Staunton, September 10 – Gubernatorial elections to take place in seven Russian federal subjects on September 18 and voting for regional parliaments in 38 of them the same day are so much under the control of the powers that be that the results are “just as predictable as when the regional leaders were in fact appointed by Moscow,” Vadim Shtepa says.
On the Forbes.ru portal, the Karelian regionalist now living in exile in Estonia argues that “the appointment of governors,” introduced by Vladimir Putin after the Beslan tragedy, “led to a radical alienation of the regional authorities from the interests of local residents” (forbes.ru/mneniya/vertikal/327685-nedovybory-nedogubernatorov-pochemu-v-rossii-ne-slozhilas-federatsiya).
Even before that happened in 2004, he says, Russia’s federation was “from the outset built on an imperial model,” with the two subjects identified in the Federation Agreement of 1992 identified as “’the center’” and “’the regions,’” something that opened the way for re-centralization and made the Russia a federation “in name only.”
Nonetheless, “if in the 1990s, no governor could fail to take into consideration the opinions of electors knowing that if he ignored them, he could ‘suffer’ in the next elections.” But “after 2004, the regional heads faced only one single voter – the person sitting in the Kremlin.” Only his views mattered, and his success depended on carrying out his orders.
When Putin agreed to the return of elected governors in 2012, many thought that would give new life to Russian federalism, but in fact, Shtepa points out, “these ‘returned’ elections were already in principle different from those which took place in all federal subjects in the period 1996 to 2004.”
Political parties and the ruling United Russia Party in particular were now the gatekeepers and thus have acted in exactly the same way Putin would have if he had been making the appointments directly. And amendments to the law which allowed Putin to “consult” which is to say “order” local officials only made that clearer.
Chechnya, which Putin has called “a model of federalism,” will elect its head, but given that Ramzan Kadyrov is the head, that says it all. “Besides Chechnya, general gubernatorial elections this year will take place in six other Russian Federation subjects – the republics of Komi and Tyva, Tver, Tula and Ulyanovsk oblast, and Transbaikal kray.
“All the main candidates in these regions,” Shtepa notes, “are at present fulfilling the obligations of governors, are members of the United Russia Party, and are actively using its administrative and propaganda resources.” And all can be expected to win, although probably not with Kadyrov-like percentages.
Four of the six governors outside of Chechnya are “Vikings,” that is, officials without local ties. The exceptions are in Tyva where the percentage of the titular nationality is so high that it would be difficult to violate the norm and in Transbaikal kray where the previous governor got in so much trouble.
The incumbents will win even though United Russia is losing popularity because its supporters in the population still vastly outnumber both the systemic opposition (KPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia) not to speak of the extra-systemic which is increasingly being forced out of electoral competitions.
Many felt that open “’unfiltered’” gubernatorial elections in the 1990s led “only to the appearance of ‘regional barons,’ who transformed the subjects of the Russian Federation into their own ‘estates,’ with the open domination by their own administrative and business groups,” Shtepa says.
But those problems should have been overcome by making the system more transparent and more democratic rather than more centralized. Tragically, exactly the reverse has happened in large measure because of “the personalist Russian tradition” which looks to the president in the country as a whole and the governor in each region rather than to the legislature.