New Podcast: Russia's Regional Politics with Nikolay Petrov and Ivan Kurilla

PONARS Eurasia
03 Aug 2020

In this PONARS Eurasia Podcast, Maria Lipman chats with Nikolay Petrov (Chatham House) and Ivan Kurilla (European University at Saint Petersburg) to learn more about current events unfolding in Russia’s regions, focusing in particular on the cities of Khabarovsk and Saint Petersburg.

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Transcript

Maria: Hello everyone, this is Maria Lipman and our PONARS Eurasia Podcast, featuring a series of discussions about Russia and Eurasia, about the region's politics, and about other Russia and Eurasia related topics. With my guests, who I will introduce a bit later, we'll talk about important events unfolding these days in some of the Russian regions.

Federalism in the Russian Federation has long existed in name only. Technically, governors are popularly elected, but it is the Kremlin that picks the candidates who are later endorsed by popular vote. With rare exceptions, they are outsiders with no ties or roots in the region they are to govern. To ensure the desired outcome of the vote, unwanted candidates, if they even venture to enter the race, are commonly barred from running. As a result, regional leaders are fully dependent on their Kremlin bosses and generally unconcerned about accountability to their voters.

Political control over the governors is reinforced by economic dependence. Through taxation policy, regional incomes are redistributed in favor of the Kremlin, which makes most of Russia's 80+ regions reliant on federal subventions.

Regional governors have thus long been turned into bureaucrats, implementing orders from above. They are discouraged from taking the initiative for fear of making wrong moves that might displease their superiors and the Kremlin. A governor who falls out of favor may face very serious consequences, such as prosecution and long prison terms.

Just very recently, Sergei Furgal, the governor of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, was arrested on suspicion of serious crimes committed 15 years ago. But commentators have suggested that his prosecution is politically motivated.

Neither did the people in Khabarovsk believe the accusations brought against Furgal. In an amazing outpouring of sympathy for a governor, up to 30,000 took to the streets to protest Furgal’s arrest. The protests have lasted for day after day. In recent months, local governors have had to face the challenge of the COVID pandemic, and in late June, they were under pressure to deliver public support during the national vote on constitutional changes, including a zeroing amendment that endowed Putin with a virtually lifetime presidency.

According to official reports, the vote was a resounding success. But serious allegations of fraud suggest that these results cannot be trusted. The economic decline, dramatically exacerbated by quarantine measures, makes people feel worried and insecure. In Saint Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, appears to be a graphic illustration. The city government reported excellent voting results, but the situation with COVID has been alarming and fatalities very high. The proportion of deaths to infections is over 5% in Saint Petersburg, while in Moscow, it is under 2%. Soon after the vote, the governor Alexander Beglov was booed as he addressed a crowd celebrating the victory of a Saint Petersburg soccer team.

Let me introduce my guests.

Nikolay Petrov is head of the Center for Political and Geographic Studies. Currently, he is at Chatham House, London. Regions are one of Nikolay's major fields of interest. Hello, Nikolay.

Nikolay: Hello.

Maria: Ivan Kurilla is a historian teaching at European University at Saint Petersburg, but in this episode, I'm interested not in his expertise as an academic historian, but his experience as a resident of Saint Petersburg and a keen observer of local developments. Hello, Ivan.

Ivan: Hello, Masha.

Maria: Saint Petersburg is Russia's second-largest city. The city government reported excellent voting results, but the situation with COVID appears to be far from encouraging. Saint Petersburg has the highest mortality rate, measured as the proportion of deaths to registered infections. This index is over 5% in Saint Petersburg, while in Moscow that originally was hit the hardest by the Coronavirus, is under 2%. Soon after the vote, the governor of Saint Petersburg was booed as he addressed the crowd celebrating the victory of the Saint Petersburg soccer team. Ivan, have you seen the booing episode, and if you have, what do you think about it? Beglov was elected Saint Petersburg governor less than one year ago. How come he's lost his support so fast?

Ivan: Oh, Beglov did not lose his support. He never had it in the first place. Beglov was a pretty unpopular figure when he was appointed to Saint Petersburg, and he never enjoyed wide popularity. The reason he was elected was probably because no serious contender actually was allowed to participate in the gubernatorial election. And that's why even the actor, actor and the producer, Bortko, who represented the Communist Party in the elections was forced to withdraw from the election, because probably he better chances than Beglov did. So Beglov was never popular in Saint Petersburg, and this is nothing new, this booing towards him in this football, soccer match.

Maria: Right. So would you say Beglov's election was typical of what happens in other regions? For some reason, the Kremlin wanted this candidate and was pushing for his election, even though he was unpopular among the city residents.

Ivan: Yeah, that's right. That's right. And we don't know why he was, you know, imposed to Saint Petersburg. During his first winter when he was still acting governor, he lost a lot of struggles against the big snowfalls. It was a disaster because of the snow falls and there were a lot of problems with the communal services that winter -- still he was elected. And he does not look like a good manager or a good public figure or political figure. So that accumulated distrust of Beglov is still in the air while people get in the habit of governors being imposed on them since, you know, real elections do not matter in the big cities of Russia.

Maria: Right. So you were telling us that Beglov has mismanaged the problem of the snowfalls. What about the COVID pandemic in Saint Petersburg? What are your impressions as a resident of the city?

Ivan: Yeah, you know, my impression – because I started with very low expectations about Beglov, I would not say he was the worse than other governors. I don't see many governors doing better than he. I do not want to say that Beglov was good – I just say that everybody else also failed.

But, you know, I had low expectations, and in some particular aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beglov was not as bad as I expected. He was very early to close churches, for instance, when in Moscow churches were still open and continued to be the places where the virus was spread during the Holy Week. The churches were closed in Saint Petersburg, and that was a good decision to my mind. That was a timely decision.

And Beglov also almost criticized in the Kremlin in June when official figures of new cases of the pandemic in Saint Petersburg were low. At the same time, Beglov publicly said that the capacity of the hospitals was exhausted. So here he just openly recognized that the statistics were wrong and that the real situation was bad. So it does not look like he was very loyal in this critical period. That's why I would say that his skills during the pandemic were higher than my expectations of his behavior.

Maria: Got it. I think just very recently, he also said that the reason why the infection is still high in the city is because people are careless. And I think that this also is not a demonstration of good management, blaming it on the people.

Ivan: You know, this is a very interesting story. If you look at the figures of the last two days, yesterday and today, you will see that the number of cases in Saint Petersburg dramatically fell, and that Saint Petersburg is again not a leader in the pandemic casualties. Some people who follow statistics say that the whole story about Saint Petersburg becoming the “leader” in the last twenty days was because of the manipulation of statistics. They tried to keep the official figures low before the day of the voting, and then the full statistic came back as, you know – all of the cases which were not registered before the day of the voting were registered in the subsequent three weeks. And that's why Saint Petersburg appeared as a leader with high figures.

And then when these accumulated cases were exhausted, we see Saint Petersburg get back to, I would say, normal, to the statistics as demonstrated in June, for instance. So let's say, manipulation with statistics is something that makes our judgment about the management of the pandemic very – unsubstantiated, I would say. It's hard to substantiate the good or bad management, because this is the management of statistics, even maybe more than the management of the pandemic or virus.

Maria: Right. Yeah, interesting. So, there's again nothing new about tricks with statistics. Also, apparently, and hopefully, the situation is not as bad as it might seem looking at sheer numbers. 

Nikolay, would you please now talk about the situation in Khabarovsk? If you would give us a brief overview of what actually happened, because Khabarovsk has attracted the most attention of all Russian regions recently.

Nikolay: I will start with saying that, in my view, there could be a direct connection between Sergei Furgal and his victory in 2018 gubernatorial elections in Khabarovsk and Putin's choice of Beglov, the one who, from the very beginning was not well accepted by Saint Petersburg dwellers.

It was needed for Putin last year to demonstrate that whoever is appointed by him should be elected, even in spite of huge unpopularity. So what happened with Sergei Furgal two years ago in 2018 is a pretty interesting story, because at that time, Sergei Furgal was considered to be a kind of convenient candidate for the incumbent governor, as he used to be in previous elections. But unlike in previous elections, the results of the 2018 elections appeared to be very different. Incumbent Governor Shport did not manage to win in the first round, and Furgal did get even a little bit more votes than the incumbent governor.

At that time, the Kremlin decided to push him out, just like Ivan was telling the story of Bortko in Saint Petersburg elections last year. But here, Sergey Furgal at first agreed, but later changed his mind. There are different explanations why exactly this happened. But anyway, this move was considered by the Kremlin to be a violation of the rules of the game, and when Furgal did manage to win against the incumbent governor in the second round, he became a kind of persona non grata for the Kremlin, although it was the Kremlin who did give a State Duma mandate to Furgal three years earlier. So it's an interesting story about how the candidate who initially was considered to be a very systemic player and who was supported by the Kremlin all of a sudden decides to play on his own, and he became an opponent, an enemy for the Kremlin. And since that time, since 2018, Furgal's victory, the Kremlin was putting pressure on to Furgal himself and on to Khabarovsk Krai.

So at the beginning, they did decide to remove the capital of Far Eastern federal district from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok. And later, they were trying to do whatever they could in order to demonstrate that Furgal was a bad choice. But it appears that Furgal was a good choice, and he became a kind of people's governor, in the sense that he made several very popular and positive moves improving the lives of ordinary Khabarovsk Krai dwellers. He made some good decisions, especially after last year when, due to his presence as a sort of governor, United Russia lost administrative support and lost in elections to Khabarovsk regional assembly, where Furgal enjoyed a majority.

So starting from 2019 elections, Furgal could do much more than he was doing at the beginning, due to having regional assembly deputies’ support. And he did cut off salaries of top-level bureaucrats, he did break certain contracts aimed to buy luxury things for the same bureaucrats. He did improve lives of orphans, giving them apartments, and he did make several very important moves like, say, Khabarovsk Krai is a very big region, and in order to go somewhere from Khabarovsk, you should use a plane rather than bus. And under Furgal, the price of tickets became several times lower than it used to be earlier making it possible for ordinary citizens to travel within Khabarovsk Krai.

Maria: Right. So, do I get it right that Sergei Furgal was, we now have to say was, good for the people and at the same time bad for the Kremlin? And this matter of principle, that Furgal had disobeyed earlier, was more important to the Kremlin, than having a people's man in that region and, at least, being confident that the region was taken good care of? This matter of principle was more important?

Nikolay: That's partly an explanation of what has happened when Furgal was arrested, but it didn't happen to other three governors elected against incumbent governors, either simultaneously with Furgal or a little earlier. And the reason why I would say is connected with certain efficiency of Furgal's management which made him a very popular governor. And at the same time, Putin's popularity in Khabarovsk Krai did decrease.

It has been openly told by the Kremlin’s plenipotentiary envoy in the Fat East that he's very unpleased by the fact that Furgal's popularity exceeds Putin's popularity. So not only was it important for the Kremlin to send a very understandable signal to regional elites before forthcoming September elections, but it was important to stop this very, I would say positive, transformation of Khabarovsk Krai from a region totally controlled by the party of power, like almost all other regions of the country to a region where it would be a little bit different.

So Furgal himself was trying to avoid any open scenes against the United Russia, not to speak about the Kremlin. He was not opposing the Kremlin, but nevertheless, the very fact that he wasn't “one of them” and he was eager to address citizens' grievances and expectations, being elected by them and according to their will, made him a very bad example in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Maria: Right. So in this case, we can actually say that Furgal's efficiency as government manager in his region was a flaw, not an advantage?

Nikolay: Yes, exactly. Not to speak about the fact that he was in pretty bad relations with the plenipotentiary envoy, the guy who was to stage elections in 2018 and who did consider the failure in these elections as his personal failure. That's why he did consider Furgal as his personal enemy.

Maria: Right, yeah, yeah. This makes sense, unfortunately. So, Furgal was arrested on suspicion of being an accomplice or a contractor of assassinations. Do you think there is anything to those charges? After all, he engaged in timber and, I think, scrap metal trade, which is not the cleanest business in Russia, to say the least. So do you think there is any reason to believe that he's probably guilty or partly guilty of those crimes?

Nikolay: I think it can be the case. The problem is that the population of Khabarovsk Krai does not accept this as an explanation, because it’s absolutely evident that what has happened to Furgal is a kind of political repression. If he's guilty, just like the investigative committee is saying now, in what was going on fifteen years ago, and it has been known all that time, why was he elected to the State Duma? Why should he play a very important role there, a leading one in a State Duma committee?

So, it's clear that he was well accepted by the Kremlin, until he became a people's governor and he started to act on his own, not necessarily listening to what was coming from the Kremlin. So I would say that at the Far East, which is perhaps one of the most criminal regions in the country, especially in the 90's, and especially in those fields you mentioned, it would be hardly possible not to violate the law and not to be involved in all these bandit fights if only to get by in business. So, this is not reason enough in the eyes of ordinary Khabarovsk Krai citizens to arrest their governor. And this is not unknown for them, so, they were pretty well informed about Furgal's background, and the reason why they do not think it is so important now is that anybody in Khabarovsk Krai, anybody in the Far East who was making a career in business, was somehow involved in different dirty adventures.

Maria: One last question before we get back to Saint Petersburg -- how unusual is it for people to be unafraid to openly stand up to their governor, whom the federal government regards as a suspected criminal?  Some of the signs that protesters carried in Khabarovsk were anti-Moscow and even anti-Putin. Is it a surprise to you that in this particular region, people are unafraid, even as the Russian government has pursued more repressive policies in recent years?

Nikolay: There was a good expression in old-time Russia that “they could not send us further than to Siberia”, and this is exactly true in the case of Siberia and the Far East. So, they used to be much less dependent from the state as represented by Moscow. They do feel themselves living on their own. And that's why I think what has happened in Khabarovsk Krai is not very typical, it could not happen to many other Russian regions, but it could happen in some other Far Eastern regions, and could easily and can easily happen in two months in regional elections in those regions like Irkutsk, for example.

Maria: Ivan, let's get back to Saint Petersburg now. Could you please tell us something about the atmosphere around the vote on the amendments in Saint Petersburg? Do you, as a resident of the city, feel that there was large, big-time rigging during the vote? Was there any discontent, public or maybe, you know, people you talk to, maybe media outlets in the city? What can you tell us about the atmosphere at the time of the vote?

Ivan: You know, I went to the polling station and it was almost empty. There were very few people, it was like blank books, registration books. My signature was probably the only one on the page. And then we got the results which showed a very high turnout, and that was almost everywhere. And I think that the people who follow it, just generally do not believe the results. But that's something that people do not want to protest as well. It was something which, well, it's the midst of the summer, the midst of the pandemic, I guess that people just do not bother too much. Besides, of course, the political activists and people who follow the whole story. General people do not feel it’s really important.

And that's probably a mistake, but it's my impression of how the people around are feeling about this vote about the constitutional amendments. Of course, anecdotal evidence that nobody around me voted for, well, usually this anecdotal evidence is not worthwhile because certainly there is somebody who voted for the constitutional amendment. But it also makes an impression that, just the number of people who wanted to be heard is much lower than usual.

And that's why the people who wanted to defend the results, to defend the votes they cast, was not as big as it was before during the elections, even during the gubernatorial election. Because when Beglov was elected, at the same elections, the same day there were municipal elections, and that was quite a struggle in Saint Petersburg. A lot of independent and democratic candidates were elected and the district bodies, district dumas, became municipal deputies. So it was not always like now in Saint Petersburg, but these June votes produced almost no public protests, no discontent at all.

Maria: Right, but in general, people in Saint Petersburg have their own history of protests. And sometimes the city administration and the police respond in a rough manner, is this right?

Ivan: Yeah, this is right, and that's why I say that this current, recent voting was different from what I've witnessed here before. I just think that the majority, I think, of the people who used to participate in the protest, were trying to influence elections, at this time just withdraw from anything, they just do not feel... I don't know, it's a kind of boycott without the official announcement of boycott by somebody. But I feel like that, I feel the situation is close to this attitude, there is nothing to fight for. That is more or less the attitude now.

Maria: Right. Nikolay, what about the vote in Khabarovsk? I mean, for the amendments. Early on, when Sergei Furgal was just arrested, there were theories that the vote itself in Khabarovsk being different from the national average in Russia was one of the reasons for even stronger discontent in the Kremlin. But from what you are saying, it seems like this was just an episode, and in fact there were deeper reasons for the Kremlin’s discontent. And, in fact, more serious causes for important government officials to be angry and to consider the governor of Khabarovsk as their enemy. 

Nikolay: Just, well, I think that the results reported in Khabarovsk are very close to those predicted by some analysts who tried to subtract fraud. So this is like what Russia should have presented, if only the Kremlin would not have “added” a huge number of votes, like, say, more than 20 million. Which means that Furgal and his administration were not eager to undertake any serious fraud. They did not act against the voting for these amendments, but they did not intervene. And that's, perhaps, why the Kremlin was not that happy.

But I would say that, in my view, the Kremlin did start to prepare to act against Furgal immediately after his election, and what has happened over the last week could not happen without year-long preparations. Not only this, I would attract your attention to the fact the prosecutor was sent to Khabarovsk Krai a couple years ago from Sakhalin, where the first arrest of the acting governor took place in 2015 under this very person. So the guy who is now, I will say, conducting law-enforcement efforts oriented against Furgal - was doing pretty much the same five years ago. And this, I think, shows that although we can look at the Kremlin's actions as a kind of immediate reaction to the most recent events - they could play certain additional role, but it wasn't the reason for the attack against Furgal, I think.

Maria: Right. Let's now talk a little bit, about the Kremlin's response, the Kremlin's reaction to mass protests – actually, of very large scale for the city, which is large, but not among the largest in Russia – in Khabarovsk. What did state-run television show? What does – I stop short of saying an "average" Russian, but let's say a national television viewer – what does he or she know about what goes on in Khabarovsk?

Nikolay: I would say that staying in London, I am perhaps not the best expert on Russian state television. I am much better prepared to answer questions on the internet, but I think that, at first, there was a kind of putting a blind eye and not showing anything, not reporting anything about Khabarovsk Krai, and then they've started to focus more on how guilty Sergei Furgal is citing certain evidence.

And so the very idea given by the Kremlin was that somebody should do this, somebody should organize things. If it was not the Kremlin itself, then something should be done by the LDPR party structure. So I think the way they are trying now to fix the problem shows that they overestimate the capability of LDPR political party to control the situation in Khabarovsk and do something in order to pacify the region.

Maria: Right. So LDPR is of course Zhirinovsky's party, and Sergei Furgal was a nominee of that party when he was elected governor of Khabarovsk. So why, do you think, the Kremlin has responded with a degree of tolerance to begin with? In Moscow we see how the police respond in a very rough manner, and increasingly so in recent months, to actually any activity that even smells of politics. Even to individual pickets, the Kremlin is showing zero tolerance to any such action, and people are detained, people are fined, fines are huge, and some even spend days and sometimes even longer in jail. So why, do you think, the Kremlin has shown such tolerance in Khabarovsk? And, we now have an acting governor in the region, say a few words about that person. What's in store for him, and why this choice?

Nikolay: I would say that, in my view, there are three reasons why the Kremlin acted in Khabarovsk in a different way, as compared to the two national capitals. The reason number one is connected with the scale of protests. We should have in mind that the scale of has happened and what will happen next in Khabarovsk Krai compares in scale to half a million to a million strong demonstration in Moscow - in proportion to the general population. It’s huge. And in case of such a large-scale mass protest, the Kremlin usually is much more careful, and not even the Kremlin, but also law enforcement, local police should be much more careful. Not to speak about the fact that Khabarovsk is, as you rightly pointed out, much smaller than Moscow. It's a city where everybody is somehow connected to everybody else. So, regional police cannot feel absolutely separated from the rest of the population. And I would say that, in my view, their feelings are probably pretty much the same with regard to Furgal and what Moscow is doing in the region, as of almost all the city residents. And the third reason, I think, is connected with administrative resources. So, while Furgal's administration does not organize any kind of protest actions, it doesn't want to suppress these actions, either. And this is another important factor which plays in favor of those protests to continue for pretty long.

In my view, the fact that yesterday Mikhail Degtyarev was appointed acting governor instead of Furgal will not fix the problem. It only demonstrates that in the Kremlin's eyes, the Liberal Democratic party LDPR, Zhirinovsky’s party can somehow fix the problem. In my view, it's impossible. Because when they voted in 2018, people voted in favor of a very concrete person, Sergei Furgal, not in favor of the Liberal Democratic party. He just happened to be one of active members of that party, that's all. And Mikhail Degtyarev is not from that region, he originates from Volga, from Samara region. He spent a pretty long while in Moscow making his party career; he's a very pragmatic guy, he's a career guy, but he doesn't have any experience of managing anything except the propaganda department of the LDPR party. So, in my view, at best, he can try to keep the machinery established by Sergei Furgal and play the role of the “face of Furgal’s administration”, but not try to reshuffle it. In this case, we can expect certain positive developments, but I doubt that he is capable of doing this. And in case he’ll try to manage the region on his own, I think he will fail, and the Kremlin's stake on him will fail as well.

Maria: And, last question to both of you. What do you think are the lessons that the Kremlin will take away from the developments in Khabarovsk, and what are the lessons that other governors or potential contenders will take away? Some analysts suggested that what is happening to Khabarovsk will somehow give a boost to protest sentiments, to protest actions in various parts of the country, that this is a very serious challenge to the Kremlin and the challenges will become more numerous. Others, though, suggest that Khabarovsk is pretty unique, and the situation there is as well. In September, we're going to have another series of elections, gubernatorial and to local legislatures - who will get stronger? And what are lessons that will be taken away from that? Ivan, will you please start?

Ivan: Okay, it's hard to say right now because the situation is still unfolding and we don't know how it will end up in Khabarovsk, but I would say that the general mood in the country is much more critical and much more, I would say, unloyal to the Kremlin than ever before. And Khabarovsk just exposed the general discontent about the Kremlin and about this change of the constitution which happened recently. And I would say that one idea of the Kremlin’s attitude was given to us by a recent decision to postpone, to abolish the Immortal Regiment march this year altogether. You know, the first idea was to postpone it till July, then it was to postpone it until early September, and just a couple of days - yesterday, I think, or two days ago, President Putin announced that there will be no Immortal Regiment this year. And this is a very indicative thing, because Immortal Regiment is a time when a huge number of people take to the streets. And now the situation is such that the Kremlin probably doesn't want many people in the streets and doesn't want people to march together and express anything, not even patriotic feelings. Because with the discontent that has been just exposed in Khabarovsk, that may be dangerous. At least, my feeling is that the Kremlin takes this very seriously, and probably the result will be that the Kremlin’s policy will be aimed at keeping people at home. Maybe a new wave of pandemics will be used as a pretext, or the statistics will be manipulated, or some other thing will emerge out of this protest. That's my vision.

Maria: Interesting. Yeah. So you think the Immortal Regiment, which actually has been a demonstration of, I would say, people's unity – over the victory of World War II, the most heroic moment of Russian history. For a number of years now, on Victory Day on May 9 people have marched with portraits of their grandfathers, and great grandfathers, who were killed in the war, who fought the war. It has been an outpouring of genuine feeling, actually – so do you think that the Kremlin is somehow concerned that it might be transformed into maybe something not so patriotic and not supportive of the government?

Ivan: I think so, because it's the only huge, social movement, which is actually generated from grassroots, from the people. And despite the attempts by the Kremlin to control the Immortal Regiment march, it's still, to a large extent, not controlled. It's something that emerges from family stories and family feelings, and that's why, I think, the Kremlin considers it as something uncontrollable and potentially dangerous. A million people in the streets can, at any moment, turn out as something critical or political, or dangerous for the current regime. This, I think, is a matter of concern for the Kremlin, and this is why Putin has changed his mind. After he publicly announced that the Immortal Regiment march would be postponed, he eventually said that there would be no Immortal Regiment at all. And he said that in the midst of the Khabarovsk protests. So I do not think it's a coincidence.

 Maria: Interesting. So Nikolay, what's your view? What is in store for us, actually quite soon, in September? What may be going on in governors’ minds right now, in possible contenders' minds, and what are the lessons that the Kremlin has probably taken away?

Nikolay: I think that not only the Kremlin is well known for making mistakes, as we've seen in the case of Khabarovsk, but it's also well known for learning wrong lessons from the mistakes made, just like it happened after the 2018 failures in gubernatorial elections. So in my view, generally speaking, I think the same modes, the same way of dealing with elections that has been used earlier, the Kremlin will try to practice this time also, which, in my view, can lead to the very negative consequences.

First of all, I would say that, well, the arrest of Furgal was aimed to send a signal to regional political elites, and in my view, this signal appeared to be very different from what it was intended to be. And that's why the reaction of regional elites and counter-elites in some cases can be different from what the Kremlin would like it to be. And this is especially true with regard to those regions,  where the races are likely to be complicated, like say, in Irkutsk region. Irkutsk can be seen as similar to Khabarovsk, in the sense that there used to be a governor who  won against the incumbent governor, but the Kremlin managed to have his resign in a “voluntary” way, that is without arresting him, at least , at least, for the time being. A general from the Ministry of Emergencies has been appointed acting governor to replace him. I have doubts that it will be possible for this general to win a popular vote. Likewise, it will not be possible for the incumbent leader to win in the Archangelsk regional elections where protest behavior is pretty visible as well.

I think, the biggest trouble the Kremlin will be facing, will come from races in big cities. And although we do have only 18 gubernatorial races, and as I said, only two of them will be tricky so far, more challenges might also emerge. We’ll have 11 elections to regional assemblies, and those will be easier for the Kremlin. But there are also 22 elections to city councils in regional capitals, including in Novosibirsk, in Nizhny Novgorod, in Voronezh - in big cities where the Kremlin will almost sure face serious troubles, especially if it tries to use rough methods, as it did in the past. The Kremlin is getting prepared for these challenges, and that's why deputies of the State Duma have just changed the electoral legislation, so now voting can take place for three days in a row. But while it might seem that this modification will make the Kremlin's life easier, because in a three-day vote it will be possible to report just any results the Kremlin wants, I think that in a longer-time perspective, this can generate additional problems,  rather than make things easier.

Maria: Well September is not too far away, so, I think, we will soon see just how the Kremlin manages those elections. Right now, however, there’s not doubt that the situation has become more challenging. Thank you both very much for this conversation.

Nikolay: Thank you, Masha.

Ivan: Thank you.