Opinion piece by Tatyana Stanovaya for Republic. Guest translation by Nick Trickett.
On Monday, president of Russia Vladimir Putin accepted the resignation of the head of the Perm’ region Viktor Basargin. On Tuesday, the head of Buryatia Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn voluntarily left office. The Kremlin has begun a renewal of the governor corps, announced by the media the day before. One of the most popular versions is that authorities are preparing for the presidential campaign by getting rid of the most unpopular governors. Version number two – Sergei Kirenko, new curator of internal politics, started to demonstrate his abilities as a political functionary. Both these versions are more or less believable. But at the same time, there’s a third that’s determining the new logic of the functioning of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The style of reshuffles
The pre-election motives of personnel decisions always seem to be the most logical and simple. Indeed, there’s a challenge with the approaching presidential elections – ensure a high turnout and a convincing result for Vladimir Putin. The challenge seems feasible, even technical. That means that the Administration of the President its internal political management will only neutralize all risks that could hobble the smooth conduct of the campaign. It’s logical that weak governors produce these risks: for the maintenance of campaign on the regional level, it’s necessary to ensure the coordinated use of administrative resources and avoid excessive activity from real opposition.
However, this logic is better suited for less managed democracies. The presidential campaign goes by its own particular political logic, and the question of the popularity of governors here has a peripheral significance. In a much more precarious situation in 2011 when president Dmitry Medvedev had capitulated and Putin went into the elections in conditions of elite anticipation of a second term for his successor, no large-scale campaign to replace regional heads was carried out. Putin’s popularity doesn’t depend on the popularity of regional bosses, especially for those who hope that Putin is fed up with the “bad boyars.”
Even outside the context of elections, the unpopularity of a governor was far from always the basis for his resignation. Suffice it to recall a wave of reassignments in 2014, when governors lined up for the Kremlin, hoping to be re-elected ahead of time and guaranteeing themselves a few years of quiet rule against the background of the emergent foreign political crisis. In September of 2014, only 11 of the 30 campaigns were planned. Then weak and ineffective candidates were sanctioned for re-election: governor of the Altai Republic Nikolai Berdnikov was considered a loser and mixed marks were given to the head of Kalmykia Alexei Orlov, Oleg Korolev in the Lipetsky region, and many others.
At that time in 2010 when no pre-election campaign was planned, there was a wave of displacements that affected not only middle-weights, but political heavyweights: the president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Bashkiria Murtazy Rakhimov, the mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov, and other governors, among whom there weak ones and those firmly seated in their chairs.
These two examples – 2010 and 2014 – show that mass personnel decisions at the regional level have a completely different logic far from sociology or federal elections. In the first case, Medvedev decided his own management tasks, clearing the governor corps in accordance with his own management style. The staff is often (though not always) taken from local authorities’ cadres, and not from the Vikings representing the federal interest groups around Putin. In the second case, the reassignments were all put to chance because of Putin’s distraction with the international agenda and his unwillingness to change horses midstream and generally mess with staffing problems that had faded to the background of Ukraine and sanctions.
The Table of Ranks
Before this, all attempts to build an objective system of grading the work of governors, by and large, have never really worked out. In a certain sense, Vyacheslav Volodin succeeded. He organized the integrated assessment of the effectiveness of governors based on the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF). The data of the ONF only really allows the prediction of those at the bottom of the ratings. But this didn’t become a universal tool. First, the ratings engender conflicts of the federal powers with separate heads of regions. Second, the Kremlin went contrary to Volodin’s ratings, supporting Sergei Morozov in Ulyanovsk region in 2016 or Leonid Markelova in Mariy El in 2015, despite their bad positions.
In this situation, there’s a problem of the mechanization of personnel appointments and of the creation of a certain objective evaluation system, which would allow the Kremlin to determine when governors should go without political interference. But here arises an intrigue: the very system of power of the regime at the heart of the regime is built in such a way that no one except for a sole center without an alternative can or should determine when to make personnel decisions. The very format of the Fund of the Development of Civil Society allows Pro-Kremlin figures to guide the president on personnel decisions contradicts the nature of Putin’s leadership. Moreover, the publication of ratings played the role of additional political pressure on the governors from the lower part of the list, and on the president whose support of the not most successfully managers raised questions.
The new logic of Sergei Kirienko, probably, takes these nuances into account. The Kremlin has refused to publish the ratings and immediately made the process of assessing governors’ work and making the following personnel decisions more closed, but less manipulative. Besides that, now we’re really observing a trend of replacing weak governors of the regions with technical, not political figures: Putin’s new bureaucracy.
The Burden of the Governorship
The new trend is connected, in large part, to the change in the very nature of the regime, and not to the subjective approaches of Kremlin leaders. At the regional level, we’re now observing the same tendencies indicated by the federal personnel policy of 2016: technocrats have come to replace politicians, often (but not always) possessing close experience working with Putin, but without knowing him from his past life and not possessing too pronounced relations with powerful groups of interests among “Putin’s friends.”
The new head of Perm’ Krai, former head of the Moscow Department of Economic Policy Mikhail Reshetnikov, is a classic representative of this new bureaucracy: he worked on Yuri Trutnev’s and Oleg Chirkunov’s team and was a key figure in Sergei Sobyanin’s circle (where Anastasia Rakova led him). Now they call him a protégé of the mayor of Moscow, an envoy of Mikhail Babich in the Privolga district, and of Trutnev. But the current personnel policy is unique, in that if earlier having one major patron was enough to advance, now you need the guarantee of an absence of a serious block from the side of one of Putin’s closest associates. The governorship is now not a blessing, but a burden.
The same can be said of the new head of Buryatia. It’s also a child of the seven dry-nurses: Deputy Transport Minister Alexei Tsydenov – presidential aide Igor Levitin’s man, the Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov, and Arkady Rotenberg, whose sphere of interests include the railroads, which were overseen by Tsydenov and, possibly, even the official overseer of railroads Arkady Dvorkovich. In fact, it’s related to a young civil servant of 40 years, who’s made his career in large part in the system of the organs of executive power and not in the highest positions who has learned not to quarrel with anyone and little on how to really affect things.
The exchange of politicians for technocrats will gradually form a new quality among the regional elite, which will be easier to weigh and measure. And that mean the technological approach of Sergei Kirienko’s team has more chances to unify the methods of evaluating governors’ work. Nothing personal, just facts – so it’ll be easier for the system to carry out a rotation where it already doesn’t matter who promoted you. The governor corps is being depoliticized, the value of a political figure is falling, and political life is dropping in value. And in all of this there is no connection with the upcoming presidential elections. All is the result of the gradual withdrawal of the elite from responsibility for the risky parts of the functioning of the power vertical.