A long article by Nikolai Petrov was published in Vedomosti yesterday on elite restructuring in the regions. My current working hypothesis is that Russia is in the middle of a slow-moving coup, and what Petrov says here seems to line up with what I have been noticing too.
Usually, Petrov writes, change takes place in the [federal] center first, and then makes its way down to the regions. However, “with repressions against the elite, the situation looks different: in the regions, they have moved much further than is now visible on the federal scale.”
“The Kremlin’s surgical operation to separate the siamese twins – the actual regional elite and the feds in the regions – is almost over. This was achieved in general after the reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MVD] in 2011 and the extension of the principles of horizontal rotation to virtually all federal generals in the regions. …the conflict between the federal-regional and the regional-regional elite has been growing ever since.”
Governors and other federal officials sent to the regions know that their stints there are just temporary, and treat their time there as such.
“…success is understood as speed and clarity in executing commands from above while maintaining order and tranquility. This in itself is, perhaps, not bad, but it has nothing to do with strategy and can conflict with the interests of the region’s development.”
“The crackdown on the regional authorities began in the middle of the early 2000s with the mayors, who until then had acted as a counterbalance to the governors. Then senior regional officials and former heads of regions… and finally, starting in 2015, the current governors [began to be replaced].”
Before 2015, the security service attacks on governors and their teams were conducted without publicly stated official sanction, Petrov continues, but “…in 2015, it seems, a total go-ahead was given.”
“A striking example of this was the arrest of the governor of Komi, Vyacheslav Gaizer and his team in September 2015, a couple of days after he was ranked as one of the top five most effective regional leaders by a pro-Kremlin group.”
“In 2016, one governor, 13 deputy governors, and four mayors of regional capitals were prosecuted. Since the beginning of 2017, two regional leaders have been arrested (formally immediately after their voluntary resignation), seven vice-governors or government deputies, and one mayor of a regional capital. The total number of this kind of elite in the regions is only between 800 and 900 people. It turns out that 2% of them are [ousted] every year – that’s every 50th.”
Who is overseeing the crackdown?
“Cases are directly handled by the investigation departments of the FSB [Federal Security Service] and the SK [Russia’s version of the FBI]. The FSB has been particularly active after Sochi [2014 Olympics] and [the subsequent invasion of] Crimea, regaining their leading role…”
In 2014, Petrov says, the Ministry of Internal Affairs began to be cleaned out, with “…acting heads of that Ministry being detained in the regions – on Sakhalin, where a year later the governor was arrested, and in Ivanovo, where several vice-governors had already been arrested. In Mari El, the Minister of the MVD shot himself after learning that a criminal case had been initiated against him. Two years later, the governor of the region resigned and was subsequently arrested. Only in the first case the militia general was charged with organizing the illegal wiretapping of FSB and SK officers, in the other two, financial and economic violations. In 2014, they began to arrest the regional chiefs of the Federal Penitentiary Service. In 2015 they went after the governors.”
“We control everything, but the FSB controls us.”
“The predominant role of the FSB is manifested, in particular, in that it never acts as a object of repression against the public… and is only responsible for intracorporate [affairs]. At one time, before investigations were separated from the prosecutor’s office, this role was more likely played by prosecutors who now occupy a subordinate position. Prior to the abolition of direct elections of governors in 2004, if the Kremlin did not want to reelect the current head of the region, about six months before the elections, the prosecutor was replaced there, thereby cutting off the siloviki and law enforcement officers from the work of the political machine controlled by the governor.”
“The role of the chief federal inspector, who at first, was the coordinator of all the federal forces in the region, except for the FSB, has sharply decreased. This reflects the strengthening of power corporations and the relative weakening of the Kremlin’s political bloc.”
“The increase in crackdowns on the elites in general and the regional elites in particular has been going on for a long time, especially intensively since 2013. An analysis of media [reports] conducted by Stanislav Zemskov shows that in 2013, the total number of cases of detention on various charges by representatives of the regional and municipal elite grew about three times compared to 2012 and has since been maintained at the level of about 600 cases per year, that is, an average of seven cases per year per region. In 2015, the process took a turn, when (a) there was a sharp increase in the status of detainees, with sitting governors detained at work, and (b) entire teams of regional elites were accused of creating organized criminal groups.”
“At the same time, reprisals against the siloviki also intensified. Back in 2011, the prosecutor’s office with the famous case of the “Moscow regional prosecutors” came under attack, leading first to the resignation of the prosecutor of the Moscow region, and the flight of his first deputy from the country, as well as to the resignation of a dozen city prosecutors. Eventually, however, the prosecutor’s office fought it off and and the affair ended in nothing and was written off as a departmental conflict with the SK. Since 2014, as already noted, the regional heads of the Federal Penitentiary Service have been suspended (2014 – Perm, 2016 – Komi, 2017 – Rostov-on-Don, Kemerovo) and the Interior Ministry (2014 – Sakhalin, Ivanovo). Since 2016 the heads of the SK’s investigative departments (Kemerovo, and Moscow).”
This trend will only continue and intensify, Petrov predicts, noting that if before the victims were let off for time served after the conclusion of the trial, this is no longer happening, with sentences of “8-12 years for “fraud”” considered “unexceptional”. In addition, the arrests and searches have become more dramatic, with raids taking place in the early hours of the morning.
As to who is being targeted, Petrov notes that there is a “confluence of different circumstances, but primarily the weakening or lack of a strong patron.”
It also depends on the regions and what is happening internally there.
“There are cases of pressure on the head [of a region] to leave and stripping the team, as in, say, Kabardino-Balkaria (2012), Krasnodar (2014-2015), Chelyabinsk (2014-2015), Perm Krai (2017). The governors of Vladimir and Kemerovo have publicly spoken out in defense of their detained team members. The first reaction in the region to the detention of a high-ranking official is to read what is happening as a signal to the governor, especially in connection with the end of his term.”
Crime and Punishment
“In terms of crime and punishment, a clear connection is not always seen. Sometimes there is a crime of an individual, or say, a group, and the punishment of others – sometimes the punishment is not for the crime which is in the sentence.”
Of course, Petrov concedes, the regional elites who are being punished are guilty of at least some of the crimes of which they are accused, “…but no more so than their colleagues who remain at large (so far?).”
“This is not a fight against corruption, this is the transition of the elite into a new mode of existence, akin to the military field.”
“It is clear that this is, in part, a reaction to the deterioration of the economic situation…”
Turning a Blind Eye
He also points out that by turning a blind eye to corruption for so many years, the Kremlin has given the regional elite a long rope with which to hang them.
As for the specific people being chosen to make an example of, Petrov believes that it is mostly “accidental”. Certain people are chosen to be made examples of, in order to maintain control of those who remain.
“Fear becomes the resource that replaces shrinking rents. And it needs constant reproduction. And since the economic situation will not improve dramatically in the foreseeable future, the need for fear will not end, and that means repressions.”
These repressions “are systemic in nature”, Petrov concludes.
“In addition to the FSB and the SK, the judicial system is involved in its implementation, specially modified for this purpose… The entire management structure in the regions is imprisoned under them. There is therefore no reason to expect the situation to change for the better.”