Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Staying Ahead of the Political Train

Since the moment Boris Yeltsin transferred power to Vladimir Putin, the actions of Saratov region governor Dmitry Ayatskov have been subordinated to one goal f to stay ahead of the train of Russian politics.

But that train does not move along rails and to figure out its turns is no easy task. As a result, Ayatskov resembles Lewis Carroll's Alice, who has to run with all her might just to remain in place.

Ayatskov was one of the first who rushed to declare his loyalty to the new president. But despite his declaration of loyalty, it seems that Ayatskov expected nothing good for himself from the rise of Putin.

Scarcely having greeted Putin, he initiated a snap gubernatorial election in Saratov, naming the date for March 26 f the same day as the presidential elections.

Ayatskov did not move the elections up in order to lose them. But if it had not been for the changes in the Kremlin, the Saratov governor would hardly have rushed into new elections. Both the old opposition in the region, the Communist Party, and the new opposition, grouped around disgraced former Vice Governor Vyacheslav Volodin (now deputy chairman of the Fatherland-All Russia faction in the State Duma), became active.

During last year's Duma elections, Ayatskov suffered his first undisguised political defeat since coming to power in April 1996. The Communist Party's candidates won in two of the region's most urbanized districts, including the Saratov district, where the winner was Valery Rashkin, first secretary of the party's regional committee. The Communists also won in voting by party lists.

Thus Ayatskov's motto for the early gubernatorial contest could have been "Victory at any price." Dangerous competitors were cut out of the race even at the registration phase: Volodin, having assessed the situation, did not even bother to put forward his candidacy, while Rashkin was refused registration. Rashkin was accused of buying voters and forging signature lists.

Why would the leader of the Communists, a party that had just demonstrated in the parliamentary elections its strength of their support, have forged signatures?

One episode may help explain: On the eve of registration, the Communist Party discovered a whole packet of forged signature lists that had been gathered by unknown "supporters." This was certainly not the only such "gift."

In the end, Ayatskov's two nominal rivals, both little-known businessmen, looked openly decorative and practically did not campaign. The governor won, of course, receiving around 67 percent of the vote.

"Against all" came in second, getting around 20 percent of the vote. Saratov region, meanwhile, has been identified as one of the regions with the highest levels of electoral fraud.

The Communists initiated a series of court cases alleging fraud. However, for some reason, local lawyers refused to represent them in court.

This is how Ayatskov's run in front of the political train began. Now he is ready to welcome all of Putin's ideas. Thus, soon after his re-election, Ayatskov announced that holding new elections for mayors and other local offices was unnecessary and that federal law would soon be corrected accordingly.

He said this was dictated by the logic of the president's calls for strengthening of the "executive vertical." As it turns out, Ayatskov was mistaken. But from the best of motives f it happens to the best of us.

In Moscow, the conversations about changing the relationship between the authorities and the press have only just begun. In Saratov, Izvestia has already been censored.

When men in masks visited the Moscow offices of Media-MOST in May, Ayatskov welcomed it as a "measure in the fight against the oligarchs" and ordered the region's press minister to likewise "deal with" the oligarchs in Saratov region f after which mass tax audits suddenly began at local radio stations.

The president introduces a system of federal districts and announces he wants to remove governors from the Federation Council and also be able to remove them from office.

Ayatskov welcomes it, saying: Right! This is exactly what should have been done long ago. And then he becomes one of the few governors to vote in favor of the new procedure for forming the Federation Council.

So it may be no accident that it was in Saratov that someone was detained this past May under the half-forgotten political statute of the Criminal Code f "Calls to forcibly change the constitutional order."

In the best of Soviet traditions, the suspect, the long-time dissident Andrei Derevyankin, was initially placed under psychiatric observation and for a month managed without a lawyer.

No, it is not enough to win an election. One also has to stay on the list of the loyal and the select. Then the anger of the new president will not touch Ayatskov, whatever laws are adopted in Moscow. Then he will reign supreme in his region, as before. That is what the Saratov governor is apparently hoping to achieve by making himself into a greater supporter of Putin than Putin himself.

Ilya Malyakin is editor of the Volga Information Agency. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.