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A wave of gubernatorial resignations—five in two weeks—has brought regional issues into the national spotlight in Russia.
Viktor Basargin (Perm), Oleg Kovalev (Ryazan), Alexander Khudilaynen (Karelia), and Sergey Mitin (Novgorod) resigned and were replaced in such rapid succession that some thought they had discerned a pattern: old governors seemed to be being replaced by young technocrats, part of recently appointed Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko’s plan to show that he’s getting down to the business of governance.
But a closer look at the appointments suggests that the sacked governors, who were once themselves promising young technocrats, were on their way out anyway: all were expected to leave office when their terms expired later this year. What’s more, all of the departing governors were carpetbaggers who had nothing to do with their regions before being appointed, and several had been embroiled in unseemly conflicts with local elites.
Still, the ousting of these lame-duck governors en masse casts their dismissal in a different light. The presidential administration’s method of dismissal in particular raised eyebrows: information about the governors’ impending resignations was made public on the eve of the official announcements, turning these regional stories into a national news item. The change of the regional guard was sweeping and unexpected, overshadowing the fact that they were on the way out anyway. It seemed as though Kiriyenko’s team had gotten to work in earnest; the inevitable removal of old and unpopular executives was billed as a tough policy decision.
The changes are consonant with Sergey Kiriyenko’s technocratic style: Kiriyenko, like the governors he appointed, hails from bureaucratic rather than political quarters. Moreover, the careful vetting process of the new governors seemed to suggest that Kiriyenko’s team was taking a “new approach,” appointing skilled technocrats rather than political loyalists.
But in fact, there was little new in the firings or appointments. One myth about the new governors is that they are all local, unlike their predecessors. In reality, less than half of them are. Maxim Reshetnikov (Perm) and Artur Parfenchikov (Karelia) were indeed born in their respective regions and have worked there for a long time. For some reason, however, new Buryat governor Alexey Tsydenov has also been touted as a local. Though he was born in the region, Tsydenov has for many years worked for the federal government and had no ties to his native republic when he was appointed. The other two appointees—Andrey Nikitin (Novgorod) and Nikolay Lyubimov (Ryazan)—are total outsiders.
Another myth is that all of the new appointees are technocrats with management experience. Nikolay Lyubimov (Ryazan), who worked on all steps of the political ladder in Kaluga, can be described as perhaps the ideal technocratic governor. Reshetnikov also fits the technocratic mold, having served as chief of staff to the governor of Perm region in the 2000s. Nikitin, for his part, ran the Agency for Strategic Initiatives (ASI), a government-established NGO that aims to improve Russian technological capacity by 2020, though this role was largely apolitical. Parfenchikov and Tsydenov, however, cannot rightfully be called technocrats.
The new gubernatorial appointments are even more interesting in light of their predecessors’ backgrounds: three of the five sacked governors were clearly technocrats in the broad sense of the term and were also quite young by government officials’ standards (around fifty years old) when they were first appointed. Nevertheless, each of these once-promising young technocrats turned out to be failed governors.
The new governors will face similar challenges as their predecessors and are all but guaranteed to fail the stress test. Unlike in the early 2000s, current budgets are stretched thin and don’t allow regional leaders much room for administrative experiments that could earn them political capital and help them secure a better position at the federal level. For their part, local elites aren’t going anywhere and are guaranteed to make life difficult for the newcomers.
Finally, with the exception of Nikolay Lyubimov, none of the new governors have any experience dealing with the depressed economic and political conditions that characterize the regions they’re now in charge of. In the federal vertical, every official has a clearly defined role, which comes with subordinates and a set budget. If funds are lacking, this affects recipients further down the vertical, generally those in the regions. Thus, governors find themselves at the bottom of the ladder—dependent on federal bureaucrats, law enforcement officials, and local elites.
One could argue that this next wave of appointees will help Vladimir Putin prepare for his 2018 presidential election: the “eternal” president is surrounding himself with a younger generation that will restore public interest in politics and create an atmosphere of renewal. But the youth effect will inevitably wear off, and in all likelihood the much-hyped technocrats will fail to live up to unrealistically high expectations.
The federal government would actually be trying something new if it appointed ambitious young leaders as governors while also changing budget appropriations to benefit the regions. But there’s no reason to think it will. Instead, it’s best to see recent personnel changes in the regions as a shrewd PR move by Kiriyenko and his team.
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