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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Governors Playing by New Rules

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Some will try to leave their regions and go to Moscow. Others will stay home and try to survive in a rapidly changing political environment.

Whatever the choice, the gubernatorial elections set to take place Sunday in 11 regions have shown that governors are fast learners when it comes to fighting for power.

Just six months after President Vladimir Putin pushed through legislation stripping them of much of their political clout and announced his support for "dictatorship of the law," the regional elite has started adjusting to the new rules of the game.

Some incumbents have opted not to run for re-election, but to tap trustworthy successors in the hope that they, in turn, will delegate their former bosses to Moscow as regional representatives to the revamped Federation Council, parliaments upper chamber.

Others have fallen victim to or even been inspired by the precedent set in Kursk last month, when a regional court struck then-Governor Alexander Rutskoi from the ballot hours before the vote on grounds of campaign violations.

Taking your opponent to court has become this seasons unrivaled political fashion.

The most obvious parallel to Rutskois case is unfolding in the small Volga River republic of Marii-El, known mostly for its poverty and rampant corruption.

Late Friday, the regional court adjourned without reaching a decision on a suit filed against the republics president, Vyacheslav Kislitsyn, by his main opponent Colonel General Vladimir Ruzlyayev on charges of submitting a false property statement to local election officials.

"The Kremlin never bothered to hide its animosity toward the governor [Kislitsyn], whom they suspected of connections with organized crime," the Kommersant daily wrote. Obshchaya Gazeta reported that Ruzlyayev had been handpicked by the Kremlin and came to Marii-El along with "hundreds" of public relations specialists and support staff.

Both the Kremlin and Putins envoys in the federal districts have made a point of saying that they had espoused a hands-off policy on regional elections. But media reports were filled with speculations that Putins powerful hand was behind both court cases, and that the Kremlin had elaborate plans to install its own people in the regions.

However, Alexei Titkov, an expert on regional politics with the Moscow Carnegie Center, rebuked the conspiracy theories.

"The Kremlin has lots of power," he said, "but it can intervene only in the most drastic cases, where the governor has lost all support from the political elite in the region." Titkov added that both Rutskoi and Kislitsyn fit this description and had virtually no backing from regional bigwigs.

"With the rest [of the governors] the Kremlin will have to try to find a common language."

Whether ordered by the Kremlin or not, the possibility of challenging a governor in court and winning is one of the most important changes to appear in regional politics since Putins rise to power, Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundations Moscow office, said in a telephone interview Friday.

Apart from Marii-El, there were at least two more regions out of the 11 where courts had to deal with similar complaints.

In Stavropol, the candidate from the Union of Right Forces, Vasily Krasulya, filed a suit against incumbent Governor Alexander Chernogorov, accusing him of filing a false property statement. Krasulya lost.

In the Perm region, incumbent Gennady Igumnov took to court his most serious opponent, Perm Mayor Yury Trutnev. But Igumnov withdrew his complaint for which he was publicly praised by presidential envoy Sergei Kiriyenko.

Under Putins predecessor Boris Yeltsin, governors often seemed to be omnipotent leaders in their regional feifdoms. Now things seem to have changed.

"There are alternative centers of power in the regions, such as the presidential envoys or the federal inspectors," said Volk. "Besides, the Central Elections Commission is totally loyal to the Kremlin. This changes the whole picture."

The Central Elections Commission, or CEC, has repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to fair, open elections and has rejected allegations of widespread violations during last Decembers Duma elections and this years presidential poll.

The CEC issued a statement Wednesday calling on all participants in the regional elections "not to allow any breaches of campaigning rules."

CEC head Alexander Veshnyakov recommended that incumbent governors running for re-election take a leave of absence from their posts during election campaigns so as not to risk getting disproportionately more publicity than their opponents because of their status and thus violating campaign regulations. He also announced that the CEC would ask the Prosecutor Generals Office and Interior Ministry to make sure campaigns are conducted according to the rules.

The other eight places where elections will be held Sunday are the regions of Ryazan, Kamchatka, Krasnodar, Astrakhan, Arkhangelsk and Ivanovo, and the Komi-Permyatsky and the Koryaksky autonomous districts.

Incumbents have chosen not to run in only three of the 11 Ivanovo, Kamchatka and Krasnodar.

The most controversial among the non-candidates, flamboyant Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko known for his unabashed anti-Semitism and authoritarian practices explained his decision citing high blood pressure.

But Titkov, and numerous press reports, said Kondratenko might want to try his hand in the new Federation Council, whose members will inherit many of the perks taken away from the governors not least of which is immunity from prosecution.

"In Krasnodar everything is under control," Segodnya wrote in an analysis Friday. "Kondratenko is going to the Federation Council." The paper asserted Kondratenko would be appointed to the post after the victory of the favored gubernatorial candidate, 40-year-old Communist Duma Deputy Alexander Tkachyov, who is a Kondratenko ally.

If this scenario pans out, Kondratenko would not be the first.

A press secretary for former Kaluga Governor Valery Sudarenkov confirmed in a telephone interview last month that the governor dropped out of the gubernatorial race earlier this year and backed his deputy in the election in order to try his luck in Moscow later on.

According to the Heritage Foundations Volk, the true reasons behind the governors decisions may never come to light.

"People in power [now] are not public politicians," he said. "They come from the special forces and have their own special methods of political battle blackmail, untraceable financial aid to their own candidates, cutting off funds to undesirable governors, etc.

"The presidential administration has a clear aim: to put as many of their people in power in the regions as possible," Volk said. "And there are only two criteria by which those people are chosen: loyalty to the Kremlin and as little involvement in corruption scandals as possible."

But according to Carnegies Titkov, there is no such thing as a monolithic Kremlin policy in the regions.

"There are too many structures and interest groups connected to the Kremlin and each one is pushing its own agenda," he said. "Putin has found a common language with most of the governors, with just a few exceptions. As a result, I expect as many as two-thirds of regional heads will ultimately stay in office."

Andrei Zolotov Jr. contributed to this report.