Staunton, September 27 – Vladimir Putin spent much of the first decade of his reign working to eliminate the so-called “heavyweight” governors who had real power in their regions and republics and replace them will technocrats, typically people without ties to the local population, who would simply do what he told them.
That drive has backfired: In ever more places, the population and elites are challenging the technocrats who lack the political skills necessary to work with either, allowing the situation to spiral out of control. As a result, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta are asking a question that was once unthinkable: might not things be better if Russia went back to the earlier system?
In a lead article today, the paper says that “political technology guarantees victories in elections” for those the Kremlin has selected; “but for the preservation of the support of citizens, politics is required” – and that involves a set of skills the new generation of regional heads appointed by the Kremlin lacks (ng.ru/editorial/2019-09-26/2_7687_red.html).
The powers that be have plenty of administrative resources, a euphemism for manipulating the results of elections, to ensure that most if not all of its candidates will win; but they cannot use those same resources to keep people from protesting and elites from seeking to carve out influence after the votes are counted.
When Putin moved to install technocrats in these positions, the editors say, the economy was doing well, incomes were rising, and the government found it more or less easy to address problems. Now, the economy isn’t doing as well, the government is operating under severe financial stringency, and it can’t do as much. Not surprisingly, people are angry.
In this new situation, Nezavisimaya gazeta continues, it is critically important for officials to be able to reach out and interact with the population, explaining what can and can’t be done while recognizing the complaints people have as legitimate. Being able to do that is a political skill that the old heavyweights had but that the new technocrats don’t.
There are already problems in many regions and republics, and next year will see the election/re-election of federal subject heads in 17 places. If people have the sense that those in power don’t care, two things will happen: they will be angry at those officials and they will be furious at those in Moscow who appointed them.
Political technologists and administrative resources may again keep most of the Kremlin appointees in office, but anger about the situation is almost certain to grow. In this situation, the old heavyweights who were rooted in the places they governed and who knew how to engage in politics represent a smaller problem than do the technocrats who have replaced them.