Shrinking spaces

From keeping up appearances to maintaining social stability and meeting the needs of the army, regional officials are finding themselves in tight spots more and more often. A handful of developments from the recent past highlight the means and pitfalls of center-regions politics in post-2022 Russia.

Where the bucket stops

Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov has been in the news a lot over the past week, unsurprisingly, given the incursion of Russian paramilitary groups aligned with Ukraine and the increasing number of reported shelling incidents against targets in the region.

What makes Gladkov’s various pronouncements stand out is that he was pretty much the only official who seemed to be doing anything about the situation. It was Gladkov who announced the end of the “counter-terrorist operation” – rather than the security services or the army –, it was he who traveled to the border region and it was he who led the authorities’ communication. This included, among other things, a story about the governor himself being shot at while close to a border; an interview, in which Gladkov suggested that the solution to the region’s problem would be the annexation of the neighboring Ukrainian Kharkiv Region; and some criticism leveled at the Defense Ministry not providing an adequate level of protection to the region. He even called the situation a “de-facto war”.

Complaining about mistakes made by the army is a risky endeavor and in Russia’s changing domestic political atmosphere Gladkov had to tread carefully. The governor also had to deny that he asked Wagner mercenaries to patrol the border (earlier he was less than enthusiastic about Wagner obtaining a role in the defense of region than Roman Starovoit who manages the neighboring Kursk Region). But there are two more important circumstances that Gladkov’s communication highlights.

First, the governor is likely doing this to strengthen his own credentials and his budget. Gladkov was appointed to head the Belgorod Region as an outsider in 2020, after the 27-year rule of Yevgeny Savchenko, an eccentric local official who treated the region almost as a private fiefdom, and had to deal with officials appointed by his predecessor and local interest groups during a particularly uneasy period. But perhaps even more important, Gladkov needs money to support his region’s economy that suffered from the war in various ways, including not just the shelling incidents, but the breakdown of Belgorod’s metallurgical industry, which reduced profit tax earnings by 39 billion rubles in 2022 relative to 2021 and wiped out most of the balance on Belgorod’s accounts. Gladkov had brought up the issue of increased financial needs to Putin in January at length, and following last week’s incidents he raised it again.

Second, Gladkov’s hyperactivity stands in contrast to the silence of most of the federal government regarding the incident, which does not only mean government officials. State-adjacent media were also reportedly advised to play down concerned remarks by some public individuals – and in general, the significance of incidents such as drone attacks –as this would run counter to the authorities’ main narrative that largely everything is fine.

Echoes from COVID

This also shows what exactly the Kremlin’s idea of the division of labor is Russia’s crisis management system where regional officials are expected to mitigate political risks and are nominally enabled to address problems in their region, all while actual power and fiscal resources remain heavily centralized and the provision of help is by no means automatic.

Vladimir Putin’s decrees issued on October 19, 2022 gave governors fairly broad powers to ensure that the needs of the military are met. But these documents were more of an indication of what is expected of governors, and not actual empowerment. The “operational headquarters” that have been set up in its wake include the local representatives of security and law enforcement agencies who likely hold the actual power, and when making decisions based on the decrees, governors have been looking for cues from the federal government. Fifty-six regions, for example, banned drones, including several ones in the Far East that suffered no such incidents. Sometimes these decisions, inspired by federal measures, border on the absurd. A recent example is the governor of the Tambov Region limiting the movement of officials in and out of the region, even though Tambov has no international borders.

This is similar to how extended gubernatorial powers worked during the COVID-19 pandemic when governors could, in theory, introduce various measures to balance the need of keeping the economy open and keeping the pandemic at bay, but in reality, most of them looked to  either the federal government or Moscow for cues. Novosibirsk governor Andrey Travnikov, meanwhile, suggested that company managers in the region could transfer up to a month’s salary “for the needs of the special military operation.” Such “tributes” are unlikely to ease the region’s war-related financial burden by much (in 2022 just the direct costs amounted to 4.2 billion rubles), but they do mirror federal initiatives, signal to the government that the governor is following cues, and help to pass responsibility further down the line.

When it comes to asserting power in a potentially conflictual situation, however, federal authorities often have to take the initiative or at least back up regional governments. In January 2023, for example, Putin tasked the Prosecution of monitoring the timely delivery of the state defense order, even though this was already implied in the October 2022 decrees that tasked regions with the same thing.

The way that regional governments have been handling covert mobilization over the past months is also reminiscent of policy execution during COVID, specifically how regions handled the 2021 vaccination campaign. Unable or unwilling to order compulsory vaccination, regional authorities typically either put pressure on local companies or tried to create monetary or in-kind incentives for doctors and citizens to raise vaccination numbers. Similarly, anecdotal evidence from the regions suggests that regional authorities are using a variety of methods to conduct covert mobilization, from putting pressure on students via universities, spamming people’s phones, using sanitation workers and state-owned companies to recruit soldiers, or even reportedly hiring foreigners.

Money talks

At the same time, there is a conflict growing between regions and the federal center for funds. The war did not only kneecap strategic policymaking in Russia (all while exacerbating pre-existing policy challenges – which I analyze in my recent report for FPRI), but also forced the short-termism of a personalist autocracy on the whole budgetary system.

Regional budgets are increasingly overstretched: they need to perform an increasing array of tasks, all while the war and the fiscal policies of the federal government that are focused on minimizing disruptions on the federal level, have led to significant reductions in two main sources of income in many regions: profit taxes (which dropped significantly in the second half of 2022 in several regions whose industries lost export markets) and personal income taxes (as a result of the introduction of “single tax accounts” in 2023, which prioritized the federal budget over regional receipts, and likely also as a result of companies moving into the grey economy). Meanwhile, an extra profit tax introduced this year will be swept up exclusively by the federal budget, but will likely impact regional economies as well.

Some regions have tried to fight back – or at least indicate that there is a problem. The State Duma adopted a correction to the law on single tax accounts after Tatarstan, Arkhangelsk and some other regions complained about a massive drop in personal income tax receipts in the first months of the year. However, beyond this, the majority of regional budgets which are not in a position to draw on reserves or remainders, will only be able to rely on increased, mostly targeted federal transfers, which were 53 percent larger in the first quarter than a year ago, and cheap budgetary loans (close to 270 billion rubles in the first quarter only).

Beyond this, governors short of money increasingly need to rely on personal connections and on communication stunts – such as the one performed by Gladkov – to ensure that their financial needs are met by an increasingly distracted federal center.  These personal connections and the ability to invent causes that can be linked to the war or presented as helping Russia’s war effort remain vastly more important than the nominal “special powers” accorded to them by Putin’s decrees.

 This circumstance makes the situation different from COVID times – no one in the Russian political leadership was emotionally invested in beating the pandemic – but perhaps, in a roundabout way, also underlines that the ways in which politics operates in Russia haven’t changed much in the past fifteen months. They have simply, perhaps, gotten more obvious.

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