The regional races

It is likely that Vladimir Putin’s address to the National Assembly also closed the spring “gubernatoropad” the season of the “falling of governors”, that is, the dismissal of regional leaders before regional elections. We can thus take a look at the lay of the land before regional elections that will take place, along with the Duma election, on September 19.

Twelve (of a total of 83) regions will elect governors – although only eight of them will do so directly, with the other four holding votes in the parliament – and thirty-nine regions will hold elections on various levels.

Some elections are likely in the bag for ruling party candidates. Officially, Chechnya will hold a vote to elect the head of the republic. It’s difficult to see Kadyrov not winning with close to 100% of the vote, like five years ago, even considering the republic’s considerable COVID-19 death toll, one of the highest in Russia. Similarly, Alexey Dyumin, the governor of the Tula Region, Putin’s former body guard, will likely sail to an easy re-election simply because he seems to be important enough for the Kremlin to focus resources on the region, administrative and financial.

Seeking approval to recent changes

The Khabarovsk Territory, which saw unprecedented protests last year, will elect a governor. Mikhail Degtyarev who was appointed to replace his arrested party colleague, Sergey Furgal, and has been widely disliked, will run. Degtyarev, a complete outsider and trusted associate of LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and whose tenure has been plagued by scandals and most recently, fuel shortages, characteristically started his campaign in February… in Moscow. It is unclear whether the plan is to get Degtyarev re-elected – this would not be impossible; his ratings have improved since last year – or to have a moderate United Russia candidate or an independent run against him. Another question is whether last year’s protests will translate to high turnout without palatable candidates.

The four regions where governors fell in the spring “gubernatoropad” may also see interesting votes. One of them is the Tuva Republic, the home turf of defense minister Sergey Shoigu, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden regions of Russia, where a significant growth in the indebtedness of the population over the past year marks dire social conditions. The new governor, Vladislav Khovalyg, is a former mayor of Kyzyl, the regional capital. Khovalyg is a close associate of Sholban Kara-ool, his predecessor, which will probably come handy, because he himself never ran an electoral campaign. Appointing a new governor shortly before an election is not without risks in any case – it can cause glitches in the all-powerful administrative machinery as new incumbents staff institutions – but Khovalyg is simply a different name, and despite the rather extensive list of problems presided over by his predecessor, is expected to be elected rather smoothly.

Another such region is Ulyanovsk where Sergey Morozov, in office since 2005 and thus Russia’s longest-serving governor resigned in April. Interestingly, Putin replaced him with Aleksey Russkikh, a member of the Communist Party.  This has led to speculations that Putin could remove another communist governor, Valentin Konovalov, the head of Khakassia who was elected in 2018 in a surprise upset of United Russia candidates in four regions. This has not happened yet, but it would not be surprising. Konovalov, an establishment communist, has been in constant battle with local interest groups, municipalities, and media since his election. He also faces corruption accusations and one of his close colleagues was recently arrested.  With or without Konovalov, one key question is whether United Russia challenges Russkikh in the Ulyanovsk Region or his appointment is in fact a carrot offered to a systemic opposition party with the stick being punishing them for any flirt with “smart voting”, even the accidental kind that brought Konovalov to power. Other communists who more openly flirted with building an independent power base, are also facing pressure from within their own party both in Moscow and in Siberia.  

In the Penza Region, which saw the season’s first and noisiest resignation as Ivan Belozertsev was arrested along with Boris Spiegel, a pharma executive, his successor, Oleg Melnichenko, a former senator, will run. The election will be interesting because there are many question marks around Belozertsev’s arrest: he was scandal-prone, but not unpopular or a particularly bad governor, which led some to suggest that the arrest targeted Spiegel and his pharma empire. Nevertheless, Belozertsev was also accused of electoral fraud in the 2020 gubernatorial election, which may incentivize his successor to be as clean as possible in September.

Reining in local elites

The fourth region with a recent resignation is North Ossetia. It is the exception, given that the regional parliament will confirm Bitarov’s successor, which should be a mere formality. Its former governor Vyacheslav Bitarov was forced to quit in April following a badly mishandled COVID-19 outbreak, which led to protests in Vladikavkaz, the regional capital last year. The protests also showcased dwindling trust in the authorities. Bitarov was also rumored to have been entangled in various conflicts with local elites, and his successor, Sergey Menyailo who has roots in North Ossetia, but is more or less an outsider: a former governor of occupied Sevastopol. Thus he is widely expected to apply a heavier hand in elite conflicts.

The Kremlin is going to apply a similar treatment to two other regions: the Belgorod Region and the Republic of Mordovia, which both recently saw “varangians” (outsiders) appointed after long periods of local elite rule. The two regions couldn’t be more different.

Belgorod, bordering Ukraine, has seen decent economic growth in recent years and was, according to RIA, Russia’s fifth best region to live (in RBK’s rating, it is third). Mordovia was impoverished and has had for years the highest debt relative to its income.  Artem Zdunov, the new head of Mordovia is an Erzya from Tatarstan. His appointment as the head of government of Dagestan in 2018 was seen as key to the efforts of Tatar president Minnikhanov to gain foothold in the region. It appears that did not work out in a region famously difficult to govern. Managing Mordovia may prove to be a slightly simpler job, since the republic’s finances were put under the supervision of the federal government. Nonetheless Zdunov is also expected to rein in local elites and the clique of former governor Nikolay Merkushkin. Vyacheslav Gladkov, another former political operative in Sevastopol, will have a similar task in Belgorod: “normalizing” and opening up the region after the almost thirty-year reign of Yevgeny Savchenko, an influential governor with strong roots in the local elite, who resigned in 2020.

In both cases the September election will be the first major test of how well these outsider governors are controlling the administrative resources and the elites of their regions after less than a year in the job. No doubt they’ll receive ample support from Kremlin operatives.

Protest regions after a pandemic year and Navalny’s jailing

Many regions that saw significant protest activity or scandals recently will hold legislative elections: far-eastern regions such as the Maritime Territory and Kamchatka where the underlying issue of their detachment from Moscow has not been solved; regions that saw significant protests in recent months, including the Sverdlovsk Region whose capital, Yekaterinburg, has consistently seen the highest turnouts after Moscow and St. Petersburg (which will also hold an election); the Tomsk Region where Navalny’s “smart voting” managed to deprive United Russia of a majority in the city council last year, where two of his associates were elected and where the governor is thus in a tight spot; the Perm Territory, which also saw a significant pro-Navalny march in January and which will hold city council elections on the same day as the regional legislative vote, as will Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. In both regions, politics may be animated by other developments as well. Bashkortostan saw a successful protest movement last year against mining at a sacred mountain; Perm is another region that saw a significant growth in the level of indebtedness of the population towards credit institutions over the past year (along with Ulyanovsk, Kaliningrad, Sverdlovsk, the Altai Territory and North Ossetia).

Mid-sized cities matter because, for various reasons, they were the epicentre of the January protests. The protests on 21 April saw an interesting dynamic. In some, the turnout estimated by media amounted to up to half or more of the number of registrations on the “Free Navalny” website, e.g. in Yekaterinburg, Perm, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and most interestingly, Ufa. In some – Chelyabinsk, Omsk or St. Petersburg – this ratio was less than third. In some it was significantly less. Given the scare tactics of the authorities, this seems to confirm that a well-established network of activists and a track record or successful opposition activity will make it noticeably easier for people to conquer the fear separating signing up and turning out. If one expects more people to turn out, the chance of getting arrested is lower; if one has participated in a successful campaign, the expected reward from participating in a protests is higher. In St. Petersburg that saw a heavy crackdown and police brutality both in January and in April fear might have kept more people off the streets.

So far it was usually the heightened interest in the Duma election that drove up turnout for the regional votes that were held on the same day. But due to the “regionalization” of the protest agenda in recent years, this might change and regional votes might increase turnout for the Duma vote.

This is just one reason why it’s going to be important to watch these local races. Regions will likely play a significant role in determining the mood before and after the vote.

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