Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 18

The new political situation in Russia’s regions: the view from Saratov

By Ilya Malyakin

Over the past year, a new political situation has taken shape in Russia’s provinces. Gubernatorial elections have now been held, often for the first time, in almost all of the country’s regions. The central Russian press portrayed these elections as contests between "reformers" and their Communist foes. Often the simple, black and white interpretation put forward by the Moscow media was adopted by regional politicians and their advisers. From the point of view of an independent observer, however, it did not reflect the real situation.

Regional leaders learned the lessons of Russia’s 1996 presidential campaign, and concluded that victory was most easily achieved by combining an aggressive propaganda campaign in the controlled mass media with a mobilization of all the administrative and organizational resources at their command. This enabled regional leaders to exert both direct and indirect influence to persuade the electorate to vote as the leaders wanted. Incidentally, not all the campaigning methods employed by regional leaders were entirely legal.

The cohort of governors which has emerged as a result of the elections differs markedly from those who proceeded them. All of Russia’s regional leaders now have a popular mandate to govern. The outgoing cohort was formed through a long process of presidential appointment and re-appointment, and only very rarely by elections; when elections did take place, they did so on an uncoordinated and ad hoc basis. But this is not the only difference between the old and new cohorts. The new situation also presupposes far greater independence on the part of regional leaders, much more awareness on their part of the importance of information technology (especially as regards to the creation of an image both of the region and of its leader), increased weight for local, pragmatic interests at the expense of federal interests, a sharp decrease in the influence of party-political organizations, and a corresponding increase in the role of the non-party administrative apparatus.

The one thing that has not happened is the division of regions into ideologically-opposed camps, and this I would like to discuss in detail. I will refer mainly to the Volga region, with its preponderance of large, strong oblasts and republics. (1)

The process under which governors were first appointed, in the first half of the 1990s, and the motives which guided the president in choosing this man over another were not always clear, at least at the time. Where the president "guessed right" and appointed a governor who either satisfied the existing local elites or was able to come to terms with them, the region quickly and smoothly formed a "power pyramid" and made the transition to a self-contained existence. The influence of the federal center was only weakly felt. Communications with the center passed through a single channel, controlled by the governor’s team. The region virtually disappeared from the field of vision of the central media and the federal authorities, who quietly abdicated control over events in the region to the local administration. This is what happened in Astrakhan, Volgograd and Samara oblasts. The only exception was Nizhny Novgorod oblast, where Governor Boris Nemtsov grasped earlier than his colleagues the significance of cooperating with the media and worked hard to form a positive image of his region, seeing to it that this image was regularly projected through federal information channels. I will refer to these oblasts as "the first group of oblasts."

But there was also a "second group of oblasts." Here, the governors failed to find a common language with the local elites. These oblasts required the constant attention of the federal center, which maintained contact through a number of channels. The contending groups, unable to find solutions on their own, were forced to run to Moscow for help, trying to strengthen their positions. But the center was unable to exert real control over the situation. It had to rely on contradictory and tendentious information (even the President’s representatives in the regions, who should have been working as defenders of the center’s interests, got caught up in the intra-regional power struggle). This meant Moscow was often in the dark about what was really going on. These oblasts became a source of constant irritation, distracting the center from more important things — until Moscow helped them move into the "first group."

Thus, in early 1992, Boris Yeltsin removed the embattled governor of Ulyanovsk oblast and replaced him with Yury Goryachev. The following year, Yeltsin permitted a gubernatorial election to be held in Penza oblast to replace its leader.

What I have just said refers to oblasts. Russia’s autonomous republics, which received much more independence from the outset, went through a completely different process of forming new governmental structures. This applies not only to the textbook examples of Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, but also to the republics of Kalmykia, Marii-El, Mordovia and Chuvashia. This inequality has provoked much criticism, most often from opposition leaders who have regularly demanded that Russia move to a uniform administrative system. It is significant, however, that those governors who had real power in their regions were much less likely to express themselves on this matter, were less adamant when they did so and, over time, stopped talking about it altogether. The reason is obvious. As long as Moscow did not interfere in the internal running of their oblasts, governors had no less power and authority than republican leaders. And while demonstrations of independence by the republics were public and were discussed in the central press, "autonomous" activity on the part of oblast administrations received almost no publicity — the channels of information to Moscow in the "first group oblasts" were all, in one way or another, controlled by the local authorities and the national media showed, as a rule, no interest in what was going on in the periphery, unless forced to by unusual circumstances.

The transformation of governors from appointed to elected officials has made the oblasts effectively equal both with the republics and with each other. Saratov oblast, which underwent a striking metamorphosis between 1996 and 1997, is perhaps the Volga region’s most vivid example of this equalization.

When 1996 began, Saratov was a typical "second group" region. Yury Belykh, the weak, "compromise" oblast head of administration, had been appointed by the president after a long and fruitless struggle between different political groups. He acted in isolation, without the support of the local elites, and was almost completely unable to exert serious influence on events in the oblast.

In February 1996, Belykh was removed by presidential decree and Dmitri Ayatskov, formerly first deputy mayor of Saratov, took over his post. Ayatskov was appointed on a kind of probation since presidential elections were approaching and his success or failure in the upcoming gubernatorial elections would depend less on his own skill than on the outcome of the presidential contest. Ayatskov immediately plunged into action. Almost the first thing he did was to propose that Saratov’s gubernatorial election, originally scheduled for December, be brought forward to September 1. This meant Saratov would attract national attention since it would be the first region to hold an election after the presidential election. Ayatskov was already signaling his determination that Saratov oblast would occupy a special place in Russia.

Ayatskov made it successfully through his "probation." The oblast as a whole voted against Yeltsin in the presidential election, but Ayatskov was able to narrow the gap noticeably in the second round and, on that basis, boldly proclaimed that the oblast had been "wrenched out of the Red Belt."

It soon became clear that Ayatskov intended to assume full power in the oblast, and was not inclined to share it. One of his first, widely-publicized, initiatives was the Oblast Peace and Accord Agreement. This document was signed by the leaders of political organizations, editors of the local media, enterprise directors, and raion heads of administration. The signing was a formal ceremony, reminiscent of the feudal procedure of taking the oath to one’s lord. Some local figures declined to take part. They included the oblast organization of the Russian Communist Party (CPRF), which remains the only real opposition force in the oblast. But other "opposition" groups, such as the local organization of Liberal Democratic Party, signed the agreement and were smoothly assimilated by the new government.

In the gubernatorial election, Ayatskov ran under the slogan "Let’s Make Saratov the Capital of the Volga Region!" The governor’s theme remained consistent: the need to raise the oblast’s prestige and make Saratov an example for the rest of Russia. Virtually all of the local media were mobilized to work on his campaign.

As soon as the election was over, the oblast took on the characteristics of a region of the "first type," but with the Nizhny Novgorod "reservation." Ayatskov continued to work to raise the oblast’s profile, concentrating on large-scale actions that would resonate both in the region and beyond its borders, such as ensuring that all pension arrears were paid. Many of his actions were clearly publicity-seeking in character, but they all seemed to confirm that the new governor had fundamentally changed the fate of the region and turned it around from being a depressed region into one of those most attractive for investors. The creation of a new regional myth, in which Ayatskov himself plays the leading role, should perhaps be considered his crowning achievement.

All this activity was noticed by Moscow. Yeltsin’s praise of Ayatskov rang out during the course of his visit to Saratov in August. Moscow stopped interfering in the affairs of the oblast to such an extent that it did not notice those of the new governor’s actions that violated federal legislation. The most striking feature of the second Duma, elected in August 1997, is that it does not contain a single Communist. Instead its composition corresponds, almost exactly, to the list of candidates supported by Ayatskov. Except for the CPRF, none of the oblast’s political parties participated seriously in the elections. All this allowed the governor to boast that he had formed a "one-party system" in the oblast, with the only party being the "party of power."

The second Duma elections took place in a rather peculiar way — for example, the candidates did not receive free TV air time, in spite of a court decision requiring it, and the local newspapers refused to print the Communists’ campaign materials, even for money. Again, with the exception of the CPRF, no-one protested. And, because the Communists were not allowed access to the television, no-one paid them any attention.


Saratov oblast is gradually being transformed into an ersatz-state. It has not declared autonomy, but it is not inclined to pay close attention to federal legislation, either. The situation in Saratov is far from unique, however. There are parallels with Tatarstan or Kalmykia, for example. In fact, Saratov is only an extreme example of a process that is taking place all over Russia. The federal center is continuing to retreat from the regions, and local elites are springing into the vacuum. Yeltsin’s 1991 call to Russia’s regions to "take as much autonomy as you can swallow" was immediately heeded in the autonomous republics. Now the gubernatorial elections have made it possible for the oblasts to follow suit. Yeltsin’s praise for Ayatskov’s administration will not be lost on other regional leaders, who are increasingly less inclined to submit to Moscow’s diktat and demand, instead, to be treated as equals.


(1) The Greater Volga Association includes the republics of Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Mordovia and Marii-El as well as Astrakhan, Nizhny Novgorod, Penza, Samara, Saratov, Ulyanovsk and Volgograd oblasts. Samara, Tatarstan, and Nizhny Novgorod are all donor regions which pay more into the federal budget than they receive in state subsidies. Saratov, Astrakhan and Ulyanovsk are slightly less prosperous; Volgograd and Marii-El are the poorest members of the group.

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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