The unluckiest bunch of political leaders in Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term are regional governors. Since 2012, their political autonomy shrunk together with their resources, while they have been facing higher expectations from Moscow. Regardless of the relative degradation of their position, however, governors still have a very important role, i.e. ensuring the legitimacy of next year’s presidential election. This requires political savvy that many of the new regional leaders appointed in the past year seem to have. They may turn into a secret political asset in Putin’s upcoming fourth term.
Vladimir Putin may be out of stories to tell in his electoral campaign, but his third term told a lot of cautionary tales. One of these, which has only recently started to receive the attention it deserves, is the disenfranchisement of Russia’s regions. Arguably, this had started before 2012 and was part of Russia’s general deinstitutionalization under the Putin presidencies. However, regional autonomy enjoyed a brief recovery under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. The government reintroduced semi-free gubernatorial elections, scrapped in 2005. The majority of the governors appointed in this period were from the regions they led. The government tolerated an openly opposition-minded governor, Nikita Belykh in Kirov.
With Putin’s return to the presidency, screws were tightened again. In 2013, the president signed a law that allowed regions to scrap gubernatorial elections and the president to appoint governors in these regions. The number of federal officials and so-called “Varangians” increased. The latter are officials from another region, typically Moscow or St. Petersburg, appointed to head a region, to which they are not personally connected. The word comes from the Russian word for the Vikings who created the Kievan Rus but were later assimilated by Slavs. An elite unit of the Byzantine army was formed of them by emperors who distrusted native Byzantine guardsmen.
However, for most governors, the present era of tight screws started in May 2012 when Vladimir Putin issued decrees ordering the implementation of his campaign promises. The implementation of the generous social, labour, educational and other policies whose total cost ranged anywhere between $10 and 43 billion, and were well beyond the means of the Russian state, would fall on regional governments and regional budgets. At the same time, regions were required to hand in an ever growing share of their income to Moscow. Almost two-thirds of regional incomes go to Moscow and only one-fifth is given to regions in the form of subsidies. Thirty regions are dangerously dependent on subsidies, including several of the North Caucasus’s restive republics (i.e. Dagestan or Chechnya), the presidential trophy Crimea or regions in the far east. Others – i.e. Tyumen or the Nenets Autonomous Okrug – have started borrowing from big state-owned banks like Sberbank or VTB heavily once the times of scarcity began. In 2016, only 10 of Russia’s 83 regions (85, if one counts the occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) were deemed financially stable by the Finance Ministry.
In the past two years, one of the identifiable patterns of gubernatorial nominations was the growing presence of officials linked to the Federal Protective Service (FSO) in regions in 2016. Their most talked-about representative is Alexei Dyumin who was appointed by Vladimir Putin to head the Tula region last year. Dmitry Mironov, appointed to head the Yaroslavl region and Yevgeny Zinichev who had a short tenure at the helm of the Kaliningrad region, both had FSO backgrounds. Sergey Gaplikov, appointed to head the Komi Republic did not, but he was, like Dyumin, Mironov and Zinichev, a Putin confidante.
These governors immediately entered conflicts with the local political and business elites. The growing competition between the FSO and Russia’s main security agency, the FSB did not help either. The governors ended up embarrassingly failing their first major test: the 2016 Duma election. Turnout – the main carrier of legitimacy in a political system with little meaningful competition – dropped significantly relative to the 2011 election in three of the four regions and so did the vote share of United Russia. Kaliningrad already had a new governor before the election, Anton Alikhanov, a 30-year-old rising star of the gubernatorial corps.
This proved to be significant, since the Presidential Administration was planning to turn the 2018 presidential election into a show of force. Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration reportedly told regional leaders in December that the “main candidate” (read: Putin) should win at least 70 percent of the vote with an at least 70 percent turnout. Even with Putin’s sky-high approval ratings, this was a bit of a stretch. The Russian president only won by a similar margin once, in 2004 when he got 71.3 percent of the vote; turnout was the highest in 2008 when 69 percent of eligible voters participated in the coronation of Dmitry Medvedev. Understandably, over time, talk about the 70/70 strategy waned and the Kremlin started experimenting with other ways of creating legitimacy (the most significant of which, quite possibly, is Ksenia Sobchak’s candidature).
The goal of increasing legitimacy, however, was not forgotten, only rethought.
The 2016 fiasco taught the Kremlin a lesson. In 2017, seventeen regional leaders have been dismissed, mostly those who did not manage to raise turnout for elections in the past years. They were replaced with mostly younger, more agile technocrats (the likes of Alikhanov), and in some cases, local political heavyweights that do not ruffle the feathers of the local business elite (an example is Alexander Uss, the new governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, a region where several important private and state-owned enterprises are present). A notable exception was Vladimir Vasiliev, a former Interior Ministry official who was appointed to head the Republic of Dagestan – but his appointment is more of a reflection of what the Kremlin thinks is a suitable method to keep the restive North Caucasus on a leash.
The average age of the dismissed governors was 56 years, while the average age of newly appointed ones was 47. More importantly, most of the new governors, including the ‘Varangians’ who cannot count on their local networks, have ample political savvy either to increase turnout – as the new Omsk governor, Alexander Burkov – or to ensure a smooth electoral season with an effective campaign – as the new Karelian governor, Artur Parfenchikov. The first governors whom Vladimir Putin met following the September 2017 regional elections were the aforementioned Anton Alikhanov of Karelia and Maxim Reshetnikov, the 38-year-old governor of the Perm region who had been appointed in February. Together with his personal appearances in select regions during the campaign, this was a sign of Putin’s approval of the new strategy of gubernatorial appointments.
There is a serious contradiction, however. Natalia Zubarevich, an eminent expert on Russia’s regions recently argued that the independence of Russia’s governors has decreased sharply since the beginning of Putin’s first presidential term. At the same time, the risk of criminal prosecution has seriously increased. While it has become more and more unclear what governors are supposed to do, it is quite clear what they cannot do any more: i.e. act as arbiters between business groups. Tatyana Stanovaya, a political commentator pointed out that a gubernatorial appointment is not the sinecure that it used to be a decade ago. Rather, it is often seen as a punishment, or, in the case of Alexander Burkov, a popular deputy of a nominally opposition party, a banishment.
At the same time, the Kremlin does need loyal and capable governors. Revenue management may become increasingly centralized and business decisions removed from the regions, but it is very questionable whether the delivery of political legitimacy can be centralized. The position of individual governors might be weakening, but this does not mean that their office becomes less important.
Different political eras require different kinds of cadre reserves. With what in all likeliness is going to be Vladimir Putin’s last presidential term around the corner, the question of how ‘Russia without Putin’ will look is more and more present. With shrinking resources and effective powers, but increasing risks and expectations, governors may become the disgruntled political class of Putin’s last presidency. A disgruntled, but highly skilled group, which elites in Moscow – especially those like Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin whose influence among regional governors has significantly grown in the past years – will need and will use to underpin their claims in the post-Putin era. Just look at Alexei Navalny who, in March, led a charm offensive in Tatarstan, the region with arguably one of the most disgruntled political leaderships in today’s Russia.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the young army officer Boris Drubetskoy realizes that there are two different hierarchies in the Russian army. One of them is described in a book and is easy to learn and comprehend. The other one is similar to a secret society, but one in which you do not get admitted and initiated by anyone already inside. Instead, you have to discover for yourself where it exists and whether you are inside or outside of it. And roles are constantly and sometimes suddenly changing.
Being a governor during Vladimir Putin’s third term is not a bed of roses. This much is clear. What is also clear, however, that this third term is almost over. And in the very near future, some liabilities may turn into assets.