Andrey Ishchenko (Communist Party) seemed to be winning the gubernatorial election in Primorsky krai, but fell victim to election fraud. When a new election was called, his own party would not nominate him. (Credit: RFERL)
► Over half of Russian governors have been replaced by the Kremlin in the past two and a half years. A large share of these new regional leaders are “outsiders,” individuals with no roots in or experience with the territories that the Center has entrusted to them. This policy alienates regional elites and may even lead to the radicalization of local politics, says Alexander Kynev, Russia’s leading expert on the regions. In an interview with Maria Lipman, he referred to the current reshuffling as “the most anti-regions policy ever.”
Maria Lipman: What is your take on the massive reshuffling of governors in the past year?
Alexander Kynev: I think we should be talking not about 2018, but about the last two and a half years. Large-scale reshuffling began in 2017, but the start of the process can be traced to even earlier, in the fall of 2016. The so-called “young technocrats”—who are, in fact, not very young and not particularly technocratic—began to appear in late July 2016. That was when the first typical example of this cadre policy occurred, with the appointment of Mr. Ovsyannikov, the head of Sevastopol. Then two months later, Anton Alikhanov was appointed head of Kaliningrad Oblast. The subsequent cadre policy has been fairly similar to these two appointments. [Lipman: Governors in Russia are technically elected, but the Kremlin has developed a broad toolkit to make sure that gubernatorial offices are occupied by figures of the government’s choice. One common way to replace an incumbent governor is to force him to submit his resignation; the Kremlin then appoints an acting governor who later runs for office in an election in which his victory is assured. “Municipal filters,” mentioned later in this interview, are a common way to bar unwanted competitors from the gubernatorial race.]
"The 2016 Duma election results... convinced the Kremlin that anyone could be appointed, there were no opponents, the opposition was demoralized and did not have the funds needed for a campaign."
By then, the Center had become convinced that the election results were fully manageable. I think the 2016 Duma election results, in which the party of power gained three-quarters of the seats, convinced the Kremlin that anyone could be appointed, there were no opponents, the opposition was demoralized and did not have the funds needed for a campaign, and elections had been reduced to “fixed games.”
The regional elections of 2017 (and 2016) showed that the electoral difference between old and new governors had all but disappeared—that completely unknown figures got the same electoral support as those who had been deemed political heavyweights.
This was seen as an indication that the system had been reduced to a pure administrative resource and governors to mere managers. The 2018 presidential election further convinced the Center that everything was under tight control.
In 2017, a large-scale reshuffling of governors advanced full force, and this continued in 2018. This is how in the course of the past two and a half years governors have been replaced in over half of the regions: 49 replacements in 45 of Russia’s 85 regions. In several regions—Zabaikalskii krai, Khakassia, Primorskii krai, and Kaliningrad Oblast—the heads have been replaced twice.
Lipman: How would you describe the new appointees?
Kynev: If one looks at an average gubernatorial appointee, one can see that more often than not he is not a young technocrat. “Young technocrat” is a catchphrase coined for propaganda reasons and readily picked up by the media. A young technocrat is an individual aged between 30 and 40 with no experience of public politics—someone who has never before run for office, worked as a deputy cabinet minister, or held any other bureaucratic position. Such individuals comprise about one-quarter of the new appointees.
Others are middle-aged bureaucrats aged 30 to 50 or 55, or even a bit older. Most of them have had some experience with public politics, but often not where they have now been appointed. For instance, Alexander Burkov, the new governor of Omsk Oblast, had his previous career in Sverdlovsk Oblast. Andrey Klychkov, the new governor of Orel Oblast, used to be a Moscow city Duma deputy; Sergey Nosov, now governor of Magadan Oblast, used to be mayor of Nizhny Tagil; Nikolay Lyubimov, appointed governor of Ryazan' Oblast, although he falls into the category of young technocrats age-wise, in fact, has experience as a public politician—he used to be mayor of Kaluga, deputy governor of Kaluga Oblast, etc. That is, a subset of the newly appointed governors had previous experience of public politics elsewhere; others used to be federal-level political figures, such as [prominent member of United Russia and high-ranking Duma member] Vladimir Vasiliev, who was appointed head of Dagestan.
To summarize, these are not “young technocrats,” but middle-aged “Varangians”—varyagui, as we call them in Russian, that is, outsiders with no prior experience with their regions. With the appointments of the past two and a half years, the share of “Varangians” has hit an all-time high; generally, this proportion was about one-third, whereas they now represent as many as half of all governors. The sheer number of replacements has also exceeded all previous records.
Lipman: Was there not also a large-scale reshuffling of the governors’ corps back in 2009-2010?
Kynev: Indeed, quite a few governors were replaced in 2009-2010, yet not as many as this time. There has never been such a “heat.”
"The current reshuffling is also unprecedented in that the lion's share of the new governors have no relation to the regions where they have been appointed."
The current reshuffling is also unprecedented in that the lion's share of the new governors have no relation to the regions where they have been appointed. In the whole history of the Russian Federation, the Kremlin's policy has never been so anti-regional as in the past two and a half years.
If we look more closely, of course, the appointments vary. Some appointees are more successful, some are less successful, some are more reasonable and some less so, although they all have one thing in common: they were appointed for image reasons. That is, from the start, the appointments were elements of the presidential campaign. All the discussions about “the image of the future” were reduced to: there is no image of the future, but there are new faces. These appointments were aimed at beautifying the image of the government: we may have the same president, but look how many young and talented individuals are in the government; that means that all is well; we are developing by combining wisdom and experience with new energy. A common campaign slogan was “preserving the best, building the new.” So that was the Kremlin's way of building the new.
Lipman: What is the impact of the new appointees' “Varangian” status?
Kynev: Practically everywhere, the new appointees have found themselves in conflict with local elites. These conflicts have evolved in different ways, depending on the personalities of the individuals concerned. After being appointed, some would lie low for a while, slowly figuring out the state of affairs in the region, and only after that would they make their own appointments. Others went straight to using law-enforcement to purge the old local cadres and then looked to see what the situation in their region was. But if we look closely, we will see that all appointees drew on “imported” cadres. We observe a domino effect: first, an appointee reshuffles the inner circle—the head of the apparatus, the press secretary, the governor's deputy for political affairs—then the circle widens to reach economic and other departments. Then the changes reach the management of the region's capital city, and very often this process goes all the way to the regional legislature. And when it gets to regional legislative elections—which many regions have had, including in 2018—local elites become the target of a mass-scale purge.
It is understandable that if an appointee is an outsider, he feels more comfortable working with people of his own generation. He feels like an alien among the old regional elite, some of whom are 60 or 70 years old. He is a man of a different temperament, different character, different tastes—and everything he likes is different. He is put off by them.
Many of these Kremlin-picked gubernatorial candidates tried not to rely at all on the local headquarters, ignored United Russia, did not attend its conferences, and conducted a pointedly personified campaign. They even found themselves in conflict with United Russia organizations (this happened in Ivanovo oblast and in Karelia).
And this is what it has come down to: a new appointee prefers to work with those more or less of his own age. Psychologically, any boss feels more comfortable working with those he has hired himself—those who depend on him personally—than with “old-timers,” his predecessor's men.
Lipman: And what happens to the “old guard” if a newly appointed governor brings in his own team?
"Last year marked the beginning of removals of veteran deputies, people with authority who had served several terms in local legislatures, been committee chairmen, chairs of budget committees."
Kynev: Buryatia is a striking example: their first deputy governor, who had for many years been that region’s second-most important person, was simply thrown out. He was forced to run as an independent candidate, even though until two years earlier he had been the de facto leader of that territory. In Ivanovo Oblast, Irina Sidorina, chair of the budget committee, was also stricken from the party list. There are quite a few such examples. Last year marked the beginning of removals of veteran deputies, people with authority who had served several terms in local legislatures, been committee chairmen, chairs of budget committees, etc. They were unceremoniously thrown off United Russia slates and replaced by unknown individuals from the second or third tier of the local nomenklatura.
To those among the local elites who had served the system and fulfilled certain informal obligations over many years, the new developments came as a shock. “Informal obligations” include, for instance, falsification of election results, which, obviously, is not part of any official instructions. That is how the system operated: you fulfill our requests and we look the other way [at how you do it]. This mechanism has gradually been broken in recent years; several legal proceedings have been opened against deputy governors for political affairs because they raised funds for United Russia. That is, they worked for the system, and the system ditched them.
Lipman: Why has the system begun to break down?
Kynev: What we now observe is entropy at work: regional policy-making and law-enforcers’ careers are evolving with no regard for each other. One group of actors could not care less about another group’s interests. There have been several prominent legal cases in Cheliabinsk and Ivanovo Oblasts. The most notorious scandal erupted in Primorskii krai, where the officials in charge of regional policy were prosecuted for doing their jobs, for what everybody does in any region…
Lipman: By “doing their jobs,” you mean delivering the required electoral results?
Kynev: Yes, results for the party of power. Basically, it is about raising funds for the campaign and negotiating with candidates to ensure that they will contribute funds for the campaign. In response, the authorities assume certain organizational obligations, such as placing the candidates in specific districts and guaranteeing their funding. As a rule, this involves illicit cash, with all that this might imply. In the aforementioned case of Primorskii krai, this was deemed corruption and charges were brought against local administrators, even though the latter had collected those funds not for themselves, but for the party of power.
Lipman: What about the effects of the 2018 campaign?
"Where the conflicts began earlier and grew more tumultuous, the insulted elites started to move to other parties."
Kynev: Well, as members of the old elites were being discarded, the first reaction was shock, then came a re-evaluation of the new environment and what it meant for them, followed by regrouping. And the next stage was forming new coalitions. This process evolved at different rates in different regions. Where the conflicts began earlier and grew more tumultuous, the insulted elites started to move to other parties as early as 2018. In other places, those rejected by United Russia have been sitting and waiting for what may be in store for them, but discontent is palpable everywhere.
For instance, in Dagestan, Vasiliev, the first Russian head of this North Caucasus region, started right away by capitalizing on anti-elite sentiments. But in practice it turned out that absolutely everyone was bound together in patron-client relationships, from the traffic cop at the intersection to the head physician—that is, all jobs had at some point been distributed according to the principle of mutual obligation and could not be taken away by force. People were completely invested in it. Families and money were tied up in it. Everyone was obliged to someone in some way. It was impossible to break the chain.
In other regions, the situation is not as hard as it is in Dagestan, but the general picture is not dissimilar: hard purges and destruction of the old system of contacts; old cadres replaced by individuals whom nobody knows, who have no weight or authority among the elite circles, such as a young businessman or a low-ranking official whose previous experience is limited to paperwork.
As a rule, these new people do not amount to a team; they are an almost random collection of individuals. This is the situation in Yaroslavl’ Oblast, in Buryatia, in Arkhangelsk Oblast. The conflicts with local elites, in my view, were one of the reasons for the government’s failures in the 2018 elections.
"Both the pension reform and the increase in value-added tax fell on fertile ground—the system...no longer provided even minimal safeguards."
Both the pension reform and the increase in value-added tax fell on fertile ground—the system had simply lost its control and no longer provided even minimal safeguards. It stopped taking into account the interests of those who work for it and ceased to protect or assist them; it has grown extremely selfish.
Lipman: What do you mean by “selfish”?
Kynev: This is a nation-wide phenomenon—total selfishness of the top-level authorities, who refuse to hear or listen to anyone. This egotism has captured the Center’s relations with the regions, the new administrations’ relations with local elites, and even relations between various government departments in Moscow.
The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) is one example. I am very familiar with the CEC’s operations: it regularly holds roundtable discussions and conferences, and today its members are almost unanimous in believing that the Electoral Law, as well as the “municipal filters” system, should be revised. The chair of the CEC, Ella Pamfilova, shares this view. Electoral commissions, experts, media—all agree that these regulations should be revised. Yet two days after an event at CEC confirmed that this was the consensus view, Vedomosti reported that an “unnamed source” in the Presidential Administration had said that there was no need to change anything. As recently as ten years ago, the collective view of the CEC was of enormous importance; it would have been inconceivable that the CEC would not be listened to if it voiced an opinion.
"Ten years ago, the collective view of the CEC was of enormous importance; it would have been inconceivable that the CEC would not be listened to if it voiced an opinion."
In other words, different parts of the system have begun to live in entirely different, parallel spaces of late. This has seriously affected intra-elite relations: communication among them is broken, and each group or faction is entirely unwilling to consider any interests except its own.
Another important thing is the image factor. The presidential campaign was essentially populist, so it was only natural for a new governor to also play populist and declare that the outgoing local elite was bad: we will punish, dismiss, and prosecute them. This makes him look like a pseudo-oppositionist.
At first, people like the fact that there has been a clean sweep, that the governor has told off the bureaucrats and sent them packing—what a good governor! But then a few months go by and it turns out that the new bureaucrats are no better—and are, perhaps, even worse. In the meantime, the old ones are hardly idle: every blunder of the new boss is immediately turned into a public scandal. Because the new officials have no allies in the region, any mistake is immediately spread around. The system, therefore, begins to drift toward disappointment in the new appointee, and he is gradually discredited.
In addition, all the campaigns were centered around individuals. United Russia was barely noticeable because new governors were concerned only about their own elections. Almost everywhere, their personified campaigns centered on change—new life, the future etc. But when during gubernatorial campaigns public statements stress that change is a good thing, this makes the idea of change legitimate, suggesting that it is the only chance to make things better. If the region is holding a simultaneous legislative election, this focus on “change” does United Russia no good, since in the public mind United Russia is by no means associated with change. De facto, therefore, this helps the opposition.
"The reshuffling of United Russia by new gubernatorial appointees leads to growing chaos within the party when it becomes unclear who supports whom and who is whose client."
On the one hand, the reshuffling of United Russia by new gubernatorial appointees leads to growing chaos within the party when it becomes unclear who supports whom and who is whose client, leaving many in the party embittered. At the same time, anti-elite voting becomes legitimate.
Another important factor that plays a role is the rise of a new generation of systemic opposition. It is noteworthy that 30-year olds have recently emerged among Communist Party (KPRF) candidates; the list is rather long and interesting. These young Communists are different. Some of them are fairly pragmatic and have chosen a Communist affiliation because it looked more promising for their political careers—since the KPRF has a core electorate, membership of the KPRF gives an individual certain opportunities to run for office, etc. But there are also those who have firm left-wing convictions. The main thing about these new Communists is that regardless of their views, they have a strong desire to achieve something in politics. Meanwhile, the system rejects them and bars them from entering the political stage.
Lipman: Looking at the leaders of the KPRF and LDPR, the two “systemic opposition” parties represented in the Duma, one gets the impression that theirs are aging and stagnant parties where nothing has changed in many years. Yet you are drawing a very different picture…
Kynev: My sense is that a crisis in the КPRF is inevitable (in the LDPR, the situation is a bit different). The 2018 elections demonstrated that these young regional Communists are fairly numerous today and the party cannot just get rid of them. It has to consider them because they are integrated into the KPRF. The KPRF cannot simply conduct its campaigns: it is these young people who largely hold the electoral resources; they have become the party’s main activist force.
The old KPRF nomenklatura is getting old and its members are used to making deals. It is easier for them to accept an “honorary defeat” in exchange for an office of some sort and other benefits than to waste their energy and money on campaigns with uncertain prospects. They are used to living well with minimum struggle. The new ones, regardless of their convictions, have an entirely different background and different goals. They can and want to achieve something. But there are no vacancies for them in the party because all the positions have been taken by old and privileged members.
The KPRF has begun to undercut their own campaigns. In four regions, it has not nominated any candidates. Nor has it even tried to stand up for party members who were winning but whose victory was not recognized as a result of fraud, with Primorskii krai a striking example. [Andrey Ishchenko, a KPRF candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Primorskii krai, looked to be winning in the second round, but fell victim to what looked very much like fraud. Due to the gravity of these allegations, the Central Electoral Commission called a new election, but this time the KPRF refused to nominate Ishchenko. He tried to run as an independent, but was barred from running because he had failed to pass the “municipal filter.”] . Such behavior will, no doubt, exacerbate internal tensions within the party. [KPRF leader Gennady] Zyuganov is increasingly held hostage by these tensions and his room for maneuver and “deals” is shrinking.
"If an opposition member were elected in a region today, the Center would not even think of reaching out to him or coming to terms—this is simply beyond their idea of how things are done."
Also, as I mentioned, the Center is no longer listening to its own subdivisions: top-level officials are not listening to mid-level ones, never mind regional elites. And systemic opposition is entirely beyond their scope of concern. As a result, if an opposition member were elected in a region today, the Center would not even think of reaching out to him or coming to terms—this is simply beyond their idea of how things are done.
Valentin Konovalov [a KPRF candidate who managed to win the gubernatorial election in Khakassia despite malevolent interference by the local administration] may be more of an idealist, but Andrei Ishchenko [Primorski krai] is fully pragmatic. The first interview he gave after the election was absolutely pro-PutinThe first interview he gave after the election was absolutely pro-Putin. He knew that he was winning—this was before attempts were made to falsify the results—and he said point-blank that he was ready to work with everyone, regardless of their party affiliation. He was ready to come to terms on everything, but nobody was willing to talk to him.
Valentin Konovalov, a Communist candidate, managed to win the gubernatorial election in Khakassia despite the resistance of the local administration. (credit: Kremlin.ru)
Lipman: But it did not use to be this way before, correct? The policy used to be that of co-opting; those not from United Russia who managed to get elected had to be made into “one of ours.”
"The situation has radically changed; today, a member of a “wrong party” who manages to get elected becomes the target of rejection and vilification."
Kynev: Yes, a few years ago the policy was quite different. If a member of an opposition party won, he was incorporated in the establishment. He would be told, we don’t care about your convictions, but we want to integrate you because of the position you have now occupied; there should not be internal divisions. Everyone was coopted. The situation has radically changed; today, a member of a “wrong party” who manages to get elected becomes the target of rejection and vilification. Even if he is ready to come to terms, nobody wants to talk to him.
Lipman: Since when has this been the case? Is this an effect of Putin’s latest term?
Kynev: I would say that this has been the situation for the past two and a half years, since the parliamentary election of 2016. [Former deputy head of the Presidential Administration] Vyacheslav Volodin pursued a different strategy. He tried to come to terms and share authority. Interestingly, during the legislative election in Saratov Oblast [Volodin’s home region] last year, United Russia members withdrew their candidacies in several districts to make space for candidates from the systemic opposition. In 2018, there was not a single episode like that anywhere.
Today, even in those regions where only recently opposition candidates were allowed to win (for instance, in Irkutsk Oblast, where a Communist won the gubernatorial election in 2015), the atmosphere is that of a witch hunt and raging information war… The world has become black and white: only “ours” are friends, everybody else is a foe. And because the government acts in this way, those who run on a KPRF ticket, regardless of whether they are pragmatic or idealists, engage in a battle—and this is leading to radicalization.
Lipman: Putin seemed to be putting off meetings with those governors who were elected as members of opposition parties (not United Russia)…
Kynev: The meeting was delayed, but it did take place in the end, on December 27. It was a joint meeting with opposition members who had won gubernatorial elections and three more new governors. The meeting was largely a formality.
Lipman: Could you please discuss in more detail what you mean by “radicalization”?
Kynev: Radicalization occurs when a person is ready to cooperate but the government is unwilling to cooperate with him. He then has two options: to resign or to surrender and stop fighting. After the KPRF’s Sergey Levchenko was elected governor of Irkutsk in 2015, nobody particularly bothered him. The presidential election in Irkutsk went mostly the same way as elsewhere in Russia, but today a new smearing campaign against Levchenko and his team has been launched in Irkutsk Oblast. Konovalov in Khakassia has also become the target of an information war. Communists in Primorskii krai have come under attack. Radicalization happens when a person is left with no choice and no topics for discussion.
It used to be that opposition politicians could be relied on to muffle an initiative that the government deemed unwelcome or contribute to a certain government initiative because they were tied by mutual obligations and people owed each other something. But today there are no obligations. What does an opposition member owe the establishment? And for what? For being vilified? And what tools can the establishment resort to when yet another crisis happens and the government needs the cooperation of local officials? Just threats? But the language of threats comes at a cost. In our political environment, political struggle is conducted by stealth—this means disinformation campaigns, sabotage, kompromat… Among the regional political elites, everyone knows everything about each other.
Putin meets with the Communist governor of Irkutsk, Sergey Levchenko, one of the precious few regional leaders who are not United Russia members. (credit: Kremlin.ru)
Lipman: Are you already observing this?
Kynev: Of course.
Lipman: In your recent article, you mentioned possible contacts between systemic opposition figures in the regions and young activists linked to Aleksey Navalny…
Kynev: This is not true of every region, but such contacts have been established in some of them. Of course, those involved try not to be very public about it, but sometimes the two groups meet at the same rallies. Let me cite one example that was public. In Vladimir Oblast, Maksim Shevchenko [a journalist and prominent media figure] was put at the top of the Communist party slate. He sought to run for governor, but his nomination was turned down. He remained on the slate, however. Navalny has a rather strong organization in Vladimir, and when they staged rallies against the pension reform, they invited Shevchenko, but he refused. But he joined their rally in early September—after he had been denied registration as a gubernatorial candidate.
Lipman: My last question is about the LDPR. You said the situation with this party is different from that of the KPRF.
Kynev: It is different because they are very pragmatic; there are no idealists there because there is no idea behind LDPR. And it is very diverse as far as its members are concerned. In some regions, the LDPR organization is fully controlled by the regional administration. But sometimes there are interesting twists where the previous administration had had control over the local LDPR, but then that administration was kicked out, as in Zabaikalskii krai. In such a case, the LDPR might transform into a resource of the old and embittered administration.
Alexander Kynev is a political scientist. Between 2006 and 2012, he served as head of the analytical department of Golos Association. From 2012 to 2018, he was the coordinator of the Committee of Civic Initiatives’ election monitoring project.