The authorities are considering abolishing direct elections of regional governors across the Russian Federation, according to Vladimir Mazur, the deputy head of the Domestic Policy Department of the Russian Presidential Administration. Several governors reportedly asked the Kremlin to change the regional election rules due to the economic downturn. Currently, most Russian governors are elected through direct voting procedures. Previously, they were chosen by regional parliaments under “guidance” from the president of Russia. Moscow will either allow regional authorities to adjust electoral rules as they see fit or postpone the fall elections, media outlets report (Kommersant, April 28). In that sense the rest of the country will politically come to more closely resemble the North Caucasus, even though this region’s unelected leaders will likely prove most vulnerable to the economic-political turbulence building in Russia.
Earlier accounts said that Moscow was weighing its options for regional gubernatorial elections in the fall 2022. Officials are anticipating that Western sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine will reach devastating proportions by that time. To shield governors from popular discontent as well as cut the costs of ruling the regions, the Kremlin has allegedly contemplated replacing regional elections with votes in regional parliaments (Kommersant, March 21). In practice, the selection of governors by regional parliaments in Russia has meant that the Kremlin suggests its preferred gubernatorial candidates and the regional deputies rubberstamp them.
President Vladimir Putin abolished regional elections in Russia for the first time in 2004, after a group of insurgents in the North Caucasus took hostages at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. In 2011–2012, mass “white ribbon” protests shook Moscow and number of other large Russian cities following rigged elections to the State Duma (lower chamber of parliament). And in response, Putin permitted gubernatorial elections to be reinstated in 2013. The federal government created multiple filters that barred unwanted candidates from running for gubernatorial office. Yet those elections still allowed candidates from quasi-opposition parties to defeat candidates from the ruling United Russia party.
In contrast to the rest of the country, the North Caucasus national republics largely stayed out of the Russian electoral reforms; Moscow did not reinstate direct elections of governors to the region except in Chechnya. In accordance with the Kremlin’s traditional playbook, the absence of direct elections of governors was framed as if the republics themselves wished for their leaders to be de facto appointed by the president of Russia. Apparently, Moscow could not be certain that only the individuals it approved of would win governors races in the North Caucasus republics. This is due to the structure of these societies, defined by strong horizontal ties and less propensity to consume local news from government-owned media outlets, which limits the reach of official propaganda. Chechnya is the only exception to this rule, as it formally holds direct elections for the republic’s head. Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen autocracy inside Vladimir Putin’s Russian autocracy guarantees the electoral results desired by Moscow. In the fall 2021 gubernatorial elections in Chechnya, Kadyrov won with ostensibly 99.7 percent of the vote (Grozny TV, September 20, 2021).
Some Russian experts reckon that Moscow will use this opportunity to cancel direct gubernatorial elections in order to minimize the risks of protest voting. Russian voters normally hold the governors responsible for the regional economy, which is projected to take a significant hit in the coming months, experts note. They expect that elections will be replaced with the appointment procedure only in some regions, for example, those bordering Ukraine and those experiencing the greatest economic hardship. Other analysts contend that regional elites in Russia are irritated as they do not understand why they must pay such a steep price for an imperial policy involving the invasion of Ukraine—and the further they are from Moscow, the more irritated they become (Klub Regionov, March 22). The notorious pro-Kremlin expert Sergei Markov claims that although the majority of Russian governors are conspicuously silent about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this behavior represents a wait-and-see attitude because these local leaders do not know what side will prevail in the war (Klub Regionov, March 9).
Arguably, Chechnya’s Kadyrov has been the most vocal governor—both in the North Caucasus and across the country more generally—when it comes to Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine. Kadyrov has engaged in what appears to be a persistent PR-campaign (Vk.com/ramzan, accessed May 9). In contrast, the governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, publicly supported war in Ukraine in its early days but later reduced his activities to handing out awards to the families of fellow Dagestani servicemen killed in Ukraine (YouTube, February 26, April 5). The governor of North Ossetia, Sergei Menyailo, made several bellicose statements in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Region15, March 2). However, Menyailo had been sanctioned multiple times in the past by the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. First, he came under restrictions for his role in the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Later, as Putin’s envoy to the Siberian Federal District in 2020, Menyailo was sanctioned for his involvement in the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition (Assets.publishing.service.gov.uk, Treasury.gov, accessed May 9). Other North Caucasian governors have notably remained rather reticent about the war in Ukraine.
Putin’s war gamble is creating a multitude of challenges for Russian regions. While the situation remains relatively stable for now, experts anticipate growing popular discontent. If such destabilization occurs, the unelected governors of the North Caucasus are likely to prove the weakest link in the chain of the Russian power vertical. Without increased support from Moscow and suffering from a lack of legitimacy on the ground, they will almost certainly fall and be replaced with homegrown, local leaders.