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16 February 2017

Governors on their way out

Is Putin’s recruitment policy about to change?

The Kremlin decided to replace the gubernatorial corps in early 2017. Lists of “underachievers” are currently circulating in the media. Some have already been dismissed while others are hastily organizing press conferences to reassure their public that their positions remain secure. Members of the gubernatorial corps are panicking as, in their eyes, nothing is worse than the uncertainty brought on by a revision of the rules of the game. However, the amendment has not come about purely because of the change of curator in charge of domestic policy or the upcoming presidential election. A new political regime is currently being established in Russia and roles and functions are now being assigned differently.

Processes related to reviewing the Kremlin’s personnel policy on the gubernatorial corps started long before Sergey Kiriyenko joined the Kremlin team. An unprecedented shake-up awaits heads of Russian regions in 2017 as three governors have already resigned and, according to the Russian-language business daily Vedomosti, 7 more are on their way out. Journalists and experts have hastily proclaimed that the shake-up was prompted solely by the upcoming presidential election.

The first reason behind the shake-up is rather technical and concerns the events of 2012 and 2014. The majority of governors to appear on journalist’s “blacklists” were elected in 2012 and their terms are due to end in 2017 – the Kremlin does not want them to be reelected and hence, staffing decisions implemented during the year after the last presidential election are to be revisited. At that time, the regime was also subjected to a reshuffle, not prompted by the geopolitical crisis, but rather mass protests which forced a moderate liberalization of the rules of the game. However, concessions were accompanied by a counter-reaction which soon followed; the Kremlin did not want to allow any democratic freedoms. All five governors elected in 2012 (except for Oleg Kozhemyako) are currently at risk.

The second group of governors at risk of losing their jobs was elected in 2014. Back then, Putin’s regime altered course from the mild conservatism of 2012-2013 to accelerated managerial mobilization, triggered mainly by an attempted political consolidation of the elites and society against external “threats” given the new Ukrainian revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the crisis in Donbas, the imposition of sanctions as well as other quandaries. The logic of the “besieged fortress” necessitated the mitigation of inner tensions. The level of Putin’s criticism of the government subsided, pro-Putin rhetoric gained in popularity amongst the systemic opposition, grassroots patriotic enthusiasm was observable and the influence of the siloviki and the military on governmental decision-making became critical. This led to geopolitical turmoil and the Kremlin was forced to refocus its efforts on “staying afloat” and avoiding ceding control. Governors, including many unsuccessful ones, lined up in the Kremlin in an attempt to bolster their positions (i.e. get approval for their reelection). The presidential administration hesitated in late 2013 before letting things slide in the second half of 2014. Thanks purely to opportunism, many of the least successful regional heads were afforded new mandates at a time when the Kremlin had more pressing issues at hand.

Therefore, the Kremlin wants to rectify its past recruitment mistakes first and foremost by carrying out a reshuffle. These mistakes were made as the Kremlin took its eye off the ball when it came to staffing and due to a lack of political will to address such problems.

Another reason lies in the change of the political status of governors as power institutions from 2015-2016, primarily associated with the criminal charges levied against the heads of the Sakhalin Oblast (Aleksandr Khoroshavin), Karelia (Vyacheslav Gayzer) and the Kirov Oblast (Nikita Belykh). Dismissals for “loss of confidence” or pending criminal investigations against governors (usually following their dismissal) were exceptional cases in the past, whereas nowadays, they are seen as a sign of the times. Since the abolition of direct elections in 2005, a governor enjoyed special status; a venerated figure trusted by the president. The system of appointment passed Putin’s personified legitimacy onto the heads of governments, automatically granting them immunity and elevating their political responsibility.

Following the return of direct elections, a system of two-source legitimacy was introduced. On the one hand, a candidate received public “blessing” from the president and, on the other, he had to win a direct election. This was, in fact, akin to a referendum of confidence whereby the electorate was invited to accept or reject Putin’s “first pick”. However, such legitimization did not always guarantee success which was exemplified by the crushing defeat of the candidate of United Russia Sergey Yeroshchenko in the Irkutsk Oblast elections in 2015.

Putin’s support, although highly valued by governors, was perhaps considered of lesser importance by Putin himself as no guarantees regarding their futures were made. After all, both Gayzer and Belykh enjoyed Putin’s public support when elected, but this did not immunize them from criminal prosecution.

Neglect of the recruitment policy at the regional level in 2012-2014 stemmed from something different: depreciation of the importance of the gubernatorial post. This created “niches” for the siloviki to exploit and they readily took the initiative, maximizing their influence. It was precisely governors, identified as “weak links”, who became targets of a new anti-corruption campaign. The campaign was meant to strengthen the role of the “Chekists”.

The desirability of gubernatorial seats tobogganed against the backdrop of the events of 2015-2016 as influential groups were hardly forming a line to install their representatives in an office fraught with higher social and political responsibility or which subjected them to an elevated risk of criminal prosecution.

The abovementioned developments resulted in a third factor which underlies today’s reshuffle: depoliticization of the post of governor. The status of the head of the region lost its appeal and ceased to be a “honeypot”. The Kremlin no longer needed strong managers, responsible oligarchs, prepared to “save” their regions or protégés of “friends” focused on resolving their own problems amidst the crisis and sanctions. This paved the way for today’s situation whereby there is demand for “little leaguers”, bureaucrats, “doers” and “eager beavers” who are steadily ushered in to occupy seats of regional executives. These people were plucked from among the siloviki last year; from the FSO (Federal Guard Service), FSB (Federal Security Service) and Ministry of the Interior. This year, however, candidates will come from a pool of civilians. The Republic of Buryatia is now headed by former Deputy Minister of Transportation, Alexey Tsydenov, while the head of one of the Moscow departments, Maxim Reshetnikov, has been appointed acting governor of the Perm Krai. Both are young, have zero experience of big politics, are technocrats and, at the same time, belong to interest groups affected by the reshuffle.

The fourth reason for today’s reshuffle is the general tendency to replace politicians with technocrats who operate outside of the ideological framework and are not overburdened with the political past. Anton Vaino, Maxim Oreshkin, Maxim Reshetnikov and Alexey Tsydenov are all examples of such staff “replenishing”.

A manifestation of yet another factor can be observed here: the regime has overcome a certain psychological barrier related to the fear of major changes in personnel. For many years, Putin relied on people (those close to him who can be trusted) – the ones who let him down following corruption charges and low-level efficiency. In 2015 and 2016, he placed his wager on institutions yet to be built.

The Putin regime was building a “vertical of power” based on the destruction of power institutions and institutions of the political system. He replaced them with informal fora, a hierarchy, governed by closed mechanisms of decision-making. The strength of the previous model was that it was built around people he could informally consult and build shadow control mechanisms alongside. This is one of the main mysteries of the coming year: today, having rejected his “own people”, Putin will have to revert to formal procedures as well as to strengthening of the existing state institutions and mechanisms which might require a reform of the authorities. Reverting to institutions and procedures as an alternative to informal relations and inter-elite pillars would be tantamount to the first steps towards weakening Putin’s role. Putin, whose political gravitas has always been built on his personified ability to replace the entire system should he see fit. This is precisely why today’s reshuffle, the effect of which will be felt from the presidential administration to the governors, is a clear sign of the gradual political erosion of the Putin regime and its depersonification. 

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