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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Turn to the Regions

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One of the most tangible results of the change of prime ministers and the reshuffling of government posts is the increased attention given by the Kremlin to the regions. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov hit the ground running. Zubkov traveled to the Penza region and, once he returned to Moscow, he demanded that ministers travel to the regions more frequently.

The new prime minister has created a formidable foursome that includes himself and three new ministers: Dmitry Kozak of the Regional Development Ministry, Elvira Nabiullina of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and Tatyana Golikova of the Health and Social Development Ministry. As high-profile members of the president's Cabinet, one of their tasks will be to tackle problems in the regions and issue progress reports regularly during special Cabinet sessions devoted to social and economic problems in the regions. The practice of reading reports of the governors at Cabinet meetings was initiated last year by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov as part of a whole series of measures aimed at "turning toward the regions." This focus toward the regions came after the country was shaken by nationwide protests in 2005 over a federal law that threatened to replace welfare and other benefits with cash payments. Although largely cosmetic in nature, the recent change of Cabinet ministers removed undesirable politicians and replaced them with individuals who could put a positive face on those ministries. And those faces are now turned toward the regions.

The Penza region became the first to receive attention under Zubkov's new policy. His trip to what he called a typical Russian region set a number of precedents. For example, Zubkov expressed indignation at the low salaries kindergarten teachers earn. This was followed by Zubkov's official order to the Penza governor to raise their salaries. The governor, having reported to the prime minister that this order was fulfilled, issued another report to Zubkov -- "The Fulfillment of All of the Prime Minister's Orders."

A number of political analysts have pointed out that Zubkov's trips to the Penza and Astrakhan regions, with his numerous informal televised chats with the "common people," were intended to demonstrate the government's heightened attention to the needs of ordinary citizens and, most of all, to those who have fallen through society's safety net. But these trips and the decisive commands given to resolve various problems were aimed more at gaining support for the upcoming elections than at actually eradicating social injustices.

At Thursday's Cabinet meeting, the prime minister again called for focusing more attention on the regions: "We need to listen to the regions at every government meeting because we become more responsible when we listen." The commission that was created to increase the efficiency of budgetary spending, which is headed up by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, was reorganized to better evaluate the effectiveness of federal and regional institutions.

The Cabinet shake-up has brought about a number of changes in the relationship between Moscow and the regions. Now the Regional Development Ministry, rather than the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, will be handing out various goodies to the regions, like federal programs for regional development, free economic zones and the allocation of money from the state investment fund. The responsibility for the regions was previously assigned to deputy prime ministers but has now been given to Zhukov as part of the redistribution of authority.

While it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of the government reshuffling, some positive result is expected. It is also expected that the Regional Development Ministry will be strengthened significantly. The problem is not that Vladimir Yakovlev, the former regional development minister, was less effective than Kozak, but that a nontransparent and excessively centralized system of control was doomed to be ineffective.

During the first demonstrative visit by Zubkov to the Penza region, he and the governor bought a couple of boxes of candy in a local store and then presented them to girls in a kindergarten, saying, "These are for you from Uncle Vasya and Uncle Vitya." That episode could serve as a symbol of the Kremlin's new outpouring of love and attention toward the regions, which will last until the end of the presidential election campaign in March. Anyone who happens to be on the receiving end of this generosity show over the next six months can consider himself very lucky indeed.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.