Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 5

By Ilya Malyakin

This article continues the theme addressed in “Neo-feudalism Russian-style: Room for one baron only,” co-authored with Marina Konnova in an earlier edition of Prism.

On May 6, Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia, saw the beginning of a run-of-the-mill court case, with the local mayor’s office being prosecuted for exceeding its official powers in purchasing twenty-five used Mercedes buses in 2000. This unexceptional event is interesting in one respect only: On that same day, May 6, it became known that the main protagonist in the affair, Andrei Demin, was leaving his post as mayor of Petrozavodsk after an election defeat by Viktor Maslyakov, who had enjoyed the support of the head of the republic, Sergei Katanandov.

What happened in the Karelian capital is highly characteristic of modern Russian realities, in which conflict between the head of a region’s executive–the governor–and the mayor of that region’s capital has become so much the norm that there is much more interest in those regions where there is no such conflict. Petrozavodsk’s ex-mayor is likely to become yet another victim in this long-running war. Having lost the job that guaranteed his control over a substantial resource base, Demin has become easy prey for his political rival. Katanandov will try to finish him off for another reason: To ensure that the new mayor doesn’t try to assert his independence for quite some time. Maslyakov must be shown what the price will be if he tries anything.

The first signs of conflict between the mayors and the governors emerged in the early 1990s, when first the former and then the latter were elected for the first time by popular vote. The conditions were ripe: For example, the laws of the Russian Federation formally guaranteed the independence of local government, but failed to describe clearly what the procedure should be for removing local heads of government from office before the end of their term. Of course, the governors, accustomed to regarding themselves as powerful feudal overlords, had no trouble overcoming this circumstance. But there are other factors. The centralization of political and economic resources in the regions is such that approximately half of them are attached to the local capital. It is much easier for the mayor than for the governor to control this “tasty morsel.” After all, on his territory, it is he who has the greater scope in the matter of allocating social, financial and other benefits.

Only enormous personal devotion to his suzerain may inhibit him from becoming the uncontrollable master of the city, but in reality such devotion is rarely encountered. Even those mayors whose governors brought them to power in the first place, seeing them as seneschals of their own personal dominions, have in the course of a few years caused their seigneurs considerable problems by establishing themselves so securely in their capitals that it has become almost impossible to oust them.

It might appear that conflict could be stamped out with Kremlin mediation–it would have sufficed to introduce amendments in federal legislation to define clearly what power the governor has to remove a mayor from office. With such a mechanism in their hands, the governors would have quickly gained the upper hand over the unruly mayors. However, the Kremlin took a quite different course. After Vladimir Putin’s victory in the presidential elections, moves were made, under the slogan of “strengthening the power vertical,” which in fact radically undermined this vertical in the regions. In summer 2000, the governors were given a regulation on the dismissal of mayors–but the final decision on the fate of the head of the local government of a regional capital remained the exclusive right of the President himself, which effectively gave the mayors the same status as their governors. Today, two years later, it must be admitted that this resolution was an extremely powerful tactic in the Kremlin’s struggle against “creeping sovereignization.” The intensifying conflict has brought several regions to the point where their governors, having lost control of their capitals, are able to maintain their status solely on the continuing support of the rural districts, and are too weak to offer Moscow any opposition.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to strengthen its antigovernor campaign. One clear demonstration of its intentions has been the establishment of co-ordination centers, which allow mayors to work directly with the Kremlin, bypassing the governors. Thus, in the Volga federal district a “Club of Six” was set up last year, bringing together the mayors of the biggest cities under the patronage of the President’s envoy, Sergei Kirienko, who stated openly that the conflict between the mayors and governors, “which is out of all sensible proportion,” was one of the chief reasons for the creation of this group. And yet, Putin’s policies are not concerned with securing victory for one or other of the protagonists–after all, the victor’s next target may be Moscow itself. So the mayors’ combat capability still depends on their personal resource base and their ability to control it.

Overall, this war offers neither side any great prospects. The governors, it is true, still have the strategic advantage, although it is relatively limited. This derives from their unofficial ability to exert control over oblast level structures, especially the legislature, the judiciary and security organs.

The simplest way to get rid of a troublesome mayor is to hold an election. The governor’s opponent, as in Petrozavodsk, may simply fail to be re-elected. However, this is not often successful–within their regional capitals the governors have insufficient power to mount any effective campaign against the mayor. They are obliged to use more complex methods. Preventing the mayor from being registered is not usually within the capability of the governor. The municipal electoral commission is not his fiefdom. But it is possible to use legal methods to have his rival excluded from the election several days prior to voting. This is what happened in one of the most spectacular clashes, between the governor of Krasnodar Krai, Nikolai Kondratenko, and the mayor of Krasnodar, Valery Samoilenko. After Kondratenko’s renunciation of power in 2000, Samoilenko–the leader of an antigovernor coalition made up of the leaders of the krai’s major cities–managed to ensure that Kondratenko’s official successor, Aleksandr Tkachev, was politically isolated. However, he was abruptly barred by the oblast courts from the mayoral elections, being held concurrently with those for governor. Afterwards, Kondratenko announced that he was leaving office satisfied in the knowledge that he had achieved the most important thing: He had “ruined Samoilenko.”

It is also possible to contest the election result. In Primorye Krai, fromer Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko did just this in order to isolate Vladivostok’s former mayor, Viktor Cherepkov, from power. True, the region’s capital was subsequently left to manage for a considerable time without a fully effective local government, and mayoral elections were held three times in the course of 1999-2000 alone.

Other than by means of election campaigns, it is almost impossible to have the mayor replaced. Given that public politicians in Russia are not prepared to physically eliminate their opponents, and while the uncertain course of a judicial inquiry may end up compromising both parties, the seigneur more often than not sets about starving out the offending seneschal. In the same way that the Russian parliament is currently working on a redistribution of regional finances in favor of Moscow, so too, at the regional budget level, funds are being systematically channeled away from the big cities to finance the “subsidized” towns (that is, those obedient to the governor). For example, Saratov now has only enough money left from the oblast to cover its energy needs and its public sector wage bill. Governor Dmitry Ayatskov is laying the blame for the steady decline of the city’s economy squarely at the feet of the mayor, Yury Aksenenko, saying that he must find additional sources of funding.

One variation on this was the tactic dreamt up by the Samara governor, Konstantin Titov. In December 2001, Samara oblast effectively declared its capital bankrupt and put it under external administration. Though keeping his post, the mayor, Georgy Limansky, lost control of the bulk of his resource base–the city’s finances. Titov, meanwhile, got away without being accused of pre-empting the President’s prerogative.

For their part, the mayors can only be patient and build up their defenses. The means available to them for attacking their opponents are even fewer. There are, of course, the gubernatorial elections, in which the mayor can participate. But the chance of success here is almost nil–the regional capital’s vote is insufficient to secure victory. In recent times, the only victory has been that of the mayor of Perm, Yury Trutnev, in the 2000 gubernatorial election in Perm oblast. His colleagues rarely take the risk. Although there have already been a dozen or so elections in 2002, only one mayor was involved: Aleksandr Kashin from Kyzyl, who ran as governor of the Republic of Tyva, and failed.

However, there are more subtle alternatives. Without himself laying claim to the governor’s chair, a mayor is able to mobilize his resources against the enemy installed in it. This can have the most catastrophic consequences for the governor, as, for example, occurred in 2001 in Nizhny Novgorod oblast. The mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, Yury Lebedev, was barred from the elections by the oblast’s electoral commission. But his active involvement in the battle against the regional head, Ivan Sklyarov, was one of the main reasons for the latter’s defeat.

This just about completes the range of possible scenarios. Given such limited options, the warring parties generally prefer to stick to trench warfare, in which the most important question is whether the spheres of influence can be successfully divided up.

The hopelessness of the conflict still does not affect the objective conditions that make it an unavoidable necessity for these regional politicians, with their feudal perceptions and feudal behavior. Only Moscow has any choice in the matter, although it too has already been affected by the continuing feudalization of Russian society. And now, having declared its intention to centralize the Federation (or should we say the empire?), Moscow cannot help but provoke its “vassals” into further grueling internecine warfare. The fact that this weakens not so much the power of the regional barons as the infrastructure of the regions themselves is something that the Kremlin apparently chooses to ignore. Or perhaps–faced with the greater danger at any moment of a “counterattack by the governors”–it’s simply that no one in the Kremlin cares.

Ilya Malyakin is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.