Three tales from the regions

In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises”, a character, Mike is asked how he went bankrupt. He answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” This is also how political change often happens. Small-scale, incremental changes that go unnoticed prepare the ground for something momentous further down the road. It can therefore be interesting to look at the small cracks. Let me share three stories from the past weeks from three Russian regions, which hold a series of lessons about the decay of Russia’s political system and the chances of a widening opposition movement.

1. In hostile territory: Navalny and Dagestan

On 20 February unknown assailants, beat up Ruslan Ablyakimov, a coordinator in Alexey Navalny’s network, in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. This happened just days after Ablyakimov announced the opening of a campaign office in the city and as he also observed, was clearly related to it. His attackers, Ablyakimov later told the media, gave him one day to leave Dagestan.

Even before the attack it was clear that opening a campaign office in the North Caucasus was going to be a challenge. The densely populated region of roughly 10 million inhabitants, is divided into six, nominally autonomous ethnic republics plus the Stavropol Territory (the Rostov Region and the Republic of Adygeia, which it surrounds, are part of a different federal district). The politics of these republics are, to varying degrees, defined by complex clan structures, inter-ethnic grievances and organized crime, and according to (very questionable) official results they overwhelmingly vote for United Russia and Vladimir Putin in elections, but they are far from being uniformly closed societies. Chechnya, governed by the absolute terror of the Kadyrov clan, is in fact an outlier. Other republics have experienced turbulent politics in recent years. In 2018-19 Ingushetia saw protests against a disadvantageous and clandestinely signed border agreement with Chechnya, which led to a disagreement between the region’s constitutional court and the federal court, highlighting a half-forgotten institution just enough for the Kremlin to get uncomfortable about it. Last year, the region became illiquid. North Ossetia saw protests in the early weeks of the pandemic that showcased citizens’ lack of trust in local authorities. Dagestan was one of the first regions, in which the gross undercount of COVID-19 casualties was exposed, and in January this year Makhachkala was the only city in the North Caucasus where (a very small number of) people held a protest, even as many distanced themselves from Navalny.

Considering this, the region’s high COVID-19 toll and that its fractious politics might endanger United Russia’s seemingly comfortable lead, it probably looked like the best bet for Navalny’s campaign among North Caucasian regions. Perhaps even more importantly, opening an office in the North Caucasus would send the message that Navalny has decidedly broken with the overtly anti-North-Caucasian nationalism of his early years in politics, without him having to say so explicitly. This would contradict the Kremlin’s narrative about him – that he is a dangerous extremist – and help to underline that Navalny’s network is more about successfully articulating local grievances over corruption and injustices than about ideology. Navalny did something similar in 2017 when he visited Tatarstan, shortly after the closure of three banks led to protests and set the region against Moscow, to argue for more regional autonomy. Tatarstan, one of Russia’s richest regions, votes solidly for United Russia, but Navalny correctly recognized that local interest groups are protective about their privileges – be they cultural, such as the Tatar-language education, or economic, such as the ownership of the Tatneft oil company – and this sets them up for friction with Moscow. For an opposition network that is eager to shake as many foundations of the regime as possible, there is something to be looking for even in regions where United Russia seems dominant, provided that there are underlying tensions. (Coincidentally, Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of Tatarstan has been, for years, also using Dagestan’s complex politics to build influence in the North Caucasus.)

2. Rights and farces: speaking Komi in the Komi Republic

This brings me to the second story to highlight from the past weeks. In Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic in northern Russia, a court hearing was held in the case of Alexey Ivanov, an activist who was charged with attending an unauthorized rally in support of Navalny. Hundreds of similar hearings have been held in similar cases, but an audio recording of Ivanov’s hearing went viral because he squarely refused to speak Russian to the judge, insisting that he had the right to speak his native language, Komi, an official language in the republic. The judge, audibly annoyed, eventually had to get an interpreter.

The diminishing language and cultural rights of Russia’s minorities got some attention briefly in 2018 when the State Duma canceled the mandatory teaching of minority languages in the public schools of the regions where they are spoken, but the issue quickly receded into the background again. On the one hand, these issues affect a relatively small number of citizens who often only represent a minority in the region where they live (as is the case of the Komi in the Komi Republic, but even more true for smaller indigenous people such as the Sami). On the other hand, these accumulating grievances have fueled other, broader protest movements in certain regions and made the Kremlin nervous enough to make it unconstitutional and illegal to support any form of separatism, a charge often levelled against regional and indigenous pressure groups.

Again, it is unlikely that large masses will rise up in indignation over the status of the Komi language or the hunting rights of the Sami people. However, Ivanov’s hearing sends a message: he was arbitrarily denied a right that he officially has and by insisting on exercising this right he laid bare the absurdity and the illegitimate nature of his trial. This is very similar to the logic of smart voting, which aims to expose the farcical nature of elections in Russia by encouraging people to use the one right that cannot be taken away from them as long as the Kremlin insists that an election is genuine: to vote for a non-incumbent. It will no doubt take a lot more Alexey Ivanovs for a critical mass to understand this point, but it is exactly this kind of clever and bold protest that can help alleviate people’s fear of questioning the legitimacy of hollowed out institutions.

3. Poor decisions: political miscalculation in the Chelyabinsk Region

The third story is an amusing little tale from the Chelyabinsk Region, which draws attention to the vulnerabilities of top-down political management. According to Znak’s highly enjoyable report from the region, Elena Burgucheva, the head of Varlamovo, a rural settlement, became the favorite to win a seat in the assembly of the Chebarkul District, a subregional unit, after she made it clear that she, like many other residents, wanted to see changes in how the district was governed.

The local authority, which has, after the abolition of direct mayoral elections, appointed most town and village heads in the district, decided to reinstitute direct mayoral elections in Varlamovo, in order to improve its standing among locals and prevent Burgucheva from winning a seat in the assembly. The gamble didn’t work out: not only was Burgucheva elected, but the favorite to win her seat in a by-election scheduled for March is Elena Kolmogorova who is officially a United Russia candidate, but supports Burgucheva.

It is pretty much of a lose-lose situation for the authorities, and according to Znak’s sources, local officials are in for an uncomfortable debriefing once the dust clears. On a different scale, but the Varlamovo blunder is reminiscent of the 2018 gubernatorial election in the Primorsky Territory where Andrey Ishchenko, a Communist Party candidate unexpectedly seemed to be winning until, with around 95 percent of the vote processed, the official count abruptly changed and gave the incumbent United Russia candidate, Andrey Tarasenko an edge over Ishchenko. The shift was so sudden that it immediately led to accusations of (very clumsy) foul play and the election was annulled. In the repeat election, which was more tightly controlled by the Kremlin, the authorities managed to get a different candidate elected – after the disqualification of Ishchenko – but the initial attempt to rig the vote was so shoddy that supporting Tarasenko again was out of the question.

The problems that got Burgucheva elected in the first place are also reminiscent of larger-scale issues. Just as most of Russia’s regions depend on various kinds of transfers from the federal budget to make ends meet, due to highly centralized revenues and overdependence on oil rent, municipalities and rural settlements depend on regional and district-level transfers. And just like in the case of transfers from federal to regional budgets, these often come with strings attached, e.g. higher-level officials forcing specific contractors on towns and villages.

Thus the Varlamovo election showcases, in miniature, the weak points of the overcentralisation of political and fiscal power that the Kremlin is increasingly relying on to maintain political control over various levels of the government. Inefficient government and corruption beget public dismay; the hollowing out of representative institutions will make people more likely to blame higher-level officials; and local officials with a mandate only to implement decisions will often make mistakes when they have to react to unexpected developments.

Only three recent stories – but upon closer inspection, a number of cracks are showing.

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