Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Krasnodar Krai: Nikolai Kondratenko’s Regional Restoration

By Arbakhan Magomedov

Russia’s economic geography and geopolitical situation changed dramatically after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Krasnodar Krai in the south is one of the regions that felt the impact most strongly. First and most important, the territory became, with the collapse of the USSR, a border region. Lying on Russia’s most unstable external border, it forms Russia’s border with Abkhazia (currently engaged in a struggle for independence from Georgia). This has sharply increased the strategic importance of the territory — commonly known as the Kuban.

Second, the krai is the site of all of Russia’s ports with access to the Black Sea — Novorossiisk and Tuapse on the Black Sea itself, and Yeisk on the Sea of Azov. The importance of these ports has grown since 1991, when Russia lost many other points of access to the sea. Krasnodar’s ports now account for over 40 percent of the country’s turnover of goods coming by ship. This has enormously increased the territory’s strategic importance.

Third, the krai contains some of Russia’s most fertile farmland and is known as "Russia’s breadbasket." Finally, the region has always been ethnically mixed, with a large Cossack community, but its demographic profile has changed radically since Soviet times and the Kuban is now a major staging post for refugees.

The krai has seen four changes of leadership since 1991. The territory’s first governor, V. Dyakonov, was an enthusiastic reformer and romantic democrat but, like many of those who rose to positions of power in Russia in the early days of independence, he proved an incompetent administrator and managed to stay in office only one year.

Dyakonov’s successor, Nikolai Yegorov, was a leader of the opposite sort — neither dynamic nor innovative. Yegorov was nonetheless the first provincial leader to make a career jump to Moscow. In the spring of 1994, Yegorov was appointed minister of nationalities and regional policy. Later, he became President Yeltsin’s chief of staff.

Yegorov’s departure left a vacuum. His successor, Yevgeny Kharitonov, had no ties to local political and economic elites and was seen as a political outsider. Like his predecessor, he failed to come up with a single realistic or innovative strategy for the region. Eventually, this massive lack of leadership led to a disaster just as massive.

The year 1996 brought hope of change in local politics, chiefly because Yegorov was actively lobbying for the Kuban’s interests in Moscow. Thanks to his efforts, the "Targeted Federal Program for the Socio-Economic Development of Krasnodar Krai in 1996-2000" was drafted and approved. Unfortunately for the territory, adoption of this program coincided with a severe financial crisis in Russia. The program turned out to be no more than an empty declaration on Moscow’s part, and the promised investment never materialized.

Yegorov returned to Krasnodar Krai following Yeltsin’s victory in the 1996 presidential elections. The Kuban was one of the regions in which voters refused to endorse Yeltsin’s reelection. Booted out of his Kremlin post to make way for Anatoly Chubais, Yegorov had little choice but to enter the race for governor of the Kuban in December 1996.

There were two main contenders: Yegorov as incumbent governor and Nikolai Kondratenko as the opposition candidate. Russia’s worsening financial crisis and the steep build-up of wage arrears plaguing Russia then (and now) made for a political climate unfavorable for Yegorov. Moreover, Yegorov fell into the electoral trap Yeltsin created for many incumbent governors when, during the presidential campaign, he offered voters heaven and earth and then defaulted on all his promises.

Kondratenko, by contrast, enjoyed great personal popularity. Formerly head of the Kuban Agricultural Institute, he was backed by a powerful bloc of leftist forces — Otechestvo [Fatherland]. Otechestvo was at that time a very organized force claiming over 60,000 active members. The local Cossacks, who are both nationalist and leftist in orientation, also gave Kondratenko strong support.

The fact that many voters identified Yegorov with the center worked against him. Kondratenko’s supporters exploited this image in their propaganda. A typical election leaflet read:

"COUNTRYMEN! Everyone knows you can only get a one-way ticket to the Kremlin! There’s no way back from Moscow! Yegorov has houses, apartments and dachas there. And his daughter lives in Cyprus! Let him go to Cyprus, too! We don’t need him here!"

Kondratenko won a convincing victory with 82 percent of the vote. Yegorov wound up in third place. Assuming office in January 1997, Kondratenko promptly sacked all the members of Yegorov’s government. He gave as his reason the fact that they had belonged to a team that had, directly or indirectly, supported the "criminal policy which led to the pillaging of the Kuban."

Kondratenko has created an image of himself which unites two functions: putting the region in order (the function of "master and builder") and protecting the population (the function of "hero and defender"). He and his entourage speak constantly about issues of concern to the population: "payment of wages, benefits and pensions," "protection for local producers" and "the interests of the Kuban." Economic problems are dramatized as a fight against evil and to punish the guilty.

The governor is a charismatic figure. His weekly live television call-in shows have become a tradition. His image as an honest and incorruptible leader attracts increasing numbers of supporters from a variety of audiences. Local people see him as one of their own, who speaks the regional dialect and uses local aphorisms. The closest analogues to this patriarchal type of leadership is the leadership style of Ulyanovsk Governor Yuri Goryachev and Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Kondratenko is called "batka" (father) in the Kuban, just as Lukashenka is in Belarus.

Kondratenko’s "anti-crisis program" asserts: "The economic reforms conducted in Russia and in the Kuban between 1991 and 1996 were nothing other than a mechanism for destroying and strangling the domestic economy." This diagnosis reflects Kondratenko’s conviction that "Russian government policy is a consistent policy of genocide against the citizens of Russia (above all, against ethnic Russians), carried out for the benefit, and under the direct supervision, of transnational imperialist forces."

The governor’s assertions that he is "master of the krai" and will tolerate no "fifth column," and his assurances that the krai government will not be replaced for the foreseeable future, have gone hand in hand with an escalation of regional authoritarianism. Kondratenko has earned the opprobrium of human rights organizations with a series of virulently racist and anti-Semitic remarks. A krai charter adopted since his election declares Krasnodar to be the "historical territory of the Kuban Cossacks" and "place of residence for the [ethnic] Russian people."

Kondratenko is at pains to rule out any continuity between his policy and that of his predecessors. This has been expressed in his personnel purges and in the formation of the krai’s new leadership. Kondratenko’s new team is formed from the ranks of former Communist Party economic officials who lost their jobs in the early nineties. Many members of the new krai government were nominated by the Russian Communist Party and the Otechestvo movement. Lacking experience of working under the conditions of market reforms, they have fallen back on the directive-command style of leadership.

Thus, the Kuban elite has come full circle and the group of people who ran the territory in 1991 have returned to power. These "new old Russians" have replaced the "new Russians," who failed to take root in the territory. Naturally, their return has meant a redistribution of power, influence and resources to the benefit of these "new old Russians."

Elsewhere in Russia, local elites had dug themselves in by the time gubernatorial elections were held. The Kuban was an exception. There, the elections were not a sign that the process of consolidation was complete, but marked the beginning of a new stage of consolidation. They suggest that the authority of the Communist Party and the Otechestvo society will persist and increase in the krai. The regional branches of Russia’s various democratic parties, movements and blocs are so small that they are unable to exert any real influence on the situation in the krai.

The krai’s Legislative Assembly was elected in November 1994 and voted in December 1996 to extend its own powers for a further term of office. It is solidly dominated by Otechestvo and there is no real opposition in the region.

Krasnodar Krai is being turned into a Russian "salient" in the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation. This will draw the Kuban directly into international economic programs. But the analysis laid out here suggests that the regional elite is ill equipped to respond to the challenges of modernization that Russia faces. The impulses from within — which were the result of the efforts of the krai’s ruling elite — do not meet the challenges of the time and the rapidly-changing situation in the Caucasus.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Dr. Arbakhan Magomedov heads the Department of History and Culture at Ulyanovsk State Technical University. He is currently Visiting Scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley.


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