Russia swaps out regional governors ahead of presidential election | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.10.2017
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Russia swaps out regional governors ahead of presidential election

Many regional governors in Russia have recently been fired. Is the Kremlin trying to address urgent issues around the country? Or, is this merely a strategy for the next presidential election?

The Kremlin has replaced 11 regional governors over the past two weeks. Before that, 16 Russian regions voted for new governors in elections on September 10.

Stefan Meister, a Russian policy expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), is convinced that Vladimir Putin is laying the groundwork for the presidential election in March 2018. It is an opinion shared by Fabian Burkhardt, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "In an authoritarian context, presidential elections cannot be free and fair," he told DW. "In Russia, where all positions are designed to accommodate the president's needs, they are a stressful situation." The central government in Moscow tries to limit potential risks, Burkhardt explained, and the job rotation strategy aims to promote efficiency. "The elections are, of course, controlled centrally, but they are mainly organized regionally," he said.

Is it a new generation?

The average age of last month's election winners in is only 44 years, which is roughly 10 years below the national average for governors. "An attempt was made to build up a new generation as a whole," said Burkhardt.  

Meister noted that because most of the new governors are younger than their predecessors, they are often relatively unknown. "They are considered to be technocrats and bureaucrats. They have practically no political influence - neither in Moscow nor in the region," he told DW. They often come from the security sector – either the military or secret service, Meister added. "They're mostly nondescript people."

Cartoon showing Putin firing governors (Sergey Elkin)

The Kremlin has replaced 11 regional governors over the past two weeks

Connecting with the electorate

The Kremlin is hoping this new generation of governors will help build trust with voters, said Burkhardt and Meister. The change is supposed to convey the feeling that something new is happening, that the central government is looking after its regions. To that end, the political shakeup is part of an effort to reverse the continued decline in voter turnout in recent years.

However, in Russia's current political climate, energizing and connecting with voters is no easy task for regional politicians. Amid high-profile corruption scandals and social unrest, anti-government protests are growing more frequent. Around 650 such demonstrations took place in the first half of 2017 alone - mostly outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. In response, Burkhardt and Meister believe the Kremlin has tacitly indicated to regional leaders that they should not misuse administrative resources. To put it another way: They do not have to manipulate elections if it is not necessary. Ultimately, the presidential election next year will offer practically no alternative to the incumbent, Putin.

Loyalty or competence?

In an authoritarian government, it is always important to distinguish between loyal and competent leaders, explained Burkhardt. Since 2000, Russia, has consistently chosen loyalty over confidence, he said. Competence is not a key criterion, although Burkhardt noted some governors are actually well-educated and have extensive experience in government positions.

Part of the Kremlin's preference for weak regional politicians stems from the fact that the position of governor is no longer popular. Russia's centralized system of power and frequent post rotation leaves governors with limited influence, said Burkhardt and Meister. Regional tax revenues are first sent to the central government in Moscow, which then decides how they will be redistributed, for instance. "The governors have little incentive to invest their resources or expertise in the region," said Burkhardt, adding that they are primarily concerned about surviving. "That is why there is a big question mark over the extent of the central government's interest in tackling regional social and economic problems," he said.

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