On dismissals and score-settling, new directions for public administration and others

On the Kremlin’s cautious personnel policy running parallel to increasingly bold score-settling enabled by the domestic political agenda, a creeping public administration reform, and more.

Three directions for public power

April is almost over, and there is no sign of a “gubernatoropad” (a season of falling governors) – yet. Over the past decade it has become almost a tradition for the Kremlin to dismiss or force the resignation of governors in regions where the authorities could expect to face problems either with the delivery of the desired vote in upcoming elections or otherwise. Instead, over the past weeks Vladimir Putin has been busy meeting with governors who are up for reelection this year, essentially confirming them in their office. Even Radiy Khabirov, the head of Bashkortostan, a region that has seen several conservationist protests over the past years, and more significant unrest fairly recently, received the presidential nod, essentially an approval of how the governor handled the situation.

It could of course be the case that the Kremlin is using a lighter touch in regions where it understands local power dynamics less, and Khabirov has certainly delivered on the federal government’s most important expectation: a smooth and resounding victory for Putin in the March presidential election (according to the official tally Putin got more than 90% of the vote, a remarkable difference from the 77% in 2018). Other governors might still be removed, perhaps in sync with a government reshuffle expected in early May, but as a whole, a large reshuffle would be more surprising than no changes.

It wouldn’t be a surprise, for instance, if Orenburg governor Denis Pasler were fired, given the region’s poor disaster relief efforts, especially since the federal authorities – the Ministry of Emergency Situations, first and foremost – are apparently very eager to allocate responsibility to regional authorities and the mayor of the city. Others might get a promotion: Anton Alikhanov of Kaliningrad and Gleb Nikitin of Nizhny Novgorod have long since been regarded as some of the most politically adept examples of the class of “young technocrats” appointed in the late 2010s to governorships, along with Vyacheslav Gladkov, the public-savvy governor of the Belgorod Region bordering Ukraine (who will stay on). The newspaper Kommersant speculated that Kamchatka governor Vladimir Solodov and Tula governor Alexey Dyumin could be promoted to federal jobs. Dyumin is of course a perennial candidate for promotion, having been a defense-minister-in-waiting for years, rumors that received a new lease on life following the recent arrest of deputy defense minister Timur Ivanov (and ongoing investigations in the same case), which is widely seen as an attack on defense minister Sergey Shoigu. Another paper, Vedomosti suggested that Irkutsk governor Igor Kobzev could be dismissed. And, of course, we also have the newly interesting case of Chechnya with Novaya Gazeta’s report of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rumored terminal illness. (The videos put out by Kadyrov’s team did not do a lot to dispel these rumors, to say the least, neither did the news about the arrest of Chechnya’s minister of emergency situations in Dagestan).

We should of course keep in mind that everyone else is aware that this might be one of very few opportunities over the past (and next) couple of years to rotate cadres in Russia’s public administration. Rotation has been essentially frozen since February 2022: a total of ten governors were dismissed since, one government minister and no one from the helm of important federal institutions. Thus, many rumors circulate to convince others that specific governors will or should be sacked.

One open question therefore is how many governors are dismissed in the coming weeks, and where the dismissed officials end up; not breaking with the conservative cadre policy would suggest continued risk-avoidance in domestic politics even after Putin’s highly unrealistic electoral triumph, which was engineered to convince him that his position is strong. At the same time, the core promise of the Kremlin’s personnel policy set up in the late 2010s and based on interchangeable managers, has been that officials dutifully carrying out the federal government’s orders and directives in a region can count on a federal promotion. This promise has not been widely realized, due in part to the freezing of positions on the federal level; in fact, the reverse direction (from the federal government to a region) has been more common. Another important question is who follows regional officials (first and foremost governors, deputy governors, premiers and mayors of major cities) who are dismissed: whether the trend of bringing officials back from the occupied territories continues or the appointments reflect the strengthening of other federal power brokers.

Municipal divisions

An area where the Kremlin has been making changes over the past two years is municipalities, and there the reason is twofold. First, the authorities have recognized that with a more rigid control over politics at the federal level and increasingly the regions, cities (some, of course, more than others) had become the most active arenas of competitive public politics, and therefore they represent heightened political risks. Second, the Kremlin likely came to the conclusion that under the current circumstances of the war and heightened domestic repression it is able to capitalize on existing power imbalances easier – hence, for instance, the scrapping of direct mayoral elections in three major cities since the 2022 invasion began, in regions where politics had been relatively pluralistic and local elites vocal about their interests.

At the same time, there clearly is a growing awareness of the financial problems of local governments (the issue was raised by Putin himself last year, as well as governors during the discussion of the federal budget), but not much in terms of solutions. Broad fiscal decentralization is out of the question as it would contradict the centralizing tendencies of the government’s public administration reforms of the past years, and as long as the war continues any tax hike is likely to benefit the federal budget. Initiatives such as the “School of Mayors” are more an attempt to create a more depoliticized, uniform and tightly networked class of municipal officials than anything else.

Following the 2022 invasion the Kremlin froze the adoption of the second stage of the 2021 public administration reform, which would have strengthened the vertical of power over municipal administrations and eliminated thousands of municipalities. The Duma may pick up the reform in the fall, according to Duma deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov who co-drafted the bill but elements of the reform have been introduced gradually at the level of individual regions and in the Duma.  On April 17 the latest one of these gradual steps were unveiled, when the All-Russian Association for the Development of Local Self-Governance discussed a new system of key performance indicators (KPIs) for mayors, expanding the corporate-style scheme that the Kremlin has rolled out for regional governments over the past decade. According to the plans, the Kremlin will centrally determine performance indicators in five broader areas – society, living environment, economy, human capital, quality of governance – while governors will set “additional KPIs”. Similarly to earlier plans of empowering governors to dismiss municipal leaders at will, but with a buffer period of a month between warning and sacking them, this will allow regional leaders to keep municipal leaders in check, while the federal government would keep the right to ultimately decide who goes and who stays.

Kommersant’s report on the seminar has several other interesting bits:

  • Optional municipal KPIs would include “transport accessibility”, highlighting attention to what has become a growing problem over the past years, with regions forced to scrap bus lines due to financial problems as well as war-induced driver and equipment shortages, and pushbacks against the federal center over a new regulation of taxis; The replacement of dilapidated housing was mentioned as a major problem (on top of rotting utility networks that caused an unusually high number of accidents across the country earlier this year), but only as a political risk; federal funds for this program were cut in this year’s budget.
  • KPIs also contain vague categories such as “people’s satisfaction with the quality of municipal governance”, which lend themselves easily to flexible interpretation by higher authorities, strengthening effective political control.  
  • The representative of “Dialog”, a key Kremlin-connected organization that oversees both information gathering from and the spreading of media narratives in the regions, called on mayors to be “not business executives but honest interlocutors who are not alien to emotions”. This could easily be read as an admission that the Kremlin does not foresee any increase in the financial independence of municipalities; municipal leaders are expected to manage local dissatisfaction and frustrations before they snowball into problems that regional and federal officials have to deal with, not to actually govern their towns and cities, or to be responsible and accountable to their voters.

Less is not always more

Another idea brought back into political discussions in April was the merging of regions. This time, it was Federation Council head Valentina Matvienko raising what she called a necessity, but over the past years the now increasingly influential deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin and before him Arkhangelsk governor Alexander Tsybulsky had also suggested this in various contexts, and of course the idea has a much longer history going back to the 2000s when the authorities did actually merge autonomous districts with their surrounding regions. The goal then was to curb local self-governance under the guise of budgetary effectiveness. The mergers mostly did the job, but they also created resentment within local residents and elites. The so-called “Tyumen nesting doll” – an agreement between the Tyumen Region and its two sparsely populated but energy-rich autonomous districts on sharing fiscal resources – is a living memento of these conflicts.

While in the past years, officials often raised the prospect of merging further regions, including the Nenets Autonomous District (NAO) with the Arkhangelsk Region, the Jewish Autonomous Region with one of its bigger neighbors, or Adygea with the Krasnodar Territory, it is not surprising that the proposal that they ultimately pressed ahead with concerned the NAO, where there was actual money involved, given the region’s significant energy riches. But this too encountered significant (and clearly unexpected) pushback from local elites, which did not only lead to the supporters of the idea abandoning it, but probably also contributed to the NAO being the only region that (officially) rejected Putin’s constitutional reform.

The idea of merging regions, however, clearly has influential supporters in Matvienko, Khusnullin and others, and it looks like Matvienko (like many others) is trying to present the idea to Putin before the start of his fifth term, in the hope that she would then be the unofficial (or official) “curator” of it. And this time, it might once again receive presidential approval, perhaps even a more grandiose planning horizon, especially as, following the March presidential election, Putin has reason to believe that support for him and ideas supported by him is uniformly high across the country.

The 2021 public administration reform strengthening the role of the Kremlin and the federal government in forming regional governments passed without major resistance, albeit the authorities had to put its second leg – the revamp of local self-governance – on hold. But local elites have pushed back against the federal government’s forays into their territory even in the more rigid domestic politics of the past years: last year Khakassia rejected a gubernatorial candidate that enjoyed federal backing; the regional parliament repeatedly rejected legislative initiatives supported by Altai governor Oleg Khorokhordin, likely at least in part due to fears that the governor supports merging the Altai Republic with the neighboring Altai Territory; Dagestani elites protested amendments to the republic’s constitution, which they thought would pave the way to ceding territory to other regions; several regions resisted the federal government’s attempts to introduce online voting in their territory. Matvienko and the federal government may still find that merging regions is more difficult than it looks like on a map.


  • Alexey Samarin, the Moscow Region’s former minister of energy was put under house arrest in connection with the January accident involving a broken boiler in an ammunition factory, which caused heating outages in the region. Samarin – who was dismissed from his position but then became an advisor to governor Andrey Vorobyov in January – is not the first official to face charges over the January wave of accidents in utility networks across Russia. The case against him, however, comes amidst the arrests of other officials in the Moscow Region and shortly after the arrest of deputy defense minister Timur Ivanov on corruption charges, which can all plausibly be interpreted as a blow against defense minister Sergey Shoigu. Another case from the past month, which saw a regional minister in the Samara Region forced to resign after Alexander Khinshtein, and influential Duma deputy from the region started spreading rumors that he is homosexual, also suggests that federal power brokers are not shying away from using the political agenda of the day to settle scores, especially in increasingly uncertain domestic political conditions.
  • Norilsk Nickel’s decision to move a copper smelter from the northern Russian city to China following Western sanctions against Russia’s metal industries was reportedly not received well by local residents. A report in Sibirsky Express collected angry reactions to the announcement. Regardless of whether or not this develops into a bigger problem for the authorities (Norilsk, which depends heavily on the industry, has strong local pride but is a relatively small city), it was telling that Vladimir Potanin, the company’s owner, named not only the latest sanctions, but also the general pivot of exports towards Asian markets as the cause of the decision, highlighting how the rapid economic transformation forced by the war and sanctions elevates domestic political risks.
  • Vyorstka published a report about the continuing wave of often violent criminal acts committed by former war participants across the country. One of the most telling findings of the report is that in two-thirds of court cases resulting from these crimes, “participation in the special military operation” is taken into account as a mitigating circumstance, all while often disregarding aggravating circumstances: a further status-signaling perk (after goodies such as utility price reductions and airline tickets) accorded to war participants whom Putin called the “new elite” in his state-of-the-nation address. In my upcoming report for FPRI, to be published in the coming days, I argue that these measures, while largely symbolic, do play an important role in furthering the Kremlin’s domestic narrative of a broad pro-war majority and new social norms, together with a myriad of public events with the participation of soldiers.
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