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Russians have elected several new ‘opposition’ governors, here's the likely fate that awaits these politicians, warts and all

Meduza
LDPR candidate Sergey Furgal voting during the runoff gubernatorial election in Khabarovsk
LDPR candidate Sergey Furgal voting during the runoff gubernatorial election in Khabarovsk
Dmitry Morgulis / TASS / Vida Press

On September 23, LDPR candidates won runoff gubernatorial elections in the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions. After a first-round election in Khakassia, where Communist Party candidate Valentin Konovalev won the most votes, incumbent Governor Viktor Zimin withdrew from the race, virtually ensuring that Konovalev will win the second round. LDPR and the Communist Party, meanwhile, have vowed to form coalition governments in “their” regions. But what happens next for Russia’s new “opposition” governors? In the following text, Meduza looks at a few likely scenarios, based on what’s happened to opposition candidates who’ve won past elections. (Some examples concern mayors because direct gubernatorial elections were abolished in Russia between 2005 and 2012. Before the recent upsets, just one opposition candidate won a gubernatorial race in the past six years.)

Scenario 1: Police will open a criminal case against the new governor

How things could play out

The new governor spends some time in office, relatively unhindered by the authorities, until law enforcement agencies suddenly start questioning people from his entourage, and possibly charging some of them with criminal activity. Next, the governor himself is under investigation. Russian laws are designed in such a way that there’s a criminal charge for every state official, and it doesn’t have to be corruption or embezzlement. Most regional governments operate budgetary deficits, forcing governors, mayors, and the local authorities to maneuver their resources, for example, by redirecting money allocated for road work to something more urgent, like repairing a school or a hospital. For this, officials are sometimes charged with “misappropriating funds.”

Police are also fond of charging elected officials with the “abuse of authority,” which can include a vaguely interpreted illegal use of government vehicles, or the supposedly unlawful allocation of state grants or state-owned real estate. In recent years, the authorities have also liked to charge officials under different anti-corruption statutes.

Examples

In 2012, oppositionist Evgeny Urlashov won Yaroslavl’s mayoral race. A year later, he was charged with bribery, and later sentenced to 12 years in prison.

In February 2005, oil producer and senior Arkhangelsk legislative assembly deputy Alexey Barinov won the Nenets Autonomous Okrug’s gubernatorial election, though the authorities had backed a different oilman, Alexander Shmakov. Within a year, Barinov was arrested on fraud charges, and President Putin soon dismissed him, declaring a formal “loss of confidence.” In 2007, a court acquitted Barinov of most of the charges and sentenced him to probation.

Scenario 2: The new governor will join United Russia

How things could play out

Not long after taking office, the new governor says United Russia does a lot for his region, and he announces that he’s decided to join the party, so he can “work more effectively.” For governors, this is something like insurance against criminal prosecution, since arresting a member of United Russia casts a shadow on Russia’s entire power vertical. Governors who join the party can count on relatively greater security, though it doesn’t make them entirely untouchable.

Examples

Viktor Kondrashov was elected mayor of Irkutsk in March 2010 with support from the Communist Party (he'd previously served in the regional parliament as a deputy from the Communist Party). In June, however, he declared that he was now a United Russia supporter, and a few months later he formally joined the party of power.

“When I launched my campaign, I had the support of the Communist Party. But I won thanks to the people’s trust. They voted for their future and for my qualities as a leader, and I’ve demonstrated through my work that the city has gotten better, and this has all been with the support of United Russia,” Kondrashev explained at the time.

Elsewhere in the Irkutsk region, but also in 2010, Just Russia candidate Viktor Tashkinov won the mayoral race in Ust-Ilimsk. A year later, he too joined United Russia. Likewise, Communist candidate Roman Grebennikov became mayor of the city of Volgograd in 2007, and then switched to United Russia within a year. (He was even appointed to head the welcome committee for Vladimir Putin’s visit to the region.) Joining the ruling political party doesn’t always protect you from criminal prosecution or dismissal, however, and Grebennikov was kicked out of office in 2011, while Tashkinov was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2017 on bribery charges.

Scenario 3: The new governor will be dismissed

How things could play out

President Putin fires the new governor, declaring a “loss of confidence.” Or deputies in a regional legislative assembly vote to impeach the governor. The procedure is remarkably simple: at least a third of the deputies need to support raising the issue, and at least half of the assembly has to vote for impeachment. United Russia controls a majority of the seats on regional assemblies in Khabarovsk, Khakassia, and Vladimir — meaning they could oust any of the new opposition governors, who already face allegations that they lack experience and effective teams to fulfill their leadership roles.

Examples

The most memorable “loss of confidence” firing was when President Medvedev dismissed long-serving Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in 2010, though this admittedly wasn’t tied to elections. In recent years, no legislative assembly has ousted a governor, but in 2015 the local parliament impeached Petrozavodsk Mayor Galina Shirshina, who’d been elected two years earlier with support from the opposition party Yabloko. (Shirshina fell afoul of Alexander Khudilainen, the regional governor and a United Russia member.) In the Tver region, Kimry Mayor and Communist party member Roman Andreev suffered a similar fate: after holding on for three years, the local legislative assembly dismissed him for “unsatisfactory work.”

Scenario 4: The new governor will be allowed to serve out his term quietly

How things could play out

The new governor doesn’t challenge the political system and goes about his job quietly, just like fellow party members who owe their governorships to the Kremlin, such as LDPR member Alexey Ostrovsky in Smolensk and Communist Party member Andrey Klychkov in Oryol.

Examples

In 2015, Communist Party nominee Sergey Levchenko won the Irkutsk region’s gubernatorial race, defeating the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, Sergey Eroshchenko. Levchenko has enjoyed a relatively comfortable tenure in office, though police have opened a criminal investigation against his son. Also, ahead of the 2018 regional elections, a compromising video leaked online showing Levchenko hunting down and killing a bear.

Scenario 5: The Kremlin could change the rules of gubernatorial elections

How things could play out

The Kremlin could initiate legislative amendments that would abolish runoff elections, handing victory to whichever candidate wins the most votes in the first round. Armed with the state’s considerable “administrative resources,” candidates with Kremlin backing would find it much easier to prevail in these races, and this is precisely why United Russia candidates typically win single-mandate races in parliamentary elections.

Alternatively, the Kremlin could return to the previous scheme whereby governors are appointed by the president through local legislative assemblies. According to this system, the president proposes the appointment of a new governor and then selects one from a list of three candidates from the party with the most seats in the regional legislative assembly. The local legislature then votes on (and invariably accepts) his nomination. In fact, in Russia’s North Caucasus (except Chechnya) and several oil-rich regions still use this system.

Examples

After opposition candidates started winning mayoral races in 2013 and 2014 (Evgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg, Galina Shirshina in Petrozavodsk, and Anatoly Lokot in Novosibirsk), federal lawmakers granted regional legislative assemblies the right to determine the structure of their local municipal governments. As a result, regional assemblies across the country started abolishing mayoral elections. Today, just seven of Russia’s 83 regions still elect their mayors directly. If they aspired to mayoral office in Petrozavodsk and Yekaterinburg today, neither Roizman nor Shirshina would stand a chance.

After United Russia failed to win a majority of the State Duma seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections (which were awarded exclusively according to party lists), lawmakers brought back single-mandate races. Five years later, when Russia held its next parliamentary elections, the seats were divided between party-list winners and candidates who won contests for individual “mandates” (seats). Playing by these new rules, United Russia managed to pick up an additional 105 seats, restoring its supermajority.

Text by Andrey Pertsev, Kommersant publishing house, translation by Kevin Rothrock