Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Aggravating the Governors
By Nikolai Petrov
The agenda for the upcoming State Council meeting on regional policy has yet to be finalized, but the Kremlin has already implemented a new approach to dealing with regional political elites. By appointing the heads of nearly half of Russia's 88 regions last year, President Vladimir Putin has created a potent resource that the Kremlin will be able to draw on in the future. Only a handful of governors come up for reappointment this year, but past experience suggests that Putin won't let this stop him making more sweeping changes.
Only one regional leader has been replaced since the start of the year -- Magomedali Magomedov, who had ruled Dagestan since 1991. Sergei Katanandov, who heads the republic of Karelia, is currently up for reappointment. For years, Dagestan was the only region that did not have a popularly elected leader. Magomedov's official title was chairman of the State Council of Dagestan. The 14 largest ethnic groups in Dagestan had seats on the council, which was created in 1994.
The original plan was for a new chairman to be chosen every two years, but Magomedov, an ethnic Dargin, stayed in the job for 11 years. The regional parliament disbanded the council on Monday and confirmed its speaker, Mukhu Aliyev, an ethnic Avar, as the first president of Dagestan. Previous attempts to introduce the post of president in Dagestan failed because of reluctance to concentrate so much power in the hands of a single ethnic group. Wary of upsetting the delicate balance of power in Dagestan, the Kremlin allowed the outgoing leader's son, Magomedsalam Magomedov, to be elected speaker of the regional parliament. Thus Dagestan became the second region, after Chechnya, in which the Kremlin has tacitly approved the creation of a system of succession to the throne.
Rather surprisingly, the Kremlin has lately begun to initiate or at least to encourage opposition to regional heads appointed by Putin. In the Perm region earlier this month, some 400 members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi staged a protest against the governor, Oleg Chirkunov, for allowing a member of a far-right group to speak at a youth forum. The activists, who were bused in from a dozen different regions, demanded that Chirkunov issue an apology to veterans who had fought against the Nazis in World War II or resign.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-connected political operative and host of NTV's "Realnaya Politika" program, recently used his bully pulpit to accuse Kostroma Governor Viktor Shershunov of gross incompetence. Pavlovsky also laid into Khazret Sovmen, head of the republic of Adygeya, just days before Sovmen met with Putin to discuss his reappointment.
You get the impression that a number of factions within the Kremlin are competing to dictate regional policy, or that the carrot and stick are being applied simultaneously for a reason.
It is clearly no coincidence that relations between regional heads and the local United Russia party organizations in Adygeya and Kostroma have soured of late. Similar tensions have been observed in the Volgograd and Novosibirsk regions and the republic of Sakha. The Nizhny Novgorod regional legislature, led by a senior member of United Russia, recently refused to support the candidacy of the sitting governor, forcing the Kremlin to replace him.
There has been a move to draft regional leaders into United Russia since the end of Putin's first term, and 75 percent of them are now party members. More recently, a tendency has emerged to combine the post of governor and head of the regional United Russia organization, much like the old first secretaries of Soviet Communist Party regional committees. Such dual appointees are now in place in the Bryansk, Krasnoyarsk, Novgorod and Tomsk regions and the republic of North Ossetia.
United Russia could be seen as having no ideology or many ideologies, which amount to the same thing. The party is therefore entirely pragmatic in its dealings with regional leaders. The party's national leadership views the governors -- not without justification -- as opponents of their centrist model of governance. For their part, the governors just want to be left alone.
Back when regional leaders were still directly elected, United Russia did everything possible to promote its image as the party of winners. It would back the strongest candidate in any race. If that candidate happened to lose, the party would switch horses after the fact, draft the victorious candidate into the party and spin its original candidate's defeat as a win for the party.
Josef Stalin declared that the development of socialism was inevitably accompanied by an aggravation of the class struggle. Something similar is happening in the Kremlin's relations with the governors and more broadly with regional political elites. I see two possible explanations for this trend.
The time is fast approaching when the Kremlin will need the support of the governors in the run-up to the next State Duma and presidential elections. We may be witnessing the final skirmishes before a new cease-fire is declared.
It may also be that the power of the governors has dwindled to the point that the Kremlin now views them as subordinates, not vital allies. In this case, we should expect to see the governors come under increasing pressure from Moscow.
Only time will tell which scenario is closer to the truth.
Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.