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Russia's Governors Shake-Up: Fresh Ideas Or 'Illusion Of Renewal'?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

MOSCOW -- As President Vladimir Putin this week continued his run of sackings in Russia's regions, state TV told the nation the Kremlin is grooming a new generation of leaders for top posts across the country.

Channel One on October 8 aired video of a team-building exercise near Sochi in which promising thirty- and forty-something officials were shown in wetsuits and helmets, queuing up to leap from a seven-meter cliff into the water below.

“This is not the end of their career, but rather a step into the future,” the reporter quipped, adding that recent graduates of the Kremlin's new “leadership school” include several of Putin's fresh gubernatorial appointees.

Over the last three weeks, the governors of 11 regions have been replaced in a series of moves that analysts say are designed to give the “illusion of renewal” as Putin, who recently turned 65, prepares to seek a fourth term in March.

“In the Kremlin, the thinking goes that a fresh face in the governor’s seat may reduce the population’s unhappiness and increase turnout in the [presidential] election,” Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in regional politics, wrote in a piece for the Moscow Carnegie Center on October 12.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Mikhail Vedernikov, the newly-appointed acting governor of the Pskov Region, in Sochi, on October 12.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Mikhail Vedernikov, the newly-appointed acting governor of the Pskov Region, in Sochi, on October 12.

Incurring no visible political resistance, the appointments illustrate the Kremlin's firm hold on once-rebellious provinces and powerful local elites.

Some analysts declared the raft of appointments “another blow to Russian federalism.”

When Putin came to power in 2000, he set about strengthening Moscow's power over the country’s 80-plus regions, which were often ruled by elected governors with the backing of local elites unbeholden to the capital.

In 2004, Putin abolished direct elections for governors, appointing regional heads personally, and weakened provincial authorities through tax reform and the neutering of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. Gubernatorial elections were brought back in 2012 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, but a new signature-collecting requirement known as the “municipal filter” makes it almost impossible for opposition candidates to register in elections without official backing.

In the current arrangement, Putin can dismiss regional heads and appoint “acting” governors who must then stand for election -- usually little more than a formality -- on united election day in September.

Putin's latest round of sackings at the regional leadership level -- the second such wave this year -- began on September 26.

More regional heads were replaced this week in Pskov, Ivanovo, and Omsk regions. That followed dismissals last week in the North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Primorsky Krai in the Far East, the western Oryol region, and the Siberian region of Novosibirsk, as well as late last month in the Krasnoyarsk, Nizhny Novgorod, and Samara regions along with the Nenets Autonomous District.

Loyal To Putin

Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Moscow-based Mercator group, suggested the Kremlin's choice of mainly young, inexperienced officials to serve as acting governors is in line with a discernible shift over the past year toward youthful technocrats.

The notable exceptions have been 68-year-old Vladimir Vasiliyev, who was made head of the troubled republic of Daghestan, and 62-year-old Aleksandr Uss, who was placed in charge of the sprawling Krasnoyarsk Krai. Fifty-four-year-old Andrei Tarasenko was made head of Primorsky Krai.

Oreshkin speculated that younger appointees will be heavily indebted to, or even reliant on, the Kremlin.

"This is not about efficiency -- Putin needs to maintain control,” Oreshkin said. “They have to create the illusion of a new wave, so that people believe there is renewal and improvement.”

Oreshkin compared Putin’s current situation -- facing deepening confrontation with the West and slow recovery at home after two years of recession -- to the situation of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1934 in the aftermath of his failed collectivization policies. After a clandestine revolt at the 17th Party Congress that year, three-quarters of the Central Committee would be shot, while Stalin brought in a raft of new, younger recruits. “New people were brought in from the regions -- people who, thanks to this rapid vertical social lift, were delighted with Stalin and prepared to support him to the end,” Oreskhin said.

An October 10 report by the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, a think tank, argued that the Kremlin’s drive to bring in younger cadres has become a “key” factor in appointments throughout 2017.

In all but two of 19 important appointments made this year, the group said, outgoing officials were replaced by younger appointees. In 11 of them, the successor was at least 20 years younger than the outgoing official. In the case of the Nizhny Novgorod region, the new governor is 30 years younger than his predecessor.

The string of youthful appointees has kept the average age of Russia's regional governors around the 53-year mark in 2017, the report found. Putin's powerful Security Council, however, has aged during Putin's almost 18 years in power, with the average age of that influential consultative body's membership rising from 50 to 60.

Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev in October 2016
Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev in October 2016

Oreshkin insisted the Kremlin is seeking only the “illusion of renewal,” arguing that authorities would behave differently if their real goal was to bring in youth. He pointed to the example of the ailing governor of Kemerovo Oblast, 73-year-old Aman Tuleyev, who has been in power since 1997 and had surgery on his back this year but nevertheless remains in power.

‘Hanging By A Thread’

For analysts like Kirill Rogov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, the most striking thing about the appointments has been how little regional interests were taken into account. He characterized it as a “big fat full stop” in the history of Putin’s gradual bringing-to-heel of the regions.

“There has never been such voluntarism, such disregard for the feelings of regions, such disregard for local elites,” he told the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station. “Even when governors were appointed [by the Kremlin], there was some kind of procedure: They were agreed with the local elites through [the ruling] United Russia [party].”

Rogov cited a lack of resistance from local elites that he said demonstrates how cowed they are following a string of arrests in the regions. Several governors and their deputies have been arrested on corruption charges in the last three years, including Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh and Komi Republic Governor Vyacheslav Gaizer.

Oreshkin agreed that governors and regional elites are rattled.

"Every governor understands they are hanging by a fine thread," he said. "That thread is called 'the faith of the president and his entourage.' Correspondingly, it is important not to make mistakes. It's not important if you're a bad economist, it's not a problem if you have a bad social situation; it's important to deliver the right result at elections and that Moscow has no doubts in you."