No country for old politics

March has seen the start of this year’s spring “gubernatoropad” (“the season of falling governors”) in Russia with the dismissal of (as of this writing) two governors. While ongoing rumors and some recent investigations indicate that there could be more of these to come, it is a fact that since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has put a greater emphasis on political stability, dismissing fewer public officials, including regional leaders. Thus it is worth looking at the implications of these recent dismissals, and, in a broader sense, the ways in which the Kremlin’s relationship with regions has been changing. Below are five main trends from the recent past that are worth keeping an eye on.

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The war as career elevator

Chukotka’s new governor, Vladislav Kuznetsov became the first official rotated back to Russia from the occupied territories as a governor, although not the first official to be brought from the occupied territories to Russia. In 2019, Dmitry Trapeznikov, a former head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the Russian puppet states in Eastern Ukraine, was named mayor (officially “city manager”) of Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, amid protests. Ultimately, the authorities wore out the protest movements and Trapeznikov was made head of the city in 2020 and prime minister of the region two years later.

The fact that Kuznetsov’s appointment was not followed by anything even remotely comparable is not only due to the fact that protesting is an infinitely riskier endeavor in the Russia of 2023 than it was four years ago, or that Chukotka’s population is only half of Elista’s. While Trapeznikov was a complete outsider – he grew up in Ukraine – Kuznetsov is, in all other respects, a run-of-the-mill Russian official. He is a former official of the Sibur petrochemical conglomerate. He served as a regional deputy in Bashkortostan and in 2019-22, before he was sent to Ukraine, as deputy governor of the Kurgan Region. He is also an alumnus of the School of Governors, a public administration program at RANEPA, the presidential public administration academy. In this, he meets the profile of the average Russian governor appointed over the past five years almost perfectly.

Therein lies the significance of Kuznetsov’s appointment: the Kremlin seems to want to send a message to career civil servants that service in the occupied territories is a good career move. The Chukotka governorship may not seem like a prize to covet, but the region, rich in resources, is becoming increasingly important as Russia is developing its Northern Sea Route as an alternative trade corridor to Asian markets. The appointment also comes at a time when there is growing talk about the Kremlin looking for ways to integrate war participants into domestic politics. Just like in Kuznetsov’s case, though, there seems to be an effort not to go overboard and stick with known and tried people as much as possible: the first such official, rumored to be considered as a governor, is Sergey Sokol, a Duma deputy and former Rostec advisor who joined the war last year. (Others may be selected in United Russia’s ongoing “primaries”.)

No time for power sharing deals

The second governor to lose his office under this year’s gubernatoropad was the head of the Smolensk Region, Alexey Ostrovsky, a politician of the systemic opposition Liberal Democratic Party. Since Ostrovsky’s successor is Vasily Anokhin, a federal government official from the team of deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, LDPR is down to just one governor: Mikhail Degtyarev, the head of the Khabarovsk Region. Like Degtyarev, Ostrovsky is closely connected to longtime LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky who died last year. Thus his dismissal is likely related to Zhirinovsky’s death, as neither men is particularly close to Leonid Slutsky, the new head of the party.

The LDPR may get another governor in the foreseeable future; after all, as of late March it is unclear whether the “season” has ended. But if it does not, then Ostrovsky’s replacement with someone who could perhaps best be described as a mid-level career civil servant, suggests that not only does the Kremlin not have to do any further political deals with Zhirinovsky, it feels like it can afford not to make any with Slutsky, either (or at least to downgrade the offer).

A similar dynamic is unfolding in the Novosibirsk Region, where the regional legislative assembly decided to scrap direct mayoral elections in the regional capital, one of Russia’s most politically pluralistic cities. The decision itself was not a shocker, given that direct mayoral votes, considered to be too risky in increasingly protest-prone cities, have been gradually scrapped in most regional capitals over the past years. Currently, apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, which are regions unto themselves, only five cities elect their mayors directly. Shortly before Novosibirsk, Tomsk, another city with a fairly turbulent politics was deprived of direct mayoral elections. Several regions and cities have also tweaked their electoral systems to reduce the weight of party lists in favor of single-mandate districts, which usually favors ruling party candidates who run against a divided opposition. (This has the added benefit of reducing the chances of gubernatorial candidates unwanted by the authorities to pass the so-called “municipal filter”.)

What made the decision in Novosibirsk notable was that it also upset a de facto power sharing deal between United Russia and the local chapter of the Communist Party, whereby mayor Anatoly Lokot and governor Andrey Travnikov tolerated one another’s turfs. The message, again, was that in the current situation the Kremlin sees little need to maintain these concessions to the systemic opposition and it will do away with them where it can. The fact that the list of governors who are rumored to face dismissal this spring includes Omsk’s Alexander Burkov (a member of the “Fair Russia” party) and Valentin Konovalov of Khakassia (a communist politician) further underlines this direction.  

Co-optation or crackdown

Some chapters of the Communist Party have tried to push back, if not specifically against the ending of these power sharing deals, then at least against the party’s growing insignificance. Communist Party politicians have organized protests against growing public utility tariffs in several regions, which, while likely struck a chord with citizens and irked the authorities, were a far cry from the countrywide protests against the 2018 pension reform, which the communists facilitated. And the authorities have reminded the communists’ previously growing activist base that they had further ways of dealing with regional opposition. When recently the head of the Bryansk chapter of the party tried to play politics by criticizing the local governor for a failure to protect the region from an attack by a group of extremists, the legislative assembly called on the Federal Security Service to deal with him. Viktor Vorobyov, a firebrand communist deputy in the Komi assembly, who spoke out against the war, has been named a foreign agent and was briefly arrested.  

Other regions went in a seemingly different direction – preventive co-optation – albeit the effects may be very similar. In the Ulyanovsk Region, Aleksey Russkikh, the communist governor has recently appointed Vadim Andreev, a prominent United Russia politician, to the regional government, to replace one of Russkikh’s allies. In the Republic of Mari El, Governor Yury Zaytsev appointed Anton Mirbadalev, an LDPR politician who was the runner-up in last year’s gubernatorial election, to head the regional interior ministry. Mirbadalev then said that he would try to “consolidate all political forces” in the region in support of the government, seemingly in line with an earlier call by LDPR head Slutsky for Russia’s parties to unite under the banner of the war.

Administrators wanted to handle stressed institutions

The fact that the Kremlin has developed a clear preference for appointing mid-level career civil servants to head regions also underlines that the quality that the federal government is looking for in regional leaders is for them to be capable administrators rather than anything else. Over the past three years especially, the federal government has developed an approach to crisis management that required governors to implement centrally suggested policies with a degree of flexibility to consider local specifics. During the COVID crisis, for example, governors were encouraged to make decisions on lockdowns or how they conduct vaccination campaigns; the Kremlin did issue guidelines and gave officials hints about priorities, but altogether they were entrusted to handle the situation on their own.

This did not mean that they had bigger political or fiscal autonomy. Quite the opposite: the proportion of no-strings-attached grants to regional budgets was reduced while subsidies that underwrite specific policies, grew; a 2021 public administration reform strengthened the role of the president and the government over budgeting and even the appointment of officials. Governors have several forums to address the federal government and the president about their needs, from the State Council to the government’s Coordination Council, but the government has made sure not to cede any meaningful degree of fiscal autonomy to regions, even as it requires them to assume an increasingly large part of the costs of the war and Russia’s economic restructuring. Moscow handles the treasury, and the local chapters of the FSB are increasingly responsible for “order” and political stability. The main role of governors is to make sure that local institutions do not get distracted or overwhelmed by their growing list of priorities.

This system of course is not foolproof. Currently the needs of the military are prioritized above all – this is also reflected in Putin’s October 2022 decrees – but as we are getting closer to 2024 political stability will likely be front and center. This may very well result in the effective deprioritization of capital investments. And while mid-level technocrats without any political clout can be appointed to many regions, in some (e.g. Tatarstan or Chechnya) local political considerations or still existing federal power deals will keep governors with more effective autonomy in power, especially as the Kremlin is increasingly focused on stability and avoiding unnecessary risks and disruptions. It remains to be seen how these more autonomous governors (and the local security elite) will use the powers accorded to them by last year’s decrees.

The specter of China

Last, but not least, at this point we cannot fully comprehend the implications of China’s growing role in key economic sectors – including regional economies – on regional politics in the medium term.

In the automotive industry, the market share of Chinese enterprises is expected to grow to sixty percent this year. During Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, Putin invited China to replace Western firms in other industries as well, and to assume a larger role in the economic development of Russia’s Far East and the Northern Sea Route. In the Far East, where Russia is struggling to raise funds and technology to expand railway networks, China may build a railway connecting it with the Republic of Sakha. Representatives of the China National Chemical Engineering Corporation recently met with Yury Bezdudny, the head of the Nenets Autonomous District to discuss the company’s support to energy projects. Chinese companies will likely participate in the construction of an LNG terminal in the Ust-Luga port near St. Petersburg.

A growing Chinese influence has long since been one of the main fears of the Moscow security elite, therefore it is very likely that any too obvious attempt to project influence would face a serious pushback. Whether this is even an option will also, to a large extent, depend on who exercises effective control over these shared ventures. Subtler changes, however, could pass under the radar, if Chinese investment projects and related business ecosystems increasingly define regional economies and through it, local business elites who in turn often throw their weight around in regional and local legislatures. An increasingly rigid power vertical could make regional and local institutions increasingly irrelevant, of course, but by doing so it also creates inefficiencies in governance, and thus, political risks.  

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