Since embarking on his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, Vladimir Putin has pushed the issue of gubernatorial elections to the forefront of his agenda. In contrast to his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, who made several symbolic concessions to the country’s pro-democracy opposition, Putin has taken a decidedly more “managerial” approach which, unsurprisingly, contradicts standard democratic practice.
Putin’s recent diktats on gubernatorial issues show just how vulnerable his hold on power is in certain regions. Ironically, his actions may encourage the opposition to further pursue its agenda in the regions.
Before Medvedev left office, he initiated a law reinstating direct elections of governors. Approved by the Russian State Duma, the law was scheduled to come into effect on June 1st. Putin unilaterally reversed this decision in several key regions where his United Russia party is most vulnerable, showing how anxious he is to see the emergence of opposition at the local level, especially given the recent opposition victories in mayoral elections across Russia. Days after Putin’s inauguration, Russia’s Central Election Committee (CEC) announced that gubernatorial elections would proceed according to the new law in only four regions – Amur, Belgorod, Bryansk, and Novgorod – scheduled for balloting in October.
In the other regions slated for fall elections – Samara, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Smolensk, and Leningrad – governors were dismissed within a week of Putin’s taking office. The Kremlin began to appoint acting regional heads and the CEC announced that gubernatorial selection in these regions would function according to the old method of presidential appointment.
The case of Samara is particularly indicative of the vulnerability that Putin faces in certain locales, as well as the steps he is willing to take to pre-empt potential opposition. In Vladimir Artyakov, Samara had a relatively weak governor who was due to stand for re-election but had failed to corral sufficient support for United Russia. Bearing in mind that actual figures were probably lower given polling violations, official results from December’s parliamentary elections showed that a mere 39 percent of Samara’s voters supported United Russia candidates. Artyakov’s performance was compounded by events in Tolyatti, a major industrial center in Samara where opposition mayoral candidate Sergey Andreev defeated United Russia’s candidate by nearly 16 percent in March.
On May 10, Putin handed Artyakov an early dismissal, appointing Nikolay Merkushkin as Samara’s acting governor. Having served as governor of Mordovia since 1995, Merkushkin had gained a reputation as an effective manager with the ability to drum up considerable support for United Russia. Indeed, in December’s parliamentary elections United Russia garnered 91 percent in Mordovia and in March’s presidential election Putin took the region with 87 percent. Significantly, Merkushkin is the first Russian governor to have been transferred to the governorship of another region, indicating that Samara may be undergoing a “crisis of the cadres,” according to several Russian political scientists.
Putin’s other problematic regions have exhibited similar trends. Kostroma boasted low levels of support for United Russia (30 percent in parliamentary elections) and high levels of inter-elite conflict. Leningrad’s Valeriy Serdyukov was a comparatively unpopular governor whose region’s support for United Russia barely surpassed Kostroma’s. Likewise, United Russia was thrashed in Yaroslavl’s parliamentary voting, which was compounded by the landslide victory of an opposition candidate in Yaroslavl’s mayoral elections. And Smolensk’s Sergey Antufyev, bruised by a 36 percent showing for United Russia, was plagued by poor personal relations with various regional ministries and local governments.
Nevertheless, of these regional hotspots Samara presents the most chilling prospect for Putin. If the reports of a “crisis of the cadres” are indeed accurate, it means that the pool of trustworthy United Russia functionaries from which Putin can recruit for regional leadership positions is dwindling. The spread of this trend to other regions, while unlikely on a large scale, would come as a shock to the Kremlin.
Furthermore, the so-called Merkushkin rokirovka (Russian for a swap move in chess) is still very much in its infancy. Though a masterful political manager in his native Mordovia, Merkushkin is in untested waters; it is simply too early to tell whether he can bind Samara’s elites into a coherent political force while also improving the battered public image of the region’s government. As well, the imposition of a political outsider could create a backlash in the region, making any future gubernatorial rokirovki difficult.
Putin’s proclivity toward managing Russian democracy has clearly not diminished, though his unilateral dismissal of governors and his attempt to monopolize future gubernatorial elections may provide fodder for the opposition. Accordingly, if Russia’s opposition is committed to challenging the Kremlin’s hold on power, it would do well to build pragmatic regional coalitions to address local problems and, where possible, challenge the Kremlin on the gubernatorial level.
Tom Liles is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.