to existence of those agreements, the ethnic issue does not become a factor of destabilization at rural elections. However, if the office of the rural leader becomes more important it can be expected that some candidates may play the ethnic card, thus creating new factors of destabilization which may go beyond the borders of individual villages.


So, the above options of the local government reform aimed at ensuring of a higher control and elimination of any political conflicts in that sphere may have a reverse effect in the Northern Caucasus.


К.I. Kazenin , Senior Researcher of the Center for Political Economy and Regional Development