Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 15

High Stakes in the Regional Elections

By Andrei Zhukov

One of Boris Yeltsin’s campaign chairmen said something instructivein the middle of July: "If we lose the regional elections,we will be throwing away everything we worked so hard to win inthe presidential race." And that’s close to the truth: thevoters will be able to name the governors of 52 of the 89 "subjects"of the Russian Federation. In September, there will be electionsin the Rostov, Amur, and Leningrad oblasts. Then, the "baton"will be passed to the Sakha (Yakutia), Mariy-El, and Khakasiarepublics, the Krasnodar, Altai, and Khabarovsk krais, and a numberof oblasts, including Bryansk, Voronezh, Volgograd, Samara, Kaliningrad,and others.

According to the statistics, in 15 of these "subjects,"the Communists will win convincingly (for the most part, the so-called"Red Belt" regions), in two regions, the democrats willwin just as convincingly (the Yamal-Nenets and Chukotka autonomousoblasts), and 35 regions are "on the fence" — in the1995 parliamentary elections, the Communists and Zhirinovsky ledthere, but in the presidential elections, the voters preferredBoris Yeltsin.

In Saratov oblast, the "Party of Power’s" candidateDmitri Ayatskov overwhelmingly defeated his Communist opponent:81 percent to 16 percent. On the other hand, the Communists saythat they have a 100 percent chance of winning the gubernatorialelections in Amur oblast. If the present governor Viktor Ishaev,as looks most probable today, hangs on in Khabarovsk krai, itis most likely that Communist Yuri Lodkin will win in the Bryanskoblast (he was elected governor three years ago, but removed bya presidential decree). Both sides’ chances of victory are about50-50.

The significance of these elections is obviously great. But itis different for voters than it is for politicians. The voterswill be able to define under what sort of government they willlive. For, as the proverb says, "God’s in His heaven, andMoscow is far away." In other words, it is the provincialgovernor who is the complete master of the situation: whateverhe says, goes. It is no accident that in Ulyanovsk oblast, rationcards were only abolished a month ago, in the sixth year of marketreforms.

For the regional political elites, these elections are important,if only because the governor is a sort of "mouthpiece"or "lobbyist" for regional interests in Moscow. Whetheror not the center allocates money to the region’s needs depends,to a significant extent, on him. (Incidentally, the governor’spersonal connections are very important in this respect.) Overand above this, the regional elites are interested in "their"governor because the redistribution of finances within the region,and the allocation of privileges to enterprises in the region,also depend, to a significant degree, on him.

In addition, there is disconcerting information that purely criminalstructures, for whom the post of governor is incomparably moretempting than a seat in the Duma, are also preparing for the elections.A gubernatorial post, under present conditions, provides enormousopportunities for self-aggrandizement. Society is not at all preparedfor such a turn of events. But such a scenario is quite plausible.There was a foretaste of this in the Duma elections, when severalobvious Mafia types made it into the Duma. Some analysts fearthat this is only a pale reflection of what could happen in thegubernatorial elections.

Politicians in the capital are already beginning to prepare forthe regional elections for completely different reasons. The leaderof the "Ekspertiza" Foundation, Mark Urnov, saysthat: "For the government to be stable and democratic, itis necessary to establish correct relations between the executivebranch, the president, and the parliament. It is obvious thatif the centrists and democrats weaken in the regional elections,the situation in Russia will be much more difficult than it isnow. I don’t want to loosen up now, when the long period of buildinga calm, normal, democratic, stable Russia is only just beginning."

Another analyst, Leonid Smirnyagin, of the Russian president’sAnalytical Department, is even more frank: "I often hearfrom my Communist colleagues that they lost the presidential elections,but intend to recoup their losses in the gubernatorial elections.Half of the Federation Council is made up of the heads of thelocal legislative bodies, which are predominantly under the influenceof the Communists. If we add to that some of the governors…They obviously won’t be able to get an impeachment, but they wouldbe able to poison the work of our parliament and its relationswith the president for years to come. And the situation looksvery serious to me, because I see how fatally unprepared the Kremlinis for these elections."

Provincial governors and presidents of republics which are partof the Russian Federation, make up half of the Federation Council,whose purview includes the question of impeachment of the president.The Communists’ desire to take revenge for their defeat in thepresidential campaign, and control the entire parliament (theFederation Council also has the authority to accept or rejectlaws passed by the Duma) is understandable. Democratically-inclinedpoliticians will try to prevent this, and, after strengtheningtheir position in the Federation Council, will try to put up abarrier to any serious actions on the part of the Duma.

In their efforts, the Communists are counting on the "Popular-PatrioticUnion of Russia [NPSR]" that they have created, and the democrats,on the 300 democratic organizations which united this spring intothe "All-Russian Movement of Public Support for the President[ODOP]." It is already obvious that neither the Communistsnor the democrats have been able to hold their coalitions togetherin all the regions. In Kostroma oblast, for example, three representativesof the democratic movement — the incumbent governor Valeri Arbuzov,Kostroma mayor Boris Krotov, and oblast Duma deputy Nikolai Romanovare all running for governor. In Tyumen oblast, candidates arerunning both from the KPRF and from "Working Tyumen"(a branch of Viktor Anpilov’s "Working Russia").

The Communists’ tactics in the regional elections, it seems, willbe a repeat of their tactics in previous elections. First, theywill criticize the government and warn that things will get evenworse. And they will agitate for the NPSR’s program. But the Communists’economic program is rather pitiful. In essence, it is that thestate ought to continue supporting agriculture, the fuel and energycomplex, military industry, and machinery construction. In otherwords, that the government ought to guarantee the existence ofevery enterprise, whether or not it is profitable. At whose expense?This can only happen if the money is taken out of salaries. Justas before, the Communists intend to do a lot of "door-to-doorcampaigning." Regional Communist leaders will be lobbyingfor special economic programs for their regions or branches ofindustry. In addition, opposition leaders plan to run in two orthree regions (in particular, Aleksandr Rutskoi will fight forthe governor’s seat in Kursk). The difficulty of the Communists’position lies in the fact that in a number of regions in the "RedBelt," they will have to run their candidates against "Red"governors and explain to the people that one Communist differsfrom another.

The presidential structures have painfully worked out their owncampaign plan. But it is supposed that each region will have itsown election strategy. They plan to work out a general strategyfor the elections in the four regions holding elections in September,and then to implement the lessons learned in those elections inall the rest. They plan to allow candidates backed by the presidentfull freedom of speech (including freedom to criticize the presidentseverely). And if Boris Yeltsin himself supports one of the governorsopenly, he will do it from Moscow, so as not to offend the othercandidates he is supporting. In addition, Kremlin analysts intendto keep society as politicized as it was before the presidentialelections and see the key to their candidates’ success in makingsure that turnout is high.

Many candidates will try to use anti-Moscow demagogy of this type:"If Moscow hadn’t gotten in my way, I would have made youall rich!" But such criticisms of Moscow could backfire,if the voters look for themselves to see how many of the region’sproblems are Moscow’s fault, and how many — the fault of thelocal authorities. Obviously, candidates who speak of what canbe done in the region — building bridges, reforming agriculture,etc, — in other words, a candidate whose program focuses on hisown region–will stand more of a chance of winning the sympathiesof the voters.

So far, one thing is clear — just as before, most of the governorswill be "managers." Governors who are "politicians,"like [Sverdlovsk governor] Eduard Rossel or [Nizhny Novgorod governor]Boris Nemtsov are more the exception than the rule. The overwhelmingmajority of the incumbent governors will probably be reelected,if only because of the advantages of incumbency.

But even a possible Communist victory in certain regions wouldnot be fatal. As practice shows, even clearly anti-Yeltsin officialssuch as Tambov governor Aleksandr Ryabov or Novosibirsk governorVitaly Mukha, have succeeded in reaching an understanding withthe president. Levers were found, which allowed them to transcendtheir political disagreements.

Translated by Mark Eckert