The last ‘90s man Looking back on Evgeny Savchenko’s 27-year career as governor of Russia’s Belgorod region
The head of Russia’s Belgorod Region, Evgeny Savchenko, served in this post for 27 years, making him the country’s last remaining governor from the Yeltsin era. On Thursday, September 17, he announced his resignation unexpectedly, opting to take up the mandate of regional parliamentary deputy and become a senator. He made the announcement before Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an official notice on his resignation. The last regional heavy-weight — the man who managed to defeat Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the gubernatorial elections in 1990s and drive Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s family out of business in the Belgorod Region — had spoken. “Meduza” special correspondent Andrey Pertsev recounts Evgeny Savchenko’s story.
A Yeltsin governor in a ‘red’ region
“Wild [likhoy] means brave, unpredictable, daring. It seems to me that this concept literally can’t be translated into a foreign language. Same with ‘will’ [volya]. Would a foreigner understand? But in Russian it’s clear immediately, there’s no need to explain anything. For me, the word ‘likhoy’ is more positive than negative,” Evgeny Savchenko said about the “Wild Nineties” (Likhie devyanostye).
After the Kemerovo Region’s governor Aman Tuleyev stepped down in 2018, Savchenko became the last remaining sitting governor from those times. Boris Yeltsin appointed him head of the Belgorod Region back in 1993. Savchenko was born there — his father was the party committee secretary at a major state-owned farm (sovkhoz), so Savchenko junior climbed the party ladder quickly. He became the head of the Municipal Committee in the industrial town of Shebekino at the age of 35. Within a few years he was named deputy head of the Regional Executive Committee. It’s possible that Savchenko would have gone on to lead the region in the Soviet period, but he was forced to go work in Moscow in 1988.
“The fact that I started building a house got me the max, a severe reprimand, according to the party line. To be more precise, I wasn’t even building, but my father took 20,000 rubles from the bank. At the time, all veterans were given construction loans at a low rate. They allocated [one] to my father and I started building, I helped. Someone thought it was immodest,” Evgeny Savchenko said, describing the situation that drove him to move to Moscow. That said, according to political scientist Vitay Ivanov’s book, The Heads of Subjects of the Russian Federation. A History of Governors, Savchenko’s dismissal from the post of Regional Executive Committee head could have been connected to abuses related to the distribution of “Volga” cars, which were a status symbol in the Soviet Union.
The Belgorod apparatchik found a new job in the Agriculture Ministry, where he continued to work after the collapse of the USSR. The Kremlin took notice of this relatively young civil servant and in 1993, he was invited to return to his home region as its leader and took office as head of the regional administration (at the time of his appointment as governor, Savchenko was 43 years old).
“They were looking among the Belgorodtsy who worked in Moscow. I was deputy head of the Main Committee, apparently, I ended up in the personnel files. And that was it…we didn’t even meet [with Yeltsin] at that time. I only spoke with the head of the [presidential] administration, Sergey Filatov, and [we went] forward. I took up office. And with great pleasure! It wasn’t a matter of the position or the status, I was attracted by the region, [my] home,” Savchenko says when recounting the story of his appointment.
Back then, Savchenko fit in perfectly among the new, democratic governors: indeed, he was critical of the Soviet past (Savchenko would maintain these views — in 2013, the Lenin monument from Belgorod’s main square was transferred to a less prestigious place).
But by 1994, the Belgorod governor had chosen a special economic development path for this agricultural region: the regional administration started to take ownership of large land plots and encourage the creation of agricultural holdings (their owners were often affiliated with the administration). Savchenko himself claimed that he “spotted” the system of establishing agricultural holdings in Belarus. “We liked what we saw in Belarus. Then we studied the experience of Canada [and] the US too — we took all the best [parts],” he explained.
Defeating the ‘Real Zhirinovsky’
In 1995, Savchenko won his first gubernatorial election. The Belgorod Region is located in Russia’s Black Earth region, which was considered a “red zone” at the time (a pro-Communist region). But the incumbent governor received 55 percent of the vote in the first round and defeated the Communist Party’s (KPRF) nominee. The Belgorod authorities working to create agricultural holdings was perhaps the reason for Savchenko’s victory: at the time, this was perceived as a return to Soviet roots — the agricultural holdings were reminiscent of large collective and state-owned farms. In the midst of the “red” Black Earth region, the Belgorod Region looked like an island of tranquility, a place where they repaired roads, built housing, and you could find a job (albeit, a low paid one). Living in the Kursk Region in the 1990s, Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev (the author of this report) heard conversations about this from local residents himself.
In 1999, Savchenko ran in his second gubernatorial race. What could have been a routine matter was complicated by the fact that Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky was nominated as a candidate for governor. Savchenko publicly stated that the bombastic party leader came to the region because the presidential administration promised him the governor’s post in exchange for his refusal to support Boris Yeltsin’s impeachment in the State Duma.
However a source in the LDPR who was involved in this campaign (and who asked to be quoted anonymously) tells the story differently. “At the time, Zhirinovsky was preparing for the State Duma elections, he needed money for the party’s campaign. He asked Savchenko for a serious sum to support the LDPR [saying]: ‘Or else, I’ll run for governor.’ Savchenko didn’t give [it to him], either out of principle or because he didn’t have that much, [either way] he refused Zhirinovsky. The party leader had to run, in order to save face,” he recalls.
According to Meduza’s source, back then Evgeny Savchenko wasn’t a “super governor,” he was simply considered a strong manager, so it was assumed that a federal politician could definitely win the election. “Although at that time Belgorod was different from other Russian regions, even from Moscow. In a typical regional center you were met with ruin and despondency, in Belgorod everything was clean as a whistle,” Meduza’s source says.
But for Zhirinovsky — a politician who’s known for promising every woman a man and every man a bottle of vodka, and calling on his fellow citizens to go wash their boots in the Indian Ocean (to paraphrase his expansionist vision for Russia), — his flamboyant image got in the way of his victory. “Back then we came up with the concept of the ‘Real Zhirinovsky’: the LDPR leader is, in fact, an experienced and wise politician. All of that showing off is a skillful cut and paste job by journalists who only serve up refried facts and loud words. Zhirinovsky himself likes this a lot: ‘That’s what I’m like!’ However, a good idea doesn’t last long…” the source who worked for Zhirinovsky’s campaign says with a shrug.
Savchenko’s political strategists quickly realized that this image could be ruined by taking advantage of Zhirinovsky’s pressure points. “You come to the village and near the meeting place there’s a huge K-700 tractor with the engine running, which gets in the way of speaking. Fired up grandmothers from Savchenko’s [campaign] headquarters come to the meeting, they ask inconvenient questions and Zhirinovsky flares up like firewood: ‘Be quiet, I’m talking here!’,” Meduza’s sources says, recalling their techniques.
After one of these meetings, the infuriated Zhirinovsky noticed a herd of geese on the way out of the village; he stopped the motorcade, asked his bodyguards for a pistol, and started firing at the birds — but, according to the campaign staffer’s recollections, he didn’t hit anyone.
“There was also this case. Before leaving for one of the regions, they sent a [campaign van] there to canvas [for Zhirinovsky]. A mobster in a red Audi cut them off. Zhirinovsky’s motorcade passed by this spot shortly afterwards. He got out and went up to the mobster — who was already [quite surprised]: Wow, Zhirinovsky came for a fight — The LDPR leader asked him for his license and tore it up, saying, you bought it. Zhirinovsky’s bodyguards pushed the Audi into a ditch and he himself made the mobster get down on his knees. The whole region heard about this and it was negatively received,” says the LDPR source with a sigh.
Gathered from all across Russia, the campaign vehicles from the LDPR’s regional party branches with “For Belgorod!” written on them didn’t add to Zhirinovsky’s popularity: residents of the region saw his arrival as an occupation. As a result, the LDPR leader only got third place in the election — second place went to Communist Mikhail Beskhmelnitsyn. Savchenko won 53.4 percent of the vote. A source close to the Belgorod governor’s office admits that the results could have been rigged in Evgeny Savchenko’s favor to avoid a second round of voting — but “not by much.”
Welcome to ‘Holy Belogorye’
Six years after this campaign, in 2005 (Savchenko was re-elected as governor once again in the meantime), a new conflict arose between the Belgorod regional governor and a figure at the federal level. Savchenko came up against the company “Inteco-Agro,” which belonged to Yelena Baturina — the wife of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
At first, Inteco came to the region with the support of the local authorities: it bought land from the regional administration and started buying up properties from people living in remote areas. At a certain point, the governor started to feel that the company had become a threat: Inteco paid its workers well, was competing with local holdings for personnel, and had taken control of the local LDPR branch.
Formally, the rift was over the land around the Yakovlevsky Mine, which belonged to Vitaly Chernomydrin’s company Metall-Grupp (Vitaly is the son of former Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin) — the company built a rail link to the area. The regional authorities claimed that Inteco transferred ownership of these lands over to the region, and that it, in turn, handed it over to Metall-Grupp. Inteco, on the other hand, considered the deal to have fallen through. The company’s lawyer, Dmitry Shteinberg was killed in Moscow and there was an attempt on the life of Inteco-Agro’s executive director Alexander Annenkov in Belgorod. The conflict reached a peak during the elections to the Belgorod Regional Legislative Assembly. At this point, Yelena Baturina turned to President Vladimir Putin directly.
“Governor Evgeny Savchenko, as well as his relative — Belgorod Mayor Vasily Potryasayev, are exploiting administrative resource, have repeatedly robbed the company, and made threats against Inteco-Agro leaders, in particular, Alexander Annenkov,” Baturina wrote in her appeal to the Russian president. “Despite appeals to law enforcement agencies, not a single criminal case has been opened on these facts. A single Russian region has returned to the times of the Inquisition — they’re burning newspapers at the stake, and chopping up newspaper publishers and agricultural producers with axes. [There’s] blood and intimidation once again…Before the eyes of the entire country, Belgorod is turning into the criminal capital of Russia, where freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise are being strangled by criminal methods.”
Evgeny Savchenko replied as follows: “Today, they’re pouring dirt on us, on me, on the region, all of the feces pumps are being turned on in order to blacken our achievements, to discredit me, and to show in the public eye that the Belgorod Region is actually completely different, that the Belgorod Region is a place where social issues are handled very poorly, that it’s a place where it’s difficult to live. That it’s time to think about changing the government in the Belgorod region.
The governor emerged from this conflict victorious: Inteco left the region. Evgeny Savchenko never had another conflict of this magnitude.
Savchenko gradually built a completely managed political system within the region, preventing the growth of a strong opposition: in elections to the regional legislative assembly, United Russia always won 60–65 percent of the vote (in the September 2020 elections, they won 66.5 percent). Evgeny Savchenko was always head of the ruling party’s ticket.
The governor tried to keep a potential competitor from emerging from among his subordinates — promising government officials were always honorably exiled. For example, Savchenko’s former deputy Oleg Polyukhkin was shifted into the post of Belgorod University rector; the ambitious, political, deputy governor Valery Sergachev was also dismissed. Serious positions in the regional administration and the region’s municipalities have been taken up by the relatives of officials in Savchenko’s inner-circle. A closed system also developed in regional business: people close to the governor run the region’s major agricultural holdings.
Under Savchenko, the Orthodox Church’s influence in the region increased considerably: churches began to pop up everywhere, not only in city districts, but also in townships and villages, and even at local enterprises. The region acquired the grandiose (or for some people, ironic) nickname of “Holy Belogorye.” In 2006, it became a pioneer in the introduction of lessons on Orthodox culture in schools; the region has a law on “spiritual security” and schools are banned from celebrating Valentine’s Day and Halloween. In addition, women seeking abortions are urged to speak with priests and psychologists. The Belgorod Region also started banning rock and rap concerts long before this became a countrywide trend. However, Savchenko could always afford himself a lot more liberties than other Russian governors, and he took advantage of this.
“Show me at least one governor who took a place in the [federal] government. Look, [Boris] Nemtsov is a talented person […] A person who thinks in an original way. True, he entered into a political struggle and dug in his heels. But if his energy were directed the right way, it could have brought so much benefit to the country,” the governor said in an interview with the conservative newspaper Kultura in 2014. At the time, Boris Nemtsov was strongly opposing the Kremlin — by the next year, 2015, he had been killed.
At the end of Savchenko’s fifth term, in 2017, residents of the region had grown noticeably tired of him. He won the gubernatorial elections, but lost in the region’s second largest city, Stary Oskol, receiving just 36 percent of the vote and yielding to Communist Party candidate Stanislav Panov. Political strategist Pyotr Bystrov, who has worked on several election campaigns in the region, assures Meduza that Savchenko’s ratings have gone back up since then. In any case, his sixth term had to be his last: according to a 2015 law, a regional head who won two election campaigns in a row after the return of gubernatorial elections in 2012 isn’t eligible to run again.
And yet, the Kremlin didn’t let the governor finish out his final term — Savchenko’s mandate would have expired in 2022. At the same time, a Meduza source close to the Kremlin didn’t consider his resignation unexpected: “His departure started coming under discussion in 2019, at the time they planned to appointment a person from the security structures in his place, but the governor was allowed to hold the elections [to the regional legislative assembly on September 13].”
The Belgorod Region’s governor was thinking about his successor. According to a source close to the regional leadership, it could be Stary Oskol Mayor Alexander Sergiyenko. Meduza’s source close to the Kremlin says Savchenko was afraid that Moscow wanted to see the head of the Federal Tax Service for St. Petersburg, Alexander Gnedykh, become governor — Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin supported his candidacy (Gnedykh was the mayor of Stary Oskol prior to 2017 and came into conflict with Savchenko).
Either way, it’s most likely that Denis Butsayev — the former head of the public company Russian Environmental Operator, who, on the day Savchenko reigned unexpectedly, became the first deputy governor of the region — will become the acting governor. And thus, Russia’s last heavy-weight governor will be replaced by a technocrat with no political experience.
Translation by Eilish Hart