Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 79

The Nenetsk Autonomous District, an oil-producing region in the northern part of European Russia, could become the first region in which President Vladimir Putin employs his power to remove governors. Nenetsk Governor Vladimir Butov has become the target of a criminal investigation, the first such of a sitting governor in Russia’s post-Soviet history. The seriousness of the case was underscored on April 16, when the offices of the district’s administration were searched and documents seized (Russian agencies, April 17).

Proceedings had been launched on April 10 on the basis of Article 315 of Russia’s Criminal Code. This addresses the failure to fulfill a court order, and brings with it a punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment. In Butov’s case, this applies to his failure to carry out a November 29, 2001 decision by the Moscow Arbitration Court ordering him to recognize the results of a tender for the development of the Musyuwor oilfield, which is located in the district. Court bailiffs tried to enforce the order on more than one occasion, but to no avail. Butov had earlier refused to confirm a March 10, 2001 decision by the licensing commission recognizing the Severnoe Siyaniye (Northern Lights) company as the winner of the tender for the right to develop the oilfield, claiming that the company had failed to provide financial guarantees and that “many violations” had taken place during the tender (Interfax, April 12). Butov’s defense now is that he is in a Catch-22 situation, with one court document affirming the results of the tender and another prohibiting confirmation of the tender’s outcome. He will thus, he says, be in violation of the law whichever side he comes down on (, April 12;, April 17).

No one initially expected the Nenetsk conflict to escalate. Some media, citing sources in the Russian president’s administration, claimed that the criminal case against the Nenetsk governor would not lead to his removal, and that the dispute over Musyuwor would be resolved “peacefully” (Vedomosti, April 15). But the search of the Nenetsk administration’s offices on April 16 suggested that the situation was far more serious than it had initially appeared. Investigators reportedly seized documents relating to Butov’s official trips, vacations and illnesses through March of this year, apparently in order to make sure that the governor had no good reason for having failed to confirm the tender’s results (, April 17). While the Nenetsk district prosecutor’s office has refused to comment on the situation, it is known that it earlier tried to get Butov to turn over documents voluntarily but that his administration, which views the case against him as illegal, refused to do so. Nenetsk’s acting prosecutor, Aleksandr Lykov, then ordered the seizure of the documents. The governor himself was on an official visit to Slovenia when the search and seizure took place (Kommersant, April 18).

Immediately on his return from Slovenia, Butov charged that the criminal charges against him were politically motivated. He suggested that large oil companies–which are striving for total control over the district’s oil, and had failed earlier to dislodge him as governor–were behind the events (, April 19). Butov has some grounds for this claim. In January 2001, several large oil companies worked to thwart his re-election as governor. They were unsuccessful. He won by a comfortable margin. Revenge may now be on their minds. The giant Lukoil, which has massive lobbying resources and Kremlin connections, is reportedly among Butov’s foes (, April 12).

Yet the decisive factor in the outcome of the Nenetsk battle will undoubtedly be the position of the Russian president. In 2000, Putin successfully pushed the law allowing Russian presidents to remove governors from office through parliament. On April 4 of this year, the Constitutional Court upheld it. Furthermore, while the procedure for removing governors is rather long and complicated, in the Nenetsk case it is already well under way. Besides which, a governor may be temporarily removed from office without a court decision if he is suspected of having committed a serious crime. At the same time, Butov is a powerful regional leader in full control of the political situation on his territory. The Nenetsk case could thus become a real test of Putin’s ability to take on the governors and win.