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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM THE ENCLAVE: Governor's Days Numbered

If protocol were a deck of tarot cards, then the governor of the region of Kaliningrad has just been read a hopeless future. Leonid Gorbenko ought to start packing his bags.

The prophecy of Gorbenko's imminent doom became clear during President Vladimir Putin's visit to the enclave last week. Using a variety of portentous methods, from protocol to public statements, the presidential administration let it be known that Putin wants to distance himself from Gorbenko, and in no way will the Kremlin support the current governor in the upcoming elections.

To be sure, Putin's six-hour "stopover" Sunday was intended exclusively for pleasure and was not supposed to get mired in local politics. But it ended up being all about politics. Here's why: The moment the president stepped off his plane, the first two hands he shook were those of bitter rivals f the same two men who most likely will become the main contenders for the gubernatorial post. Down the stairs and into the fire, one might say. In terms of protocol, it was probably unprecedented.

The first to greet the visiting president was Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, and the second was Governor Gorbenko. Formally, this arrangement was dictated by protocol, since the president was "stopping by" to take part in Navy Day, the highlight of which was to be a grand parade, in the town of Baltiisk, of the destroyers and cruisers and frigates of the Baltic Fleet. So, although both men invited Putin to the festivities, it made sense to have Yegorov first in line.

But throughout the day, no matter what was taking place, Yegorov seemed to be right at Putin's side. Gorbenko, on the other hand, despite his desperate yearning to shoulder up to the president, was prevented from getting too close. When the commander-in-chief spoke to reporters, protocol positioned Chief of General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin between Putin and Gorbenko. When the president sat in the viewing gallery, Gorbenko was seated five chairs down. At lunch, the governor was virtually ignored. And so on.

The real damage came after the naval parade. Instead of motorcading into Kaliningrad to speak to the crowds gathered there, the president decided to fly back to Moscow. Despite all the road work, hedge-trimming and window dressing that had been done for his sake, and even despite the fact that his mother-in-law was waiting for him in town, Putin opted to leave the province.

Now far be it for me to claim that a man should drop by to see his mother-in-law, especially since his wife is not by his side, but considering it was Sunday, and that an awful lot of preparation had gone into the event (including a full refurbishing of the mother-in-law's house), why wouldn't the president take an extra hour to zoom into the city to greet the revelers?

The answer is obvious. While in Baltiisk, a military center, Putin was in Admiral Yegorov's realm; he could surround himself with naval officers and feel at home. In Kaliningrad, however, the brass would have been diluted by civilian bureaucrats, and Putin would have ended up on Gorbenko's turf. In Kaliningrad, the president would have had no choice but to let the governor nearer.

Did, then, Putin's visit amount to a tacit display of support for candidate Yegorov? It cannot be interpreted otherwise. Although Yegorov has not formally announced his intention to run for governor, it is apparent to everyone that he will become the united opposition's candidate. Putin knows this, and, if he had wanted to shield himself from a nasty pre-election bonfire, he would have canceled the trip altogether.

He did, after all, just return from a lengthy journey in Japan and the Far East. But by accepting the invitation and keeping Yegorov near him, he made it clear where his sympathy lies.

As for Gorbenko f the man who has become the personification of the lawless baronial governor, and not just in the minds of local resident but for the entire country (a fact that the NTV news analysis program "Itogi" confirmed during last Sunday's program) f well, he is in grave trouble. Not only is Gorbenko being shunned by Moscow, but he may find himself in trouble with the law. There are three criminal cases against him filed away in the local prosecutor's office (more about each of these in future articles), and one can bet one's paycheck that Putin is aware of each.

Gary Peach is an independent journalist living and working in Kaliningrad.