Since the beginning of this year, 18 Russian governors have “voluntary” resigned from their positions. In their place, President Vladimir Putin appointed “temporarily acting governors.” Some of these “temporary” regional heads were subsequently elected during local gubernatorial elections, on September 10. And those appointed in the autumn are expected to undergo the same electoral procedure next year. This is how the process of “preventive democracy” works in the Russian Federation under Putin, as the political scientist Vladislav Inozemtsev noted back in 2012 (Polis, No. 6, 2012). Part One of this article considered several examples for how “preventive democracy” played out in practice during 2017 (see EDM, November 17). And now, what follows will analyze this phenomenon in greater detail.
The historical roots of the “preventive democracy” model can arguably be traced to Putin’s psychological complex sparked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which he famously referred to as the “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” (Kremlin.ru, April 25, 2005). This fear of dissolution seems to have driven his need to progressively take full control over all Russian regions, not allowing truly free elections there. However, these domineering actions were undertaken under the veneer of a purportedly democratic process. Thus, those individuals Putin appointed to be governors, nonetheless had to go through a formal procedure of general elections. This approach also reflects how Moscow carried out the annexation of Crimea: the decision to wrest this peninsula from Ukrainian control was clearly made in the Kremlin, but Russian propaganda depicted it as “the will of the Crimeans themselves, expressed in a referendum” (Ej.ru, August 13, 2015).
Pavel Luzin, a professor of at Perm University, argues that the main quality shared by all the individuals chosen by Putin to serve as governors, is their absolute obedience to the president. In the Kremlin’s view, therefore, the new republican heads should not be either public politicians or independent businessmen, but completely dependent on the state. In other words, an effective governor is not someone who achieves success in his region, but one who unquestioningly carries out orders coming down from Moscow and does not allow for any contradictions between the metropolis and the colonies (Afterempire.info, November 1). It is truly indicative that in its training program for future governors, the presidential administration included having to jump into a body of water from a high rock (RBC, October 9). Luzin sneers, “If obedience is the main thing, jumping into the water is much better than additional courses in economics and oratory skills” (Afterempire.info, November 1).
More recently, reports have revealed that the training of future governors in Russia also includes making parachute jumps, throwing grenades as well as shooting from an automatic rifle (RBC, November 9). Such “preparatory” courses highlight the fact that the “patriotic” militarization of mass consciousness in Russia is reaching absurd levels (see EDM, November 9, 2016; June 29, 2017).
At the same time, such obedient persons are highly unlikely to be expected to protect the interests of the regions they are directed to lead. Moreover, in today’s Russia, it is actually dangerous to advocate for the rights of regions (which governors actively did in the 1990s). In 2014, the government adopted a law that criminalizes “appeals to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation,” under which any political statements in support of regional self-government can be condemned. Finally, those regional elites that do not quite fit into Putin’s “vertical of power” risk falling under federal repression. For example, in 2017, two regional leaders and eight deputy governors were arrested by the authorities on largely trumped-up charges (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 31).
Although Russia continues to officially be called a “federation,” the current political system can no longer be considered as such. Yet, despite pursuing a hyper-centralist and anti-federative policy (see EDM, October 19), the Kremlin still pays lip service to the federative status of Russia. What is the meaning of this contradiction?
Historian Andrei Zakharov believes that today’s Russia exists more accurately as “imperial federalism” (Eegialog.org, February 19). In other words, federalism is treated now not as a system allowing for the self-government of the regions, but as an instrument of imperial expansion. It is quite revealing that one of the main propaganda tools in the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine is the requirement of “federalization” of this country in order to consolidate the power of pro-Russia militants in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Today’s Putin regime can thus be defined as “post-federalist”—it completely rejects federalism, even federalism in the truncated form that was approved by the 1992 Federative Treaty (see Commentaries, April 4). The regions, which are pointedly referred to as “subjects of the federation” in the Russian Constitution, have thus been transformed into “management objects” by the center. From time to time, the idea of “enlarging the regions” is discussed, not because the local residents themselves want it, but for the convenience of centralized management (see EDM, May 13, 2016). Indeed, the state’s entire regional policy is based not on the interest of the regions, but in their forced unification.
Russian sociologist Igor Yakovenko asserts, “Today there is no positive reason why Siberia and the North Caucasus, the Far East and the Volga region should fulfill the commands of Moscow, not having the right to solve their own problems by themselves. The only thing keeping Russia within its current borders is repression against any regional forces” (Afterempire.info, October 30).
In today’s Russia, all elections are predetermined in advance. But the paradox is that the main threat to the post-federalist Kremlin regime is precisely in this deliberate predetermination. Putin’s next victory in the presidential election of 2018 looks inevitable, but it only emphasizes the fact that his “vertical of power” has a completely personalistic character, configured exclusively to him. And consequently, history suggests, this system will immediately collapse when the authoritarian leader leaves power. A real federative model could potentially preserve stability in Russia, but the Kremlin is rejecting such an outcome in every possible way.