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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Betting on Governors

Since its party congress in March, United Russia has added 22 governors to its ticket, boosting to 30 the number of regional leaders running in December's State Duma elections on its behalf.

The request to support the Kremlin-backed party may have come packaged as an invitation, but it was more like an offer the governors could not refuse.

"When you're invited by the Kremlin, it's very difficult to turn that down," says Yury Korgunyuk, a political expert at Indem, adding that as a rule, the Kremlin has picked strong governors who can persuade the bureaucratic structures subordinate to them to work for United Russia's victory.

This, in euphemistic political terms, is known as tapping the "administrative resource." It doesn't have to mean stuffing ballot boxes, it could just amount to telling local election commissions what is expected of them, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

In past elections, the levers of government influence were divided among various forces, but United Russia seems to be moving to shore up its comparative advantage as the party of the ruling elite.

"If they [United Russia] can concentrate this in their own hands," Petrov said, "they won't need to use any other political tactics" -- tactics like black PR, the practice of placing damaging information about an opponent in the media.

In other words, the 30 governors -- accounting for roughly one-third of the country's 89 regions -- are not just an ace up the party's sleeve. They may be a trump card for a party that is running neck and neck in opinion polls with the Communists.

With half of the Duma's 450 seats awarded based on votes cast for party lists, President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin will hold the governors personally responsible for ensuring a strong showing for United Russia in their home districts, Petrov and Korgunyuk said in separate interviews.

"The governors are there not because they want to be, but because the Kremlin wants them to be," Petrov said.

More than that, the governors are distinctly unexcited about the prospect because they will be dragged down by association with United Russia, which in many regions enjoys only lukewarm support, Korgunyuk said. "They will pay with their own ratings for United Russia's success."

For example, he said, Moscow region Governor Boris Gromov will obediently stump for United Russia, even though that tarnishes his image as an independent-minded leader.

The governors "have nothing to gain, but a lot to lose," Petrov said.

If only 10 percent of voters in a given region vote for the United Russia list headed by their governor, the Kremlin is likely to take that as evidence of a governor's ineffectiveness and won't support his re-election.

What you have, Petrov said, "is a hostage system."

Whether governors like it or not, regional budgets are dependent on decisions made in the center, and they would jeopardize that income in declining to support Putin's party.

It was this, Korgunyuk said, that compelled Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin to join United Russia last March, even though the former Norilsk Nickel executive, seen as a rising political star, had been in serious talks with the Union of Right Forces.

Though collaboration with the governors carries distinct benefits for United Russia, the regional heads do not get much more than a mandatory vacation in return.

From the moment the final party list is submitted for registration, they become official candidates and have three days to take a leave of absence until after the elections.

United Russia declared a preliminary list of people running in the elections on its behalf in late September, said Mikhail Savchenko, a spokesman for the Central Elections Commission. The Union of Right Forces and Yabloko submitted their final lists last week, but United Russia has yet to do so.

The party is likely to continue dragging its feet until early November, Korgunyuk said, in large part to keep the governors in their offices as long as possible. On Nov. 7, exactly one month before elections are held, the campaign season officially begins.

Having handed formal authority to their deputies, the governors may take on lower profiles, but behind the scenes they will be playing quite an active role, Petrov said. "It's because of their ability to control their regions that they were invited to join United Russia in the first place."

Back in March, before the contingent swelled, only eight regional leaders were affiliated with United Russia: Yury Luzhkov of Moscow, Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, Vladimir Chub of Rostov, Vyacheslav Pozgalyov of Vologda, Viktor Ishayev of Khabarovsk, Yegor Stroyev of Oryol, Aman Tuleyev of Kemerovo and Khloponin in Krasnoyarsk.

Khloponin and other governors have attempted to maintain some distance, often by declining official party membership and acting only in an advisory capacity. Only eight are card-carrying members: Chub and Pozgalyov, as well as the governors of Yaroslavl, Tambov, Astrakhan, Mordovia, Tyumen and Khanty-Mansiisk.

In addition to Shaimiyev, United Russia has enlisted the presidents of five other national republics: Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Udmurtia, Bashkortostan and Sakha.

The group of governors also includes some political personalities: Gennady Khodyrev, who was elected in Nizhny Novgorod as a Communist, and Eduard Rossel, the charismatic governor of Sverdlovsk who won re-election last month. In Krasnodar, Governor Alexander Tkachyov tops a list that includes his older brother in the fifth slot and his political advisor in the sixth.

Of the party's 31 regional lists, 19 are headlined by governors, with some lists padded with a second governor -- or in the case of western Siberia, three. There, Sergei Sobyanin of Tyumen, Alexander Filipenko of Khanty-Mansiisk and Yury Neyelov of Yamal-Nenets are Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the list.

The acting governor of St. Petersburg and the governors of the Arkhangelsk, Belgorod, Leningrad, Moscow, Murmansk and Smolensk regions are also engaged on United Russia's behalf.

Support from a 31st governor may be on the horizon.

Oleg Zholabov, a spokesman for United Russia, confirmed this was true. But the lists -- without Titov -- have been submitted and while changes are possible, they aren't likely, he said.

None of the governors is expected to take up a Duma seat if elected, since they wield far greater influence running regions.

Shaimiyev and Luzhkov are among the chetvyorka, or four top party leaders on the federal list, which is headlined by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu.

These four are the extent of United Russia's federal list, which means seats will go more immediately to those on the regional lists. Most parties' federal lists are much longer -- the Communists have 18, Yabloko 17.

This, Petrov said, is part of United Russia's strategy to reach into the regions, since the party has few leaders at the federal level who are popular outside the big cities.

"It is still seen as a Moscow party, and in emphasizing the regional lists, it is trying to correct that."

At first glance, it may seem that United Russia has reversed its trademark drive for centralizing power in Moscow by sharing power with the regional elite, but in fact it is quite the opposite: Governors are being subordinated to the party hierarchy.

In many respects, the lines are blurred between party hierarchy and government hierarchy, since ultimately they both stretch back to the Kremlin. It is this that worries Petrov, who expressed concern that since only the state can enforce boundaries on campaign season behavior, United Russia essentially has carte blanche to use its administrative resources to any extent it wishes.

Most troubling, he said, is the inability of opposition parties, who lack entrenched positions in the government apparatus, to compete on that playing field. "The administrative resource is not better than black PR," he said. "Yes, black PR is illegal, but the good news is that there's an element of competition."