Regional elections and the modernization of Russia; the government’s actions and the people’s expectations


The scandal surrounding the election in the Kursk Region has been described by the media as a lesson for regional leaders.

It is difficult to say what impressed the public more: the Kremlin’s ease in ousting an unwelcome governor or senators’ fatalism – they did not make a single attempt to defend their colleague. Rutskoi got a sympathetic hearing at the Federation Council meeting, but his cries of rage had no effect on the other senators.

Moreover, Nezavisimaya Gazeta has written that regional leaders deny Rutskoi’s statement that his disqualification was a result of the Kremlin’s intrigues. However, even the victim himself doesn’t accuse the Kremlin of intriguing against him.

As a result, regional leaders have only made a few practical conclusions. As Nezavisimaya Gazeta has written, “The Kremlin has shown how difficult it is to be in opposition, especially if your relatives are running a business on the territory you control.” A regional leader now has to choose between being a revolutionary and a businessman. Therefore, regional leaders’ riots are unlikely to take place, at least on the eve of the elections.

Vremya Novostei writes that after the scandal surrounding Rutskoi “regional leaders are terrified of doing anything that may irritate the Kremlin.” The misbehavior of President Nikolai Fedorov of Chuvashia did not appeal to his colleagues: “Fedorov is lucky, because he has nothing to hope for. He will soon leave office, and if the powers-that-be do not find anything to jail him for, he will go abroad to lecture on the disadvantages of federalism.”

As for Fedorov’s proposal to appeal to the Constitutional Court to consider whether the federal reforms are constitutional, the Federation Council has not even agreed to discuss it. As Samara Governor Konstantin Titov has noted, “It is not the business of the senate to complain about the president.” Besides, it has turned out all of a sudden that most regional leaders supported Putin’s federal reforms from the very beginning. For instance, Tumen Governor Leonid Roketsky has told journalists that they must have construed his announcements in a wrong way and that he has always supported “at least two of the three presidential laws.” Vremya Novostei notes that Roketsky’s reaction is quite natural because gubernatorial elections are in store for him. As Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev has said, “Election campaigns are a heartache for senators.”

Since it is clear that the upcoming elections will be won by those who support the Kremlin, Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov has announced that “there is no point in this whole circus, and it would be better if the president appointed regional leaders himself.”

The newspaper considers that this proposal makes sense for regional leaders. Inasmuch as regional leaders are being deprived of real power levers, they are not averse to get rid of responsibility for the Kremlin’s regional policy.

The journalist Alexander Tsipko has entitled his article about the scandal surrounding the gubernatorial election in Kursk “About the Use of Rutskoi’s Political Defeat.” He writes, “Rutskoi’s exclusion from the election campaign was a symbolic event in our political history. After this event the regional elite has realized that even the most powerful regional leader can be jailed, and it makes sense to fight for justice.”

Tsipko partly agrees with those criticizing Moscow for its rigidity, since the whole operation was performed in a most awkward way. However, he considers that this action made sense, since regional leaders were reminded that the federal government is the federal government, and it has the right to influence regional elections.

Tsipko states that before the scandal surrounding Rutskoi there had been no proofs that the power vertical had been restored. As for the methods the government resorted to, they certainly leave much to be desired. However, Tsipko considers that it is unjust to blame only the government for this situation.

The scandal surrounding Rutskoi only another proof of the fact that election campaigns in Russia are controlled by the federal government. There have been a lot of such cases in the post-Soviet history of Russia. Could Yeltsin have won the 1996 election without involvement of the administrative resource? However, the Russian and foreign public opinion have estimated this fact positively, since people have been convinced that the Russian government had to protect democracy against nationalists and other extremists in this way.

Alexander Tsipko also notes, “Russian liberals is the most mercenary party. If Rutskoi’s failure have given a carte blanche to representatives of the Union of Right Forces but not the Communists, the story of the hapless governor would have hardly become known.”

Most of Russian political analysts agree that Rutskoi’s “demonstrative execution” made a new stage in the Russian life. Dmitry Volchek, a journalist of the newspaper Vedomosti, writes that “there is some sinister logic in the fact that the powers-that-be have so cruelly dealt not with some hidden oppositioner but with this awkwardly servile relic of the Yeltsin epoch.” It is clear that the time of Yeltsin’s fondlings, philosophy doctors, ambitious security guards, charismatic generals, former teachers of scientific communism who have experienced a revelation, and other “self-made men” is in the past now. Each of these figures will soon be substituted for by calm and unpretentious officials who do not join pickets, who do not shout in front of video cameras, and who politely reject invitations to take part in the TV program “The Hero of the Day.” It seems to Dmitry Volchek that the process of finishing the democratic revolution of the start of the 1990’s resembles the finish of the October socialist revolution, when fervent rebellions and participants of hot party discussions were ousted by docile and dispensable puppets. However, Volchek notes that 70 years ago it was easier to change the system, “since the godfather of that revolution was calmly lying in the Mausoleum but not walking around the Frankfurt Book Fair with a volume of dull memoirs.”

Editor-in-Chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta Vitaly Tretyakov thought it necessary to explain the logic of the government’s conduct in a special article.

Tretyakov’s explanation is rather simple. In his opinion, the government has come to the conclusion that evil cannot always be fought by legal methods. “If an evil is obvious but legally unapproachable or is acting illegally itself, it deserves adequate reactions.”

If the government wants to continue the federal reform, it has to suppress the regional leaders’ Fronde, i.e. “regional leaders’ arbitrariness being unreachable by the court.” Rutskoi’s example was thus meant to display the federal government’s power. The governor of Kursk was a suitable figure from all viewpoints, since the Kremlin did not want to hurt those who were absolutely loyal and those who led some national republics. In the beginning, the Presidential Administration wanted to punish Shaimiev, but decided not to do this, since outcomes of this action would have been unpredictable. It was clear that it is a Russian governor who was to fall victim for the sake of the proper propagandist effect.

Leonid Ionin, a Segodnya journalist, considers that senators’ frigid attitude toward what has happened to their colleague is explained chiefly by Rutskoi’s “administrative unskillfulness,” since he had failed to tame the administrative elite even in his own region.

As Leonid Ionin thinks, the Kremlin is behaving rather passively in the current gubernatorial elections. Of course, the current regional liberty does not appeal to the Presidential Administration. “It is clear that Putin has come to power not to reign in a disintegrating confederation but to fulfill some plans of his.” At the same time, there are no reasons for the Kremlin to make haste. Incumbent regional leaders, as well as those who will be elected in the upcoming elections, will lose their parliamentary immunity in a year. A great purge is in store for the regional leaders. The whole of society, from cleaners to educated political analysts, is sure that law enforcement agencies have something to charge most current regional leaders with. Therefore, there is more sense for them not to run in elections at all hoping that the federal government will forget them. However, Segodnya writes that ambitions of most of them are stronger than natural instincts. “Many of those who are aspiring to power in regions will have to see that Moscow does not believe tears.”

Political Study Institute Director Sergei Markov has said in his interview to Literaturnaya Gazeta that governors fear to cause the Kremlin’s anger because they are not supported by the society. Those who count for voters’ support are mistaken; people think them swindlers who have obtained power by means of forgery and dishonest alliances.” Therefore, even the most radical actions against governors performed by the federal government will be justified by the public opinion.

In general, the Russian elite that has been formed in conditions of the “Yeltsin anarchist democracy” should not claim for authority with people because it is immoral and irresponsible, as Sergei Markov thinks. Therefore, it is impossible to modernize the country without changing the elite.

According to Markov, the Kremlin has not made up his mind yet who will make a substitution for governors, but it has already realized that this change is inevitable. Promotion of representatives of special services and the Army is a temporary measure caused by the necessity to oust the most odious regional leaders. Markov calls this process “implantation of patriotism into the elite.”

However, he considers this decision an error, since “there is no point in inserting a couple of honest people into a corrupted system.” In Markov’s opinion, the new government should fix new rules, the main of which should be John Kennedy’s motto: “Ask not what the country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Markov asserts that no progress is possible in the country where the elite “despises its own nation and behaves like in an occupied country.”

The newspaper Versty cites curious data about people’s attitude toward the governing elite and the state as a whole.

Unlike the Soviet times, any Russian official of any rank does not even call himself “people’s servant.” “This people is given to him for governing with all its natural outcomes.” There is no wonder that 89% of participants of the opinion poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Study Center (VTsIOM) think that current state officials have a lot of advantages, such as opportunities to make helpful relations, to upgrade their material state, obtain additional incomes, and to be socially and legally protected to the full.

Answering the question whom the state is working for, only 9% of respondents have said that they hope the state is working for the people. Some 36% are sure that the state is serving to the ruling groups, 19% believe that the state is working for the Kremlin, 16% think that the state protects officials, and 12% of respondents are sure that the state is working for tycoons. According to Versty, most citizens are sure that the state is existing apart from the people are working purely for itself. That is why the meager Russian budget stipulates four times more money for functioning of the institute of presidential envoys than for the whole Army. The article in Versty is called “Nettle Seed.”

To all appearances, it is people’s indignation at the unfair actions of the powers-that-be that makes people support Putin’s reforms. People view these reforms as an attempt to tame those who think themselves the hosts of the life. The Kremlin is taking advantage of this support, and therefore all the president’s announcements that the government will not interfere in gubernatorial elections sound like a ritual spell with no meaning at all.

However, not all members of the presidential team deny their interest in results of the current election campaigns. The newspaper Vedomosti cites President of the Effective Politics Foundation Gleb Pavlovsky, who considers that it is presidential envoys that will play the most active role in the upcoming regional elections. Pavlovsky considers that the event in Kursk is a positive one because the regional authorities failed to intimidate the regional court as it had always happened before.

According to Vedomosti, presidential envoys admit in private conversations that they will not keep aloof of regional elections in their federal districts. Vedomosti’s source in the Presidential Administration asserted that although the society and governors themselves underestimate presidential envoys, they are ready for active political actions and have a carte blanche for them.

Meanwhile, the “governors’ opposition” is aspiring to defend itself from the Kremlin by any means acceptable. After meeting with Vladimir Putin, Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev suggested that presidential envoys’ powers be determined by law. Nezavisimaya Gazeta calls Stroev’s position “the general line of the governors’ opposition to presidential envoys.” At present, there is nothing in regions that presidential envoys cannot control. This was the aim of Putin’s reforms. It is clear that any restriction of presidential envoys’ activities may seriously baffle the Kremlin’s plans of reformation of Russia. Therefore, the executive branch does not need such a law. Presidential envoys agree with their bosses. For instance, Presidential Envoy in the Far East federal district Konstantin Pulikovsky was the first person who said that there is no need in any law on presidential envoys because the presidential decree on seven federal districts fully describes the situation. Pulikovsky has noted that presidential envoys may face some new tasks that a law may fail to cover. It is reasonable to suppose that other presidential envoys agree with Pulikovsky. In this connection it is worth while citing what presidential envoys themselves have said about their rights and duties. Viktor Kazantsev, for one, considers that his main tasks are to handle the regional economy and to inform president about the situation in his district. Viktor Cherkesov has focused his attention on presidential envoys’ participation in regional politics, since federal structures’ dependence on local authorities allegedly hinders finding solutions to nationwide problems. Sergei Kirienko thinks that his main function is to form a uniform legal and economic space in the Russian Federation. He also thinks that presidential envoys should pay special attention to the president’s personnel policy. Director of the Main Presidential Territorial Department Sergei Samoilov believes that presidential envoys should be engaged not in administration of their districts but in coordination of activities of regional authorities. And Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko thinks that “presidential envoys’ duties are determined by the life itself.”

Presidential Envoy in the Ural federal district Pyotr Latyshev recently showed an example of the creative approach to his duties. The newspaper Novye Izvestia has reported that after Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel’s speech at the meeting of the Greater Urals economic association, in which he criticized the federal reform, Latyshev took retaliatory steps on the economic front.

In the Maly Istok governmental residence near Yekaterinburg the presidential envoy assembled 13 large entrepreneurs whose enterprises are located in his federal district, such as LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov, head of the holding Uralmash-Izhora Kakha Bendukidze, one of the Surgutneftegaz directors Vladimir Bogdanov, and others.

The newspaper stresses that these large enterprises have been Rossel’s support in elections, and he skillfully lobbied their interests in Moscow in exchange. It turned out that it was not that difficult to shatter this support, as Novye Izvestia has noted.

After the meeting journalists were told that according to Putin’s decree, a center for strategic developments will be opened in the federal district in the near future. This center will elaborate the basic programs of development of the Ural region. In all likelihood, Latyshev proposed to entrepreneurs to work out this strategy based on mutual interests. Thus, cooperation with the local large business will be controlled by the federal government from now on.

Furthermore, governors will soon be encircled inside the “budgetary ring.” According to the decision of the federal government, it is presidential envoys that will soon be entrusted with distribution of transfers from the federal budget. This means that money will be granted to a region against the presidential envoy’s guarantees. Thus, not a single coin will get to a region without the presidential envoy’s consent.

Reinforcement of the power vertical in the country is going on against the background of the Kremlin’s opposition to tycoons. This is explained by the fact that there is an obvious triangle of relations between the president, regional leaders, and tycoons, as the weekly Vek notes.

Although some oligarchs have consented to “keep their distance from politics on Putin’s conditions, they are still attracted by power.” According to Vek, attempts of tycoons’ attacking the government do not cease. Despite the fact that no large-scale operations are underway at the moment, “sparse attacks” do not stop. Some of the wealthiest people in the country are aspiring to participate in governing the country themselves, others are trying to agree on distribution of influence spheres. Vek writes that the Presidential Administration’s position is clear: “The government should completely subdue oligarchs.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s most radical statements about the government’s relations with tycoons were published in his interview to the newspaper “Figaro.”

Judging from the translation published in Kommersant, Putin considers that those who managed to gain profit from disorganization of the state at the start of the 1990’s are eager to preserve status quo today employing media for this purpose. “These people are hoping to preserve their media monopoly in order to intimidate the political authorities.” The president is warning: “The state is holding a club, by which it may strike only once on their heads.” The state not used this club yet. Putin has said, “We have only touched this club, and this was enough to attract public attention.” However, this club will be used any time if necessary. “It won’t do if the state is blackmailed.”

However, Putin added that the state and oligarchs are not the worst enemies. All his attempts to solve domestic problems are aimed at consolidation of the state.

The interview made a great impression on the public opinion in Russia. It has been quoted practically every day since the moment it was published. Vedomosti writes, “It seems that the president has not been explained so far that there cannot be independent press. Even if the state gets rid of such tycoons as Gusinsky and Berezovsky, other tycoons, e.g. working in the Media Ministry, will substitute for them.”

Sergei Agafonov, a Novye Izvestia correspondent, notes sarcastically, “The state cudgel in strong hands of an angry judo wrestler is certainly the universal consolidator and the cement for the new state construction. The French are lucky: Putin come, Putin go. And we will have to live under him. It is time to hang up slogans in all cities and settlements: ‘Don’t annoy the judo wrestler! He is consolidating as he can’.”

However, Novye Izvestia thinks that the most important inference out of Putin’s interview is the fact that he has determined his priorities. His main priority is strengthening of the state.

Indeed, Putin does not practically say anything about interests of common citizens in his interview. “It is only the state that can construct on ruins. The state will set up total control over everything in the country and the society.” The press thinks that the mentions of Thomas Jefferson and the freedom of media in Putin’s interview to “Figaro” are mere tributes to the political correctness, which is popular in the West.

In any case, answering the question whether he longs for the empire, Putin said a very curious phrase: “No, I don’t long for the empire, for empires cannot exist forever.”

However, evanescence of empires seems to be their only flaw from Putin’s point of view, whereas empires have a lot of merits. It is noteworthy that in this context the mutual gravitation of the people and the government to order seems harmonic.

In any case, as the magazine Novoe Vremya states, according to the Regional Political Studies Agency (RPSA), 58% of Russians still view November 7 as the date of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Some 43% support the idea of restoration of the USSR. However, 36% have a negative attitude toward this idea, and 21% of respondents said they had no opinion on this matter.

Meanwhile, only 20% of Russians would like to return to socialism, and 48% would prefer reforms with social protection for the population. However, these are mere dreams. Reality looks different, and most people have a realistic assessment of the situation in Russia. According to the RPSA, the number of people who want their children to live in Russia is declining. Now only 51% of such patriots are left. Last years 56% chose Russia as the preferred home for their children. Thus, almost half of Russians would rather spare their children from further attempts at reforms – and their inevitable consequences.