Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 11

By Elena Dikun

On October 15 Russia saw the beginning of an election marathon, opened by elections for the president of Udmurtia. Before the year is out, elections will be held for the heads of thirty-three regions. As a matter of fact the regional election season should have begun a little earlier in a different place altogether–in Marii-El on October 8–but the “premiere” was postponed thanks to the efforts of the Kremlin administration.

President Vladimir Putin’s office makes no bones about the fact that Moscow interfered in the Marii-El elections. Neither is there any mystery surrounding the purpose of this intervention: to stop the incumbent governor, Vyacheslav Kislitsyn, from being elected for a second term. “Blatant hooligan” is the mildest epithet those in the corridors of the Kremlin are using to describe Kislitsyn. The controversial leader of Marii-El was besieged from all sides: His loyal allies in key posts in the republic were removed, and there were threats both that legal action would be taken on cases involving him and that the results of elections to the local parliament–where there had been infringements of the law–would be reviewed. Because Kislitsyn balked at this last, they promised to show footage featuring him partying with local crime bosses. Kislitsyn then gave up and asked local deputies to shift the elections to December 3. The Kremlin thus gained some breathing space for the president’s envoy to the Volga region, Sergei Kirienko, to groom a suitable successor to Kislitsyn. They are currently backing the republic’s interior minister, Anatoly Ivanov, who himself openly admitted that he “would not have decided to stand had [he] not secured certain guarantees from Moscow.”

The most reliable way of getting rid of an unwanted governor is to persuade him not to stand for election. To this end a wide variety of arguments are used: persuading the governor that it would be better both for him and for the region not to do so; offering him a good job in Moscow; winning him over with the thought of remaining in the Federation Council as his successor’s appointed delegate; or–as in Kislitsyn’s case–using scare tactics on him with accusations of criminal offenses and abuse of power. There is no real need to have any scruples about what methods to use: The governor will never tell anyone about the offers he receives because he has no interest in airing his dirty linen in public.

The Kremlin uses all these methods with varying degrees of success. Three, for example, have agreed not to participate in the elections: the governor of Krasnodar and indefatigable campaigner against world Zionism Nikolai Kondratenko; the not particularly successful governor of Ivanovo Vladislav Tikhomirov; and Kamchatka boss Vladimir Biryukov, who was unable to cope with the permanent energy crisis.

But perhaps the clearest example of Kremlin interference in local elections was what happened in Kursk, where the regional court removed the pre-election favorite Aleksandr Rutskoi from the ballot just a few hours before the vote. (Rutskoi was accused of violating campaign rules and not disclosing information about his property and income.) Although the presidential administration claims that it heard about the court’s decision only from the television, it is clear that no one in Kursk would have taken such a step without a nod from the administration. This was confirmed indirectly in the words of the president’s envoy in the Central okrug, Poltavenko, who said that he was “not merely satisfied by the court’s decision, but delighted by it.” In his opinion, Rutskoi was an “unpredictable and inadequate person” who had brought the republic to its knees. In turn, a senior Kremlin official told Obshchaya gazeta that Rutskoi had been openly warned that if he put up too much opposition he might face serious problems, perhaps even a prison sentence.

After this, it was perfectly clear that Moscow’s standpoint would be the defining one in identifying the victors in gubernatorial elections. The Kremlin is just as open in displaying its affection as it is in demonstrating its antipathy. Court oligarch Roman Abramovich, for example, has already received a royal blessing for his plans to take over Chukotka. When the president’s Far East envoy Konstantin Pulikovsky asked Putin what he thought of Abramovich’s attempts to become governor, the president replied philosophically: “That’s what he wants to do; so be it.” And as a senior administration official remarked to Obshchaya gazeta: “It is normal for people who have made a career in business to want to work for the state.” According to some reports, during his time as a deputy Abramovich invested about US$15 million of his own money into the economy and the social sphere, and all the predictions are that he will win election comfortably.

Kremlin analysts concede that suitable candidates are selected primarily for their personal qualities. It is not at all clear by what criteria good governors are distinguished from bad. It is impossible to do this on the basis of economic figures, because in the current conditions in Russia whether regions flourish or vegetate has little to do with the personal talents of the regional bosses. Until recently, it was the “red” governors who were the “baddies,” and “good” meant “loyal.” But this method of assessment is now obsolete. If Yeltsin’s administration thought two dozen governors disloyal, it is now only Chuvash President Nikolai Fedorov, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel whom the Kremlin is openly criticizing. None of these are due for reelection this autumn; those who are, are all competing for the title of loyal and like-minded comrades-in-arms of Putin.

As though by agreement, all those regional leaders aspiring to reelection are building their election campaigns based on how close they are to the Kremlin boss. For example, Aleksandr Volkov, running for president in Udmurtia, offered voters simple slogans composed in the spirit of the times. “Alexander Volkov is a strong ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. By their efforts, strong state power will be established in Russia and Udmurtia, and order will be brought to politics, the economy and the social sphere. Only Vladimir Volkov knows how to secure assistance for Udmurtia from Moscow.” As expected, Volkov won.

For greater cogency, candidates try to back up their words with convincing images. There is a standard procedure for this: First the candidate requests an audience with the president or, if worse comes to worst, the prime minister, and a few days later telephones to ask for a photograph or video footage of his important meeting.

But if rumors trickle down to the provinces that the Kremlin is backing someone else, the candidate drops everything and heads straight to Moscow demanding an explanation. For example, Ulyanovsk Governor Yuri Goryachev kept pressing the presidential administration about whether it was Moscow’s idea to send the militant General Vladimir Shamanov to his region. Goryachev was assured that no, Shamanov had not got his ticket from the Kremlin. Truth to tell, the administration is not particularly keen on either candidate. “It’s one of those no-win situations. Who should we choose–a scary general or an alcoholic governor?” lamented a senior official. The Kremlin is wavering in the face of this dilemma, and if special envoy Kirienko doesn’t do something soon, the people of Ulyanovsk will have to choose their own governor.

Sometimes local politicians themselves ask Moscow to intervene in local elections, as in Volgograd. A group of activists wrote an open letter to the president’s chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, calling for the Kremlin to involve itself in the election campaign. “It would be disingenuous to say that the federal authorities have no right to interfere in the electoral process. No, the president has the right to say whom he sees as his regional acolytes, and with whom he is prepared to share responsibility for the future of this or that territory. The public will understand this and will listen. The authorities are duty bound to show who’s boss.”

As a rule, Moscow tries to support its favored candidates both morally and materially. There is no special election coffer in the Kremlin, but as a Kremlin official involved with the regions admitted, “we can ask the finance ministry to give priority consideration to particular requests from the regions”. Unlike the money invested in gubernatorial elections by big business, such as Sberbank, LUKoil, Sibneft and Alfa-bank, budgetary assistance goes directly to the electorate and serves as incontrovertible evidence that this particular governor meets with the approval of the country’s leaders. What is more, a money transfer is quicker and more forceful than the contingents of political consultants, spin doctors and pop stars which the previous Kremlin team used to indulge in.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with Obshchaya gazeta.