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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sleeping Giants: Governors Hold Key to Hidden Power

The first in an occasional series that will follow the gubernatorial elections as they occur in several regions, including Pskov, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Kursk.

Russia's regional gubernatorial elections have often been billed as the next battleground between the Communists and the Kremlin, and of late the Kremlin seems to be winning.

But there is more to these scattered elections than just a Kremlin-Communist scorecard. Collectively, they are a "sleeping giant," and their results will have broad consequences -- among them, quite possibly, a new conflict between the Kremlin and the nation's ever more powerful governors.

These governors' races have not received the same media scrutiny as other recent national elections. They possess neither the high-noon drama of a presidential poll, nor the instant snapshot of the nation's mood that the December State Duma elections provided. zones, many of them far removed from the Moscow and St. Petersburg media markets.

At stake is not only control over specific areas of Russia, but also the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, where governors double as "senators."

The Federation Council gets less attention then the rambunctious Duma, but it is just as much a prize, and both the Kremlin and the Communist opposition have focused their attention on the gubernatorial races.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has said the No. 1 priority of leftist opposition would be winning the governorships. Kremlin chief of staff Anatoly Chubais has also turned his campaign team toward winning those elections.

But an ideological battle has not developed: The regional elections tend more to resemble referendums on local conditions and personalities.

The Communists, although they possess a formidable grass-roots network, have mostly supported centrist candidates with broad appeal. Indeed, there is often little dividing a Kremlin-backed candidate from a Communist-backed challenger.

So even when the Communist candidate wins -- as in the Leningrad Oblast, where Vadim Gustov trounced the Kremlin-backed incumbent -- he is often easily co-opted by Moscow.

"[Communist-backed winners] quickly forget about their ideology because they need to focus on concrete problems. They need money from Moscow and good relations with the administration," said Boris Vishnevsky, who as a top aide to St. Petersburg's finance committee chairman knows a bit about how money can influence a governor's office.

But the elections nevertheless tend to embolden the governors. Consider the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov: Once armed with a popular mandate, he immediately became a vocal critic of the war in Chechnya, gathering a million signatures against the war and bringing them to the Kremlin.

"The popular mandate will increase the governors' autonomy and power both in their regions and in the Federation Council," said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "A new power struggle between the center and the regions is inevitable."

Vishnevsky countered that political independence is not economic independence, and that Moscow still controls much of each region's economic resources.

But Russia's governors nevertheless enjoy nearly unchallenged local rule. In the Far East's Primorsky Territory, for example, Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko -- first appointed by President Boris Yeltsin, then elected in December -- has created something akin to his own personal fiefdom.

A more familiar example is Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Despite his proximity to the federal government, he has managed to wrest control of his city away from the Kremlin.

Moscow, like St. Petersburg, is one of the 89 administrative regions -- "subjects of the federation," to use the unwieldy official term -- listed in the Russian Constitution. That makes both Luzhkov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev governors -- though the first is a mayor, and the second a governor who just unseated a mayor.

Another reason these elections are often passed over in the media is that they are difficult to generalize about.

But what can be said is that the nation's governors are powerful; that they are growing more so, as elections free them from dependence on presidential favor; and that they are becoming a collective power through the Federation Council.

The speakers of regional legislatures are also delegates to the Federation Council. But they are definitely junior partners for the governors: As a rule, governors who cannot hand-pick their legislature's speaker can at least still block or topple opponents. Either way, speakers of legislatures serve at their governor's pleasure.

The Federation Council is probably the least well-known body in the Russian government. On paper it has broad powers. It reviews a president's Constitutional Court nominees, as well as his decisions to declare martial law or to deploy armed forces abroad. While the impeachment process is truly Byzantine, the Federation Council has the final word on that as well: Only the "senators" can remove a sitting president.

The Federation Council also can either ignore or shoot down any law passed by the Duma, and must always approve the national budget and declarations of war and peace.

So far, however, the nearly three-year-old Federation Council is mostly a rubber stamp for the president, since most of the governors holding seats there started out as Yeltsin appointees.

In January, the liberal Moscow newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta estimated that of the council's 178 deputies, 99 were Yeltsin loyalists, 28 were in opposition and 51 were independent.

Moreover, most governors are too occupied with their regions to play much more than a symbolic role as senators. The Federation Council generally meets just three days a month, and then resembles more a elite talking shop like the British House of Lords.