Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 10

By Marina Konnova, Ilya Malyakin

In early 2001, Saratov Oblast was rocked by political scandal. Representatives of the ruling elite and the public in one of its most industrially developed rayons, Balakovo, suddenly announced with unusual unanimity that their municipal body intended to resubordinate itself to the neighboring oblast of Samara. Their reasons were purely political; the general opinion was that their Saratov masters took no account of the interests of the people of Balakovo. They began to collect signatures in support of a local referendum to resolve the question of the administrative affiliation of Balakovo rayon. The affair was never put to the vote, however, because these developments were cut short by the oblast government. The flames of the conflict were not, however, completely extinguished–it was simply reduced from a burning issue to a smoldering one.

It would be wrong to say that events such as those in Balakovo are a typical phenomenon for Russia, but they are not without precedent. Similar situations arise relatively often in the Russian regions, against the backdrop of continual confrontation between the regional organs of power and the municipalities. To some extent, this mirrors the situation that exists in relations between those same regional powers and the federal center, although in this case the vectors of interaction point in the opposite direction. It is clear that the same sorts of efforts being made by the municipal bodies to break away from the regions are routinely made by the regions themselves in relation to Moscow. Conflict will flare up even more sharply when, in addition to its administrative center, a region also has at least one major town which is fairly independent in financial terms. This situation has now become so familiar that Russian political pundits have even coined their own term for it: “the problem of the second regional center.”


This notorious “second center” is typically a major town that enjoys significant industrial potential and a fiscal base sufficient to sustain a comfortable independent existence. It is not unusual for such cities to offer their population a better standard of living and to have a better-organized municipal economy than the administrative center itself. All this might create excellent conditions for business development, were it not for the efforts of competitors from the administrative center not only to prevent interlopers from the second center from entering their own markets, but also to squeeze them out of those in which they are already active. And the businessmen from the administrative center already form the basis of the clientele of the regional authorities, who are favorably disposed towards them. In any case, it is the exception rather than the rule for a provincial rayon to be capable of achieving self-sufficiency. So the regional administration strives instead to exploit the potential of the second center by appropriating a portion of its finances and redistributing it at its own discretion. As there are always considerably fewer of these “donor” rayons in the region than “beneficiaries,” the proportion of the tax revenues levied from the second centers in this way is substantial. The collection process is always resented by those whose money it is, but in the second center the process is doubly painful because of the local population’s collective complex with regard to relations with the regional capital.

Second centers seem to be ill fated. There are more of them, the further the region is from Moscow. Russia’s central oblasts don’t have the geographical space for them to develop. Their capitals are already relatively small and by no means wealthy, and were Balakovo located in central Russia, it might quite reasonably lay claim to the title of oblast center, because it is scarcely any smaller than Ryazan or Orel. However, across Northern Russia and the Volga region to the Urals and Siberia, the administrative boundaries drawn within the Russian Federation generate ever larger “cells.” So while a number of the regions in the Volga area are already two or three times larger in area than the central oblasts, in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) or Krasnoyarsk Krai the factor is ten. Here regional capitals are much larger, and a city with a population of a few hundred thousand cannot easily compete with them. It will find itself more on a level with other rayon centers, whose population in many cases doesn’t even stretch to ten thousand. Nevertheless, the second center is still an industrially developed city with substantial manpower, industrial and financial potential. It craves independence, taking it where it can find it, and its people, acutely sensitive to the constraints on the city’s own status, nurture a hostility towards both the regional capital and the organs of power located there.

As a result, there is rivalry where one might think there ought not to be. It may be possible to gloss over the situation so long as the governor is able to keep the authorities in the second center under firm control and in a position of clear subordination, or can agree mutually beneficial terms for the relationship. However, he has only to weaken his hold, or disturb the agreed equilibrium, for a new confrontation, often of the ugliest kind, to erupt suddenly where there had previously been peace and harmony.

Conflicts of this kind are most acute in regions with complex structures, incorporating other Federation subjects within their boundaries, namely autonomous oblasts and okrugs. The situation which arose during the elections for governor in Tyumen Oblast on January 14 is typical. The elections were held against a backdrop of open conflict between the north and south of the region. When victory went finally to the former governor’s opponent, Sergey Sobyanin, who was first deputy to the Russian president’s plenipotentiary representative in the Ural federal okrug, this was in significant measure thanks to the support he received from the oblast’s autonomous okrugs of Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets in the north. Giving their support to Sobyanin, the okrugs’ elite effectively incited the electorate to engage in a bloodless war with the governor, Leonid Roketsky. And they won the war.


However, even temporary victories by the second center are the exception rather than the rule. In the majority of these complex-structured regions, conflicts can run on for years without either side ever gaining ascendancy. Thus, there is still no end in sight to the conflict between the Krasnoyarsk Krai authorities and the autonomous okrugs it incorporates. The stumbling block here is yet another of these local second centers–the northern industrial town of Norilsk. Not without some success, the town’s mayor has been maneuvering between the authorities in Taimyr okrug, in which the town is located, and the governor’s team, which is trying to have Norilsk directly resubordinated to itself, in order to secure the lion’s share of the taxes flowing into the krai’s budget. As a result, Norilsk has been rewarded by being granted special status by the krai, allowing it to absorb a number of neighboring towns into a single municipality.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Russia’s governors like the idea of reforming the country’s administrative boundaries by means of formally integrating the smaller subjects of the Federation into the larger ones.

The situation is somewhat different in those oblasts and republics where the status of the second center has no institutional back-up, and it exists as an ordinary rayon center. In such cases, any potential municipal uprising is almost certainly doomed. By now, almost universally in these two-centered regions, the opportunity for any such uprising has already been missed, with the regional authorities managing either to avert trouble or to suppress it. For example, Naberezhnie Chelny has been relatively successfully integrated into the political structure of Tatarstan, as has Severodvinsk in Arkhangelsk Oblast. Once integration is achieved, regional legislation leaves local governments almost no room for maneuver; it places the rayons firmly in a position of dependence on the regional authorities. And candidates for the post of head of the administration in the second center are always selected with the utmost care by the regional authorities, drawn from people whose loyalty is beyond any doubt. However, this strategy can eradicate neither the problems nor their root causes. So there always remains the possibility of a resurgence of municipal rebellion in one form or another, for example, in the event of some change in the federal political landscape, a transfer of power in the region, or at election time, when the governor’s position is unstable.

Just such a resurgence occurred during the recent gubernatorial elections in Irkutsk Oblast, where the incumbent governor, Boris Govorin, seemed on the verge of defeat by the communist, Sergei Levchenko. To the complete surprise of the political pundits, the major industrial centers of the region, and particularly Bratsk, voted against Govorin. And it was during the election that the Bratsk authorities attempted to mutiny against the regional authorities, who were forced to make concessions. Govorin had to perform a public climb-down before the Bratsk mayor, Aleksandr Petrunko, trying to convince the public that there were no serious differences between them and that Petrunko’s actions were sensible and designed to protect the interests of his town’s population. As for the interests of the people of Irkutsk Oblast in general and the subsidized rayons in particular, Govorin promised to safeguard these himself, only expressing the hope that he would be able to reach agreement with the mayor of the second center on any contentious issues. But his words failed to have the desired effect and Bratsk still voted for Levchenko. It was the subsidized rayons that secured Govorin’s victory.

The situation may be exacerbated also in the event of any excessively crude assault on the interests of the second center. Not so long ago, the municipality of Tolyatti, sometimes known as Russia’s Detroit, gave notice of its intention to detach itself from Samara Oblast and set up on its own. This occurred after a proposal was mooted that the town of Samara should be given official status as oblast capital, supported by the introduction of a special financial package. Given that the bulk of the regional budget was already based on subsidies from Tolyatti rather than Samara, it was clear that the new funding for the “capital” could only be coming from one source. So the Tolyatti municipality came out in opposition to the proposed new arrangements, and its views were noted: The question of subsidies for Samara was taken off the agenda.

However, full-blown “municipal rebellion” is now possible only in those regions whose political development is dragging behind. Amongst these is Saratov Oblast, whose political restructuring stalled in the early stages, when a particularly authoritarian governor, Dmitry Ayatskov, assumed power and wasted no time in minimizing the effectiveness of the main institutions of civil society. For example, there have still been no direct elections of any of the municipal administration heads: There is no provision for such a thing in local legislation. Instead, the deputies on the municipal council elect a head from amongst themselves, usually on the recommendation of the governor. It is not surprising, then, that a call for direct elections should have become the main weapon in the armory of the ‘breakaway’ Balakovo administration. Examination of how the conflict developed may be instructive in illuminating the “problem of the second center.”


The open opposition of Balakovo’s Mayor Aleksei Saurin to the governor took local observers by surprise, because he had previously been completely loyal to the oblast authorities. Once again, the catalyst for the conflict was financial disagreement. The Balakovo rayon boasts a successful mix of agricultural and major industrial potential. Within its boundaries there are nuclear and hydroelectric power stations, chemical works and machine-building plants. For a long time, Balakovo had been not only paying its share of the oblast budget, but also satisfying the appetites of the many and varied funds which the oblast authorities insisted it should work with. In order to maintain his personal popularity, however, the mayor had to look to the interests of his own people, at a time when resources that might be channeled into the development of the rayon were instead being swallowed up by the oblast, as it demanded ever more injections of money.


The first serious sign of conflict was a break in relations with the oblast’s food fund, into which the rayons of Saratov Oblast are all obliged to contribute a portion of their harvest–ostensibly voluntarily, but in fact under duress. The Balakovo authorities took a decision to sell their own grain and buy agricultural equipment and spares, circumventing the body approved by the oblast government.

In no time, the political aspect of the conflict emerged. Saurin demonstrated his independence in selecting the method for holding elections for the head of the municipality: Unhappy with the existing procedure, which allowed the oblast to apply pressure on the deputies, Balakovo’s mayor decided to open the matter up for public debate. A referendum was held, in which the people of Balakovo made it clear that they wanted their mayor elected by means of a direct vote. This was a completely logical move by Saurin: He would be insured against any direct opposition from the governor in the event of his re-election and could count on the support of the townspeople, especially as his term of office had seen an upturn in the local economic situation. However, the oblast government had no intention of letting go of the goose that was laying the golden eggs. There was no better moment for the counterattack than the elections. While they were in progress, harsh administrative measures were taken against Saurin. To start with, an attempt was made to disqualify him from the election, by accusing him of falsifying his property ownership declaration, but the mayor’s supporters appealed against the corresponding resolution. The result was an unprecedented situation in which the oblast and territorial electoral commissions found themselves in conflict. The oblast commission, which was wholly controlled by the governor, insisted that the election must proceed without Saurin, while the territorial body took the opposite view. Both parties launched legal appeals. As a result, the elections proceeded with two alternative voting papers and were declared invalid.

The next development was the use of the so-called “administrative resource.” Governor Ayatskov issued a resolution dismissing Saurin from his post. Saurin responded by bringing an action in the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. He had the active support of several State Duma deputies, who also submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court. Ayatskov’s resolution was contested by the office of the public prosecutor, but he nevertheless succeeded in securing a re-run of the mayoral elections according to the old system–that is, by the municipal council (though many people have cast doubt on this decision, given that it was adopted without a quorum). The results of the referendum were annulled by the municipal deputies. Jumping ahead a moment, it is worth noting that the Saurin affair is now in its tenth month of legal examination–the legal machinery is sluggish in the extreme, and analysts believe that the process has become bogged down not least by delaying tactics from by the oblast authorities.

Meanwhile, levels of public activism in Balakovo reached previously unseen levels. Characteristically, some local people were determined not so much to support Saurin as to resist the oblast authorities and the locally unpopular Governor Ayatskov. The local population understood perfectly the importance of the town to the oblast and demanded special status for it. Annulling the referendum result merely added fuel to the fire. The people quite rightly considered this to reflect a gross disregard for their interests and accused the oblast authorities of violating their individual constitutional rights.

The conflict grew to the point at which this article opened: A group of activists began collecting signatures in favor of resubordinating Balakovo rayon to Samara Oblast. One of the quasi-ideological grounds for this move was the fact that Balakovo was in fact once part of the old Samara province. The activists were well aware that implementation of the proposal was technically impossible–not least because Balakovo has no border with Samara Oblast. It was a gambit intended only to attract the attention of the federal authorities to the conflict and to bring about the removal of Ayatskov by means of a presidential decree. Some 40,000 signatures were collected, in spite of the active opposition of the town’s new authorities.

Throughout the whole of the winter, spring and part of the summer, the town was the scene of incessant meetings, at which demands were made in support of the ex-mayor and in opposition to the governor. But gradually the main objective of the oblast authorities was achieved; the legal investigation of the Balakovo affair dragged on for so long that levels of activism among the public began to decline. The fact that money from the oblast budget for funding various of the town’s needs, which had latterly been withheld, was once more made available in order to cast the former municipal authorities in a negative light, also played a significant role.

Steps were also taken against Saurin personally. He was arrested by the oblast’s public prosecutor’s office and remanded in custody for twenty days. The charge was that he had made improper use of budgetary resources, specifically by paying 50,000 rubles of rayon funds for a regional supplement of Komsomolskaya Pravda to publish articles on Balakovo’s achievements. This action was deemed to amount to pre-election propaganda. Almost all observers remarked upon the disproportionate nature of his treatment in relation to the alleged crime. Normally much more dangerous criminals are remanded in custody prior to trial. But a short while later he was released and instead obliged to give a written undertaking not to leave the area, and before long the matter was brought to a close, supposedly “because of a change of circumstances.” Soon after, Saurin announced at a press conference that after all these months he could not realistically hope to return to his post as head of the municipality, since the rayon was now being run by other individuals, and that he therefore hoped to be offered some other post. In September he took up a job as head of the department for the protection and development of hunting facilities in the Russian Federation. To date, however, Saurin has not withdrawn his action in the Supreme Court, so the possibility remains that the conflict, although currently extinguished, may still flare up again.


“The problem of the second center” is one of the clearest manifestations of the feudalization of modern Russia’s state apparatus, which is only partly disguised by democratic institutions. In analyzing the reasons for its emergence, it should not be forgotten that the situation in the regions is determined not by legislation, but by the notorious “administrative resource,” which is essentially one of power. It is on the ability to bring this into play that the victory of one or other protagonist in an administrative conflict will depend. And the reason that the rulers of the second centers cannot resist the regional authorities is that their own “administrative resource” is insufficient. Their influence over the organs of power, the courts or electoral and fiscal bodies is limited; even the right to dispose of the funds collected in their own territory is severely restricted. In consequence, they have to use all the other resources they can muster, even including specific complexes among the electorate.

In seeking popular support, Saurin was trying to create something not unlike a bourgeois revolution in a vassal principality. He was trying to replace the power he had been granted “by the sovereign’s favor” with power granted him by a people dissatisfied with the status of their town. But in so doing, Saurin forgot that the governor always holds the trump card–under current Russian legislation, even a popularly elected municipal chief can be effortlessly relieved of his duties. So the almost universal failure of the struggles of these second centers to achieve special status is not only a reflection of the weakness of local government in Russia, about which much has already been written. It also demonstrates the failure of efforts to graft the shoots of democracy on to the living tree of neo-feudalism. In this light, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s abandonment of his plans to deprive the governors of these trump cards must be seen as one of the main reasons for the failure to limit the powers of these “regional barons” in the territories under their control. Instead of seeking to erode the governors’ administrative resource from below, by depriving them of direct control over local government, he has in fact begun by taking action from above, unifying the regions into federal okrugs, thereby expanding his own personal ‘administrative resource’. Meanwhile, the most serious blow to the governors has been to deprive them of the right to dismiss municipality heads in the regional capitals–this being the sole surviving element from Putin’s plans to rein them in. But that is another story.

Marina Konnova is an expert on social organizations with the Volga Information Agency in Saratov.

Ilya Malyakin is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.