As time runs out on the Kremlin’s power to appoint regional governors—the reinstatement of direct elections was a key concession won by pro-democracy protesters in December—the regime is rushing to install its last loyalists. The law on gubernatorial elections is expected to be signed in early May. Reneging on the promise is no longer an option; as political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko suggests, “If the introduction of elections is postponed, 100,000 [people] will once again be on Sakharov Avenue”—the site of the largest anti-Putin protest in December. Despite opposition demands for a moratorium on appointments, the Kremlin is moving to fill the vacancies before new rules come into force.
Last month, outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev reappointed Alexander Tkachyov, one of Russia’s most notorious provincial leaders, as governor of the Krasnodar region, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Former Communist who later joined Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, Tkachyov has made racist remarks against ethnic Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis. His tenure has been marked, among other things, by the tragedy in Kushchevskaya, which came to symbolize corruption and lawlessness in present-day Russia, and by the construction of a $1 billion seaside palazzo, reportedly for Putin’s personal use. The governor himself, according to environmental activists, is building a coastal mansion on land designated as a nature reserve. “Tkachyov’s reappointment is the first sign that the old corruption intertwined with criminality will remain under the ‘new’ Putin,” observed Sergei Mitrokhin, the chairman of the opposition Yabloko party.
Krasnodar was not the only province where the Kremlin decided not to leave the choice to voters. The seat being vacated by the unpopular governor of the Moscow region, General Boris Gromov (the former Soviet commander in Afghanistan), will also be filled by appointment. The replacement: Sergei Shoigu, founder and co-chairman of United Russia and minister for emergency situations. In Saratov, the president gave the governorship to local United Russia leader Valery Radaev. In Omsk, the governor’s seat will be filled by Gazprom official Viktor Nazarov.
These appointments are likely to be the last. In October, five Russian regions—including Novgorod, Kostroma, and Samara, where opposition sentiments have traditionally been strong—will hold gubernatorial elections. Other regions will soon follow. According to a study by the journal Political Technologies, 20 incumbent governors have “close to zero” chances at the polls. Analyst Stanislav Belkovsky predicted that several governorships will be won by Putin opponents, including Boris Nemtsov in Nizhny Novgorod, and Vladimir Ryzhkov in Altai.
A preview of what may be to come was provided on Sunday in Yaroslavl, where residents went to the polls to elect their mayor. Independent candidate Yevgeny Urlashov, backed by a diverse coalition of opposition groups, including Yabloko, Solidarity, and Just Russia, won with 69.7 percent of the vote, to 27.8 percent for United Russia’s candidate, acting mayor Yakov Yakushev. With hundreds of poll monitors and reporters in town for the election, fraud was made all but impossible. The election-monitoring group Golos assessed the vote as “honest and transparent.” As he prepares to take the oath of office, the mayor-elect has expressed confidence that the democratic breakthrough in Yaroslavl will soon be repeated across the country.
Photo credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office