Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 178

In the coming months, Russian voters will go to the polls to elect governors and presidents in almost forty regions. As the elections approach, pundits in the national press are finding it increasingly hard to fit events into the framework they had earlier adopted: President Putin’s victory over the regional elites. The clearer it becomes that Putin’s offensive is petering out, the harder it grows for Moscow’s chattering classes to understand what is going on in the regions.

Some observers have noted that the Kremlin has not made use of its supposedly unprecedented power to influence the elections. Some of the Kremlin’s actions seem illogical: Gennady Igumnov, the liberal governor of Perm Oblast, who is loyal to Moscow, is being forced to stand against a candidate from the pro-Putin Unity Party, while in Communist-dominated Ulyanovsk Oblast the Kremlin is supporting a gubernatorial bid by General Vladimir Shamanov, who made his name in the Chechen campaign and has the backing of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). This makes the Kremlin look confused, indecisive and unable to exploit the opportunities open to it (Itogi, September 19). Indeed, there is considerable confusion in the regions. Both the Communists and the right wing have declared support for candidates who have never shown any sympathy for their programs. In several regions, governors have gathered support from openly antagonistic forces. For example, both Unity and Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) are supporting Khabarovsk Krai incumbent Viktor Ishaev’s re-election bid.

“The current elections are in no way a struggle of ideologies. They represent a clash of interests groups and clans at national and local level,” the newspaper Literaturnaya gazeta opined on September 20. This is true as far as it goes, but the present elections are no different in that respect from previous ones. Even those political organizations which enjoyed strong representation in the State Duma never played independent roles in most of Russia’s regions. At election time they used merely to provide support staff for strong independent candidates who represented dominant groups within the regional elites. Now that elite relations have been sorted out in most of Russia’s regions, political parties find themselves forced to choose between backing an obvious outsider or taking a subordinate role in the campaign to re-elect the incumbent.

National newspapers which only a short time ago spoke of Putin’s impending and inevitable victory over the “regional barons” are clinging to the illusion that events still favor the Kremlin. They have noted the declining interest in the elections on the part of the political parties, but explain this by reference to extraneous factors such as Unity’s failure to establish regional branches. In the absence of a clear program, OVR’s branches have only the sympathies of their leaders to go on. The coalition between the Union of Right-Wing Forces and Yabloko has unexpectedly announced that it was going to focus its attention on elections not for governors, but for deputies to oblast legislatures (Nezavismaya gazeta, September 21). And so on.

The national press is also attributing the general decline in interest in the upcoming elections to the fact that the post of governor has become less attractive since Putin undertook his reform of the Federation Council. Some newspapers suggested that this would allow the president to get his allies–preferably those in uniform–elected to governorships. But the official government publication Rossiiskaya gazeta, which has good sources, pointed out that that: “The battle for the regions is being conducted without the participation of the capital’s heavyweights.” Over the summer, experts were predicting that Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko might run for governor in Chelyabinsk, former Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov in Perm, former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov in Stavropol and Audit Chamber head (and former prime minister) Sergei Stepashin in Vladimir. Now, as the paper put it, “those rumors have vanished like smoke” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 22).

The situation in southern Russia’s Krasnodar Krai shows “who calls the tune” in most of the regions. Visiting the krai recently Aleksandr Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, expressed concern that no credible candidates had expressed a desire to run for governor, even though the October 12 deadline for registering as a candidate was fast approaching (Kubanskie novosti [Krasnodar], September 20). After the incumbent, Nikolai Kondratenko, had declared that he would not run again, only one local politician risked throwing his hat into the ring. This was Viktor Kovalenko, ataman (leader) of the Great Cossack Brotherhood (Kranodarskie izvestia, September 21). The elections seemed doomed to cancellation, given that at least two candidates must take part. They became theoretically possible only when Dmitri Berdnikov, a 33-year-old inhabitant of Tatarstan and chairman of the All-Russian Social Movement Against Crime and Lawlessness, said he intended to run (Krasnodarskie izvestia, September 21). However Berdnikov has not yet collected the required number of signatures in support of his candidacy, so his registration is not a foregone conclusion.

From one point of view, everything is clear: The post of Krasnodar governor became less attractive after its power was reduced and now no one wants to run. However local observers may be closer to the mark when they say that all serious gubernatorial candidates are waiting to see what incumbent Kondratenko finally decides to do, and what decision will be taken by the local “party of power”–the Kondratenko-lead Fatherland movement. Kondratenko is notorious for his anti-Semitic utterances and at first his decision not to run was attributed to pressure from Putin. However local people find it hard to believe that Kondratenko has really dropped out the race. They suspect his decision not to stand was aimed at mobilizing anti-Moscow sentiment among the electorate. Many expect him to change his mind at the last minute, citing “overwhelming pressure from the local population.” If Kondratenko was to employ such a maneuver, he would be virtually immune to public attack by the Kremlin and no one would dare to stand as a candidate against him. This is clearly understood by both local and national politicians. They all realized long ago that Putin’s legal victory over the governors has not reduced the power of the governors by one jot, for the simple reason that their power does not depend on law.