Vienna, October 8 – Although Russia’s governors are now appointed by Moscow rather than elected by the voters of their regions, they in many cases have remained extremely powerful and even independent because of their length of service and ability to rely on “a complex balance of interests,” according to new research organized by a Russian Internet journal.
In the current issue of “Russky reporter” posted online today, its journalists say that scholars have concluded that “despite the fact that direct elections of the heads of regions were eliminated in 2004 and even that in the course of the next year, the terms of [many] run out, the powers that be in the subjects of the Federation represent a most influential level in Russia.”
Many of the federal subject heads have been in their posts “longer than any bureaucrat in Moscow,” they work on the basis of a deep familiarity with local conditions and operate on “a complex balance of interests” so successfully that Moscow often decides that it is better to leave them in place than invest the energy and pay the price of changing them.
Indeed, the journalists continue, citing the work of Alla Chirikova, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, “Moscow in a majority of cases has to support those systems of power which exist in the regions, with all their particular features and shortcomings,” as long as the leaders show loyalty to the center and promote economic growth.
That gives many of the governors real power and even the ability to act independently, the “Russky reporter” journalists suggest, and they suggest that Moscow faces an additional obstacle in that the governors vary so widely, with these regional leaders varying so much from one another thus complicating Moscow’s task (www.rusrep.ru/2009/38/regiony/).
Among the six models “Russky reporter” offers are the Sverdlovsk model of Eduard Rossel, a regional power broker in his own right, “the family-clan” model build either on the basis of an intermixture of political power and business or ethnicity or both, and the special case of 300 to 400 kilometers from Moscow where the center’s role as a player is greater.
In all cases, the journalists say, what the country needs at present is a model “where power rather than law stands at the top of the heap” and in which “informal agreements with the heads of regions are almost more important than formal rulers written in law.” In that environment, governors have enormous room to build their own power bases.
Chirikova even points out that Moscow is not opposed to this at least in every case: “a strong governor is very important for the center” both to ensure control and deliver the votes for Moscow’s candidates.” As long as a governor does that, he or she has broad latitude to exercise an independent policy.
Of course, “one cannot say,” the journalists continue, “that the Kremlin has not tried to strengthen the power vertical with 100 percent loyal people.” Initially, for example, then-President Vladimir Putin tried to do this by naming people from the security services to be governors.” But that “experiment” did not prove to be a success in many cases.
The explanation for that, Chirikova notes, “is simple.” The position of governor is “an entirely different administrative reality” than the ones security service officers are familiar with. They are used to giving orders, but in the governor’s chair, that is “insufficient.” They need to be politicians capable of convincing people and assembling coalitions if they are to be effective.
And those who are capable of doing that are sufficiently rare that the center will think twice about replacing them as long as they do not cause serious problems. As the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nikolay Petrov observes, removing them is often difficult, and any replacement may find himself facing resistence from the start.
Consequently, “more often than not it is more profitable for the federal powers that be to leave the situation as it is especially if the regional leader is even relatively effective,” all the more so because even those governors who may not like the center nonetheless will cooperate in delivering the votes and the money Moscow wants.
When Putin eliminated gubernatorial elections, many assumed that this would lead to the development of “a hidden fronde” as governors fought against the diminution of their powers. But “it has turned out that no essential reduction of the influence of governors in the regions has occurred.”
“Yes,” “Russky reporter” concludes, “they have lost control over certain financial flows and regional force structures have moved out from under their power. But all the same, the local elites retain many opportunities to conduct their own policy,” and even as the recent case of Bashkortostan’s Murtaza Rakhimov shows, to complain about Moscow’s quite openly.
If Moscow is to cope with these arrangements in the future, the weekly says, “authoritarian methods alone will not be enough.” Instead, the central authorities will have to use political ones, and in that sphere, many of the Russian Federation’s governors and republic presidents have shown themselves to be masters of the game.