Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 4

Saratov’s Governor Dmitri Ayatskov: A new actor on an old political stage

By Ilya Malyakin

The Stage

A new mythology is replacing the official ideology Russia currently lacks. The regional component is one of its best-developed parts. Every Russian, when watching the news on television, gets the clear impression that there are "good" and "bad" regions in the Russian Federation. These properties are inherent not in the regions themselves but in their leaders. Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, personified by its governor Boris Nemtsov, was for a long time portrayed as the embodiment of everything positive, while Ulyanovsk Oblast and its governor Yury Goryachev represented the opposite pole. Ulyanovsk has since been replaced by Primorsky Krai, where Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko epitomizes destructive anarchy. When Nemtsov left for Moscow’s political Olympus, the "pole of good and order" became vacant.

Myth, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Tryouts for the vacant spot began immediately. Saratov Oblast and its governor Dmitri Ayatskov, who had already been dubbed the "new Nemtsov," were among the front-runners.

The Play

People now speak quite seriously of the "Ayatskov phenomenon." Ayatskov’s statements attract rapt media attention and his policies are held up by the federal leadership as examples to be emulated. How did Ayatskov raise his status so high, and what kind of man stands behind this myth?

His official biography gives little help in answering these questions.

Ayatskov was born in 1951, in the village of Kalinino in Saratov Oblast. His first job was as a collective farm mechanic and electrician. He graduated as an agronomist from the Saratov Agricultural Institute and the Moscow Cooperative Institute and worked in various management positions in Saratov Oblast. In 1992, he became deputy mayor of Saratov. From 1993 to 1995, he served as a deputy to the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council. In April 1996, he was appointed Governor of Saratov Oblast by presidential decree. He is married and has two grown children: a son and a daughter.

This recital suggests that Ayatskov slipped into big-time politics by accident, almost unwittingly. But while one cannot say that Ayatskov spent his whole life preparing for the gubernatorial post, he did take advantage of the openings that fate put in his way. In fact, Ayatskov’s rise to power in Saratov Oblast was an event that only chance could have prevented. It was predetermined by the change in political generations. The "old cadres," whose experience dated back to Soviet times, left the stage because they were unable to adapt to new realities. The "status democrats," who arrived in the scene during the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika, proved equally unable to adapt to power.

Those who inherited the new Russian government from the older generation were, for the most part, people of a completely different sort. In the old Soviet hierarchy, they occupied relatively low-ranking posts. But they recognized the opportunities provided by the political changes taking place and hastened to take advantage of them, relying on their own pragmatic calculations and acting without regard for political or ideological conventions. They were the first in post-Soviet Russia to perceive power as an independent, non-ideological, unconditional good in its own right, and that no ulterior justification for pursuing it is required.

Ayatskov is a striking example of this type of new Russian leader. He won because he wanted to win and, regardless of convention, did everything he could to do so.

The Actor

Ayatskov received his "political baptism" not when he was appointed governor, but in 1993, during the elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council. Each of Russia’s republics and regions was entitled to elect two deputies. In most regions, the nomination of candidates took place in strict accordance with the rules established back in Soviet times. Saratov was no exception. The composition of the "party of power’s" slate was decided at a closed meeting in the office of the then governor of Saratov Oblast, Yury Belykh, who had been in power since his appointment by governor by President Yeltsin in 1992. The slate was final, and no independence was tolerated. The Saratov leadership nominated Governor Belykh and the mayor of Saratov, Yury Kitov.

It soon became clear, however, that there was a third candidate — Dmitri Ayatskov, then the deputy mayor of Saratov. By putting himself forward, Ayatskov broke all the rules of administrative decorum and put a monkey wrench in the plans of the governing team.

Almost everyone was taken aback by the deputy mayor’s behavior. He was considered Kitov’s friend and protege, a man whom Kitov had taken with him into the Saratov administration. Now, friendship turned to hatred. Kitov lacked the legal authority to fire Ayatskov, but he took the unprecedented step of appointing another deputy mayor and transferring to him all of Ayatskov’s duties. Ayatskov did not slow to react. Alleging that his life was in danger, he brought his own guards, not subordinate to the mayor, into the city hall.

Forced to choose between Kitov and Ayatskov, Belykh unexpectedly switched allegiance and began campaigning with the deputy mayor. Belykh apparently calculated that Kitov would lose the election and could then be sacked as someone "lacking the support of the city’s population." But the results of the election were sensational: Kitov did lose in the oblast as a whole but, in his own Saratov, he got more votes than any other candidate. Though it was impossible to sack him within the bounds of decency, sacked he was all the same.

Kitov vowed to fight his dismissal, but died soon thereafter in circumstances which many still consider mysterious. Officially, the cause of death was suicide, but the details of this tragic event were never definitively established.

After that, it seemed as if Ayatskov’s political career had stopped: Governor Belykh changed his mind and decided not to appoint him mayor. Possibly, Belykh was alarmed by the way this political debutante had conducted himself, and saw him as a potential rival. Ayatskov was not deterred. Soon the deputy mayor began to be openly named as a rival for the gubernatorial post and, in Saratov, his political rating remained significantly higher than that of the new mayor.

This period of Ayatskov’s activity was not associated with any concrete achievements. He was working on his image — and in this, Ayatskov was very successful indeed From that time on, until the moment Ayatskov was appointed governor, none of the local media dared to criticize him, or even to refrain from praising him. Their praise was unfounded — Ayatskov had not accomplished anything in particular. In fact, his public statements often produced a rather strange impression. During the war in Chechnya, for example, he told an interviewer that he was ready to solve the Chechen problem, if Moscow gave him the chance. Nonetheless, Ayatskov’s influence in Saratov grew to such an extent that the incumbent governor became increasingly isolated, unable even to control his own team completely.

Many feared this man, although they could not always explain why. Stubborn rumors circulated about his mafia connections. His own statements provided some grounds for such speculation.

In an interview with Literaturnaya gazeta correspondent Yury Gamayunov, Ayatskov described how he took part in a meeting of mafia leaders in 1993: "When I was deputy mayor, all sorts of people used to come to my office… Some of them represented the interests of the criminal world… It so happened that some directors of local enterprises who were being hassled by the mafia came to me, because the public prosecutor’s office and the police weren’t doing anything about it… And I had to tell these people, who were there in my office, what I thought about that. They responded by inviting me to a meeting. To be honest, I didn’t feel good about it, but I went… I didn’t take any guards with me… Through the driver, I told them: ‘I’ll only talk to your leader, man to man.’ Their leader literally walked out to meet me… I let these people know that I had no fear of them and that I was confident the government would catch them, sooner or later… They could feel it… After that meeting, it became easier for me to help the directors of these city enterprises… I am sure many crimes were prevented as a result of my intervention."

Ayatskov never explained why he went to that now legendary meeting in the first place, what they talked about, or what agreements he reached with the representatives of the criminal world. But when, in February 1996, President Yeltsin dismissed Belykh from his post for "misuse of federal budget allocations," he replaced him with Ayatskov.

In September, Ayatskov was elected in a popular election. His campaign will long be remembered for his revival of Communist-style slogans such as "Ayatskov — the governor of all of Saratov" or "We will make Saratov the capital of the Volga region. — D. F. Ayatskov."

The Character

What else can we say about Ayatskov? The further we get from the elections, the clearer the impression that his election program was exhausted by the desire to take power into his own hands.

Ayatskov and his team are efficient — and this efficiency is stressed and advertised everywhere. But this efficiency is concentrated on building up the myth of Saratov as "the capital of the Volga region," of the region’s record harvest, the dawn of prosperity of the citizens of the oblast, and the 200th anniversary of Saratov Province. And what does it matter if the 200th anniversary was celebrated in 1997, although the province was actually created in 1780; if there turned out to be nowhere to store the grain, and nowhere to sell it, because it was of poor quality; if, for the most part, only oblast government officials are enjoying better living conditions? The governor’s team know full well that there are two realities: the one that actually exists and the one that the press writes about. And for Ayatskov, the second is much more important.

Ayatskov is apolitical. In his entourage, one can find people who hold all sorts of political convictions: their hallmark is loyalty. As for the disloyal, Ayatskov expresses his attitude as follows: "I will skin the opposition like a polar bear." The last real opposition — the Communists — have now been squeezed out of all the regional power structures and are denied access to the mass media. The governor says he has formed a one-party system in the oblast, and that that party is "the party of power."

As for Ayatskov’s own political convictions, they are quite vague, but apparently incompatible with the ideas of democracy and reform. Here are a few quotations from his public speeches: "Democracy ends when you put your ballot in the urn." "We need a dictatorship of law, and not just democracy."

Ayatskov thrives on flattery. He loves to be compared to Petr Stolypin who, before becoming Prime Minister under Nikolai II, was governor of Saratov Province. Ayatskov’s native village once belonged to the former premier’s family, and bore the name of Stolypino; it got the name back as soon as Ayatskov became governor. Several colorful books and albums devoted to the present governor have been published.

Ayatskov loves sensational gestures that attract the attention of the Moscow press, such as Saratov Oblast’s passage of a law permitting the sale of land or the liquidation of the hated sobering-up stations. And he is confident that inconvenient details such as the fact that, on the day the land law was passed, the Saratov police forcibly dispersed Communists who were protesting that event, will not attract their attention.

Ayatskov always emphasizes his loyalty to Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. But in practice, he has increased his own oblast’s autonomy almost to the level enjoyed by Tatarstan. Saratov Oblast has signed a cooperation treaty with Tatarstan under the resounding title, "Two Great Peoples; Two Great Subjects of the Russian Federation." He is keen to attract credits to the oblast from anyone who will agree to give them.

Ultimately, however, these credits will have to be paid back. Seen in this light, rumors that Ayatskov will soon move to Moscow (leaving his successor to pay the debts) and suggestions that the governor needs the law on land in order to have land with which to repay creditors, begin to make sense.

Ayatskov is very active but, to an even greater degree, he is amorphous. Whenever you try to describe him he slips out of your hands and changes shape. The only thing that remains constant is his desire to govern. His actions are dictated by the need to react to a changing environment or to attract attention to himself. His administration’s numerous economic and social programs have impressed many — but after all, that is what they were intended to do. What stands behind these programs is formation of a myth of future prosperity, reminiscent of Khrushchev’s "building Communism by 1980."

The reality is a political situation in the oblast which looks less and less like democracy; claims to the oil-rich parts of neighboring Volgograd Oblast; and buses adorned with quotations from D. F. Ayatskov. In this reality, you can find both Ayatskov’s reputation as "the new Nemtsov," the recent discussions of his chances of replacing Anatoly Chubais if he is fired, and the governor’s own remarks, intended quite seriously, about how nice it would be if the capital of the Russian Federation were moved to Saratov….

Translated by Mark Eckert

Ilya Malyakin is chief editor and political expert at the Volga Information Bureau, an independent news agency in Saratov.


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