This report published in partnership with Verisk Maplecroft. Follow them on Twitter here.
Joining us with a look at regional election results – and their broader implications for Russian politics – is Daragh McDowell, Principal Analyst for Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft. Preliminary data collection and analysis for this article was undertaken by Marta Jez as part of the Q-Step Work Experience program at the University of Exeter. Verisk Maplecroft would like to thank Ms. Jez for her contribution.
- Moscow’s political control over regional governments is slipping, opening the door for local elites to gain greater control over their regions
- A more autonomous local elite is expected to gain greater de facto control over natural resources, creating opportunities for external investment but also increasing corruption risks
- The trend is rooted in a sustained decline in living standards, which has also prompted unprecedented protest activity and a more confrontational attitude on the part of the ‘systemic’ opposition
Slow growth catches up to Kremlin in election backlash
Russia’s economic woes have resulted in a remarkably poor showing for United Russia (UR) in September’s local elections. The pension reform issue provided a handy rallying point for UR’s opponents – primarily the Communist (KPRF) and Liberal Democratic (LDPR) parties – and helped mobilise voters. However, our analysis shows that it is the long-term decline in living standards that is driving the fall in the UR vote, not just concerns over the pension changes.
While this does not represent a near-term threat to President Putin’s power, it does mean that for many elites his support no longer guarantees political success. Cultivating and mobilising a local support base will become just as, if not more important for regional elites than staying in the Kremlin’s good graces.
While Putin still has the power to dismiss governors and appoint acting replacements (who must face election within a year), his choices will now de facto be circumscribed by public and elite opinion. In the context of the transition, this has the potential to result in Putin’s centralised ‘vertical of power’ giving way to, if not a truly federal system, a more pluralistic one in which power is less concentrated in Moscow and more diffuse among the regions. As this new system is negotiated by the elite, the physical control over natural resource assets by regional governments will be a key factor in determining winners and losers.
While elections took place from Moscow to Vladivostok, the Siberian federal district was particularly active, with elections in nine of the district’s twelve regions. On average, the UR vote declined by 13.5% with respect to the last comparable election. The only non-UR governor, Omsk’s Alexander Burkov, saw his vote share increase by over 20 points.
Burkov’s success suggests that, rather than any association with the Kremlin, it is the UR brand itself that has become politically toxic. The challenge for the Kremlin will be whether it can sufficiently dissociate Putin from UR in the minds of the electorate to ensure his approval ratings do not fall further.
God is in heaven, and the Tsar is far away
The ‘social contract’ which originally legitimised Putin’s authoritarian rule was based on securing steady improvements in Russian living standards. As growth slowed after Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency, the Kremlin switched to nationalism and social conservatism to build a new legitimising narrative, one that proved highly successful following the annexation of Crimea. However, the ‘Crimea consensus’ was only able to delay the political backlash from the 2014 commodity and rouble crash, not stem it entirely.
Our analysis of September’s vote demonstrates that shifts in basic measures of economic well-being since 2014 – unemployment, population below minimum wage, and changes in median income – were strongly correlated with the decline in UR support. Average male life expectancy was also a contributing factor, due to the proposed increase in the retirement age. The chart below shows the regression model’s predicted values (“Fit”) versus the actual change in the United Russia vote.
As the closest contact point between the people and the political regime, local governors are bearing the brunt of public anger. The Kremlin’s backing, previously a guarantor of electoral success, has become a liability. To govern effectively, governors will have to adapt – for example, by cultivating a power base among local elites, and developing political machines to mobilise local voters.
This is of crucial importance in Siberia and the Far East, where Russia’s natural resources are concentrated. The rents derived from mines and oil wells provide the basic building blocks for developing the political networks which underpin governance in Putin’s Russia.
The approach of former Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleyev gives us an idea of what this could look like in practice. Tuleyev’s ties with Kemerovo’s business elites and other interest groups allowed him to construct a local political regime notable for both its authoritarianism and autonomy. Even after the Winter Cherry tragedy in March 2018 compelled Tuleyev to step down as governor, he was able to remain the de facto leader of the oblast as chairman of the local Council of People’s Deputies until ‘retiring’ this September.
If there is indeed a proliferation of Tuleyev-style, independent governors, they will become highly important stakeholders in the succession process. A combination of political autonomy, and physical control over natural resources will give the governors influence not only on who replaces Putin, but also on the relationship between the centre and regions when the new president takes power.
The vertical still stands, but change afoot
For now, there is no imminent threat to the Putin administration from the increased public dissatisfaction with UR. While UR lost substantial electoral ground – including three governorships – it still has near hegemonic control of most layers of regional governance.
A turnaround in Russia’s economic fortunes and a return to faster growth, either due to domestic policies or an easing of sanctions, would give UR a chance to recover and re-establish its dominant position. However, at time of writing the prospects for such a recovery are slim, with economic growth remaining mediocre despite the rise in oil prices.
More likely, the erosion in UR support will continue and, if this should indeed happen, Putin’s eventual departure from the Kremlin will result in a change of system, not just leadership. Putin’s successor, whoever he is, will still be Russia’s most powerful politician, but his ability to dictate policy to regional governments will be somewhat prescribed. The president will instead have to treat them as stakeholders in governance with established areas of responsibility.
This in turn means governors will have more control over the natural resources in their fiefdoms, and more say over the foreign partners who can be invited to invest in them. While this will provide new opportunities for investors, it also presents significant new challenges.
Under Putin’s ‘vertical of power’ model, Moscow has been able to make guarantees to foreign investors because the Kremlin could be sure that it could enforce those guarantees at the local level. The election results demonstrate this is unlikely to remain the case in future. Instead of relying on Moscow, investors will need to establish relationships with local political elites and power brokers, increasing compliance costs and corruption risk.