Last month, Kremlin-selected gubernatorial candidates suffered surprise electoral losses in four of Russia’s regions. Now the question is why.

Analysts have correctly identified several fundamental factors that contributed to the unexpected outcome: anger over the recent decision to raise the country’s pension age, falling incomes, and dissatisfaction with the powers that be.

In three cases, voters removed unpopular, long-serving governors from office. In other regions, however, the Kremlin preempted such a result. Throughout 2017 and 2018, it replaced many weak governors with young technocrats. These candidates fared well: in over 30 cases, the new acting governors were successfully elected.

But there was one anomalous exception: the Far Eastern Primorsky region. There, a recently appointed technocrat initially appeared to have lost. Then, as the last ballots were counted, he somehow took the lead. That result strongly suggested electoral fraud, and the election committee declared the vote void. In other words, the Kremlin had lost.

The defeat raises several questions: Is it an isolated incident? Or does it represent a serious obstacle to the federal government’s attempts to clean house in the regional elite and establish tighter control over the provinces?

Unsurprisingly, there is no simple answer. But, while the defeat was in no way inevitable, several local factors do help to explain why it specifically occurred in the Primorsky region.

The first factor is the regional elite’s character and economic interests. Resource exports—particularly fish—are a key component of Primorsky region’s economy. Unlike oil and gas extraction, fishing is not concentrated in a few localities but distributed across the region. Hence, businesses have an easier time escaping government control—in fact, they often exceed their fishing quotas and sell their haul out at sea or in neighboring foreign ports, skipping local harbors.

Although Moscow—with the help of powerful lobbying groups—sets the fishing quotas, the regional government can influence the business. And while the number of economic actors is fewer than in the past, there are still many different players with resources and interests.

This makes Primorsky fundamentally different from other regions, where local businesses are only involved in construction, trade, or occasionally banking. In these cases, federal and regional authorities have multiple means of pressuring small business. Meanwhile, Russia’s large businesses aren’t interested in gubernatorial elections; they resolve their issues on the federal level.

The second factor is a strong regional identity, especially in the city of Vladivostok, which has retained its spirit of seafaring freedom and strong distaste for carpetbaggers. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the federal center wrangled with local leaders, often losing. Then, in 2010, the center attempted to parachute Moscow-based Vladimir Miklushevsky into the region, first as a university rector and then as governor. This was unsuccessful. Miklushevsky feuded with regional elites and eventually, in 2017, resigned due to low popularity.

After that, the Kremlin decided to send in a young technocrat to rein in local actors and make the Primorsky region more manageable. Judging by the 2018 election results, he also failed.

In fairness to the center, Primorsky is a challenging region. Local residents have mounted fierce resistance to federal decisions that put them at an economic disadvantage. In 2009, they staged mass rallies against restrictions on importing right-hand-drive cars from Japan, which would have undermined local businesses—often shadow or criminal—and the employment of roughly 100,000 locals. The federal authorities had to send in special police detachments from Moscow and Mordovia, since local law enforcement refused to disperse the crowds.

Finally, a third factor in the electoral loss is the public’s profound disappointment with Russia’s much-heralded “pivot to the East.” Despite many promises, it has yielded few results. Federal attention to the region peaked in the run-up to the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, which attracted investments to the city. But these investments failed to jump-start the region’s development.

As a result, people continue to leave Primorsky region. From 2013 to 2017, investment declined by 21 percent in real terms. And the nearby Yakutia and Sakhalin attract two to three times more investment than the more populous Primorsky and Khabarovsk regions.

The federal authorities are attempting to improve local business conditions, but the tiny “Territories of Accelerated Development” program doesn’t attract investors, nor does the free port regime encompassing 15 Primorsky municipalities. Expenses associated with bad infrastructure, pricey electrical energy, and labor costs and shortages outweigh the possible benefits.

Although the Far East’s raw materials sector remains profitable, an oil refinery project in the Vladivostok suburbs has hung in limbo for several years. State-controlled Rosneft doesn’t want to take the risk. Instead, it offers its Chinese partners the opportunity to become the principal investors.

Primorsky region residents are also angry about the chasm between the triumphant speeches delivered at the annual Eastern Economic Forum (the most recent one was held right before the 2018 election) and their real lives. Each forum has promised big investments, but yielded nothing beyond blocked roads and security measures that paralyzed life in Vladivostok for several days. People are unhappy and confused: why is the state willing to make this enormous investment when it cannot pay pensions?

By contrast, few other regions have been promised so much and received so little. Few others have seen major investments (like before APEC) fail to boost socioeconomic development. And other regions’ elites have already been tamed, while their populations are less active. As a result, it is much easier for the federal center to obtain its desired election outcomes there.

Does that mean the Primorsky region is an outlier, a blip in an otherwise successful strategy of installing technocratic governors? That is certainly true in the 2017–2018 election cycle.

As a result, the authorities will likely use the same approach to electing governors for the next two years, albeit with improved candidate vetting procedures and preparation. The federal government still deeply distrusts local politicians who are tightly connected to their region and beholden to local elites.

So, what awaits these “outsider” technocrats in the next elections? We can already make some predictions.

First, we will see varied results because the candidates all differ: some have sufficient administrative experience, while others come from security or law enforcement. And many newly appointed acting governors hope that their exile to the provinces won’t last long and they will soon rejoin the federal government. This interim-appointment mentality—as well as professional incompetence among some governors—increases the risk of administrative errors and conflicts with municipal governments and regional interest groups, which will resist federal pressure.

Second, in five years’ time, the locals will grow tired of waiting for young governors to bring change. Will the center then seek out even newer technocrats?

For now, the federal authorities are still certain that the regions can be managed from above by electoral, punitive, and budgetary means. After all, until recently these measures allowed them to keep the regions under tight control.

But problems have started to emerge, and they will intensify. Russia’s extremely rigid vertical administrative system—in which appointed governors virtually serve as the center’s viceroys—is simply unable to balance the interests of both levels of government. Meanwhile, the regime’s resources are disappearing and popular support is falling.

As Russia enters the 2020s, it will face new challenges that even improved political strategies cannot resolve. For now, we are watching the regime’s first attempt at a challenge: replacing a defeated outsider technocrat with a local gubernatorial candidate in new elections in the Primorsky region.

The Kremlin must solve this problem in the coming month. The experience it acquires will prove extremely useful in the future.

By:
  • Natalya Zubarevich