Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 169

Gubernatorial election campaigns are in full swing in a number of Russia’s regions. As the Monitor noted last week, the Kremlin is setting the pace, hoping to use democracy and the ballot box to remove those regional leaders who do not suit it and to replace them with its allies.

The closer the elections grow, the clearer it becomes that the recent all-out confrontation between the Kremlin and the regional elites is by no means over. The Kremlin, under its slogan of broadening the federal authority and counteracting regional separatism, lacks a fully thought-out and systematic policy. Meanwhile, the regions have failed to mount a united opposition.

The Kremlin appears to have already reached a compromise with the majority of the governors–in particular, with those who do not face imminent re-election. A vivid example is provided by the recent appointment of the main federal inspector in Saratov Oblast, where a gubernatorial election took place in March. After a long process of negotiations, Sergei Kirienko, Putin’s representative to the Volga federal district, settled on Rinat Khalikov, who had until then been first deputy chairman of the Saratov Oblast government (Russian agencies, September 9). Khalikov appears to have been the candidate most congenial to Saratov Governor Dmitri Ayatskov and observers have therefore interpreted his nomination as major victory for Ayatskov. Until very recently, Ayatskov was considered almost a personal enemy of Kirienko, having done a good deal of harm in Saratov Oblast to the campaign of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, of which Kirienko is a leader. The Kremlin was expected to take its revenge, which could have ended very badly for Ayatskov. There were even signs that the attack had begun. The new appointment shows, however, that Saratov Oblast’s patrimonial regime remains immune from attack, because it would be naive to think that one of the “governor’s men” will serve the interests of the federal authorities just because he has been named their official representative in the region. Sadly, there is still little open information about how such appointments are made. This is a pity, because such information would provide valuable clues as to the Kremlin’s plans for the regions.

However, the Kremlin has done more than merely strike compromises with those governors who do not face imminent re-election. It has, in addition, pretty much decided to support most of the “strong” regional leaders who are running for re-election. Incumbent Anatoly Guzhvin, for example, has reportedly been promised Kremlin support in Astrakhan Oblast, as have Governors Anatoly Maksyuta in Volgograd Oblast and Aleksandr Chernogorov in Stavropol Krai (Kommersant, September 7). There are two interesting aspects to this. First, it had been widely assumed that Chernogorov would be replaced by a Kremlin appointee; a likely successor had even been identified. Second, Maksyuta is one of Russia’s best known Communist governors and has never gone to any trouble to express loyalty to Putin. The Kremlin’s “depoliticized” and “pragmatic” course suggests that, as the elections approach, Putin’s team is scaling down its expectations and becoming increasingly willing to enter negotiate even with its political opponents, switching from the tactic of massive attack on the regions to that of “pinpoint strikes.”

The Kremlin successfully carried out one such “pinpoint strike” last week. That, at least, is what appears to have happened in the Republic of Marii El. There, a September 7 session of the republic parliament decided to schedule an election for the republic’s president for December 3 (Russian agencies, September 8). That was the date the election had originally been set to take place, until the republic parliament decided to economize by bringing the date forward to October 8, so as to coincide with elections to the republic parliament. More important, the act of bringing the date forward was expected to favor the re-election chances the incumbent president, Vyacheslav Kislitsyn, because it caught his would-be opponents wrong-footed. The decision, however, has been successfully challenged by the republic’s chief prosecutor, who argued that Russian law does not permit the date for electing the head of a region to be changed. This seems to be the first time in Russia that a prosecutor has managed to upset an attempt by a regional leader to bring an election forward to a more favorable date. It will serve as a demonstration of the Kremlin’s power and as a warning for any of Kislitsyn’s fellow governors who were thinking of advancing their own elections to a more convenient date. It will also be a warning to Kislitsyn not to take it for granted that the Putin team will back him in the upcoming contest.

Various sources, including the newspaper Vremya novostei, have interpreted Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko’s decision not to run for re-election as having been influenced by warnings from the president’s team (Vremya novostei, September 7). Commentators saw the decision as a major victory for the Kremlin. Kondratenko, a politician who enjoys massive power in his region and is notorious for his scandalous anti-Semitic statements, unexpectedly announced that he would not be standing for re-election. Instead, he asked his supporters to back two other candidates–State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Tkachev and chairman of Krasnodar Krai’s Legislative Assembly Vladimir Beketov. After making his announcement, Kondratenko flew to Moscow, leaving his team in a state of shock (Russian agencies, September 6). His team has now put such matters as gathering the local harvest on the back burner and is pulling out all the stops in an effort to convince Kondratenko to reconsider. The local “Fatherland” movement, which supports Kondratenko, has called on him to change his mind. This eventuality cannot be ruled out. Kondratenko’s decision to stand down may have been no more than a tactical move, aimed at remaining in power by whipping up local support against his enemies both in Moscow and among the mayors of the cities of his region.

These latest developments do not mean that the Kremlin’s regional strategy has been either a complete success or a total failure. All they show is that the center’s tactics are evolving and becoming significantly milder and more realistic.