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Bullying the Big Cities: The Kremlin’s New Approach

Bullying the Big Cities The Kremlin’s New Approach

The regional unification of record-high presidential election results has closed the Kremlin bureaucrats’ eyes to the diversity of different parts of the country, their elites, and the preferences of their electorates. In this model, regional masters of balance and public politics are extraneous.

But the expulsion of old regional barons is risky: the banner of public pushback and local patriotism could be picked up by new regional politicians who might be even less convenient for Moscow.

This year, the Kremlin is preparing for elections in Russia’s third and fourth most populous cities. Novosibirsk (population: 1.6 million) and its surrounding region (2.7 million) will elect a governor, while Yekaterinburg (1.45 million) will take to the polls to form a new city parliament.

In both regions, local influence groups and the electorate have successfully fought off candidates imposed by Moscow and the ruling party. Yevgeny Roizman was elected mayor of Yekaterinburg in 2013, while Anatoly Lokot assumed that office in Novosibirsk the following year. Both cities are sanctuaries of endangered public politics, where you can still find rare heavyweights in public office.

Until now, local elites had succeeded in finding a compromise with Moscow: they delivered the results that the Kremlin wanted in federal elections in exchange for the opportunity to play a deciding role in regional politics. But Moscow is no longer satisfied with that arrangement. The Kremlin has decided to conquer the final islands of regional independence and incorporate them into the uniform system.

Novosibirsk, the carpetbagger mayor of Vologda, Andrei Travnikov, was appointed acting governor of the region last fall. Extraordinarily, the influential regional politician and ex-governor Viktor Tolokonsky directly criticized the appointment of an outsider, saying Travnikov’s nomination was “not the best staffing decision” made by the president. He subsequently expressed public support for Lokot’s candidacy for the post of governor.

Tolokonsky isn’t just the former Novosibirsk governor; he is also one of the people behind the Communist Lokot’s victory in the Novosibirsk mayoral elections. (After Lokot’s victory, Tolokonsky lost his position as presidential envoy, but became governor of Krasnoyarsk instead.)

The duo is clearly capable of replicating its success: the ex-governor knows all the local bureaucrats and deputies well, and will help the Communist to collect the necessary signatures, which is usually the main obstacle that opposition candidates must overcome.

In addition, Tolokonsky knows all the peculiarities of administrative resources inside out, which means he knows how to fight them. Lokot also has vast political experience, having taken part in numerous lawmaker elections and a mayoral campaign. Travnikov has never taken part in elections.

Something similar occurred in 2015 in the Irkutsk region, where the Communist candidate Sergei Levchenko unexpectedly won the gubernatorial election. In that case, the Kremlin’s candidate was even a local politician, Sergei Yeroshchenko, and Levchenko had support not from an ex-governor but merely from several influential deputies in the local parliament. 

In Irkutsk, the victors managed to lure the ruling party’s candidate into battle on the public political field—which the rulers had almost forgotten how to do—and defeated him. Now, Lokot and Tolokonsky are attempting to do the same thing, and Moscow has met them on the field: Tolokonsky and Lokot are being smeared in pro-Kremlin media and berated by veteran Moscow bloggers who have never before shown any interest in Novosibirsk.

The situation in Yekaterinburg is similar to that in Novosibirsk. The city parliament is controlled by a group headed by the region’s deputy governor, Vladimir Tungusov, who has no intention of losing his influence. Tungusov is an experienced political technologist who was deputy head of the Yekaterinburg administration for a long time, and who knows how to win elections with his candidates—both from the ruling party and other parties—by making deals with the opposition. There was no other way to operate in an oppositional city. Tungusov chose not to support Roizman in the mayoral elections, but he didn’t get in his way either: what was important was that the position went to someone other than the official appointee of United Russia.

Previously, the arrangement was that Tungusov guaranteed the Kremlin good results (for a protest city) for both United Russia and Vladimir Putin. In exchange, they gave him the freedom to form a loyal bloc in the city parliament. Tungusov was, for all intents and purposes, considered an in-system politician.

This model for the relationship between the capital and local elites was not uncommon during the mid-2000s. But free players at the local level slowly started being weeded out. Yekaterinburg remained one of the last bastions: palatable results for federal elections in a city of 1.5 million were important to Moscow.

Now Tungusov is being attacked by the same pool of pro-Kremlin media and bloggers who have criticized Tolokonsky and Lokot. The gray cardinal of Yekaterinburg is being accused of trying to stack the city parliament with his people (big surprise) and breaking the rules of the United Russia primaries. The same allowances that were made for Tungusov only a few years earlier are now forbidden. The capital needs a city parliament that is oriented toward United Russia, not a strong regional politician.

Only a few years ago, the partial autonomy of Yekaterinburg and the Novosibirsk region was an acceptable price. Now, not only has Tolokonsky, who sometimes criticizes the Kremlin, become outside of the system, but Tungusov, who never exhibits any public pushback, has lost his in-system status as well. 

Why has the relationship between the capital and the local barons changed? It seems that following the presidential elections, which saw 65 percent turnout and a 76 percent result for Vladimir Putin, the presidential administration has decided that campaigns can be run by rote. To get high results, it’s enough to have administratively manufactured mobilization and limited competition. Under this model, regional masters who can handle the balancing act and public politics are extraneous.

In reality, however, the required presidential election results in problem regions were secured by experienced local politicians and their teams. They knew what to offer which businessmen to mobilize their workers to vote, which local deputies have active support networks, and which will provide the necessary turnout. The regional unification of presidential election results has closed the Kremlin bureaucrats’ eyes to the diversity of different parts of the country, their elites, and the preferences of their electorates.

Meanwhile, the regional opponents of vertical integration are victorious. People in Yekaterinburg don’t read Moscow blogs, and the ordinary voting public doesn’t know who Tungusov is: he’s called the gray cardinal for a reason. The “Lokot is Tolokonsky’s man” narrative that is being played out in official propaganda in Novosibirsk is more of a plus in the eyes of locals: the Siberians have joined forces against an outsider. But if the pressure becomes coercive (allusions to criminal cases have already appeared), regional politicians will, of course, give up.

Any integrational victory in this case will, however, appear questionable. In 2015, Moscow destroyed the public autonomy of the leaders of Komi, and United Russia’s results in the region immediately crashed. The forceful expulsion of old regional barons doesn’t guarantee that public politics will disappear with them, so the results of the September elections in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg have the potential for big surprises. These major cities didn’t succumb to the Kremlin in 2013 and 2014, and they won’t give up easily now. On the contrary, the banner of public pushback and local patriotism could be picked up by new regional politicians, who might be even less convenient for Moscow than the current ones.

-Andrey Pertsev

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