Over the past year, the Russian Federation experienced two large waves of resignations of governors. In spring 2017, the heads of seven regions—Perm krai, Novgorod and Ryazan oblasts, as well as the republics of Mari El, Udmurtia, Buryatia and Karelia—lost their posts. In autumn, the governors of 11 other regions—Omsk, Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Ivanovo, Oryol, Novosibirsk and Pskov oblasts, Krasnoyarsk and Primorye krais, the republic of Dagestan and the Nenets autonomous district—all stepped down and were replaced by the Kremlin. Every one of these resignations were described as happening based on the sitting governor’s “own desire” to leave his position. Yet, it is noteworthy that many of the gubernatorial retirees denied their resignation until the last day; but after a call from the Kremlin, they suddenly expressed their “own desire” to step aside (Meduza, September 27).
These large-scale personnel reshuffles are rather difficult to fit into a common, systemic picture. Many observers have suggested that, in replacing governors across the country, President Vladimir Putin is betting on “young technocrats.” However, not young technocrats, but elderly siloviki became new governors in several regions. For example, in Karelia, the Kremlin nominated the 52-year-old former head of the Federal Court Bailiff Service, Arthur Parfenchikov (see Commentaries, September 28). And in Dagestan, Putin’s appointee is Moscow police general (and deputy State Duma head) Vladimir Vasiliyev, age 68. Vasiliyev replaced the former head of Dagestan Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was known as a specialist in inter-ethnic relations. Dagestan is the most multi-ethnic republic in the North Caucasus. And the Kremlin’s apparent attempt to solve its problems via police methods (by nominating Vasiliyev) will likely exacerbate local conflicts (see EDM, October 13).
On the other hand, many new appointees are in fact younger than their predecessors—with an average age of around 40 years old. But in this group, their professional competence comes into question. For example, the youngest governor in Russia is the 31-year-old Anton Alikhanov. In 2016, Putin appointed him to manage the strategically important Russian exclave of Kaliningrad oblast. Until being named governor, Alikhanov had lived in this Baltic-coast region for only one year. Since then, his tenure has been characterized by an inability to solve local social problems as well as multiple scandals with journalists (Newkaliningrad.ru, October 20).
Age is clearly not a useful explanation for the mass resignations of governors this year. Supporting evidence includes the fact that the governor of Belgorod oblast, Yevgeny Savchenko (67), has already been in office for 24 years, since 1993; and Aman Tuleyev (73) has ruled the Kemerovo oblast since 1997. However, despite their “venerable age,” Putin has made no moves to replace them.
On the other hand, a better fitting justification notes the background of the new governors. As a general rule, the newly appointed authorities have been “Varangians,” which in Russian political slang denotes officials who have little or no biographical relation to the region they are tasked with governing. By explicitly naming outsiders to head these provinces, oblasts and republics, the Kremlin is hoping to suppress any localized regional identity, portraying all Russian regions as “having no differences.”
For example, prior to 2017, Muscovite Andrei Nikitin had never stepped foot in Veliky Novgorod; and yet, this year, Putin appointed him governor of Novgorod oblast. Similarly, the entire professional and political career of Andrei Travnikov had been associated with the Northwest Federal District. However, in October, the Kremlin suddenly named him governor of Novosibirsk region in Siberia, which he also until then had never visited. Out of the 18 newly appointed governors this year, only 4 (in the Perm and Krasnoyarsk krais, Samara oblast, and the Republic of Karelia) are local natives. But at the same time, these latter four individuals all have had some experience working in Moscow federal structures—which also makes then not nominees of local residents, but rather emissaries of the federal center.
Alexander Kynev, an expert of the Committee of Civil Initiatives, believes the main goal of the mass gubernatorial replacements is to reduce the level of protest activity in the regions. Such reshuffles are largely a superficial and palliative measure. And yet with some success, they allow the Kremlin—without having to significantly change its regional policy—to present the new officials as “a hope for change for the better” (Novaya Gazeta, October 31).
Naturally, the timing of these numerous resignations and appointments of new governors is auspicious. And there is a temptation to attribute them overwhelmingly to the approaching presidential elections of 2018. The looming campaign likely played some role in the Kremlin’s calculations. But in fact, the exact nature of this year’s gubernatorial reshuffles reflects Putin’s modus operandi from the beginning of his third term as president, in 2012. Indeed, that year, political scientist Vladislav Inozemtsev termed this practice “preventive democracy” (Polis, No. 6, 2012).
According to Inozemtsev, in a “preventive democracy” process, locals in the Russian regions are not able to freely nominate candidates for governors’ posts themselves. Instead, during the run-up to gubernatorial elections, the Kremlin appoints a “temporarily acting governor.” On election day, citizens vote for him because the entire administrative and propaganda machine works for this candidate; whereas, the nomination of opposition figures is almost impossible (see EDM, April 4).
Formally, gubernatorial elections in Russia exist. They were restored by decree of then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2012 (see EDM, January 18, 2012). But in practice, they have been transformed into a procedure to direct electoral approval on the Kremlin’s appointee. Sixteen Russian regions held elections for governor on September 10; and in every one of these races, the previously appointed “temporarily acting governor” won the most votes. Indeed, the above-mentioned election of “acting governor” Parfenchikov to head Karelia is a case in point (see Commentaries, September 28).
These pseudo-elections look more politically sophisticated than the direct appointment of governors by the president (which occurred during 2004–2012). The result are the same; and yet, the illusion of a democratic election of the region’s head is maintained.
“Preventive democracy” has been implemented in the Russian Federation for five years already. Its historical antecedents, the problems it faces today, and the system’s likely stability in the future will be analyzed in the second part of this article.