A version of this article was published on the Bear Market Brief’s website.
It’s a rough time to be a regional governor in Russia. Since last year, arrests and resignations of local leaders have piled up and accelerated in the last few weeks, with five governors gone since February. Described by some as a way for the Kremlin to prepare the presidential elections, whether by pumping “new blood” into Russia’s political system or by demonstrating its will to fight corruption at the highest level, the shake up is putting the regional establishment into a difficult position.
“A dangerous job”: that’s how Russian outlet Gazeta.ru described the position of governor in a recent op-ed. “Ten years ago, it was difficult to imagine a criminal case being opened against a governor. Now though, they are being arrested almost on an industrial scale”, Gazeta wrote.
Last year, the gubernatorial turn-over had been interpreted as a way for Putin to tighten its control over the regions, by installing little-known but loyal people, often with a background in security services. Later, it took the appearance of an anti-corruption drive aimed at addressing Russian’s number one concern one year before the presidential election.
Both Moscow’s recent preference for young technocrats from the state apparatus and the anti-corruption rhetoric is making governors particularly nervous: Carolina De Stefano, a visiting researcher at Moscow’s Higher School Of Economics, writes that “there is the feeling—particularly in non-economically relevant regions—that local politicians could increasingly become the target of an anti-elite stance, which is mainly aimed at lending an impression of honesty to the federal leadership”.
According to Gazeta, “not only have governors stopped to be untouchable; on the contrary, the position now feels like being put in front of a firing squad.”
The arrest of the governor of Mari El only added to the general impression that local leaders cannot trust Putin’s word anymore, say Russian journalist Andrey Pertsev: as he accepted Leonid Markelov’s resignation, Putin publicly declared that Markelov wanted to “find a new job”, implying that, as that often happens, the politician would get a cosy semi-retirement position, maybe at the Senate. Instead, one week later, Markelov was arrested on suspicion of taking a RUB250m bribe.
“If not for this remark, Markelov’s arrest would have been trivial”, Pertsev writes. “[But] the word of Vladimir Putin is almost the foundation of Russia’s personnel policy”
“Other guarantees of one’s political future could change: support from “United Russia”, protection from people close to the president, economic success, good relations with the “People’s Front”… all this could come and go, but the president’s promise always served as a reliable beacon”. With Markelov’s arrest, Pertsev argues, “this beacon doesn’t exist anymore for the Russian elite”.
The problem is not simply the feeling that any governor could be forced to resign or arrested on short notice, or that the Kremlin doesn’t have their back anymore: regional heads are also feeling the pressure from below.
The protest headache
The March 26 anti-corruption protests, which surprised by their regional outreach, has made the task even harder for governors who must now deal with rising discontent in a crucial electoral period and, for some of them, while being short on cash.
“All governors, whether technocrats, security officials or public politicians, have to work with the constant eye of the Kremlin looking over them”, Gazeta writes. “Citizens, in turn, are well aware that they are being sent obscure officials. And they can either look around philosophically and think “we’ll survive this”, or they can start protesting”.
Some already have. In the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, a planned rise of utilities bills by local authorities lead several thousand people to the streets, with at least seven separate protests over March and April. The gatherings were organized and mostly attended by local pensioners, a strategic constituency for the Kremlin, but opposition members also showed up, including Alexey Navalny.
In oil-rich Tatarstan, the surprise collapse of one the region’s biggest bank in March lead to pickets, then gatherings, by locals demanding to get their savings back. And just like in Novosibirsk, protests that started for purely economic reasons turned political, with protesters in both regions demanding their local governor’s resignation. It was unsuccessful in Tatarstan, but managed to scare Novosbirsk’s governor into backing down on the rise of utilities bills, a rare win for protesters and an illustration of the tough situation local heads are finding themselves in.
On the delicate balance of regional politics
Despite this, Putin has had no problem so far finding willing officials to take the job. But Moscow’s situation is one of delicate balance, according to specialist of Russian politics Tatyana Stanovaya: it needs “effective regional managers who can be painlessly removed if things go wrong”, that is, people good enough to handle local issues efficiently and hand Putin a good score in next year’s election, but not so good that they would start enjoying electoral support and be tempted to become more independent.
This danger may appear far-fetched in the short term because local authorities traditionally enjoys far smaller support than the president. They tend to bear the brunt of mismanagement and corruptions accusations, while Vladimir Putin is seen as the potential solution rather than the problem (in both Novosibirsk and Tatarstan, the protesters demanded the resignation of their locals authorities while asking the federal center for help).
In fact, Carolina De Stefano believes, this may very well have been the strategy behind the reinstatement of direct gubernatorial elections in 2012: “it performs [an] important task in times of trouble: in case of popular discontent, there is someone other than the central government to blame”.
According to a Levada poll, 48% of Russians approved the work of their local governor in March, a steady rise since a historic low of 30% in October 2014, but a far cry from Putin’s steady 80% approval rate.
But it could also explain why Putin has been replacing leaders in troublesome regions with loyal siloviki and technocrats without previous political experience: the regional establishment stills holds significant power and, Stanovaya argues, could potentially form a new “counter-elite”:
Recently, the Kremlin has been appointing as governors not strong managers but men associated with the security services and conspicuous only by their loyalty. This attempt to simplify and strengthen governors’ subordination to Moscow will only result in more mistaken and dangerous decisions at the regional level.
If federal power gets weaker, the overwhelming majority of the regional political establishment will end up in opposition to Moscow. Literally the whole of the regional elite, with the exception of those with personal ties to the president, can potentially turn into a counter-elite.
That is, of course, a big “if”. For now, Moscow’s “power vertical” is alive and well, and governors are stuck with contradictory obligations to ensure their political survival. They need to be loyal to the Kremlin, but maintain some semblance of independence when managing their regions. They must be effective, but still unpopular enough to take the bullet for Putin when protests arise. They should help Putin get elected next year, but not mind the potential threat of arrest or forced resignation.
A tough job indeed.