On May 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly met Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin at the president’s official residence in Novoogaryovo near Moscow. The meeting was part of the process of forming the new government after Putin was elected President of Russia in March 2012. Russian Life News Agency quoted sources in Khloponin’s entourage as saying that he would “certainly keep his position” in the new government and likely receive even more administrative powers. The source further elaborated that previously Khloponin was not capable of influencing either the regions’ governors, nor the federal agencies, while his attempts to increase his sway invariably ended up in “administrative wars.” Also, according to the news agency, the North Caucasus Federal District would not be merged with the Southern Federal District as some experts had alleged earlier (http://www.lifenews.ru/news/92109, May 17). Apart from being Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin is the only representative of the president of Russia in the 7 federal districts that simultaneously holds the position of Vice-Prime Minister of Russia.
The Kremlin’s plan to keep Khloponin in his position and endow him with even greater powers conveys several important messages. First, the North Caucasus will likely stay at the top of the agenda of the president of Russia. This can be explained by the political importance of the region for Russia because of various security-related issues in the region. But also there may be a personal, psychological bond that the long time leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, developed. Putin made his name in politics as Prime Minister and then President of Russia during the war in Chechnya, personally overseeing the military campaign since 1999. Second, Moscow will continue to rely on economic development of the North Caucasus to some extent in an effort to try to stabilize the region. Third, Moscow’s envoy to the region will attempt to further limit the powers of the North Caucasus’ elites by assuming the redistribution powers of the budget and large private Russian investors’ resources.
Previously, Russian experts predicted Khloponin’s political demise since he had largely failed to improve the situation in the North Caucasus Federal District. Khloponin’s idée fixe, the grand project of economic revival of the region through building world-class ski resorts in the North Caucasus’ republics, has not materialized yet, and its future remains uncertain. Russian experts also were worried about comparisons of the North Caucasus Federal District, with its majority non-Russian population, to the rest of the country, whose majority is ethnic Russian. Some experts predicted the North Caucasus district would be merged into several big nearby majority Russian regions, such as Krasnodar and Rostov in order to increase the ethnic Russian population component in the district (http://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-04-23/1_link.html, April 23). However, the Russian government’s desire to disassociate the North Caucasus from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi – located in an area that is geographically part of the North Caucasus and administratively part of Krasnodar Region – apparently was considered to be more important.
The view from Moscow about the North Caucasus is that in the near-term it is seeking to progressively make Khloponin’s position stronger so that he becomes the de-facto governor of the North Caucasus, which would lead to weaker regional governors. However, this administrative option poorly corresponds with the elections of governors that will be reintroduced in the fall of 2012. It is unclear how popularly-elected governors of the North Caucasus will be subjected to the state appointed bureaucrat, Alexander Khloponin. The plan is probably to grant such freedoms on paper, but curb them through administrative means by the introduction of a selection mechanism for candidates, thereby making the elected officials allegiant to Moscow at the expense of the local population. Yet, earlier, in December 2011, after Moscow announced plans for the reintroduction of direct governors’ elections in Russia, Khloponin said that “people in the Caucasus” ardently want to participate in the elections of their governors (http://www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2011/12/22/927430.html, December 22, 2011). Increasingly, there appears to be an understanding on Khloponin’s side of the importance of participatory politics in the North Caucasus.
Meanwhile, Russian experts believe there is a systemic “devaluation” of the Russian President’s plenipotentiary representatives in the federal districts. On May 18, President Putin shocked the Russian public with his decision to appoint a foreman from a factory in the Urals, Igor Kholmanskikh, as Moscow’s envoy to the Ural Federal District. Kholmanskikh who has little previous political and managerial experience became publically known in December 2011 during Putin’s annual phone-in press conference when he promised to come to Moscow with his fellow workmen and disperse the demonstrators protesting against the controversial results of the parliamentary elections in the country (http://www.ria.ru/spravka/20120518/652152509.html). Impromptu appointments, such as Kholmanskikh’s, denigrate the President’s plenipotentiary representatives’ institution, experts say (http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2012/05/18_a_4593069.shtml, May 18). Apart from being Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin is the only one out of the eight Russian presidential representatives to federal districts that simultaneously holds the position of a vice-prime minister of Russia. Khloponin’s dual role emphasizes the special attention the North Caucasus receives from Moscow as well as the region’s divergence from the rest of Russia.
Khloponin’s main promise has been to improve the economy of the North Caucasus and undercut the influence of insurgents among the impoverished, unemployed people in the region. Most of the investment into the North Caucasus should have come either directly from the central state budget or from Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. However, as the Russian public has grown increasingly wary of the government’s lavish spending in the predominantly non-Russian populated North Caucasus, Khloponin’s grandiose plans will likely be significantly trimmed. Consequently, it will be a major challenge for Khloponin to substitute the primary premise for his position with something that would appeal to the North Caucasians and at the same time not irritate ethnic Russians. Failing to properly juggle these two requirements could provide the increasingly vibrant Russian opposition a key trump card to play in the ongoing domestic struggle.