Alexandra Garmazhapova

Russian journalist

Kremlin has simply no time for Russian regions

In the context of recent all-Russia protests we have decided to take a deeper look on what is happening in Russian regions and what kind of local agenda produces conflicts within local elites, and between citizens and the authorities.

The West sees Russia as something close to North Korea. Moscow and St. Petersburg cannot see as far as Vladivostok and Tyumen but know that Dagestan is “something like Chechnya,” and Buryatia is “something like Tuva.” At the same time, however, it is not clear what exactly Tuva is.

The fact that Russia is extremely inhomogeneous remains disregarded. This is the influence, among other things, of traditions, borders shared with other subjects, regional leaders. In some places, like for example Chechnya and Kemerovo, the situation is truly deplorable. Other places have it comparatively better.

Russia has seen five governors replaced over the last winter. Governor of the Perm region Viktor Basargin announced his early resignation on February 6. On February 7, head of Buryatia Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn did the same. On February 13, Governor of the Novgorod region Sergei Mitin left his post before his term. Oleg Kovalev, governor of the Ryazan region, stepped down on February 14, and Alexander Hudilainen from Karelia – on February 15. The media has labeled this wave of governor resignations a “loss of governors.”

Political analysts have been coming up with different theories. According to one of them, officials have failed to deal with a split within local political elites; according to another, having taken the Kremlin’s “fair elections” directive too literally, officials scored badly during the most recent September elections.

Although a number of skeptics smirk in contempt while hearing about a “split within the elites” (because, according to them, there are no elites in Russia), one should not completely dismiss this theory.
In Buryatia, for example, national elites are rather influential, and they did not particularly like the fact that under former leader Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, who had come to Buryatia from the Tomsk region in 2007 where he had occupied top positions, a long-held agreement was broken under which the leadership of Buryatia and the mayoralty of Ulan-Ude were supposed to be split between an ethnic Russian and an ethnic Buryat.

Under Nagovitsyn, the Buryat capital was headed by Aleksandr Golkov. When on top of that yet another ethnic Russian was appointed president of the Buryatia State University, local clans responded by acting up: a wave of protests rose in Buryatia, the participants in which expressed indignation over this appointment and demanded the resignation of Nagovitsyn. It is worth noting that the slogans used during these rallies had been written in Buryat.

Nagovitsyn was even severely reprimanded by the People’s Khural that claimed that the president of the Buryat State University was supposed to be a “representative of the titular nation,” that is to say a Buryat.
Buryat national elites consist of several groups with each of them owning a TV channel, a radio station, and a print publication.
Considering that Nagovitsyn was a rather weak figure and did not put these outlets under much pressure, every misstep of the local government was brought out into the open.

Since elections in Buryatia were almost fair, United Russia’s results in the region were consistently low. For example, in the 2016 September elections, the ruling party scored only 43 percent of the vote. This is an extremely low result for a national republic. Just for comparison, in Tuva, United Russia received 85 percent of the vote.

The only thing law-enforcement officials forbade journalists to mention were Buryat tank crewmen killed and crippled in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. Otherwise, journalists were allowed to report on pretty much any subject.

Apparently, Alexei Tsydenov, the new interim governor of Buryatia, has been called upon to “tighten the screws.” The Kremlin’s choice is quite understandable: Tsydenov is of mixed race which means that he can “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds;” he’s a young 41-year-old man; he comes to Buryatia from Moscow where he served as deputy minister of transport, and thus has direct ties to the presidential administration.

Another governor replacement took place in Karelia, the only well-known fact about which is its location “somewhere close to Finland.” Karelia is actually one of Russia’s most freedom-loving regions. Thus, the Yabloko Party has a strong stand in the Republic. Petrozavodsk residents often criticize the state of provision of urban amenities. However, tourists would find such criticism rather surprising since compared to other Russian cities, Karelia’s capital looks very decent.
The thing is local residents compare Petrozavodsk to Finnish cities that they visit on a regular basis.

Although technically dismissed by the regional legislature amid a scandal, Yabloko member and mayor of Petrozavodsk Galina Shirshina was in fact fired by the former head of the Republic of Karelia Alexander Hudilainen.

Moreover, having failed to come to an agreement with local elites, Hudilainen brought in his team from the Leningrad region where he had headed the legislature, and let the Yabloko Party and law enforcement officials loose on the local United Russia branch after a fight with the latter. In Karelia, however, such things are seen in an extremely negative light. Even his Karelian last name did not help Hudilainen – he was considered an outsider and was being toughly criticized during local protest rallies and in the local print media.
Hudilainen was replaced by Artur Parfenchikov. The former head of Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service, Parfenchikov, like Tsydenov, comes from Moscow. At 52, he is also relatively young and was born in Petrozavodsk. Thus, he can hardly be called an outsider. Parfenchikov is supposed to calm the region down while at the same time avoiding the “knee-jerk” mistakes of his predecessor.

Dagestan represents the biggest mystery for Central Russia. In the context of news about yet another bombing or arrest of yet another member of an illegal armed group, the situation in the region seems to be deplorable.

However, first of all, Dagestan’s leader Ramazan Abdulatipov is a weak figure which is actually a good thing in today’s Russia. Second, the territory of Dagestan is shared by many ethnic groups with different sense of national identity.

Several independent publications operate in the region, including Novoye Delo and Chernovik. These media outlets are the ones that report on law enforcement officials killing local residents, whom the government later tries to pass off as members of illegal armed groups. This is, for example, what happened with brothers Gasanguseynov who had been gunned down. Having confused them with militants, law enforcement operatives shot these young boys and then pinned unsolved crimes on them. This case provoked shock in Dagestan. Local residents demanded that the authorities conduct an objective investigation, and Abdulatipov was forced to promise that “all those having doubts will get answers.”

The story with a public park is yet another case worth mentioning. Last winter, the authorities decided to cut down Makhachkala’s beloved public park to build a museum of Russian history in its place. For two weeks, local residents had been organizing protest rallies, wearing green ribbons, posting campaign slogans on their Facebook accounts. As a result, Abdulatipov announced that the authorities had no plans to do any construction work in the park, and the museum would be built in a different place.

Another story involving the killing of dogs provoked protests by animal rights activists. Consequently, the authorities built a shelter for stray dogs in the village of Semender. Dagestan residents react to power outages by blocking the highway. In such cases, instead of using force to scatter the crowd, the authorities respond with promises to restore power. In Chechnya, the same reaction of the authorities is unthinkable.

North Ossetia is witnessing an ongoing conflict between the republic’s leader Vyacheslav Bitarov and Vladikavkaz mayor Makharbek Khadartsev. Both politicians come from business circles and are highly influential in the Republic. Last winter, Khadartsev delivered a “blow” to Bitarov by bringing to light a story with the appointment of the director of one of Vladikavkaz health clinics. It became known that Mikhail Ratmanov, health minister of North Ossetia, had appointed to this post a 25-year-old “doctor” with a forged diploma. Bitarov’s government went to great lengths to hush up the scandal.

Although this article illustrates the situation in only four Russian regions, it is clearly enough to show that Russia goes way beyond Moscow and St.Petersburg.

Needless to say, one cannot claim that human rights and freedoms are being respected in Russia. However, although regional authorities are forced to adapt to the situation without crossing the line, the Kremlin simply has no time to bother itself with the regions. The country’s pro-democracy opposition, on the other hand, should probably pay more attention to the regions.