A recent hike in the overall popularity of Russia’s governors tells an important story. But not necessarily the one that many have highlighted.
The popularity of Russia’s regional governors on average reached 65% in October according to a survey released by the independent Levada Center last week. This is an all-time high, which is only three percentage points behind the popularity of Vladimir Putin. No wonder the governing United Russia party, which is undergoing a serious crisis of its brand, is going to require some governors to head its regional branches.
Several analysts have suggested reasons for the upwards trend, ranging from an uptick in local investment to a changing political balance. In reality, however, the number says little, as Levada asks voters whether they approve of the activities of the governor of the region where they live, that is, significantly different people with significantly different degrees of authority. The “local governor” could be Sergei Sobyanin of Moscow – powerful and well-provisioned in a liberal city –, Sergei Furgal of Khabarovsk – a surprise opposition winner riding on a popularity wave –, Oleg Khorokhordin of the Altai Republic – a hapless bureaucrat from the presidential personnel reserve in a backwater region – or Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya – a totalitarian leader who advocates killing people who insult someone’s “honour” online.
There are other reasons why governors on average could be popular. For one, new governors tend to be more popular than their predecessors. And in recent years as the Kremlin has increasingly put an emphasis on not losing elections in the regions, it has started rotating governors much faster than before: in 2017 and in 2018 twenty governors were replaced, twice as many as on average in the 12 years before, typically in regions with an unpopular incumbent who was facing an election. The new governors nominated in the past years also tend to be significantly younger. 2017 is also when the upwards trend in Levada’s surveys started.
New nominees may of course simply do a better job, but very often the shackles of the position in an increasingly centralized decision-making or the inability to deal with entrenched local interest groups takes its toll on them. Svetlana Orlova of the Vladimir region was a highly popular governor for a while after her appointment but in September 2018 she suffered a shocking defeat by Vladimir Sipyagin, the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party.
The other, more important story that Levada’s chart tells is how little the popularity of governors, on average, has changed in either direction over the past years. This is especially remarkable given that Putin’s ratings took a significant tumble in 2018.
This is a symptom of the crisis of political responsibility that has developed in Russia in recent years. The government’s role in decision-making has more or less shrunk to merely implementing decisions. Decisions are increasingly prepared by experts trusted by the president. They hold various positions from the Central Bank to the Audit Chamber. Decisions on their suggestions are often taken by the Security Council, which officially only has an advisory role, and receive a final, political nod from the Presidential Administration, an unelected body. Governors, most of whom are, even if they are officially elected, appointed from Moscow (often together with their supposed “opposition”) have seen their political authority decrease in recent years, save for a few who hold real (and in the case of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, outsized) sway. As a consequence, voters have been increasingly likely to call the president, the only elected public official with visible and tangible political authority, responsible for local failures from waste collection in the Moscow region to disputed urban development projects in Yekaterinburg.
Since the Kremlin has allegedly put a brake on the dismissal of governors for the rest of the year, the next months might tell if the recent spike in governors’ popularity is a consequence of a flurry of appointments in recent years or voters have in fact started to trust their local governors more. Much will depend on governors’ ability to negotiate a more substantial autonomy to use the resources in their regions. In the end, as Natalya Zubarevich, an expert on Russia’s regions noted in a recent interview, as long as the federal government regards regions as fields of operation and business regards them as a resource from which to extract profit, charts might very well go up but little will change on the ground.