Governors: a crash course

Five Russian governors resigned and were replaced on the same day this week. Why did this happen and what does it suggest? An explainer.

Why now?

Let’s start with the obvious. The resignations are not, as some suggested, a sign that there is some kind of trouble brewing in Russia’s political elite because of the war. They do not constitute a “mass desertion”. If anything, this is a sign of normalcy, as much as we can use this word to refer to pre-February Russia. The “gubernatoropad” – the “falling of governors” – is a regular fixture in Russia’s politics in the spring. It is the time when unpopular governors, typically in regions that are due to hold elections later in the year, resign, allowing the president to appoint interim leaders who will then usually contest (and win) the election. It happened in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, etc. The purpose is to avoid the unexpected electoral upsets of 2018 when in four regions Kremlin-backed incumbents lost to “systemic” opposition candidates supported by an upsurge in protest voting and the haplessness of local public administrations. The message is that in spite of rumors that the Kremlin may postpone or scrap regional and local elections planned for September, for the time being the plan is that these will take place. I laid out on Riddle in March why scrapping these votes would have benefits, but also risks.

Recent years have made these coordinated resignations and replacements easier. Around the middle of the 2010s Vladimir Putin started rotating governors significantly faster than before and replaced governors connected to local elites with typically younger technocrats without any personal links to the region (colloquially referred to as Varangians), but with ample links to specific power brokers in Moscow and, crucially, to the Presidential Administration, either through RANEPA, Russia’s presidential public administration academy, or through having served in the PA. At the same time, the authority of the president (and to a certain extent of the government) vis-à-vis governors was strengthened through fiscal and legal means. I wrote about this at more length in a recent paper for FPRI; here let me just highlight last year’s public administration reform, which did not only make it easier for the president to dismiss governors at will (it is now sufficient to quote a “lack of trust”), but also discouraged governors from questioning orders coming from Moscow by penalizing the thus dismissed governors with a five-year appointment moratorium. At the same time, the federal government’s role in key regional appointments was expanded, further weakening the position of local elites. In short, changing one “varangian” with another has become relatively easy and routine.

Why these regions?

Let’s look at the regions that got new governors this week.

The Tomsk Region – where Alexey Navalny was poisoned – has been considered risky by the Kremlin for a while. In 2020, Navalny’s “Smart Voting” campaign was remarkably successful in the elections to the Tomsk city council: it did not only deprive United Russia of its majority, but got two Navalny associates elected to the assembly. Shortly afterwards, the city’s United Russia mayor, Ivan Klyain, was arrested on corruption charges. Given the local opposition’s successful grassroots strategy in recent years, is perhaps not a surprise that the region’s new governor, Vladimir Mazur, while a presidential cadre, is also a local. Apart from this, Mazur is also connected to Vladimir Yakushev, the Presidential Representative of the Urals Federal District, and, through his previous tenure as an official in the Tyumen Region – including as the mayor of the industrial city of Tobolsk – he has links to Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, a former governor of Tyumen.

The Kirov Region is likely considered to be risky due to United Russia having recorded one of its worst results in last year’s Duma election. Memorably, the party didn’t win enough mandates for Maria Butina, – a bizarre person who after having been accused of espionage in the US, turned into a Kremlin provocateur and the world’s saddest-looking influencer – to land a Duma mandate; Igor Vasiliev, the governor who resigned this week, had to renounce his Duma mandate for this to happen. The new governor, Alexander Sokolov is, like Mazur, a presidential cadre and RANEPA alumnus with a remarkably similar resume, having served earlier in a regional administration – as vice-governor of the Kostroma Region – and then in the Presidential Administration. He is considered close to Sergey Kirienko, the deputy head of the PA.

The Republic of Mari El, a poor region bordering the significantly richer Tatarstan, and a region that the Kremlin is planning to turn into Russia’s new microelectronics hub, brought one of the unpleasant surprises for the authorities in the 2021 Duma vote when it elected a communist candidate in its one single-mandate district, which allegedly was not “approved” by the Kremlin beforehand. The region’s governor, Alexander Evstifeev, also featured in one of Team Navalny’s pre-election investigations for his shady real estate dealings, which quickly made him a liability (remarkably, Evstifeev’s predecessor, Leonid Markelov, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for corruption in 2021). The new governor, Yury Zaitsev, was until now the head of Kalmykia’s cabinet of ministers, and earlier headed the Rosseti power company’s Northern Caucasus filial. He too, is a presidential cadre and RANEPA alumnus, but also studied at the Defense Ministry’s military academy.

Resignations in the Saratov and Ryazan Regions are a little different. The Ryazan Region is not considered to be especially risky, although in the city of Ryazan, United Russia’s popularity is weak (but this does not set it apart from several other mid-sized cities). Rumor has it that Pavel Malkov, the head of Rosstat who was appointed to head the region, was going to be appointed governor somewhere. Malkov is from the Saratov Region, but this is Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin’s home region and thus Volodin likely had a decisive say in who was appointed to govern that region. It ended up being Roman Busargin, until now deputy governor and a deep-rooted local cadre who had climbed the regional administrative ladder and is considered to be Volodin’s protégé. Malkov was thus appointed elsewhere. Malkov, like Zaitsev, Sokolov and Mazur, is a presidential cadre and a RANEPA alumnus. He is also remembered for making very questionable changes to Rosstat’s methodology over his tenure at the agency.

What to watch?

If there is anything that stands out about this year’s gubernatoropad, it is that so far it seems to be quite limited in scope and that the Kremlin seems to be eager to get it over with as quickly as possible: the resignation and the replacement of the five governors happened within a day, and some have even started meeting their regional parliaments (though this did not always go smoothly: Mazur reportedly twice called the Tomsk Region “Tyumen”).

We may still see further replacements in the coming weeks, but if only these five regions end up getting new governors, that will be suggest fairly conservative personnel policy. After all, these are not the only potentially unstable regions with gubernatorial elections in September. Other such regions include Karelia, another region with low United Russia ratings; Buryatia, a poor Far Eastern region with one of the highest per-capita number of military casualties in Ukraine and a nascent anti-war movement; Kaliningrad, where the war led to growing isolation and a withdrawal of key investors from the region’s automotive industry, and Sverdlovsk, home to Yekaterinburg, one of Russia’s most opposition-minded cities, and whose governor, Yevgeny Kuyvashev has recently had a very public spat with propagandist Vladimir Solovyov who called out the region for not being patriotic enough to his taste.

What usually follows these appointments is personnel changes in the regions. Very often, “Varangians” move in with their own people from their previous agency or region. If a region is considered very problematic, the president’s federal representatives may move their own people in (as it happened, for example, in the Transbaikal Territory after the 2021 Duma election). How fast this happens depends on the individual region (it can take years to dislodge entrenched elites after long incumbencies) and new governors must also take into account that contesting and administering an election with a completely new team of outsiders may be challenging. But with the current degree of repression and intimidation of voters, perhaps this is less of a concern.

It will also be interesting to look how these cadre changes play out in the Kirov Region where for a short while Telegram rumors tipped Alexander Churin, the head of the government as the replacement of Vasiliev. Churin is a local power broker and Vasiliev’s former backer, with a history of shady bankruptcies at state-owned companies, and reportedly a lot of business interest in local development and construction projects. In the coming economic squeeze, governors will play a very important role in ensuring that budgetary transfers and aid keeps flowing to the right places in their region, and the way this Kremlin-appointed cadre handles an influential local power broker may be indicative of how the Kremlin is planning to handle such conflicts in the future.

By moving ahead with the spring “rotation” of governors, the Kremlin is suggesting that there’s nothing to see; that it is business as usual. But with so many moving parts and uncertainties in the coming months, we may very well see some unusual business.

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