Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 4

December 2000 saw the end of the latest stage in the war between Russia’s regional elites and the Kremlin team. The battle began in the spring, immediately after President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, with a formal redistribution of power in favor of the center. Then, in the series of gubernatorial elections which began in the autumn, the Putin team sought to show that it meant business. It seemed intent on replacing a significant number of incumbent governors with Kremlin-loyalists and on undermining the ability of regional elites to resist the will of the center. Overall, the Kremlin did not succeed: A majority of the electoral races was won either by incumbent governors or by their proteges. In a number of cases, however, the Kremlin did achieve some notable successes. It scored perhaps its most impressive victory in the final round of the gubernatorial elections, held on December 24. In Ulyanovsk Oblast on that date the candidate unofficially supported by the center, General Vladimir Shamanov, well known from his activities during the Chechen war, defeated incumbent Yuri Goryachev–a strong and authoritarian leader who had always refused to take the Kremlin seriously (Russian agencies, December 27, 2000).

In all, elections were held on December 24 in seven regions. In Chukotka, oligarch and oil baron Roman Abramovich won with 91 percent of the vote. Abramovich had been left without a serious challenger after the incumbent, Aleksandr Nazarov, decided not to run (Radio Liberty, December 25, 2000). Sitting governors won in four regions. In Khakassia, Aleksei Lebed won with over 71 percent of the vote. The communist governor of Volgograd Oblast, Nikolai Maksyuta, defeated the chairman of the Volga Ball-Bearing Factory, Oleg Savchenko, by 36.5 percent to 28.4 percent. In Chelyabinsk Oblast, incumbent Pyotr Sumin won with 59 percent. In a runoff election in Kostroma Oblast, incumbent Viktor Shershunov defeated Kostroma Mayor Boris Korobov by 63.1 percent to 24.6 percent. In Voronezh Oblast, the Kremlin-supported candidate Vladimir Kulakov, who heads the regional directorate of the Federal Security Service, defeated the communist incumbent, Ivan Shabanov, by 60 percent to 15 percent. Finally, Vladimir Shamanov won in Ulyanovsk Oblast, defeating incumbent Governor Yuri Goryachev by 56 percent to 23 percent (Russian agencies, December 25, 2000).

Yuri Goryachev was a larger-than-life figure, a political survivor who had headed Ulyanovsk Oblast for eleven years. In April 1990 he had been elected chairman of the regional Soviet (legislative council) and first secretary of the oblast committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Goryachev held both posts, despite a ban on doing so, until July 1991, when he stepped down from his Communist Party post just a month before the abortive August putsch that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Goryachev supported the putschists. That was why, after the coup, President Yeltsin defied the preferences of the Ulyanovsk regional elite and refused to appoint Goryachev head of the oblast administration. But Yeltsin’s choice for the post, factory boss Valentin Malafeev, ran into such strong local resistance that he was unable to get down to work. At the beginning of 1992 Yeltsin was, accordingly, obliged to appoint Goryachev head of the oblast administration. Goryachev went on to create one of Russia’s first regional authoritarian regimes. The national media portrayed him as “the embodiment of communist evil.” Goryachev was nonetheless victorious when he ran for election in 1996.

Subsequent events unfolded according to the standard pattern, with the election of a member of the regional anti-Goryachev opposition, Vitaly Marusin, as mayor of the city of Ulyanovsk. An alternative center of power, hostile to the oblast leadership, had appeared in the region. Goryachev was unperturbed. This appears to explain why the Putin team determined to defeat him, and why so formidable a challenger as Shamanov was put up against him. A further reason was that the Kremlin wants Shamanov to take on the task of monitoring Islamic activism in neighboring Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, as well as in Ulyanovsk Oblast itself, where the influence of the Islam is also on the rise.

Goryachev rose to the challenge. On the eve of the election campaign, local electoral law was amended. What had previously been a two-round gubernatorial election was reduced to a single round–a system which favors the incumbent. The campaign was conducted with all the traditional regional autocratic methods, including mobilization of all the resources at the disposal of the oblast leadership.

As election day approached, Moscow deployed a new weapon. By a strange combination of circumstances, an energy crisis suddenly erupted in Ulyanovsk Oblast–just as it had in some other regions where the leadership was not to the Kremlin’s liking. Several districts of the capital found themselves without heating and hot water. Sergei Kirienko, Putin’s representative in the Volga federal district, identified Ulyanovsk as the area which, of all those in his jurisdiction, had the biggest energy problems (Russian agencies, November 29).

The mayor of Ulyanovsk, Vitaly Marusin, appealed to Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu to resolve the fuel crisis which, he said, was threatening to lead to the collapse of life-support systems (Russian agencies, November 30, 2000). The local press published appeals to President Putin to “exercise his power” in Ulyanovsk and to remove Goryachev as governor (Simbirsky kuryer, December 6, 2000).

The “energy weapon” proved highly effective, judging at least by Goryachev’s overwhelming defeat in the election. Ironically, the election also proved fatal for Marusin: he was defeated by Pavel Romanenko, a deputy in the oblast legislative assembly, in the race for Ulyanovsk mayor that was also held on December 24 (Russian agencies, December 25, 2000).

Shamanov will find that his problems have only just begun. He now has to lead an oblast in which much of the local elite will be ranged against him. He may also clash with the new mayor of the regional capital: Shamanov has admitted that in the mayoral race he backed not Romanenko, but another candidate, Mikhail Shkanov (Russian agencies, December 26, 2000).

None of this detracts, however, from the Kremlin’s victory in Ulyanovsk Oblast. Though it lost the “war” in the regional elections, the Putin team nonetheless won several battles, which is important for the Kremlin’s image. The “fuel weapon” may well be used again, with the next target likely to be Primorsky Krai. Here the Kremlin has an uniquely tricky task–to change the governor not by means of the ballot box but by direct presidential intervention. Having secured the legal right to remove sitting governors, Putin must now demonstrate his ability to use it. All the preconditions for such a display have been created in Primorsky Krai, and the first steps in this direction have already been made. Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin’s representative in Far Eastern federal district, has declared Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko personally responsible for the heating crisis in the region (Radio Ekho Moskvy, December 25, 2000). And some of the deputies in the regional Duma, clearly supported by Moscow, have put the issue of early resignation before the governor (Radio Ekho Moskvy, December 26, 2000). So far, Nazdratenko remains in office. But the attacks on him are unlikely to cease, given that his defeat is no less important for the Kremlin that its victory in Ulyanovsk (see the Monitor, January 4).