Siloviki Increasingly Moscow’s Weapon of Choice in Regional Affairs

By Paul Goble
Short on the supply of carrots it used to keep the Russian Federation’s regional leaders in line in the past, Moscow is increasingly relying on the siloviki (security services personnel) and the courts to bring them to heel. Over the last month, this development has led to the dismissal and arrest of a number of regional heads and is casting a shadow over others, who are fearful that they may be next. Such fears have the potential to change politics in Russia’s regions: many leaders there will hew even more closely to Moscow’s line lest they find themselves behind bars, while at least some others may think about other means of avoiding that fate.
In its March 2015 report, the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation noted that three of the top five events in Russia’s regions had involved the use of siloviki to arrest and charge the heads of regions or other top regional-level officials. Ranking number one in its list of events was the arrest on corruption charges and dismissal of Sakhalin Governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin; ranking fourth was the arrest of Chelyabinsk Oblast Vice Governor Nikolay Sandarkov; and ranking fifth were the arrests of prominent politicians and business people in Karelia. Each of these actions sent a signal far beyond the borders of the regions and republics involved (, March 2015 Report, released April 7).
The March 4 arrest of Sakhalin Governor Khoroshavin marked “the most high-profile intervention of the law enforcement organs into regional politics over the last several years,” according to the Foundation. Because of the publicity it received, his arrest and removal from office signaled to other regional heads that Moscow is now prepared to use similar tactics against anyone who does not do exactly what the center wants. This gives Moscow yet another means to move against them in a nominally non-political way.
The arrest of the Chelyabinsk vice governor also creates a precedent, one that the St. Petersburg Foundation suggests is likely to be “used in the course of future elections.” That is because it strikes at the heart of what has been Moscow’s method of funneling resources to regional elites so that they are in a position to use “administrative” means to ensure that they win. But now with this arrest, it appears the Kremlin is casting about for a new means of channeling such resources, something that will limit the power of regional elites still further while potentially, at least in some cases, reducing the imbalance between the resources available to incumbents and those in the hands of opponents. As a result, what appears to be intended as a tightening of the screws may work in the opposite direction.
And finally the wave of arrests by Moscow siloviki in Karelia—begun earlier this year—has expanded, involving the chairman of the Petrozavodsk city council, a former Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) member, and two opposition Yabloko party activists, one of whom is also on the republic capital’s city council. The first two arrests passed largely unnoticed there, but the latter two sparked two mass protests and demands for the ouster of the Moscow-installed republic head.

The Karelian protests are the exception that proves the rule: Despite expectations that the worsening economic crisis in Russia would lead to a coming together of social and political protests, that has not happened. However, Moscow’s use of the siloviki to control regional affairs almost certainly is going to provide more occasions for that in the future.