Suing Russia’s president An ‘ultra-Putinist’ ex-governor has made history with a lawsuit challenging his dismissal. Here’s his story.
Mikhail Ignatiev has an interesting list of accomplishments. He lost his job as the head of Chuvashia in January this year after two scandals: first, he advocated “wiping out” bloggers and journalists who praise Western countries, and then he humiliated a fireman by forcing him to jump for the keys to a new fire engine. Ignatiev is now saddling up for his next adventure: becoming the first public official in Russia under Vladimir Putin to contest the presidential order that cost him his governorship. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev takes a closer look at the man who would take Vladimir Putin to court.
Russia’s Supreme Court filed Mikhail Ignatiev’s lawsuit against Vladimir Putin on May 20. The president has reportedly received a copy of the legal claim, which challenges his decision this January to kick Ignatiev out of office. The former governor demands additional government benefits and the retirement package guaranteed to former regional leaders, including lifetime payments at 75 percent of his salary when he was in office (which was roughly 5.4 million rubles, or about $76,520).
The court will consider the case on June 30, but judges rejected his demands for additional government benefits. The Kremlin has declined to comment on the matter, saying it’s not a major concern for President Putin.
Ignatiev hasn’t spoken publicly about the lawsuit either, but that’s probably because he is hospitalized with double pneumonia. According to the Telegram channel Mash, he’s been on life support in St. Petersburg since May 7.
Enter the “inveterate hayseed”
Mikhail Ignatiev became Chuvashia’s governor in 2010, after serving eight years as the republic’s agriculture minister. Sources with ties to the Kremlin told Meduza that wasn’t exactly Moscow’s dream pick for the job. The main concern 10 years ago was getting rid of Nikolai Fyodorov, the region’s long-serving head and one of the “governor-heavyweights” who still wielded enough political clout to challenge the Kremlin. Fyodorov was reluctant to step down, and he tried to choose his own successor before he was finally forced out.
Local human rights leader Alexey Glukhov says Chuvashia’s political establishment didn’t take Ignatiev seriously at first. Glukhov says Ignatiev was known mainly as “a former collective farm director and an inveterate hayseed.” Ignatiev’s appointment as governor was a shock to many.
Initially, Ignatiev presented himself as a true Chuvash patriot, emphasizing his identity and even delivering speeches in his native Chuvash language. Officials in Moscow, however, apparently made it clear to him that this behavior was undesired, and he promptly repositioned himself as a Putin loyalist, says Glukhov.
Even years later, Nikolai Fyodorov continued to make trouble for his successor. In 2012, now serving as Russia’s agriculture minister, Fyodorov wrote an open letter criticizing Ignatiev’s administration, arguing that Chuvashia’s economic growth now lagged behind its neighbors. Around this time, Ignatiev started looking like a lame duck to many politicians in the region, including LDPR local branch leader Andrey Kulagin, who talked publicly about the governor’s imminent end.
Ignatiev didn’t do himself any favors by maintaining a steady stream of gaffes. In 2012, for example, he addressed President Dmitry Medvedev by the wrong name and patronymic. Two years later, local reporters discovered a “secret sauna” inside the Chuvashia government building, which prompted a signature drive by opposition legislators calling for Ignatiev’s ouster.
Despite these embarrassments, Mikhail Ignatiev survived to 2015, earning Moscow’s permission to run for reelection and overcoming objections from within the ruling political party. One high-ranking United Russia member, for instance, complained to Meduza about Ignatiev’s “poor knowledge of Russian” and his “eccentricity.”
To ensure Ignatiev’s reelection, serious competitors were given prized appointments to stay off the ballot. The approach worked: Ignatiev won the race with 65.5 percent of the vote.
“Wiping out” journalists and teasing first responders
Ignatiev drew national media attention on January 18, 2020, when he seemed to advocate violence against journalists and bloggers who criticize the Russian authorities and “write about how good it is in Europe and America.” In a speech on Chuvashia Day, he said, “They need to be wiped out, as the people say. They must be wiped out. We need to make it clear where they’re coming from, what their intentions are, where they live, where they work, and how they earn a living. We have to be talking about this. I don’t want to lecture anyone here, but it’s just a fact that fake news ultimately comes back to the people spreading it.”
Days later, he apologized for the remarks, saying he’d been misunderstood and was referring not to journalists but “people who call themselves journalists.” Human rights leader Alexey Glukhov says he thinks Ignatiev genuinely misspoke when he used the verb mochit’ (to wipe out), given that Russian isn’t his native language, and didn’t intend any harm.
Less than a week later, on January 23, the governor sealed his own fate with another gaffe, dangling a set of keys out of reach from a fireman at a ceremony to present new vehicles to local first responders, forcing him to leap for them.
The scandal prompted public criticism from Evgeny Zinichev, the head of Russia’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. Defending himself, Ignatiev insisted that he has nothing but respect for emergency responders and his spokespeople said he and the officer in question are old friends, but he was nevertheless booted from United Russia on January 27. Two days later, Putin fired him “due to a loss of confidence.”
Admit it: “He’s got balls”
Ignatiev has avoided the public spotlight since he was removed from office, except for an appearance at a martial arts competition in February 2020, but even that brief outing ended poorly: He posed for a photograph with the region’s acting sports minister, who was fired the very next day.
After his ouster, Ignatiev tried to meet with his replacement, acting Governor Oleg Nikolaev, but he wasn’t even allowed to set foot inside Chuvashia’s regional government building. Members of Ignatiev’s old cabinet have also run into problems since Putin fired the governor. Mikhail Vansyatssky, who was forced out with Ignatiev, is challenging his dismissal in a local court. He says several colleagues from the Ignatiev administration are now unable to find new work. “These people who worked in Chuvashia’s government and in the governor’s administration served the state, not Mr. Ignatiev,” Vansyatssky told Meduza.
Several sources, including some of Ignatiev’s own critics, now express a certain respect for his lawsuit against Putin, acknowledging the daringness of challenging the president in court. “Even his opponents now say: yes, he’s got balls,” Alexey Navalny’s local coordinator, Semyon Kochkin, told Meduza. The legal action might not be as confrontational as it seems, however. Alexey Glukhov says he thinks Ignatiev will forever blame his enemies for fooling Putin into ending his governorship.
Local events may explain why Ignatiev is challenging the president’s order now. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one former Chuvash official told Meduza that the final straw for Ignatiev may have been acting Governor Nikolaev’s recent criticism of his legacy in office.
Political scientist Alexander Kynev takes a grander view, arguing that Ignatiev’s lawsuit isn’t just a personal initiative but a reflection of Russia’s general political situation. “Members of the system are experiencing internal frustrations that the system lacks general, uniform rules,” says Kynev. “It’s being manually operated, and Ignatiev can’t understand why he’s being punished while it’s water off a duck’s back for other governors who have made similar or even worse missteps. The lawsuit says more about the system fraying than Ignatiev’s personal qualities.”
“The courts can’t compel confidence”
Mikhail Ignatiev is the 11th governor in Russia to lose his position due to a “loss of confidence” during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, but he is the first to challenge his dismissal in court. Boris Yeltsin faced two such lawsuits when he was in office, but neither case involved a loss of confidence. (One ex-governor won his case against President Yeltsin, but the ruling was never enforced.)
According to Russia’s laws, the president has the power to declare a loss of confidence when a state official is guilty of either corruption or a conflict of interests. Despite the fact that Vladimir Putin has stated publicly that he’s aware of no information suggesting corruption on Ignatiev’s part, the former governor’s lawsuit is hopeless, says legal expert Oleg Molchanov, who told Meduza that the courts lack the authority to compel the president to have confidence in anyone.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock