Who shoulders Russia’s regional responsibilities?

Russia’s proposed constitutional amendments have prompted much debate about President Vladimir Putin’s future and his plans—or not—to remain in power after 2024. While important, other significant changes are also taking place that hint at the kind of system Putin seems to be building as part of his long-term legacy. This has prompted the return of discussions about the role of the regional government. Since the September 2018 gubernatorial elections, there has been a noticeable uptick in the appointment of regional governors—especially in the Far Eastern and Eastern Siberian regions—who have strong business experience in key ‘strategic’ sectors such as oil, gas, finance, and mining. These appointments can offer useful clues about the Kremlin’s strategic domestic and sometimes foreign policymaking.

One of the proposed constitutional amendments suggests Putin intends to enshrine the role of the State Council in law, although it is not clear how. The State Council is a relatively toothless body that advises the Presidential Administration, with all regions represented someway. While the proposed amendments do not suggest that governors will have greater executive power, they are likely to have more responsibility for carrying out specific tasks mandated by Moscow.

Moscow’s Orders

Moscow has for the past few years been tightening up its key performance indicators for regional governors. Governors that fail to attract investments, avoid scandal, quell protests, and ensure high popularity ratings for Putin and support for the United Russia party in elections are likely to be rotated out. But the role of regional governments will become increasingly important in Russian domestic policymaking as Putin seeks to ensure one of his legacies: his national projects.

The national projects are 12 priority areas designed to boost the Russian economy, which Putin had announced in May 2018, and are intended to be the principal drivers of economic growth for the coming years. Key areas of focus are upgrading infrastructure and improving healthcare and education. However, the projects have encountered serious setbacks and their financial viability has been questioned. Outgoing prime minister Dmitry Medvedev attracted most of the public criticism for failing to deliver on these projects, but responsibility for implementing them has fallen primarily to regional governors.

During the regional elections of September 2018, Putin rotated several governors in a bid to secure loyalists and good managers that could carry these projects forward. Examining the backgrounds and abilities of this cohort of regional leaders is important in determining whether there is a common thread in those who have become influential within this system.

Unpacking the Regional Government

As part of Putin’s drive to assert control over government (the so-called verticalization of power), officials in the mid-2000s were usually promoted to the regional government because of their security backgrounds. A career in the Federal Security Services (FSB) or the military helped to secure a regional governorship. But today, this pattern appears to be changing. Many governors, particularly in the Far East and Eastern Siberian regions who came to power in 2018 have common themes in their backgrounds: they tend to be young (under 45), many have a strong business background that matches the region they are managing, and often have previous experience at mayoral offices. These shared traits hint at the kind of political system that Putin is trying to build after his presidency ends: capable but loyal governors who can boost regional economic growth, in line with the national projects.

Business Backgrounds

One of Moscow’s main economic strategies in the coming years is to transform the Far Eastern regions into an investment hub capable of bridging Europe and Asia. To do this, Russia will require significant investments in infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, and ports. These historically underfunded regions will require substantial foreign investment from China and Japan, and so governors in the Russian Far East region are being appointed because of their related language skills and business experience.

For example, Vasily Orlov, governor of the Amur region, is a China specialist and speaks fluent Mandarin. This is useful in attempting to attract Chinese investment to the Amur region, such as the construction of a long-anticipated road bridge from Russia to China across the Amur River. Aysen Nikolayev, governor of the Sakha Republic (known as Yakutia), has made a career in banking and financial planning. His background is particularly relevant, given that Yakutia is in debt to Moscow by an estimated 49 billion roubles as of 2020. Since 2019, under Nikolayev’s leadership, this debt has declined by around 1.4 billion roubles. In the Siberian region of Novosibirsk, governor Andrey Travnikov has strong management experience working for the large metallurgical plant Severstal. Novosibirsk has historically been an industrial center whose primary income depends on the production of mining equipment.

Occasionally, governors with vital business experience will be parachuted in to oversee a region, regardless of whether they are local or have previous ties there. The governor of the Far Eastern Magadan region, Sergei Nosov, is originally from Magnitogorsk, in central Russia and Magadan has significant metal deposits, which he is keen to develop to improve the local economy. Nosov’s long-standing experience in the metallurgical sector and mayoral-ship of Nizhny Tagil, another key industrial city, is also likely factored into his promotion to governor.

Some of the new generation of regional leaders even have the same degree, a variation on государственное и муниципальное управление or “state and municipal management,” including Gleb Nikitin (Nizhniy Novgorod), Mikhail Vedernikov (Pskov), and Roman Kopin (Chukotka, re-elected in 2018). In the coming years, those individuals with business experience in “strategically significant” industries could be considered by the Kremlin as integral to national security—including in oil, gas, mining, and finance—and could likely receive promotions to lead regions.

Mayoral Experience and Age

Some political experience in mayoral offices might hold the key to ascension to regional governorships. A high number of recently-elected governors are former mayors or deputy mayors, or have worked at senior posts in a mayoral office. Andrey Travnikov (Novosibirsk) was mayor of Vologda, Sergei Nosov in Nizhny Tagil, Aysen Nikolayev in Yakutsk, Alexander Gusev in Voronezh, and Orlov was deputy mayor of Blagoveshchensk, the regional capital of the Amur region. Working in a mayor’s office could help prepare future governors for regional politics, by enabling them to establish networks of potential allies. It seems the governors who performed their mayoral tasks well—for example, Nikolayev in Yakutsk—by raising their city’s profile and managing complicated regional relationships have been rewarded with governorships. This pattern appears to be emerging in other parts of Russia too. Most recently, in February 2020, Putin appointed Vladislav Shapsha as the new acting governor of Kaluga (south of Moscow). Since 2015, Shapsha had been the mayor of the town of Obninsk.

Many of the newly-appointed governors are young for the Russian political administration– some are even below 40. At 31, Dmitry Artyukhov, governor of the Far Eastern Yamalo-Nenets region, is the youngest governor in Russia, Gleb Nikitin (Nizhny Novgorod) is only 43, and Mikhail Vedernikov from the Pskov region is 45. The appointment of youthful regional leaders is likely an attempt by the Kremlin to bring in new blood to more easily push through tech-savvy initiatives and appeal to younger voters, many of whom have lost confidence in electoral processes as a way of bringing about change. While younger governors may be more energetic than their predecessors, most have forged their careers when there was no political alternative to Putin. They are loyal because they owe their jobs to Putin—the president selected many of them personally.

Testing times

Another test of the governors’ abilities will be their response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused serious global disruption. A nationwide vote on these constitutional amendments is scheduled for April 22. The virus may force the Kremlin to postpone it until June, but they will rely on regional governments to ensure high turnout as a test of popular confidence in the government and Putin himself. Governors in regions with particularly low turnout may find their jobs at risk.

Ultimately, much depends on the progress of the national projects. Regardless of background, governors unable to implement them risk being rotated out. All these movements are in pursuit of a slowly evolving political system that does not devolve power to governors, but rather saddles them with the burden of responsibility for implementing Putin’s blueprints. Pessimistic assessments of the financial and practical viability of these projects mean that many of these governors may be destined to fail.

Emily Ferris is a Research Fellow in the International Security Studies department at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, specializing in Russian domestic and foreign policies.Photo: State Council by kremlin.ru under Public Domain.

Emily Ferris

August 18, 2020

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