Newly Appointed Governor of Sevastopol Faces Looming Showdown With Local Elites

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 108

(Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Since Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, in 2014, the peninsula’s most important port city of Sevastopol has largely escaped close international scrutiny. In some sense, this is understandable—compared with the “Republic of Crimea” (as the rest of the peninsula was renamed by the occupying Russian authorities), the independent “Federal City” of Sevastopol is quite a small region (864 square kilometers) and does not have a sizable Crimean Tatar community, which continues to face human rights violations while under occupation. However, the recent appointment of a new acting governor to Sevastopol—Mikhail Razvozhaev—returned attention to the city once again (see below).

The last time the naval port city faced a similar leadership reshuffle was in 2016, when the Kremlin appointed Dmitry Ovsyannikov to replace Sergey Menyaylo to head Sevastopol’s executive administration. In both cases (2016 and 2019), the official statement accompanying the leadership change noted that the incumbent governor had stepped down voluntarily. But in actuality, the sitting governors had been forced out because of their disappointing records and an inability to reach a consensus with the local elites.

On July 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin named Mikhail Razvozhaev as the acting governor of Sevastopol (, July 11). Razvozhaev belongs to the ruling United Russia political party and is a former deputy minister for the North Caucasus; more recently, he served as the acting head of the Republic of Khakassia. The heretofore incumbent governor Ovsyannikov’s resignation closely followed the stepping down of the head of the Sevastopol branch of United Russia (Vedomosti, July 11). Moreover, United Russia has conspicuously not included Ovsyannikov on its party list for next year’s parliamentarian elections.

Political observers have put forward several explanations for Ovsyannikov’s replacement. First, he failed to accomplish a number of important, large-scale development projects for the city, including the construction of new sewage treatment plants and building additional hospitals (Regnum, July 11). Second, he was embroiled in conflicts with local elites (in particular, the former head of the City Council, Aleksei Chaly, who was notably one of the local leaders of the Crimean annexation operation in 2014). Finally, the Kremlin likely wanted to raise the local popularity of United Russia by putting in place a more successful governor (, July 12).

Initial signs of Moscow’s readiness to dismiss Ovsyannikov already emerged in May, and many assumed he would be replaced by his old rival, Admiral Aleksandr Vitko (currently the deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian navy) (, July 11). Moreover, a month earlier, Chaly openly compared Ovsyannikov’s team to an organized crime racket led by a mafia boss (, April 16). The new Sevastopol governor appears more politically savvy than his predecessor. In his first few days in power, Razvozhaev explicitly paid tribute to Chaly as a local leader. Somewhat surprisingly, immediately following the announced reshuffle at the top of the Sevastopol governor’s office, Putin praised Ovsyannikov’s work (, July 12), thus strongly suggesting that the ousted official (just like his own ousted predecessor, Menyaylo) can expect a new high-level position within the Russian central government. Menyaylo currently serves as the presidential envoy of the Siberian Federal District (RIA Novosti, August 12, 2016).

The most important reason for why Ovsyannikov was forced out seems to be connected to the internal situation in Sevastopol, which the Kremlin feels needs to be tranquilized. The city currently exists in two dimensions—military and civilian. The military sphere is stable and behaves according to orders from Moscow. But the civilian city sphere has not been fully pacified since 2014 in a way that would satisfy both the local elites and the center (Moscow). In some ways, this is a continuation of the political situation from before the annexation. Russia is in the midst of modernizing the Black Sea Fleet, headquartered in Sevastopol; and at the same time, it is completing two mega-infrastructure projects on the Crimean Peninsula, namely the Kerch Bridge and the Tavrida highway. However, Sevastopol’s own outdated infrastructure is not ready for these changes. For example, the future of a crucial logistical artery that will need to connect Sevastopol with Tavrida remains uncertain (, July 12). Both sides are looking to concurrently accommodate the military and civilian spheres in Sevastopol; but already some have proposed reverting Sevastopol’s status to a closed military city (as it was until 1996), with tight security restrictions limiting access in and out. The governor would then simultaneously possess civilian and military powers (, April 4).

It is also worth noting that Chaly and his political supporters can be expected to continue to agitate against the federal center and specifically against its appointed “Varangians” (that is, outsiders named to leadership positions). Therefore, local elites will likely face the same troubled relations they had with former governors Menyalo and Ovsyannikov. Razvozhaev will stand in next year’s elections (scheduled for autumn of 2020), but the local population could try to back the popular “people’s mayor” Chaly, instead. Whether United Russia is ready for such a scenario remains to be seen.

The Kremlin fears the independent spirit of this city. Some experts are already predicting that the upcoming elections of the Sevastopol legislative assembly could be canceled. And the authorities’ blocking of independent candidates to run in local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg is quite instructive in this regard (Rosbalt, June 26). In Sevastopol, local elites worry that a United Russia defeat in 2020 could result in a cancellation of city elections or new legal obstacles to candidates Moscow finds “uncomfortable” (, July 14). Indeed, the central authorities had repeatedly refused to allow Chaly’s supporters to initiate a referendum calling for Ovsyannikov’s ouster ( April 30).

Sevastopol is a unique city, whose eccentric and historically rebellious character challenges the central Russian authorities’ attempts to bring it to heel. The city, on the one hand, fights to preserve the level of freedom it enjoyed under Ukrainian rule, while, on the other hand, it boasts among the highest levels of pro-Russian patriotism and hosts Russia’s most important southern naval outpost. The de facto local leadership in Sevastopol contrasts sharply with the Crimean authorities, who tend to be subdued and subservient to Moscow. The Kremlin will not be able to simply dismiss or vilify Sevastopol’s elite for purportedly holding pro-Ukrainian feelings, because they do not have any. Therefore, the confrontation between this Federal City and the center will be long and difficult.