Over the past weeks, the Republic of Altai, a small, rural region bordering China and Kazakhstan was, if not at the top of Russia’s domestic news agenda, but at least noted. The reason was an ongoing dispute between the governor of the region, Oleg Khorokhordin, and the region’s political institutions. While far from a political earthquake, the story does highlight broader tensions between a Kremlin and regional elites as the federal government is increasingly keen on sidelining them; and how regional elites can bargain with the federal center.
In September Khorokhordin tried – and failed – to introduce amendments to the constitution of the republic. The amendments, drafted by the Altai prosecution, were ostensibly going to bring the region’s basic law in line with the Kremlin’s public administration reform, started in 2021. They were mostly technical, inasmuch as they changed certain expressions in some of the articles; however, they also would have removed all references to the region’s “integrity”, while the governor would have ceased to be the “guarantor” of the constitution. The amendments triggered significant backlash, including among the members of the region’s “civic chamber”, a kind of intermediary institution between regional civil and business organizations and the government, which suggested that the governor withdraw the draft. The fear was that the amendments could result in the unification of the Altai Republic with the neighboring Altai Territory.
Weeks later the story repeated itself. The regional parliament refused to adopt amendments bringing a regional law on taxis in line with federal legislation, arguing that the new, stricter requirements posed to taxi drivers would endanger the access of rural residents to what often is the only available form of transit.
The two conflicts were enough to prompt speculation that Khorokhordin could be one of the governors to be dismissed in next year’s spring “gubernatoropad” – the season when the Kremlin dismisses regional leaders who appear politically problematic or weak, in order to give their successors time to hit their stride before the September regional election – or even earlier than that. Indeed, such legislative revolts can be interpreted as a signal by regional elites to the Kremlin that it is time to change the governor in the region.
The region has seen disputes between Khorokhordin and local elites before. In 2020, fourteen deputies (of a total of 41), many of them representatives of the Altai nation, initiated a vote of no confidence against Khorokhordin for a “systematic non-observance of duties”. While these deputies all belonged to the “systemic” opposition, in the same year, in spite of a United Russia majority, the legislature refused to confirm the appointment of one of his deputies. Later two municipal assemblies quarreled with Khorokhordin due to the dismissal of their leaders. Outsiders appointed by the governor to various positions in the region faced constant criticism.
One root of the problem is that Khorokhordin, like an increasing number of regional governors in Russia over the past years, is an outsider. While he is technically an Altai native, he stems not from the Republic, but the neighboring Altai Territory – perhaps an additional reason for the elites in the Republic to fear unification. Before being appointed head of the Republic, he was the head of GLONASS and also worked for Putin’s plenipotentiary in the Central Federal District – a typical career path of a technocratic official.
Discussions about the unification vs the separation of the “two Altais” go back decades. But in general, the question of merging regions has also been brought up several times over recent years by leading government officials. Typically, the justification is the pooling of resources: one region has either higher income or natural resources that the federal government expects to benefit the other, poorer territory. This is what happened in 2020 when Alexander Tsybulsky, the governor of the Arkhangelsk Region, and his former deputy, Yury Bezdudny, the head of the resource-rich, but sparsely populated Nenets Autonomus District, suggested merging the two regions, which were already administratively integrated to a fair degree. The proposal, which originally included even the oil-producing Komi Republic, would have been the first merger since a series of mergers in 2005-08, but it ended in an abject failure as local elites in the NAO rebelled and the idea was shelved. Since then, the NAO has seen a surge in support for opposition candidates and causes, albeit due to the small number of residents, this has not impacted Russian politics significantly.
The developments in the Altai Republic also bear similarities with recent events in the North Caucasus. Last year in Dagestan the regional parliament adopted a series of amendments to the republic’s constitution, which, like Khorokhordin’s proposed amendments, removed the mention of preserving the region’s territorial integrity from the law. Those amendments also triggered a backlash by local public personalities and power brokers who remembered how, in 2018, Ingushetia’s parliament approved a decision ceding territory to the neighboring Chechnya without public consultations. In a rare moment of institutional autonomy – and after weeks of protests – the region’s constitutional court invalidated that decision, only to see it reinstated later by the Russian Constitutional Court.
Another similarity between the above cases as well as the recent example of Khakassia where Valentin Konovalov, a governor elected from the (systemic) opposition was able to fight off a challenge by a candidate supported by the Kremlin by rallying local elites around himself, is that these are all small, and, with the exception of the NAO, which is by far the smallest, poor regions. The Altai Republic has a population of just over 200,000. Its 2023 budget was planned at 24.3 billion rubles – one of the smallest of Russia’s regions – of which more than two-thirds are various transfers from the federal government. They are normally not in the focus of federal overseers of domestic politics.
As the federal budget prioritizes war-related expenditures, regions will have to spend – flexibly, as much as they can – on domestic priorities, which are also important for the Kremlin, such as dampening the effects of inflation and the war’s impact on the labor market. The focus on war-related spending to the detriment of development impacts those who expected to benefit from grand construction projects. At the same time, the Kremlin is extending the use of digital means of governance, such as electronic and online voting as well as public opinion monitoring, which it hopes will make it easier to implement its political will without relying too much on local partners. Beyond this, over the past two years it has moved ahead with an ambitious public administration reform that aims to further centralize the control over access to regional and local power, to the detriment of both voters and regional elites.
The second stage of this reform, which would have affected municipal self-governance, was paused in 2022 as the Kremlin was looking to avoid domestic political risks, but one crucial element of it is back on the agenda. A draft law adopted by the State Duma in the first reading in October will give governors the right to dismiss mayors more or less at will, imitating a similar (but stronger) power of the president to dismiss governors. Governors will be able to do so one month after reprimanding a mayor, provided that the reason for the reprimand has not been corrected, which of course is usually up for the interpretation of the higher authority.
The purpose of the reform is likely to strengthen governors’ hand when bargaining with municipal leaders – research suggests that this is likely a predictor of how successful governors are in implementing policies, which is usually federally mandated – all while leaving the federal government ample time to intervene if needed. It also offers governors, a growing number of which are “Varangians” – outsiders, often with a background in federal politics, appointed to manage a region on behalf of the Kremlin, and many of whom come with their own team – a means to deal with potential local rivals relatively easily.
The example of Khakassia, even if the region is small, showed that, in spite of the means at its disposal, the Kremlin does not exercise full control over domestic politics in the regions. Granted, Konovalov pulled the stunt off from a position of power. However, the past year has also shown that voters can be mobilized in support of local causes, some of which are also important for local power brokers (e.g. the direct election of mayors, which triggered petitions in several regions, but also bread-and-butter issues such as utility price hikes). It is unclear whether these examples encouraged regional elites in the Altai Republic, but – especially with the rejection of the law on taxis – it seems that they are not shying away from using local causes in their bargaining with the federal center. It is in this way that over time such conflicts may lead to the emergence of a stronger protest agenda in regions.