Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 159

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), has begun a trip to the provinces to check on preparations for the upcoming gubernatorial elections. Veshnyakov’s first port of call was Kaluga Oblast in central Russia, where elections are set for November 12. Next he will visit the Republic of Adygeya and to Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais in the North Caucasus (Russian agencies, August 22-23).

At first glance, Veshnyakov’s trip might seem routine. In fact, it marks the start of a new stage in Russian politics. A new cohort of governors is about to be formed: one made up of leaders selected, with the participation of Putin’s team, who will replace the governors whom Putin inherited from his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s main aim is to refresh the ranks of the regional leaders and replace the most odious and least reliable with Putin-loyalists. While no fireworks are anticipated in peaceful Kaluga, the presidents and governors in a number of other Russian regions are expected to put up a serious fight to stay in power.

The media have already identified several of the candidates who will, with the Kremlin’s backing, be challenging incumbent governors in the coming months. In what is fast becoming a Putin-era tradition, most of them come from the ranks of the security services. For example, Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, commander of the Baltic Fleet, is preparing to stand in November in Kaliningrad Oblast against incumbent governor Leonid Gorbenko. Viktor Surzhikov, former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Volgograd, will challenge incumbent Aleksandr Rutskoi for the governorship of Kursk Oblast. Vladimir Kulakov, head of the FSB in Voronezh Oblast, plans to run for governor there. Former Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov has also been identified as a prospective candidate, though it not yet clear where he plans to run (Vek, August 25; see also the Monitor for August 1).

The press has also named the governors most at risk of losing their jobs. They include Stavropol Krai’s Aleksandr Chernogorov who has already, like Rutskoi, become embroiled in open conflict with the president’s new representative in the Southern federal district (Vedomosti, August 23). Someone else who need not expect Kremlin support is Vyacheslav Kislitsyn, president of the Republic of Marii-El. A campaign against Kislitsyn has already started in the national media and the CEC has written to advise the republic’s legislature to postpone the election scheduled for October 8 because, the CEC claims, the republic’s election law does not conform with federal law (Russian agencies, August 23). The national media are also reporting plans to remove as influential a figure as Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev. Farit Gazizullin, federal property minister, who is an ethnic Tatar, is being named as a possible successor who would be “more obedient to the authorities.” Shaimiev himself says he “has not yet decided” whether to run for a third term when his present term expires next year. According to one newspaper, Gazizullin is not enthusiastic about replacing Shaimiev but would find it “very difficult” to resist Kremlin pressure (Versiya, August 22).

One of the toughest battles facing the Kremlin is the election set for December 22 in Ulyanovsk Oblast, Lenin’s birthplace on the River Volga (Radio Ekho Moskvy, August 24). Incumbent governor Yuri Goryachev, an outspoken critic of privatization and market reform, was for years a thorn in the side of President Yeltsin, who tried but failed to remove him from office. Replacing a governor as notorious as Goryachev would raise Putin’s authority in the regions. This explains why the Kremlin has reportedly picked a particularly strong challenger: General Vladimir Shamanov, hero of the Kremlin’s latest Chechen war (Radio Ekho Moskvy, August 24).

Apparently perceiving Shamanov as a serious threat, the leaders of Ulyanovsk Oblast are preparing to give battle. There are reports that the regional legislature will change the local election law to allow for only one round of voting instead of the normal two (Vedomosti, August 23). The idea is that this will increase Goryachev’s chance of victory by frustrating the efforts of his opponents to unite around a single candidate, such as Shamanov. An information war is already raging. A local newspaper, “Simbirskiye gubernskiye vedomosti,” has published a report apparently aimed at splitting the regional elite. This alleged that certain regional officials were secretly negotiating with Shamanov. The officials in question have unanimously and angrily denied the allegation. The united front presented by local officialdom may give Shamanov cause for thought. It is not clear how an outsider would fare in the face of such cohesive animosity on the part of a regional elite that clearly perceives itself as threatened by a hostile takeover. Shamanov may decide that his personal charisma is insufficient, especially in light of the current decline in the popularity of the Chechen war in Russian public opinion.

It is of course far too early to predict the outcomes of the upcoming elections. It is nonetheless worth remembering that, so far, all of the Kremlin’s attempts to oust sitting governors have failed: The elections in St Petersburg and Samara are cases in point. There, the Kremlin was defeated not only because it lacked a local support base but also because it failed to transfer experience gained in federal elections to the regional level. An attempt by the Kremlin simultaneously to replace dozens of governors seems doomed to failure. It seems more likely that weak regional leaders will be replaced, with Kremlin support, by stronger ones. In the long run, this could find the Kremlin facing a stronger, rather than a weaker, corps of governors.