POLITICS IN VOLGOGRAD OBLAST
Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 9
By Yevgeny Melnichenko
Forty of Russia’s eighty-nine regions will elect chief executives in the coming months. In December it will be the turn of voters in Volgograd Oblast, who will go to the polls to elect their governor. This article sets the scene for that contest.
Situated at the lower reaches of the Volga and Don rivers, Volgograd Region is fairly typical of other parts of southern Russian. Its economy combines agriculture and industry, with the emphasis on heavy machine-building and defense production. Volgograd’s economy, like the economies of similar regions, has taken some hard knocks since the launch of market reform in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s, the region passed from being a net donor to the federal budget and become a net recipient of federal transfers.
Living standards are average for Russia and the region suffers the standard array of social problems. In the past year or two the situation has begun to improve: Wage and pension arrears are being paid off and some isolated points of economic growth can be observed. These include chemicals and petrochemicals, the production of steel pipes and housing construction.
Experts evaluate these achievements without enthusiasm, however, arguing that industrial growth is attributable to the favorable macroeconomic situation in Russia as a whole rather than to structural reforms implemented by the oblast administration. Indeed, the regional administration, 75 percent of whose members are holdovers from the old Communist Party nomenklatura, has so far proved neither able nor willing to create the institutional preconditions necessary to encourage entrepreneurial activity and the flow of investment. At all levels, Volgograd administrators prefer to manage the economy by using protectionism, government intervention, state subsidies and money surrogates.
It is a truism in Russia that, the farther south one travels, the more traditional and conservative voters and local elites become. In keeping with Volgograd’s depressed economic situation, the region’s 2.7 million inhabitants lean to the political left. During the 1990s, indeed, Volgograd Region acquired the nickname “the buckle in Russia’s Red Belt” due to the dominance of communists in the regional legislature.
All colors have their shades, however. The incumbent regional governor Nikolai Maksyuta, while a communist of long standing, lags in terms of communist orthodoxy well behind his fellow governors and party comrades such as Aleksandr Chernogorov from Stavropol Krai or Nikolai Kondratenko from Krasnodar. On a scale ranging from “radical liberalism” at one extreme to “orthodox conservatism” at the other, Volgograd Oblast would occupy the spot marked “modified conservatism” tinged with clientelism, paternalism and pragmatism. Throughout the 1990s, this mindset proved an asset, securing regional consensus and stability. Today, it has outlived its usefulness and could even be said to have become counterproductive.
Political parties remain underdeveloped in Volgograd, as they do in many other parts of Russia. The main players on the regional political scene can best be described as “teams”–the political wings of the most influential interest groups, which serve the ambitions of their leaders.
The local elite consists of several interest groups of approximately equal weight in a state of permanent confrontation. Their ongoing battle undermines the prospects for the social and economic development of the region. Contrary to popular belief, the struggle is not between liberals and communists, “Westernizers” and “back-to-the-soil” purveyors of nostalgia. The triumph of capitalism has been as decisive and irrevocable in Volgograd as elsewhere in Russia. Ideologies are merely a kinds of political label–tools in the struggle for a place in the capitalist sun. Group identification arises not from a common system of values but from a pragmatic assessment of the advantages or disadvantages of occupying this or that niche in the political market. Because individual success depends directly on the individual’s position in the corporate hierarchy, relations within this hierarchy are primarily determined by personal allegiance and only secondarily on the distribution of functions. Those who are not privy to the circle of privileged clients are unhappy with this system. Inequality of opportunity and the absence of clear rules of the game fuel dissatisfaction and generate a desire for consolidation and stability. For the time being, this desire is frustrated by a shortage of high-profile politicians heading corporate groups capable of rising above narrow clan interests and mutual dislike and reaching agreement between themselves. It is also hindered by the absence of the institutional preconditions for consolidating the political community. In this sense, the local political landscape remains virgin soil.
Each level of the political and administrative hierarchy (oblast, city, district) has its own set of political players, and each set is integrated to a greater or lesser extent in the “team” of the level above. Opportunities for integration vary considerably for the various elite groups. The undoubted advantage lies with the oblast administration because it controls such vital resources as financial flows and the mass media. In addition, the composition and strategy of the “teams” vary according to the timing, circumstances and nature of the project in question. For this reason, the composition of the political space (the participants, the nature of alliances and conflicts and so on) varies greatly depending on whether what is at stake is a gubernatorial or a municipal election, the adoption of the regional budget or the need to lobby for regional interests.
Potential candidates for December’s gubernatorial race include incumbent Governor Nikolai Maksyuta, Volgograd Mayor Yuri Chekhov and State Duma deputy Vasily Galushkin. Late last year, in what was seen as a prelude to the upcoming gubernatorial contest, all three tried to snatch the post of leader of the regional branch of the pro-Putin Unity Party. In the end, the prize went to Galushkin.
Maksyuta was elected governor of Volgograd in 1996. A communist of long standing, Maksyuta has tried hard since his election to build good relations both with local business leaders and with the federal authorities. As a result, he has lost popularity with the regional branch of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), who complain that he has appointed too few Communists to his administration. Maksyuta’s initial political base was the oblast branch of the KPRF, which supported his 1996 election campaign. As already noted, that situation has since changed. Now the governor’s team consists of officials from the oblast, urban and district administrations (except, of course, for the capital, Volgograd, where supporters of Maksyuta’s closest political rival, Yuri Chekhov, hold sway) and certain company directors. Maksyuta may also be supported in the upcoming election by certain Moscow financial and industrial groups, who are keen to see someone in charge in Volgograd who will not resist their expansion. Maksyuta’s relations with the local communist leader, well-known Duma deputy Alvetina Aparina, have deteriorated and the old unity and discipline are missing from the ranks of local communists. The fact that Maksyuta himself is not particularly popular has not of course helped the communist cause in the region. It is therefore quite likely that the KPRF will support another candidate in December. There are precedents for this. In Communist-dominated Smolensk Oblast in 1998, for example, the KPRF abandoned incumbent Anatoly Glushenkov, whom they had supported five years earlier, having concluded that he was compromising their prospects. Instead, the KPRF backed Smolensk Mayor Aleksandr Prokhorov, who won the election with the support of both the communists and the presidential administration.
Maksyuta can however rely on the support of the communist-controlled oblast Duma, with which he is on reasonably good terms. The Duma may even amend the oblast electoral legislation in Maksyuta’s favor. There is talk of moving to a single-round, first-past-the-post electoral system and of creating the post of deputy governor to be elected together with the governor. Were that to happen, Maksyuta could choose a running mate whose qualities would compensate for his own shortcomings.
Maksyuta’s main weakness is the dearth of social and economic achievements attributable to his administration. To a considerable extent this can be explained by the governor’s personal qualities. He is a level-headed, unambitious, decent man who does not really have the makings of a leader and who lacks a taste for innovation. His administration governs in the best traditions of Brezhnevite stagnation.
An influential section of the political and administrative elite is rallying around Volgograd Mayor Chekhov, who is in permanent conflict with the oblast administration. A considerable advantage of Chekhov’s team is the fact that it controls the administrative resources of Volgograd city. The regional capital is home to 40 percent of the population of the oblast and it is there that the main financial resources and more than half of the region’s industrial enterprises are located. The most influential elite groups are concentrated here too, and the city administration may exert some influence over them. A further consideration is the ten years of administrative and governing experience to which Chekhov and his team can lay claim, plus their experience in running election campaigns.
Nonetheless, Chekhov’s election chances do not look particularly bright. Chekhov’s Achilles heel is his weak position in the countryside, where he lacks the infrastructure to influence the rural electorate. In the past, Chekhov was able to exploit his friendship with Vladimir Babichev, chief of staff of the Russian government under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. This enabled him to engineer a number of key appointments, including those of the oblast prosecutor, the presidential representative in the region, and the heads of the oblast tax department and the local branch of the federal treasury. Since that time, however, Chekhov has lost his Moscow contacts and no longer has a patron able to offer him serious support. This may be concluded from the fact that Chekhov failed to secure the right to represent Putin’s interests in Volgograd.
Another important group in terms of significance and influence has consolidated around former first deputy governor and current State Duma deputy Galushkin. It was Galushkin who won the coveted right to run the regional branch of the pro-Kremlin Unity Party. Galushkin enjoys the reputation of an energetic administrator; he won this first as Chekhov’s deputy and later as first deputy in the oblast administration. There, his businesslike attitude and organizational skills stood in sharp contrast to Makysuta’s weak leadership. In time, Galushkin became the effective leader of the oblast, focusing many of the financial, economic, staffing and other interests of the local elites on himself. Many bureaucratic and entrepreneurial circles see Galushkin as a potential governor; this perception is his chief political asset. He is a convivial man who makes friends easily. Local enterprise directors and the heads of the local security services and district administrations know him well. Galushkin’s Moscow contacts also seem more significant than Chekhov’s. Many local people hope that he will use his contacts to gain them access to the corridors of power in Moscow.
Galushkin’s political shortcomings are in some ways an extension of his merits. His association with Unity could turn from a plus into a minus were the new party to suffer the same fate as its predecessor as “party of power,” Our Home is Russia. Moreover, Galushkin has strained relations with oil giant LUKoil and electricity monopoly United Energy Systems, and these could be a serious problem for him. Relations were damaged when, as first deputy governor, Galushkin recklessly failed to carry out a number of promises and agreements with these companies. Another handicap is Galushkin’s alleged links with criminal circles. Nor is it a question simply of links, but of shifting roles in the system of patron-client relations. Voters may fear that the oblast administration would have to service Galushkin’s debts to the criminal bosses were he to win the governorship.
Local industrial bigwigs represent a relatively autonomous group in Volgograd and are keen to lobby for their interests at the federal level. Products of the old Communist Party and economic nomenklatura, the directors are powerful people who may be mobilized and used in an election campaign. However, they are keen to distance themselves from the three previous groups. Formally, they have joined forces to form the “Delovoe Povolzhe Club” (Volga Business Club). The club’s membership is impressive and includes the directors of the region’s largest companies. However, they have no clear political orientation and it is impossible at this stage to say which candidate they will support. The directors cannot yet, therefore, be described as an independent political force. So far, only one member of this group has declared his ambition to run for the post of governor. This is Oleg Savchenko, chairman of the board of the Volga Ball-Bearing Plant and one of the new wave of managers. However, it cannot be said that his candidacy is a consensual one, or that it represents the interests of the Volgograd industrialists as a whole. All the signs suggest that Savchenko is promoting only himself. If this is the case, he will have to fight on two fronts. These will include both the local bureaucracy and Savchenko’s business colleagues: Where resources are limited, the regional elites involved in disbursing them will have an interest in reducing to a minimum the number of people with access to these resources.
In the end, much will depend on who emerges as contender for Maksyuta’s seat. Many voters prefer stability and vote according to the principle “as long as things don’t get any worse….” Public opinion polls suggest that, except for an insignificant minority, both the elite and the general population continue to gravitate toward old-style paternalistic values, manifested in dependence on the state, the local government or the individual’s employer. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, too, Maksyuta may prove the lesser of two evils. Putin won an overwhelming majority in Volgograd Oblast at the presidential elections and may, accordingly, prefer to leave well alone.
We can accordingly expect to see in the foreseeable future not liberal democracy in one region, but an updated version of patron-client relations, state enterprise and administrative control over the movement of goods and finances.
This tendency depends little on democratic participation and representation but coincides with the interests of all the main participants in the political process. Its content is determined not by battles between concepts and strategies for development, but by struggles between leaders and clans for power and resources. Because the federal budget remains the major source of funds, regional regimes don the mantle of “dependent authoritarianism,” reminiscent of regimes on the post-colonial periphery of the capitalist world economy. Despite all the “successes” of sovereignty, the regions are extremely dependent on the financial, informational and political resources of the federal government. Without reliable channels for lobbying regional interests, the regions cannot expect to be able to receive reasonable transfers, achieve a more or less balanced budget, pay their public sector workers, support the social sphere or resolve a whole range of other problems. This is a typical situation, not one affecting Volgograd Oblast alone. Of the eighty-nine federation subjects, eighty-one receive subsidies and grants of one size or another. Moreover, many regions’ dependence on such injections of cash is critical, threatening the collapse of the regional economy if the injections cease.
The patron-client dependence between the center and the provinces has allowed Moscow quietly to monitor political processes in the regions without intervening directly. However, the administrative reforms undertaken by Vladimir Putin suggest that the Kremlin is not planning to prolong the system of preserving the governors’ privileges in exchange for their loyalty, and that the policy of non-intervention in internal regional affairs may a thing of the past.
Dr Yevgeny Melnichenko teaches political science at the Volgograd Academy for Public Service.