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Chelyabinsk Oblast Temporary Acting Governor Alexey Teksler, presidential representative for the Ural Federal Okrug Nikolay Tsukanov, and former Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Boris Dubrovsky. March 20, 2019

Why is the Kremlin replacing multiple regional governors right before Russia’s fall elections?

Source: Meduza
Chelyabinsk Oblast Temporary Acting Governor Alexey Teksler, presidential representative for the Ural Federal Okrug Nikolay Tsukanov, and former Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Boris Dubrovsky. March 20, 2019
Chelyabinsk Oblast Temporary Acting Governor Alexey Teksler, presidential representative for the Ural Federal Okrug Nikolay Tsukanov, and former Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Boris Dubrovsky. March 20, 2019
Nail Fattakhanov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On March 19 and 20, three Russian regional leaders all handed in their resignations. Even more regional government heads are expected to join their colleagues from Chelyabinsk Oblast, Kalmykia, and the Altai Republic and resign in the coming weeks. Russian political experts argue that this series of resignations stems from high disapproval ratings among certain regional governors and conflicts in the Russian provinces that may cause difficulties for the Kremlin in September’s nationwide elections.

The “bundled” resignations that are a staple of pre-election season in Russia have begun in earnest: Chelyabinsk Oblast’s Governor Boris Dubrovsky, Kalmyk government head Alexey Orlov, and Altai Republic leader Alexander Perdnikov have all tendered their resignations. Russian media sources also reported that Governor Marina Kovtun of Murmansk Oblast has already drafted an announcement in preparation for leaving her post, while Orenburg Oblast’s Governor Yury Berg denied that he would also resign. That list of names may grow in the coming days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already named a temporary acting head for the Kalmyk government: decorated kickboxer and former Federation Soviet member Bata Khasikov, 38, will take over for Alexey Orlov. Putin named 46-year-old satellite navigation nonprofit head Oleg Khorokhordin the acting head of the Altai Republic — he was born in Altai Krai, a neighboring region. The responsibilities of Chelyabinsk Oblast’s governor will fall to 46-year-old Chelyabinsk native Alexey Teksler.

“The government has to think hard about approval ratings”

Experts have pointed out that every regional leader who has resigned in the current wave struggled with low approval ratings and conflicts with important political players within the regions they governed. “They’re taking out all of the governors that have high disapproval ratings. Last year’s story [when opposition candidates won in Khabarovsk Krai and Vladimir Oblast and the far eastern Primorye region had to repeat its election] showed that those governors can provoke protest votes even if they don’t have a serious opponent,” explained political consultant Abbas Gallyamov. He added that Russia’s municipal filter, which requires region-wide candidates to collect signatures of support from a given percentage of local legislators, “stops being a universal means of defense against electoral trouble, and the government ends up having to think hard about the approval ratings of its candidates.”

Andrey Kolyadin, a political strategist and former employee of Putin’s executive administration, pointed out that many of the resignations in question had already been predicted due to internal conflicts among regional elites. “What has been happening lately in Chelyabinsk’s internal politics is hell, it’s Pakistan. Under Dubrovsky, existing internal political issues to which he did not pay enough attention really reached a destructive point,” Kolyadin explained. “What happened with Marina Kovtun, everything that was going on around Berdnikov with all his ecological problems and logging and all the rest — all of that was a constant battle in the realm of information warfare. [Media sources] imagined locking up Kovtun or kicking her out almost on a weekly basis, and this was all happening within her own region.”

According to Kolyadin, that “constant war” frustrated the political center of the Russian Federation immensely and decreased the region’s governability. The strategist indicated that the Kremlin finds more benefit in a setup like the “Yaroslav scenario, when someone just comes in and bends everyone to his will like a general, than when the region stumbles and staggers along, everybody gets soaked, and nobody can get the result that the center needs,” whether that result is a successful election or the distribution of federal funds.

Political scientist Alexander Kynev added that the recent resignations have been prompted by a number of factors that accumulated over time. “Everyone has had issues with their ratings, plus a lot of them have issues with law enforcement — people on their teams who aren’t too far from the top have ended up embroiled in all kinds of scandals. Essentially, this is a combination of electoral problems and various conflicts with local elites, activists, and law enforcement agencies,” he explained.

“They’ll have to switch out governors more and more often”

Andrey Kolyadin noted that “bundled” resignations typically happen either in the spring or in the fall. “The first wave was in October, when there was a bundle of eight regions, and now we have a second one,” Kynev added. “The logic of all this is tied to the conditions under which dissatisfaction in the regions can suddenly rise. We used to think that giving a new regional government head additional time [before their next elections] would help things go better for them. In more recent conditions, the more time passes, the more people get frustrated. Now, there will be eight regions in the next elections where the government heads have been in office for a year, and there will also be some fresh faces who will attract a more positive outlook. It’ll be interesting to see whether there will be a difference between the results [of those two groups].”

Alexander Kynev asserted that, in the regions where new governors were appointed in October, “the positivity effect is already close to expiring,” including in Saint Petersburg and Transbaikal. “The worse the situation, the more you’re talking about a perishable item,” Kynev said of those governors. “What’s happening now is a short-term story. If you go further, they’ll have to switch out governors more and more often.” At the same time, he argued that the bundled resignations strategy has obvious problems, including the fact that “the number of players on the bench isn’t endless.”

The Kremlin has no other strategy for future elections

Experts believe that when the Kremlin appoints new regional government heads, it leans toward figures who first and foremost seem capable of winning their next election. The economic or political experience those candidates have is a secondary priority. “Before, these people used to be very strong players, someone who had already left the region, who was [influential] on the level of the vice president of a state-owned corporation, everyone would know who they were and think of them as an influential figure who knows all the elites, all the nuances. In the current moment, that’s no longer the case,” Andrey Kolyadin explained.

Now, he continued, the dominant reasoning of Russia’s political center is quite different: “Let’s appoint them, and then we’ll be the ones to tell them what to do. We’ll give them an economic manager, a political manager. The main thing now is to get past that hurdle of the next election, and then we’ll figure the rest out later,” Kolyadin said. “And if the people who are appointed [happen to] turn out to be talented managers or economists, then the region starts to shine and sparkle in all the colors of the rainbow. But, unfortunately, I can’t give you any examples where that’s been the case — not one. And if that doesn’t happen, then the conflict in the region deepens, and you get more problems that other people will have to solve.”

Kolyadin said the Kremlin uses bundled appointments to “solve tactical problems — nobody thinks about strategy, about what will happen in that region in the future.”

Taisia Bekbulatova

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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