NY Dispatches: the newfound assertiveness of regional leaders

The former head of the Republic of Chuvashia is suing Putin over his dismissal. This might seem outlandish but, along with other recent developments, it highlights a very real disturbance in Moscow’s relationship with regional political elites.

Regional politics, it seems, is coming back to Russia. Even as the epicenter of the pandemic was Moscow, political debates seemed to have already moved on to the regions.

In late March Chechnya closed its borders only to be rebuked by the government in Moscow. Weeks later an alleged diagnosis – and very real disappearance, from sight – of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov led to concerns about the future of the autonomous republic and a debate on what makes its relationship with Moscow work.

In May the heads of the northern Arkhangelsk Oblast and the sparsely populated, hydrocarbon-rich Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO), which is part of Arkhangelsk in an administrative sense, but controls its own, not negligible budgetary revenues, announced plans to merge the two regions, and perhaps also the Republic of Komi, a third, adjacent region. The merger was prepared by a “young technocrat” governor, one of the many that Vladimir Putin appointed in a wave in 2016-17 to manage regions more professionally – and more to the Kremlin’s taste – and his former deputy. It was likely going to serve a number of purposes: siphoning money from a richer to a poorer region without Moscow as the middleman, simplifying construction along the coast of the Northern Sea Route that both regions border, as well as improving the mood in Arkhangelsk, which a stealthily planned waste plant made a hot spot of protests in recent years. But the merger hit a roadblock: in the NAO protests started against the merger and local members of United Russia announced that they are leaving the party. The Komi Republic turned down the offer to join the two other regions, so plans to hold a referendum on the merger were shelved, for now.

Last week Aysen Nikolayev, the head of the Republic of Sakha – also known as Yakutia – told the Kommersant daily that the reason why Vladimir Putin underperformed in the Republic in the 2018 presidential election was that the president’s campaign did not take into account the Republic’s “characteristics” and did not talk about local issues, in contrast to Pavel Grudinin, the candidate of the Communist party.  Nikolayev was, in fact, telling Putin, a month before the planned date of the president’s constitutional referendum, that guaranteeing the desirable outcome in a vote cannot only be the responsibility of regional authorities and will take more concessions and engagement from Moscow than what the Kremlin has been willing to consider so far.

An unclear deal

The most shocking and unexpected signal that regional politics was alive and well was the decision of Mikhail Ignatiev, the former head of the Republic of Chuvashia, to sue Putin over his dismissal in January. Putin sacked the governor, a native of the region, after a video of Ignatiev publicly humiliating a firefighter by making him jump for the keys of a new fire engine, went viral. This was the first time in Putin’s two decades of rule that a governor publicly challenged him over a dismissal, and it is difficult to imagine any Russian court decide in favor of the former governor, which has led to a lot of speculation and rumors about Ignatiev’s actual intentions. He has not been able to answer questions, however, since he has reportedly been hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia. A report by Meduza, however, paints a colorful picture of Ignatiev’s eccentric personality, which no doubt played a role in his decision. The report, however, also hinted at an increasingly pervasive feeling of unease among Russia’s regional political elite.

Regions have long suffered from the centralization of fiscal revenues and the decentralization of responsibilities in the past two decades. I have written several times about the adverse effects of these efforts. Putin’s decision to leave pandemic-related decisions to governors without providing the necessary fiscal means (at least so far) or guidance, but expecting them to keep local businesses happy, people healthy and calm and put the Kremlin’s vanity projects first, was only the latest example of the increasingly untenable bargain, into which Putin’s centralizing efforts have forced regions. But this also happened against the backdrop of falling trust in federal authorities (which predated the pandemic) and gave regional leaders an opportunity to be more visible to the residents of their regions, which many used. This, as Mark Galeotti also pointed out in relation to Putin’s forcing his pet project, the Victory Day parade, on regions, has made the contract between federal and regional leaders creak.

If you look at Ignatiev’s case through this lense, it almost becomes a case of righteous indignation over a deal that is no longer comprehensible to regional leaders. Yes, Ignatiev who threatened journalists and humiliated a fireman, is in all likelihood a terrible person. But he was led to believe that this does not matter to the Kremlin. Rising to his defence, his former press secretary readily pointed out that according to the “key performance indicators”, which the Kremlin uses to evaluate the work of governors, Ignatiev was 17th out of 85 in 2019. In other words, he did his part of the deal, and therefore he had reason to expect that the Kremlin would do its part too and leave him alone. By asking the court to clarify what “loss of trust” means, Ignatiev is saying that the deal governors are getting is unclear and therefore it is far from certain whether it is worth playing along.

From dummies to players

It is difficult to imagine that Ignatiev’s case will start some kind of a revolution, but it can, potentially, increase the pressure on Putin. It seemed that the president dismissed Ignatiev because he was afraid that the disrespectful behavior of the governor would reflect badly on him. In recent years, due to the centralization of power and the hollowing out of representative institutions, Putin has gotten used to having to deal with local issues or face blame for his inaction. But he cannot always do this without ruffling feathers. At the same time, the Kremlin has increasingly tried to have governors not only manage their regions for Moscow’s benefit, but represent the government. There were plans to make several of them the leaders of the local United Russia chapter. Now the talk is that many could run as independents for fear of being identified with the still-unpopular ruling party.

Different types of governors will react differently to this changing situation. Those who rely more strongly on Putin – his former bodyguards like Tula governor Alexei Dyumin or young technocrats like Arkhangelsk’s Alexander Tsybulsky – are unlikely to challenge the president, while governors with strong regional ties, nominal autonomy or ones that are backed by a “systemic” opposition party are more likely to do so. But some will undoubtedly realize that there are deals to be made horizontally – with regional elites – not only vertically, and that they also hold some sway over Moscow. The president’s trust rating has tumbled significantly faster than his (carefully engineered) approval rating, which as I pointed out might be the consequence of Russians questioning, rather than his intentions, his ability to make lower-level officials carry out his orders.

It might seem that Ignatiev’s move started a debate about the role of governors and their relationship with Moscow. Actually, this debate has been going on since at least when Putin declared governors responsible for cutting the gordian knot of the pandemic, but probably for much longer. It may just have started to get more interesting.

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