Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia beyond Moscow’s Ring Road Anything But Quiet and Stable

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 13 – Russian President Vladimir Putin operates on the assumption, which many observers in Moscow and abroad appear to share, that Moscow may be bubbling with popular unhappiness and organized dissent but that the rest of the Russian Federation is quiet and stable.

            But a survey conducted by Igor Dmitriyev of “Novaya Versiya” posted online yesterday suggests that assumption is far from justified and that Putin’s own policy of replacing governors in those federation subjects  where conflicts are most obvious may in fact spark more unrest in more places rather than calm the situation (

            Indeed, Dmitriyev argues, “the average level of social-political stability of all the subjects of the Russian Federation continues to fall” and that “in certain subjects, [this] has reached a critical level,” a development that suggests that the Kremlin will soon make more changes among the governors than it has in the past.

            The “Novaya versiya” author says that “the main recent event in regional policy” was the approval on firs reading of legislation which would allow a shift away from gubernatorial elections, a law that without doubt will be approved this spring and that “will take from voters the opportunity only just returned to them to influence the regional authorities” by election.
            Without that chance, Dmitriyev argues, “sooner or later,” in places where there are problems, the “political temperature” will rise, and “where [it] gets too high, the Kremlin will try” to bring it down by “the simplest method” available, that is, “by the replacement of the head of the region.”      

            That approach by the center explains two changes in regional leadership in the past month, he continues. In Magadan, Nikolay Dudov was retired in favor of Vladimir Pecheny, because, in the view of many observers, the former had gotten himself into too serious “conflicts” with the fishing industry.

            And in Daghestan, the situation was “much more serious.”  Being “one of the most explosive” regions in the country, that North Caucasus republic displays a number of serious problems: inflation, murders of officials and attacks on police posts, kidnappings of tax officials, and discovery of explosives in the house of a deputy interior minister.

            Worse still, from Moscow’s point of view, it is clear that there had developed a deep split within the top stratum of officials in Makhachkala, a split that could undermine state authority there still further.  That forced the center to replace Magomedsalam Magomedov with Ramazan Abdulatipov, a step commentator Andrey Piontkovsky described as “a gesture of despair.”

            “According to many experts,” Dmitriyev continues, “the threat of dismissal already hangs over several governors,” including, in particular, the leaders of Vladimir Oblast, Ingushetia, Khabarovsk Kray and Transbaikal Kray, where social-political situations are especially dire and where the possibility of political problems is particularly great.

            The “Novaya versiya” writer then surveys conditions in 20 federal subjects outside of Moscow where he suggests “the symptoms of critical social-political instability” are already very much in evidence. (He also mentions in addition, Magadan where the leadership has already been changed and Moscow, the 22nd such subject.)                           

            Among the problems the journalist points to in the 20 are the following. In Altay Kray, people are upset about being forced to pay extra to get medical treatment and about electricity shut offs in nine regions of the kray.  In Arkhangelsk, unemployment is increasing, and there has been a “sharp increase” in youth crime over the last year.

            In Bryansk oblast, orphanage programs have collapsed, and 22 apartment blocks have been left without heat. In Vladimir oblast, there are criminal charges pending against senior officials. In Volgograd oblast, several social organizations have already called on Putin to replace the governor.

            In Vladimir, criminal charges have been lodged against senior officials. In Volgograd, public organizations have called on the Kremlin to replace the governor. In Transbaikal kray, the citizenry has demanded the restoration of rail connections between Chita and Zabaikalsk and have been angered by reports about sexual exploitation of children in children’s homes there.

            In Ingushetia, there have been accusations of corruption against two senior officials, the house of a member of the Council of Muftis has been shot had, and the trainer at a local sports club has been kidnapped. In Kabardino-Balkaria, there has been an accident on a gas pipeline, the murder of a policemen, fighting with militants, and a scandal about payments to those who worked on the Chernobyl clean up.

            In Kalmykia, there are reports of financial shenanigans in the republic economics ministry and criminal accusations against the former president of the republic. In Karachayevo-Cherkesia, there have been shootings and rising prices for bakery goods. In Karelia, there has been a new wave of factory closings and layoffs and the interior minister has been told to “prepare for the possibility of a social explosion.”

            In Kirov oblast, the governor has been interrogated by police about corruption, a senior official is now on the wanted list, and criminal charges have been brought against the direct of the central market.  In Orel oblast, criminal charges have been lodged against the deputy head of the interior ministry office there, and searches have been carried out in major employer.

            In Orenburg oblast, the leaders of the KPRF, LDPR and SR parties have issued a joint appeal to the Kremlin to focus on the terrible conditions in health care facilities in that region.  In Perm kray, there have been protests against the governor’s plans to shift the zoo to the territory of a local forest.

            In Ryazan oblast, the regional government is running up debt despite increasing prices for municipal transport and problems with the heating system.  In North Osetia, there have been ecological protests. In Smolensk oblast, there have been problems at a local museum and cut offs of heat.                       

            In Khabarovsk kray, criminal cases have begun against officials over land deals, and the population is angry about officially published data showing that their region has among the most contaminated drinking water in the country.  And in Chelyabinsk oblast, 85 percent of the population, according to a poll, is critical of the governor.

            None of these problems, of course, necessarily presages a crisis, but almost any of them could trigger a protest. But at the very least, Dmitriyev suggests, they paint a very different picture of relative stability beyond the ring road and thus pose new challenges to the Kremlin in the coming months.

            On the one hand, Putin may seek to win popularity by replacing unpopular governors. But on the other, he may create a situation in which it will be seen that expressions of popular unhappiness about officials may bring a change in leadership, a lesson which could trigger more such expressions both in the regions and in the country as a whole.

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