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Putin is firing a whole bunch of governors again. Why does this keep happening?

Meduza
15:43, 27 september 2017

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with acting Samara Governor Nikolai Merkushkin, July 21, 2014

Alexey Nikolsky / TASS / Vida Press

In the past two days, Vladimir Putin has fired two governors, and another pair have announced their own forthcoming resignations. Over the next few days, the leadership in nearly a dozen Russian regions is expected to change. Meduza looks at the main questions raised by these major shifts in power.

Why is this happening right now?

The first governor to bite the dust — Samara Governor Nikolai Merkushkin, who formally asked to be replaced — said he doesn’t associate his dismissal with his performance in office, calling the decision the beginning of a trend to rejuvenate Russia’s gubernatorial ranks. Ramazan Abdulatipov, the outgoing head of the Dagestani government, riffed on this theme, as well, calling it “beautification” work. These interpretations dovetail with what a Kremlin source told the news agency RBC immediately after Russia’s September 10 elections: the voting was a success, and there’s popular demand for a renewal of the country’s gubernatorial corps.

Sources tell the newspaper Kommersant that the Kremlin decided to start its “rejuvenation” project as early as possible, in order to give the new governors enough time to prepare for Russia’s presidential campaign season, which officially begins in December.

Is Putin only firing the governors who failed to mobilize voters in September’s elections?

Nope. Technically speaking, Putin has only fired the governors in Samara and Nizhny Novgorod — two regions that didn’t even hold elections this month. In elections last year, United Russia — the country’s ruling political party — enjoyed good results in both regions, winning 50.8 percent of the votes in Samara and 58.2 percent in Nizhny Novgorod. (United Russia averaged 54.2 percent of the vote in those elections nationwide.) The party grabbed almost 89 percent of the electorate in Dagestan (its highest support anywhere but Chechnya), but Ramazan Abdulatipov is nonetheless stepping down, saying he’s too old to remain on the job.

So the Kremlin is just swapping out old governors for young ones?

Not always. Sources tell Kommersant that that governors are getting the boot in almost a dozen regions. In only half of these regions (Dagestan, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Krasnoyarsk, and the Altai Territory) are the regional heads among the ten oldest Russian governors in office. Igor Koshin, the head of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, is expected to step down, and he’s only 43 years old. Koshin is even younger than Dmitry Azarov, whom Putin just appointed to be Samara’s new governor.

So who’s coming into power? Is this another reshuffling, like when Putin and Medvedev swapped jobs?

No. So far, the president’s two acting gubernatorial appointments are young “newcomers.” Dmitry Azarov, Samara’s new governor, served four years as the mayor of Samara. The new head of Nizhny Novgorod, Gleb Nikitin, was a first deputy head of Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry. Both of these men belonged to the Kremlin’s personnel reserve.

It’s still unknown whom the president will choose to replace Abdulatipov in Dagestan and Viktor Tolokonsky in Krasnoyarsk. According to Kommersant, the latter’s job could go to Sergey Sokol, a former deputy governor in Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk. Today, he serves as board chairman at the defense company “Oboronprom.”

Should we expect to see governors dropping like flies for the foreseeable future?

We don’t know. Vladimir Putin used to dismiss governors either when their terms were ending or ahead of elections, so they could run for office and win a popular mandate. On a single day in May 2014, for example, the president dismissed five governors, so they could then stand in coming elections. The Kremlin used this strategy (mass firings on a single day) until late 2016. Since then, however, Putin has carried out his gubernatorial reassignments in waves. The first of these waves came in the winter of 2017, and then another followed in the spring. This week’s developments are a third wave.

Russian text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Kevin Rothrock