On dismissals, recruitment and others

Thoughts on dismissals and arrests in the regions after the presidential election and before this year’s gubernatoropad. What do recruitment efforts by regional authorities tell us about how Russia works today? And some stories from the regions that didn’t make the cut in the past two Bear Market Briefs.

Post-election cleanup

It appears that following the March presidential election and in the anticipation of a spring “gubernatoropad” – the season of falling governors – several regions started dismissing and arresting local and regional officials.

One of the first regional officials to leave following the presidential election was Sergey Voropanov, the mayor of Vologda who in recent years became famous for his social media (primarily TikTok) presence and was considered a competent and popular official. It is worth noting that the Vologda Region was one of only four regions that reported a below-80% vote share for Putin in March, and urban districts were to a large part responsible for this truly disappointing result.  

This is probably not the actual reason for Voropanov’s dismissal, albeit it may have been used as a pretext to put pressure on him to leave. (The mayor of Nizhny Tagil in the Sverdlovsk region infamously announced that he would sack officials and municipal employees who did not vote in the election.) The actual reason could also be that the region’s current governor, Georgy Filimonov, who was appointed only in October, is cleaning up (two deputy governors left together with Voropanov). In Russia’s increasingly corporatist system of governance it is customary for newly appointed governors to bring their own team from their previous region or job, to replace officials appointed by their predecessor, and to identify and neutralize potential local rivals. Often, especially if the region has a strong economic power base, or if the position in question requires frequent interactions with locals, the appointees are comparatively weak representatives of the local elite. The fact that Voropanov’s successor, Andrey Nakroshaev, is also a local official with deep roots in the region, but a much weaker profile than Voropanov, also seems to confirm this version of events.

Other dismissals are also related to political clean-ups. In Novosibirsk the local assembly is about to select the city’s new mayor after the regional legislature scrapped direct mayoral elections last year (I wrote about the rationale behind scrapping direct mayoral elections for Riddle). The new mayor will, in all probability, be deputy governor and former Duma deputy Maxim Kudryavtsev, whom the authorities would likely like to start with a clean sheet. Thus it was not surprising that several sitting or former officials have been arrested for corruption in recent weeks, among them Konstantin Vasiliev, the former head of the city’s department for roadworks, and Denis Arkhipov, the region’s minister for housing and utilities. Both cases concern the interests of major companies: the local construction firm Metro Mir and the Moscow-based holding VIS.

Given that over the past years the failures of the region’s former waste management operator, the eternal Russian public annoyance of potholes, and quite recently accidents involving aging public utility networks have all caused outrage, it is easy to see how the authorities can expect political gain from holding officials accountable before the appointment of their handpicked new mayor. The curious thing is that the cases were initiated by Deputy General Prosecutor Dmitry Demeshin, instead of the regional authorities, suggesting a tighter “manual control” of the region, or a lack of trust in the abilities of governor Andrey Travnikov.

Similar arrests took place in Kamchatka and Irkutsk (in both cases municipal officials were arrested, as well as, in Irkutsk, a former regional official). In Buryatia – another region that has recently scrapped direct presidential elections in the regional seat, Ulan-Ude – the former head of the regional parliament, a local heavyweight Tsyren-Dashi Dorjiev was arrested for corruption and misuse of office. In Chuvashia, the region’s minister of construction – who had supported controversial building projects – was arrested for bribe-taking. In the Stavropol Territory, in one of the more extensive corruption cases of recent weeks, federal Ministry of Economy officials were accused of colluding with local businessmen to orchestrate the takeover of a mineral water production plant. The list goes on.

Many of these cases had likely been ready to launch for months, however executing the “electoral events”, as Russia’s rigged elections are euphemistically referred to by the authorities, requires close coordination between the regional government, lower-level officials and local elites. Thus it is usually not advisable to execute potentially disruptive changes before an election. Each coming gubernatoropad, on the other hand, offers local elites an opportunity to make life demonstrably difficult for governors that they find difficult to work with, but also for the federal government to send signals down to the regions, over which it has systematically strengthened its vertical of power in recent years.

This year’s upcoming gubernatoropad is also significant because it will likely coincide with a government reshuffle, as Putin, by law, will have to appoint a new government as he starts his newest presidential term. This comes at awkward time: the core promise of the corporate management system gradually introduced in public administration over the past decade with institutions such as the “Leaders of Russia” competition and the “School of Governors” has been that a stint in a regional or local administration is simply a stepping stone for civil servants, an opportunity to prove their worth before they are rewarded with a much more powerful or cushioned federal-level position in the capital. This promise has not been realized. And now the federal government – and Putin himself, talking about a “new elite” – has also made implicit and explicit promises to officials looking to expedite their promotion by working in the occupied territories.

The situation does not seem to be quite as difficult as with the security services, where the immovability of senior leadership is making promotions difficult further down the ranks, but satisfying everyone is a challenge, especially at a time when returning to the private sector is not an appealing opportunity. Creating new federal institutions with a nominally important mission – such as a planned new migration office – could be one stopgap measure that the government is considering.

Scarce manpower

Apart from the planned new migration authority, repressive bills, a slew of racist incidents and law enforcement actions against migrants, one consequence of the Crocus City Hall attack, at least according to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, was an uptick in the number of men volunteering to fight in Ukraine as contract soldiers (he claimed more than 100,000 have signed up since the beginning of the year). The authorities are of course eager to demonstrate that most Russians believe the government’s official explanation – that Ukraine and/or the West ordered or facilitated the attack – in spite of a complete lack of evidence. In reality, it is almost impossible to verify Peskov’s numbers. Even if the federal government did not doctor the total, it is likely based on recruitment figures reported by regional authorities, which are interested in reporting high figures, as recruitment is a key performance indicator.  And even if Peskov’s numbers somehow reflect the reality – which cannot be verified beyond reasonable doubt – it is doubtful that people signing up were motivated by emotions triggered by the terrorist attack.

Payments from regional governments to contract soldiers have become significantly higher over the past year. One-time payments, which are regarded as an incentive to sign up – topping up federal payouts and provided in addition to steeply rising salaries in the military – were, on average, around or slightly over 100,000 rubles ($1,080) in mid-2022 and around 200,000 a year ago, which in most regions then seemed to be sufficient incentive to meet the expectations of the federal government. Things have since changed. Over the past months a series of regional governments announced that they would pay 400,000-500,000 rubles ($4,300-5,200) or even more. As of this week, the Krasnodar Territory pays one million rubles ($10,800) to kontraktniki. Apart from the positive incentives, several regions have used or suggested using measures such as drafting people who are behind with their utility bills.

This suggests either that the authorities are having trouble recruiting people to the war (which is a possibility, judging from certain careless statements by officials and the fact that the military is now also competing with the military industrial complex for able-bodied men) or that the federal government is expecting them to ramp up recruitment significantly. Journalist Farida Rustamova had earlier written that the government expects to recruit some 400,000 people to fight in Ukraine this year, while – dubious – official numbers suggest that 53,000 people signed up in the first two months of the year.

For the federal government this recruitment competition by regions is important and convenient, as every contract soldier so hired does not have to be mobilized later on when (and if) the government announced a second round of mobilization. However, it does put further burden on regional budgets in a year when both the growth of their own fiscal income is predicted to flag and transfers from the federal budget are also cut. Prioritizing recruitment means less attention (and often, money) to others. Expect to see things like paramedics in several regions demanding higher pay and bonuses previously announced by Putin himself, more often.

And it is not only paramedics. It might sound counter-intuitive given sky-high federal spending on domestic security, but there is an acute and growing shortage of police personnel in Russia, leading to worse public service outcomes in many regions. As of October last year, the Interior Ministry was short of 100,000 employees (including, but not limited to police officers), and judging by the constant reports of shortages of several hundreds of police officers appearing in regional media, the situation has not improved. This, too, will put more burden on regional budgets.

Recruitment is a good example of a tight corner created by the way in which the prioritization of the war affected Russia’s system of governance. Since the political responsibility of public officials is almost completely towards their superiors (rather than voters) and promotion opportunities are few and far between, their best bet is to focus on the task that seems to be the overall priority of the federal government, as this will earn them – and their regions – the most attention in Moscow. The Kremlin, of course, still expects regional governments also to keep their regions calm and relatively satisfied, but instead of fostering the necessary circumstances, it often leaves up to governors to decide where it is the least risky to cut funds and attention. In the time of war, the stakes are much higher.  


  • А propos regional finances: the Finance Ministry announced that two-thirds of regional debt towards the federal budget is not going to be automatically written off (as promised by Putin in his state-of-the-nation speech), only restructured: its maturity date will be postponed from 2025-29 to 2030-39. The government is also trying to kill two birds with one stone: if regions want to write off debt, the funds thus freed will have to be used to implement investment projects and modernize housing stock and utilities (another promise in Putin’s speech, and a new government program). This however will still require major federal subsidies, if it is going to happen: the total regional debt to be restructured is worth 1.6 trillion rubles, while just the modernization of public utility networks is expected to cost more than 4 trillion.
  • Following the modification of the third stage of the development plan of the Transsiberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the price tag of the project grew from 2.7 to 3.7 trillion rubles between now and 2032. Russian Railways (RZhD) registered a record income of 3 trillion rubles last year, but still, the company will likely have to raise tariffs to support its updated investment plan (all while elsewhere the authorities are trying to limit tariff increases). This is because Far Eastern railways are currently a bottleneck on Russia’s increasing domestic and export shipments in the Eastern direction. According to official data their capacity last year was 173 million tons of cargo, but shippers submitted applications for more than twice this much (353 million tons), leading to (according to Far Eastern presidential plenipotentiary Yury Trutnev, but also coal exporters) lower profit margins and halt to production. The cost of the Northern Siberian Railway, an extension that would link the Transsiberian to the Northern Sea Route, is meanwhile estimated at 8 trillion rubles, a steep increase from 218 million rubles estimated in 2008.
  • Asset redistribution through the nationalization of key enterprises continues. This week the Prosecution demanded for the shares of MAKFA, the country’s largest pasta manufacturer, owned by two former officials accused of corruption; as well as several factories belonging to the Ariant group, in connection with a previous nationalization case. These cases were launched with Vladimir Putin recently denying – yet again – that a campaign of deprivatization was going on in the country.
  • The Saratov Region’s ministry for digital development prohibited the use of Telegram and WhatsApp for the ministry’s employees to conduct work-related conversations. The decision is likely a part of the push to make officials use domestic software – developed by companies under the control of the Kremlin – instead of messengers that the authorities find either a potential national security threat or difficult to keep under control. While the reactions to the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack prompted many to speculate that the authorities would make another push to ban the use of Telegram across the country, this is easier said than done. The federal government has tried to get public servants not to use these messengers for work purposes as early as in 2016, with not much success. It is more likely that the authorities are trying to make the owners of Telegram more cooperative with security services.
  • In Bashkortostan, shortly after local authorities opened a case into more than 80 people who took part in protests against the jailing of Fail Alsynov in January, accusing them of “participating in mass riots”, one activist petitioned the Investigative Committee, demanding it to also charge provocateurs: law enforcement personnel that, according to the activist, deliberately incited violent acts in the crowd. The Baymak protests were a significant – but not the only – recent example of pent-up discontent erupting into mass demonstrations in a region with a recent history of grassroots action. Local authorities cracked down hard on participants and activists, potentially also motivated by the fear of being seen as not heavy-handed enough against a type of movement that the federal security elite increasingly regards as a national security threat.
  • A story, which illustrates very well how local activism and interest representation often works in regional politics. In Karelia, a local deputy organized a run and appealed to Putin after a local dairy plant was going to be closed down due to unpaid taxes. What makes the case interesting is that inspections reportedly started after people protested against the “incursion” of rival enterprises from other regions, which was allegedly supported by the region’s governor, Artur Parfenchikov.
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