Forty of Russia’s eighty-nine regions will elect chief executives in the coming months. The office of regional governor or president or big-city mayor is not quite what it was. Under Putin’s reforms, as of January 1, 2002, regional chief executives will no longer sit in the Federation Council of the federal parliament. And Putin has put them further from the Kremlin, inserting presidentially appointed representatives to head of each of seven federal districts that constitute a new administrative layer between the Kremlin and the regions.
But Putin’s assertion of authority over the regions is strictly top down. In nearly every corner of the federation, the local strongmen are still strong and have no great allegiance to any national figure or organization. National political heavyweights who were rumored to be ready for statehouse races all decided not to run. (These include former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin in Vladimir, former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov in Stavropol, former Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov in Perm, and Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko in Chelyabinsk.) The Putin political machine, the Unity movement, seems to have no consistent presence in the upcoming elections. Unity is backing a Communist candidate in Ulyanovsk; a Fatherland candidate in Khabarovsk; and its own candidate against a pro-Putin liberal in Perm.
Jamestown’s regional analyst writes from Samara: “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…. 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.”