Moscow Losing Clout in the Regions

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After a long quiet spell, the Kremlin has made several personnel changes affecting both regional heads and Moscow's relationship with the regions. These include the removal of the governor of the Amur region, the disclosure of a shortlist of candidates for the head of Khakasia and the appointment of a new regional development minister.

The resignation of Amur Governor Nikolai Kolesov was long expected. The entire local political elite was opposed to his appointment 15 months ago, when he came to the job from Kazan without any knowledge of the Amur region and without any administrative experience. Kamil Iskhako, former presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District, had lobbied for Kolesov's appointment, but when he left office a year ago, Iskhakov could no longer cover for his political protege. The relatively small region six time zones east of Moscow holds the honor of changing more governors -- and under more scandalous circumstances -- than any other in Russia. It is interesting to note that this "interloper," Kolesov, was traded for another one, Oleg Kozhemyako, who hails from the Far East and once headed the Koryak autonomous region. The conventional thinking is that with Kozhemyako at the helm, the Amur region -- previously under the informal control of the Khabarovsk region -- will now come under the Primorye region's sway.

Two names are noteworthy on the short list of candidates for the head of Khakasia: incumbent Alexei Lebed, who for the last three years seemed to have no political future at all, and former head of the Evenkia autonomous district Boris Zolotaryov, who currently heads the Krasnoyarsk 2020 project and is the leading figure proposing that Khakasia merge with the Krasnoyarsk region. It is hard to determine which is riskier in this case: leaving an ineffective governor with close ties to Basic Element in office at a time when Russia teeters on the brink of a national economic crisis or provoking a political crisis by taking the unprecedented step of stripping an autonomous region of its status.

Putin's decision to move Dmitry Kozak from the post of regional development minister to deputy prime minister in charge of preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games is important for several reasons.

First, it shows that Putin does not fully realize how bad the economic situation has become if he is willing to move one of his most effective administrators to a far less important job fraught with greater potential hazards.

Second, it is a clear signal that the Kremlin's promise to strengthen its activity in the regions will not take place. It apparently also means that Moscow plans to shelve a series of important regional investment projects that Kozak had headed, including the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, which would have boosted Russia's image internationally.

The recent reshuffling in the regions indicates that the Kremlin's approach has not changed -- either as a result of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency or of the current financial crisis. At the same time, the range of opportunities open to the Kremlin has narrowed significantly. Following its transition to a confrontational stance with the West, Moscow is in no condition to initiate modernization in the social sphere, much less to modernize the archaic regimes of its "strongman" regional leaders. This suggests, among other things, that when the office terms for a number of these regional leaders expire this year, Moscow will not have the necessary political muscle to push them aside and install new heads.

Therefore, the possibility cannot be ruled out that Tatarstan leader Mintimer Shaimiyev and Mayor Yury Luzhkov, along with a number of other political heavyweights, will either retain their posts or pass them on to successors of their own choosing, and not of the Kremlin's.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.