To some, under the influence of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Vladimir Putin’s much-vaunted ‘power vertical’ is rotating, turning on its head. Instead, the initiative has moved to the regions, with the once-mighty president looking like “an old, sick wolf”, at bay in his bunker-den in Novo-Ogaryovo.
Perhaps, although given that dealing with the coronavirus – the unpopular lockdowns, the economic dislocations, the complaints about medical inadequacies, the death tolls – is hardly a fun perk, one has to question how far passing this on the local administrations can count as a genuine shift of power. The capacity to force other people to handle the hard, uncomfortable work sounds like a sign of strength, not weakness.
Of course, as has been discussed at length, this was a president who anyway has something of a disengaged approach to the less fun aspects of the job, as well as something of a terror of being associated with potential failure, distancing himself from a campaign that was always going to be unpleasant and unpredictable.
The key attributes of power – control over federal funds and federal security forces – remain firmly in the hands of the Kremlin, and presumably once the worst of the crisis is over, even those responsibilities which have been devolved will be gathered back, if it suits the centre. There is no evidence, yet at least, that this is a government which has become a convert to genuine regionalisation of power.
Breaking the elite social contract
It is often hard to feel undue sympathy for many mayors or governors, as they siphon resources into their own bank accounts and pack their administrations with cronies. Nonetheless this is, at its most basic, not fair.
All political systems depend on intermediary layers of administrators and managers, satraps and enforcers, and Putin’s characteristic mix of democracy, authoritarianism and kleptocracy is no exception. These are the people who actually operationalise much of the policy decided at the federal centre, whether nurturing the tax base, building infrastructure, or keeping the people content and ready to vote the right way.
Generally speaking, all systems use a mix of legitimacy, co-optation and coercion to keep these people on side. They appeal to their patriotism and their belief that this is a system that truly deserves their support. It is easy to be cynical about the hard-nosed opportunists who tend to rise to these intermediary roles, but this aspect cannot be discounted. Co-optation tends to mean ensuring that they have practical reasons to work inside the system, both the official – the title, the prestige – and the unofficial – the opportunities for enrichment. And coercion tends to mean the threat of losing all that, but in extreme cases can even mean prison.
This is all embedded in a social contract, one that is no less powerful for being unspoken. And this is being broken by the Kremlin.
An interesting recent study by Alexei Sorbale and Andrey Starodubtsev found that successful governors – at least, those whose regions display effective economic governance – tend to have been in post for some time, be local or at least have had strong local connections both personally and in terms of their teams, and also have good connections with the Kremlin.
Rather than so-called Varyagi – ‘Varangians’ – parachuted into governorships from without, the more effective governors have local constituencies and local loyalties. The old social contract was that they could steal and indulge themselves, but so long as they did their job. That job was, however, doable. Whereas Varyagy might put up with a lot because they knew this was just a stage in the career cycle before heading to Moscow to become a deputy minister or the like, this cohort of officials have no such plans or prospects.
This, in other words, is probably their best life. Now, they are being put in a tough spot. While dealing with COVID-19, they are still being expected to meet all the other demands of the Kremlin, which may well mean ill-omened and premature Victory Day parades before the pandemic is properly controlled, and likely also ensuring a good and positive turnout for Putin’s constitutional plebiscite. They are being denied many of the tools and powers they might want to deploy against the current crisis, but are meanwhile being reviled by the centre for not doing their jobs. And they are still expected to be loyal foot-soldiers.
Resistance, City Hall style
These are pragmatic operators; they have to be, to reach such a position. They are neither insensitive to the slights of the centre, nor can they afford to lose their own authority over local elites below them. Besides which, since 2012 they have been elected, and while they can wield formidable amounts of administrative resource, this also means they cannot wholly ignore their constituencies and their reputations.
The response to the pandemic has thus not broken their social contract with the federal centre, but it has strained it. The legitimacy of the latter is challenged by Putin’s relatively hands-off approach and the perceived unfairness of his treatment of the governors.
In the background, the ties of co-optation are slightly weaker. The more pressure on their budgets, the less opportunities for embezzlement in the hands of the governors, at a time when Putin’s own personal coterie seems only to be more cosseted than ever. The recent decision to grant Igor Sechin another five years in charge of Rosneft, even while he seeks further state support for challenges at least in part of his own making, has become something of a symbol of this imbalance.
Besides, by making their jobs more difficult, it also increases the odds that governors will be sacked, either for failing to meet their targets or else if they are perceived as electoral liabilities.
The case of Mikhail Ignatyev is striking. Sacked as governor of Chuvashia after a series of gaffes, he has sued Putin, challenging the presidential decree that removed him from office in January. Previously, Ignatyev was a hardline United Russia loyalist, and while his decision to turn to the courts may turn out to have been driven by a mix of hubris and recklessness, it does speak to the way that even former insiders can easily become outsiders.
Indeed, one could even consider the example of Boris Yeltsin, the former Communist Party regional boss turned Moscow mayor who turned so sharply against the man who had elevated him, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he was betrayed.
Of course, the Kremlin’s coercive powers are essentially undiminished, and Putin is no Gorbachev. It is unlikely there will be similar public challenges. But there are all kinds of other ways of resistance and retribution. A classic one that was also very much a feature of the later Soviet era is to form closer ties with local elites to create circles of mutual interest that make it easier to embezzle, to con the Kremlin that everything is going to plan, and generally to watch each other’s backs.
An interesting development, after all, is that for the moment, the polls are suggesting that the public can see through the government’s desire to duck responsibility. According to independent pollster the Levada Centre, trust in Putin has fallen by 10% between January and May to a multi-year low of 25%.
Meanwhile, 50% of respondents said that their governors or mayors were doing their best to deal with the outbreak, slightly ahead of the central government, of which only 46% said the same. In the past, the Kremlin has largely been able to divert blame for policy failures onto governors, with a particular purge in 2019. The onset of the pandemic saw three governors – of Kamchatka, Komi and Arkhangelsk – also go.
Regionalisation of power?
If the institution of governor begins to be taken more seriously, though, and if enough incumbents acquire the sort of local authority that mean they have less need of Moscow’s administrative resource, then a greater regionalisation of power might happen by default. The task of reconstruction of the economy after the pandemic will be tough enough without the centre necessarily picking fights with its satraps.
Besides which, it is possible that those governors who do a good job in dealing with the crisis – which includes Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a ‘super-governor’ in anything but name – may not only force their way into national-level politics but also contribute to a technocratic critique of policy.
It is worth noting that at present, only one of 9 deputy prime ministers has been a governor, and that is in some ways an outlier: Yuri Trutnev, the presidential envoy to the Russian Far East. Of 21 ministers, 6 have gubernatorial experience, but Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu scarcely had a chance to pick his office furniture in 2012 before he was heading back to a federal ministry, and Minister of Emergency Situation Evgeny Zinichev so clearly loathed his position as active governor of Kalingrad that he held it only for just over two months before resigning. The others, Maxim Reshetnikov (Economic Development), Vladimir Yakushev (Construction, Housing & Utilities), Dmitry Kobylkin (National Resources & Environment) and Alexander Kozlov (Development of the Russian Far East & Arctic) are all essentially ‘dirty hands’ practical positions, and only Reshetnikov is ever really considered that likely to rise further.
Whether or not the regions do become more significant thanks to COVID-19 – whether as acknowledged partners in government, or hubs of self-interested local autonomy – if the ‘gubernatorial class’ also graduates more often into the federal elite, that too could mean a significant shift away in power.
Dr Mark Galeotti is director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and also an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies, a senior associate fellow at RUSI and a senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague.