Ben Aris in Moscow -
With the presidential elections on Sunday, March 4, bne thought it would take a closer look at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's election machine: his control over the regional governors.
Despite Putin's strongman image, because Russia is so big and most of the regions are so far away from everything else, the Kremlin is very dependent on the regional governors' cooperation to put the government's ideas into action.
Most of the time these governors are too busy filling their pockets to bother with orders from Moscow, but as only 11 of Russia's 83 regions are net contributors to the budget, the rest have to live on federal hand-outs that average RUB2,727 per person per year nationwide. The Kremlin can squeeze any bolshy governors by simply cutting off their money.
And since Putin did away with regional elections shortly after taking office in 2000, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has the power to sack any governor he doesn't like. Following the Kremlin-backed party United Russia's poor showing in the December parliamentary elections, Medvedev has sacked three governors (from Tomsk, Volgograd and Murmansk). Sacking governors for the explicit reason that the ruling party didn't win many votes in their regions kinda' gives the game away, doesn't it?
This combination of political stick and cash-carrot dependency was enough to deliver a majority (just) for the ruling United Russia in December. (It won 49.32% of the vote, but once the votes for parties that didn't cross the 7% threshold are shared out, this was enough to take the party over the 50% mark.)
Unsurprisingly, the regions where United Russia won the most votes are almost all from the impoverished and war-torn regions in Russia's Islamic crescent in the North Caucasus, stretching into Siberia, which are totally dependent on federal transfers and also still have a big military presence: United Russia won over 90% of the vote in Dagestan, Mordovia and Ingushetia, plus an astounding 99.5% in Chechnya. Almost all of these regions receive over five-times the national average of transfers from the centre.
The political stick alone is enough to keep some other regions in line: indeed, three of the 11 regions actually in profit (Tatarstan, Kemerovo and Tyumen) delivered more than 60% for United Russia in December's elections.
However, after this band of loyal supporters, things start to break down. Only 27 of Russia's 83 regions provided poll numbers above 50% for United Russia. Two-thirds of the regions returned less than 50% for United Russia and a bit more than a third (31) returned less than 40%: if the elections in the Caucasus had not been so blatantly fixed, United Russia would never have got anywhere near a majority.
In the last category of "disloyal" regions at the bottom of the list, two-thirds (21) receive less than the average as transfers from the centre, and half of those receive less than half the average. Together, the 31 disloyal regions at the bottom of the table polled an average of 36.5% for United Russia, which is what the opposition claim was about the true level of support for the ruling party. In other words, it looks like in a bit more than a third of Russia's regions there was a more-or-less free and open vote in December. And it is in exactly these regions where the governors were sacked or balled out for "performing badly." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's stipend will, no doubt, be renewed.
Tools at hand
It is probably too early to say that power is slipping out of the Kremlin's hands, but clearly Putin is worried and the spread between Chechnya's 99.5% and Yaroslavl Oblast's 29% for United Russia is extremely wide.
Putin has reacted by reaching for the traditional tools - nationalism, populism and fear-mongering, as well pulling a few things out of the Soviet-era trick-box, like the farcical assassination plot announced this week.
The rub here is that the Kremlin is relatively powerless to force the governors to act and can only punish them post-factum. Its hold over the regions will only weaken as they become more prosperous and more regional Russians join the middle class - doubly so if Medvedev actually goes through with his suggestion to reintroduce popular elections for governors after this vote is passed.
There has been some speculation in the press that this will be Putin's last term in office despite his assumed desire to serve two more terms. If he is going to go, then it will be his inability to control the regions that will finally see him off - and he is already having problems with them.
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