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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Gets Gift of 44 Governors

Once they were the Kremlins fiercest enemies, known for their vitriolic criticism of its policies as much as for the authoritarian manner in which they managed their regions.

But times have changed, and so have they.

The wave of gubernatorial elections that swept over Russia in the past year has left the country with a newly docile regional elite: Among 44 governors elected last year, there is not one openly opposed to the Kremlin.

But even as the governors personalities changed, they themselves most often did not. The best guarantee of being elected governor last year was being one in the first place.

The majority of the winners 28 out of 44 were incumbents. At least two of the new ones, Kalugas Anatoly Artamonov and Krasnodars Alexander Tkachyov, were tapped by the departing governors as their political heirs.

"The key to the elections was the administrative resource that comes with incumbency: a governors ability to mobilize his bureaucracy in gathering votes for him," Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of the Dumas committee on regional-federal relations, said last week at a round table on the elections at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "This accounted for 20 to 25 percent of all the votes gathered by them."

That was a big change from the first gubernatorial elections, which were held from 1995 through 1997. In those races, party affiliation and Kremlin support played a much greater role. Incumbency was not such a great asset then: 31 incumbents at that time, presidential appointees were re-elected, while 32 suffered defeat.

The most striking example of how the power of incumbency has increased was a series of seven regional elections held last spring, in which the governors managed to move up the vote to coincide with the March 26 presidential elections. In this way, they were able to ride the coattails of the popular acting president and give their opponents less time to prepare. All seven governors won hands down.

Throughout the country, incumbents tried to convince voters that they enjoyed President Vladimir Putins support, whether or not they actually did. They sprinkled their posters with pictures of Putin or used his catchphrases as their campaign slogans.

But where did Putin really stand in the regional elections?

While some commentators alleged during the elections that the Kremlin was fighting to install its candidates everywhere, many analysts say that ultimately the Kremlin realized its own weakness in many regions and opted not to meddle directly. Instead, it did what it could to ensure that whoever was elected would be loyal.

"There was no coordinated Kremlin policy," said Nikita Tyutkov, regional policy expert at Center, a Moscow-based political consultancy.

"The work was done by the second echelon: the presidents administration and his representatives in the seven federal districts, which were divided into several groups with different and often colliding interests."

In Ulyanovsk, where the incumbent, Yury Goryachev, battled popular Chechnya veteran General Vladimir Shamanov, a top official in the presidential administration conceded there were "too many Kremlin-connected interest groups" for any one of them to control the outcome.

The victory in Ulyanovsk went to Shamanov, who added his name to an already long list of military and security officers who ran in many regions. Besides him, at least six others either won elections or made it into the second round.

The large number of uniformed men running for governor prompted some observers to claim that the Kremlin had an elaborate plan of installing military or security officers in as many regions as possible.

TkachyovBut the outcome of the votes far from proved the Kremlins omnipotence: Two Kremlin-supported officers won Vladimir Kulakov in Voronezh and the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Yegorov, in Kaliningrad while three Putin-backed officers lost in Chelyabinsk, Chita and Kursk. Retired General Boris Gromov won in the Moscow region, but the Kremlin did not support him.

Vladimir Kolosov, head of the Center for Geopolitical Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the Kremlin understood that it could not determine the outcome of all the elections after a failed experiment in St. Petersburg in the spring.

At that time, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko was forced to withdraw her Kremlin-backed challenge to Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. Yakovlevs popularity was such that Matviyenko was sure to sink and take the Kremlins prestige down with her.

"Since then, the Kremlin chose to support the candidates with the best chances in exchange for their loyalty," Kolosov said.

But in a handful of cases, the Kremlin did manage to remove governors who, in the words of Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, were "a liability, mostly because of the extent of their corruption."

The most dramatic was the removal of former Kursk Governor Alexander Rutskoi. Just hours before the vote late last October, the regional court struck Rutskoi from the ballot for unfairly taking advantage of his incumbency and submitting a false property declaration.

Rutskoi pointed his finger at the Kremlin, saying the local court "wouldnt have dared to bring such a verdict without Moscows consent."

Just a few weeks later regional courts across Russia were flooded with complaints against governors filed by their challengers.

The phenomenon has been so widespread that Central Elections Commission member Yevgeny Koloshin complained last week that it is "compromising the very notion of democracy," by allowing the opponents to "fight their political battles in court instead of at the polls."

"The court has become the governors last political resort and his last line of defense. He is as strong as his influence on the court," said Mikhail Malutin, a political analyst at the Expert Institute of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists.

After the Kursk precedent, at least two former governors seemed to read the writing on the wall and withdrew their candidacies former Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko and former Chukotka Governor Alexander Nazarov, who paved the way to victory for Kremlin-connected oil and aluminum tycoon Roman Abramovich.

According to media reports, Nazarov and Kondratenko are hoping their successors will repay them by appointing them to the revamped Federation Council parliaments increasingly irrelevant upper house.

The latest race in the election marathon, which continues Sunday in Taimyr, was generally considered a clear Kremlin victory. The election in oil-rich Tyumen went to Sergei Sobyanin, the former deputy representative of the president in the Urals Federal District.

The sum total of the elections is a compliant regional elite, resigned to their decreased federal influence and willing to compromise with the Kremlin, Nikonov said.

"But their back was broken not by the elections, but by the reform of the Federal Council that led to their loss of immunity and stripped them of their political clout in Moscow," he said. "The Kremlin wasnt interested in weakening them one by one, but in undermining the whole institution of the governor."