This past March, Russia witnessed another wave of gubernatorial resignations and appointments. This time, the power shifts impacted five regions: Chelyabinsk, Murmansk and Orenburg oblasts, as well as the republics of Altai and Kalmykia (Meduza, March 20). The Russian public has become accustomed to President Vladimir Putin conducting such personnel changes regularly—now roughly twice a year.
Those periodic personnel swaps highlight the fictitiousness of the “return of gubernatorial elections,” which Putin promised back in 2012. In reality, the same appointment of governors by the Kremlin continues, only now it is obfuscated by the appearance of formal elections. In most cases, gubernatorial elections in Russia are a formality because it is almost impossible for independent candidates to compete. And the state propaganda machine inevitably starts working immediately on behalf of the Kremlin appointee (see EDM, September 19, 2018).
Experts explain that the latest replacement of governors was motivated by their unpopularity and problems with electability. However, all of them were originally appointed by Putin and initially considered “very promising figures.” They inspired and promised reforms in the interests of the people. But eventually, each of these regional leaders became mired in corruption scandals and saw their popularity plummet, thus forcing the Kremlin to search for “fresh” candidates (Meduza, March 20). In short, we are watching another cycle of “preventive democracy,” characteristic of Russia’s post-federalist regime (see EDM, November 17, 2017). And as Perm political scientist Pavel Luzin already noted, the common feature of all the “new governors” is their political facelessness and complete dependence on the Kremlin (Region.expert, November 1, 2017).
Official political commentators are optimistic. The pro-Kremlin Expert Institute for Social Research recently held a round table titled “900 Days of the New Personnel Policy: Regional Management Renewal.” Its participants notably designated the combination of federal managerial experience and biographical connection with the region as key characteristics dictating the effectiveness of the country’s newest crop of governors (RIA Novosti, March 26, 2019). But residents see the real situation in their home regions without such “rose-colored glasses.” For example, Artur Parfenchikov, who was appointed head of the Republic of Karelia in 2017, in fact had no professional ties to the region he was chosen to run. Although he was born in the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, he made his career mainly in Moscow, where he became the director of the Federal Bailiff Service. Upon returning to Karelia, he brought with him the experience inherent to representatives of the power structures (siloviki), for whom political control is more important than economic development (see EDM, September 28, 2017). As a result, Karelia’s traditionally strong cross-border relations with Finland have now been almost frozen (Region.expert, May 15, 2018).
Today, gubernatorial appointments in Russia are subject predominantly to the logic of the “vertical of power,” with little to no consideration given to the interests of the regional residents themselves. Furthermore, as political analyst Alexei Nezhivoy has argued, Moscow is now entrusting the management of some regions to individuals with links to corporations that have incurred heavy costs because of international sanctions. That arrangement naturally encourages greater local corruption schemes as those businessmen-governors seek to recoup their losses (Newdaynews.ru, March 22). Indeed, Denis Pasler, a top manager of the firm headed by billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, became the acting governor of the Orenburg Oblast. Vekselberg is notoriously close to the Kremlin, and his business empire has been heavily targeted by Western sanctions. Pasler’s appointment to the governor’s office in Orenburg was met with fierce local opposition (Ural56.ru, March 21).
Similarly, Andrei Chibis, an official from the Russian Ministry of Construction, who was just named acting governor of the Murmansk Oblast (Kremlin.ru, March 21), is also associated with Vekselberg’s companies. Chibis has no biographical links to the region now under his charge. The Murmansk opposition is currently holding consultations to agree on a single alternative candidate for the September 2019 elections (Severpost.ru, February 13).
In those cases where newly appointed acting governors have some links to their region, those ties nevertheless tend to be indirect or remote. For example (much like Karelia’s Parfenchikov—see above), Alexei Teksler was only born in Chelyabinsk, but most of his life and career are connected with Norilsk and Moscow. Therefore, many locals refer to him as the “Muscovite” (Ura.news, March 27). Likewise, the Altai Republic’s new governor, Oleg Khorokhordin, has ancestral roots in neighboring Altai Krai—but his entire professional career was built in Moscow.
The most symbolic of Putin’s March 2019 gubernatorial appointees is the newly named acting head of Kalmykia, Batu Khasikov. He is a kickboxing world champion, nicknamed Khan Batu. Khasikov is an ethnic Kalmyk, although he was born in Moscow (Kommersant, March 21). Kalmykia, it seems, deserves the brand of the Russian Federation’s “most sporting republic.” For many years, from 1993 to 2010, it was led by chess player Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Though he was beset by major scandals, it should be noted that Ilyumzhinov, at least initially, in 1993, was freely elected president of Kalmykia and tried to defend the interests of his republic before Moscow officials. Observers doubt the same level of advocacy can be expected from Khasikov. Andrei Serenko, Ilyumzhinov’s former political advisor, has attacked this appointment as “one of the most ridiculous personnel decisions in recent times.” He said, “Batu Khasikov is not a conventional figure for regional politics. He does not represent any of the uluses [administrative-territorial units of Kalmykia]. If he makes mistakes, a real opposition may arise, consisting of representatives of the local elite” (Kommersant, March 21).
Collectively, the Kremlin’s new gubernatorial appointments represent a kind of political kickboxing—a power sport with minimal rules. According to the law, the residents of the Russian Federation’s various regions are given the opportunity to hold elections for their authorities. But the president of Russia then removes and appoints governors at his discretion, while the citizens only have the formal right to approve his choice. Truly giving up this power to regional electorates would translate into a breakdown of the “power vertical”—and the Kremlin clearly understands this.