Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 74

Voters in Lipetsk and Penzensk Oblasts went to the polls on April 14 to elect governors, and the incumbents won in both cases: Oleg Korolev received more than 73 percent of the vote in Lipetsk, and Vasily Bochkarev 45.5 percent in Penzensk. Both regions allow only one round of voting, thus only a simple majority was needed for victory (Russian agencies, April 15).

The outcome of the Lipetsk contest was not a surprise. Most observers saw the voting there almost as a formality, even though four candidates were on the ballot and a suit to have Korolev thrown out of the race for violating the election law was under consideration in the courts up until election day (, April 10). As some media noted, Korolev’s only serious potential competitor was Vladimir Lisin, head of the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Combine (NLMK), one of the largest and most flourishing enterprises not only in Lipetsk Oblast, but also in Russia as a whole. Lisin was on the verge of officially announcing his candidacy for the Lipetsk governorship, but waited for a green light from the Kremlin, which never came. As it turned out, Lipetsk was not among those regions, like Chukotka and the Taimyr and Evenk Autonomous districts, where the Kremlin permitted local oligarchs to run for governor.

Indeed, Korolev’s continuation as Lipetsk’s governor fully suits the federal center, so the Kremlin’s main task there was to make peace between the two rivals. Thanks to the mediation efforts of Georgy Poltavchenko, President Vladimir Putin’s authorized representative to the Central federal district, negotiations took place between Korolev and Lisin, after which the latter announced he would not enter the Lipetsk race. Not only did Lisin decide not to challenge Korolev, but he also put the NLMK’s mammoth resources behind the incumbent, which made Korolev essentially unbeatable (Kommersant, April 9; Vremya MN,, April 12). All of these factors made the outcome of the Lipetsk governor’s race fully predictable.

The situation in Penzensk Oblast was rather more complicated. There, the incumbent governor, Vasily Bochkarev, an archetypical “khozyaistvennik” (hands-on manager), who turned being apolitical into his governing principle but nonetheless managed to win the support of United Russia, the recently formed group uniting supporters of Putin, was sharply attacked by the Communists. Bochkarev’s main opponent was State Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, one of the more controversial and, in the view of some, odious of the radical leftists. Most observers believed that Ilyukhin had a good chance of winning. The results of independent polls showed that Bochkarev and Ilyukhin were virtually even, but Ilyukhin was believed to have the edge because of the very powerful protest sentiment in Penzensk-­a result of the fact that Bochkarev had not during his four years in office been able to pull the region’s economy out of its crisis (, April 12).

At the same time, Putin’s team gave special attention to the Penzensk election, viewing it as a potential threat to the Kremlin’s image. Given that many Russians, almost out of inertia, continue to view the communists as the Kremlin’s main opponents, strategists from the presidential team viewed the possibility that Ilyukhin might win as a threat to the thesis that the popularity of the federal authorities and Putin himself remains stable (, April 10).

So the Kremlin mobilized significant forces on behalf of Bochkarev, including support from a number of well-known politicians, among them Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, Agricultural Minister Aleksei Gordeyev and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. In addition, items appeared in the press claiming that a communist victory in Penzensk Oblast would mean a revival of the so-called “Red Belt,” the group of regions that in the past were strongholds for the communists and other leftist opponents of the Kremlin, and that Penzensk would turn into a “pariah region” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 12). Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, who also came to the support of Bochkarev, his neighbor, even claimed that were the communists to win in Penzensk Oblast, the region would be carved up among other Russian Federation subjects (Volga Information Agency, April 11).

It appears, however, that the main factor in Ilyukhin’s defeat was not propaganda, but the fact that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was plunged into disarray thanks to the State Duma’s decision to rob it of its committee chairmanships (see the Monitor, April 4). Indeed, besides Ilyukhin, three other local communists–Valery Kulikov, Aleksandr Dolganov and Valery Bespalov–were also running in the Penzensk governor’s race. The KPRF leadership almost succeeded in convincing them to drop their bids in favor of Ilyukhin, but when State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev refused to heed the KPRF leadership’s demand following the party’s loss of its Duma committee chairmanships that he step down from his post, the Penzensk communists decided to follow his example and refused to drop out of the governor’s race there. As a result, four communists competed with one another in the Penzensk governor’s race, splitting the party’s electorate and thereby stealing defeat from the jaws of victory (Kommersant,, April 12). Even so, Ilyukhin managed to win a bit less than 41 percent of the vote, compared with Bochkarev’s 45.5 percent.