The shocking events and global upheaval of last year relegated regional Russian politics to the back burner. Many Russian voters are apparently not even aware of (or simply forgot about) the death of one of the biggest and most constant figures in Russian politics for decades—the firebrand leader of the LDPR party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky—according to party representatives.
Events in the Russian regions rarely made headlines last year, with the notable exception of anti-mobilization protests. Still, several stereotypes took root in 2022 about regional politics that have little in common with reality, and deserve clarification.
The first stereotype is that the role of the governors has dramatically increased. This view gained popularity after the announcement of a partial mobilization and partial introduction of martial law. It has become commonplace to draw comparisons with the pandemic era, when governors supposedly wielded greater powers.
In reality, the pandemic didn’t significantly strengthen the governors’ role. Regional officials informed the public of COVID restrictions and monitored compliance, but in most cases, it was the federal authorities that initiated changes, while the regions were merely responsible for implementing them.
In 2022, governors also failed to increase their political clout for a number of reasons. First, they lack agency. For many of them, the office of governor is just a step on the career ladder, even a hiatus, after which they will be brought back to the federal center. Flexing political muscle in the regions, therefore, may even hinder their return.
The second reason is that heads of regions do not control military recruitment offices or the police. Regional officials have tried to establish horizontal communication with the security structures, but often without success. Governors cannot really influence law enforcement agencies directly; they can only reach ad hoc agreements.
Nor do the governors set policy priorities. Instructions regarding the war and related issues are all handed down from the federal center. The regions are being saddled with additional responsibilities, such as assisting the newly annexed territories, and local officials are less than enthusiastic about such assignments.
Nevertheless, there is some cause for optimism for governors in the aftermath of 2022. The number of criminal cases brought against high-ranking officials declined significantly last year. In contrast with the 2010s, when a wave of gubernatorial arrests swept the country, the 2020s have so far seen the arrests of just two top regional executives. Governors have also been replaced less frequently as of late. In 2022, only the Tomsk, Kirov, Mari El, Saratov, and Ryazan regions lost their top officials, most of whom didn’t really want to be in office anyway.
These are all simply indications, however, that regional developments are temporarily out of the spotlight. The trends of 2022 in no way signal decentralization or re-federalization. Russia’s central government adheres to a simplified version of the Soviet model, which includes a rigid power vertical.
The second stereotype is that the regions are the main engine of patriotic fervor in Russia right now. There was a lot of talk in 2022 about the contrast between Russia’s large cities and the rest of the country in terms of support for the war against Ukraine. Large cities demonstrated little grassroots support for displaying pro-war symbols, prompting many to conclude that the Kremlin’s main cheerleaders are concentrated in the provinces.
However, there was little difference in the number of private cars displaying the pro-war “Z” symbol in Moscow and the regions. By the end of the year, such symbols had become very rare, and many regions gradually dropped the symbol from their public buses.
Both politicians and sociologists were surprised by how easily Russian society accepted the mobilization wave in the fall, but it would be an overstatement to call Russia’s provinces a hotbed of militarism. The same applies to the regional authorities.
It’s true that several regional leaders have flaunted their hardline positions, but in the absence of a federal requirement for such views, others have limited themselves to routine gestures. Even previously outspoken heads of regions close to the front line, such as Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk, and Voronezh, have chosen to act as cautious anti-crisis managers once hostilities got under way.
The third stereotype is that the regions are being drained of their last resources. In fact, another surprise of last year was the stability of the Russian economy in the face of sanctions and a major crisis. The regional budgets generally look set to receive the revenues they expected in 2022, and will likely do so in 2023 as well, so the government will continue to pay its social obligations. Some more rural regions might have been more affected by the wave of mobilization, but they are not showing any signs of a significant labor shortage so far.
In essence, the regional economies reacted to the challenges of 2022 just as they did during the 2008 and 2015 crises. Regions with developed industry sectors—automotive, aviation, service, construction, and to some extent the oil and gas industry and global-brand enterprises—found themselves in hot water. They have entered another period of decline, though it has turned out to be less catastrophic than expected. As for the regions with more conservative economies, they are struggling to survive, just as they were in the past.
The federal center has postponed making several potentially controversial decisions until 2023. Among them are personnel changes in regions whose governors’ terms are set to expire. Khakassia head Valentin Konovalov, who won the election in 2018 against Moscow’s will, may be allowed to participate in the next elections, where he is expected to lose to the candidate from the ruling United Russia party.
Competition in the Yakutia and Krasnoyarsk regions looks set to be quite fierce, and their respective leaders, Aysen Nikolayev and Alexander Uss, will need to use their skill and experience to stay in power. The position of Chukotka Governor Roman Kopin, who has been in office for almost fifteen years, looks shaky. The same is true of the Communist governor of the Orel region, Andrey Klychkov, and Voronezh Governor Alexander Gusev.
The future of Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who is likely to run for office again this year, looks more certain. He is far stronger than he was in 2013, when opposition leader Alexei Navalny almost forced a runoff. His efforts against COVID and restraint with regard to the mobilization drive in largely pacifist Moscow have contributed to his political weight and public experience.
Another important issue in 2023 will be the situation in the economically weakened regions, especially those with a developed oil and gas sector. It’s not yet clear whether rerouting some exports to Asia will outweigh possible production declines amid price caps and a lack of access to foreign technology.
The Russian regions in 2023 will be an indicator of success and failure in the country’s domestic, economic, and social policies. The regions may start playing a bigger role, though they are not ready to significantly increase their autonomy. That said, the center’s omnipotence is a thing of the past, and that fact will be difficult to ignore completely.
- Mikhail Vinogradov