There’s More to Russia Than Putin

How the country’s governors will shape its future.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in front of a map at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow on Jan. 10, 2006.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in front of a map at his country residence of Novo-Ogaryovo outside Moscow on Jan. 10, 2006. Dmitri Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images

In September, 16 Russian regions—as diverse as the northern Arctic region of Murmansk and southern Stavropol—will be holding direct local and regional elections. As the campaign mounts, there have already been accusations of vote-rigging in places like St. Petersburg and Crimea, and in Moscow, thousands of demonstrators have been protesting the exclusion of opposition candidates in city council elections. Western observers may focus on President Vladimir Putin, but these elections show that, in Russia, other forces are at play as well.

Although Putin is undoubtedly an important and influential figure, his domestic reach has its limits. Examining the appointment of regional governors—and where their expertise lies—could give observers a greater sense of Russia’s economic and political trajectories.

Power in Russia is tightly centralized, and governors are usually members of Putin’s United Russia party, ensuring that the regions remain under Moscow’s ultimate control. But contrary to the way that Putin is often depicted—as an autocrat with control over the country’s day-to-day workings—he does not have oversight of the minutiae of Russian domestic politics. Instead, it often falls to regional governors and their administrations to distribute state budgets and implement orders from Moscow. And although the governors are ultimately answerable to Moscow, they still have a role to play.

Once, these figures were appointed based on their personal loyalty to the Kremlin. Although loyalty is still important, governors are not immune to change, and even closeness to Putin has not prevented the president from ordering the dismissal of ineffective, weak, or corrupt governors.

In fact, Putin has rotated the regional governors several times, often before elections. This trend was particularly notable in the run-up to and after his reinauguration as president in May 2018. At that time, governors who failed to guarantee Putin large numbers of votes during the elections were generally dismissed, regardless of the economic performance of their regions. But it is not always personal. Shake-ups ahead of the September 2017 regional elections ensured that governors from Putin’s United Russia party secured wins across the board. And sometimes, there is a security element to the governor’s role. Putin has appointed Moscow-born loyalists to govern restive southern regions such as Ingushetia and Dagestan, whose clan patronage networks the Kremlin views as a threat that must be broken up.

Pressure on the governors is mounting. Moscow has been tightening up its key performance indicators for governors, including proving that they have significantly improved their regions’ economies. Every few months, a Kremlin-sponsored think tank publishes its national rankings of the regional governors. The ratings are assessed by a panel of experts along several criteria, including the number of strikes in that region, a tally of local scandals, and the investment climate. Although not a hard-and-fast rule, governors at the bottom of the pile tend to be replaced. The most recent rankings 2019 of the 85 regions put the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, in 84th place. He was dismissed a few weeks later, ostensibly over his handling of a controversial border agreement with neighboring Chechnya that prompted widespread and prolonged protests in his region.

Putin has also placed an additional and thankless burden of responsibility on his regional governors. When he was reinaugurated in May 2018, Putin announced 12 “national projects” that must be implemented by the time his term ends in 2024. These projects, including plans to increase employment, raise living standards, and improve the quality of the roads, have been criticized by a number of Russian liberals for being too vague or broad, financially unachievable in the time frame given, or too difficult to measure. Many regional administrations have also complained about the infeasibility of the projects and a lack of direction from Moscow. Putin, a president who has historically been more focused on foreign policy, has not backed away from the projects but has given the governors a relatively free hand to implement them as they see fit, highlighting some of the importance with which he accords regional administrations.

While Putin may give orders to his officials to improve trade with Japan, China, and South Korea, it is often his representatives, heads of ministries, and governors who are responsible for taking trade delegations from these countries around Russia. Although the budgets for their regions are controlled by Moscow, governors also oversee the day-to-day implementation of laws, such as free trade zones designed to attract foreign investment. Examining some of these governors in more detail shows where Russia’s foreign and domestic policy strategy may be headed.

The Kremlin appears to be appointing governors to high-ranking regional positions who have experience in the business world or other useful backgrounds. This trend aligns with Russia’s strategy toward its own Far Eastern region.

The Kremlin over the past few years has been turning its attention to Russia’s long-neglected Far Eastern region, which it views as having huge investment potential. Changes to regional administrations reflect some of the Kremlin’s strategy for this development. The current minister of the Far East, Alexander Kozlov, was appointed in 2018. Kozlov is young for a Russian politician—just 38—and has a very strong background in coal production and processing from his time working at the Russky Ugol (Russian Coal) company. This appointment suggests something important about Russia’s plans for its extractive industry. Coal production is increasing, despite many other countries’ moves toward sustainable and fossil fuel-free energy. Official government statements support this view—Alexander Novak, the minister of energy, announced at the start of 2019 that by 2025, the Russian government will be investing $22.4 billion in coal mining and in upgrading port infrastructure. The Russian economy is natural resource-dependent, and the country is thought to have 202 billion tons of recoverable coal.

Appointing a minister for the Far East with this kind of technical experience seems to suggest that the Kremlin is working to build regional administrations that can actually deliver on Moscow’s strategy for the future, rather than simply appointing Kremlin loyalists. Given that regional governors have responsibility for the economic development of their regions, including attracting businesses and investment, appointing ministers with knowledge and connections in these industries makes sense.

Another good example can also be found in the Far East, in the Magadan region. Sergei Nosov was also part of the flurry of appointees in May 2018, when he was given the post of governor. Nosov is not local—he is originally from the Urals mining city of Magnitogorsk—but he has a very strong background in metallurgy from his time spent working in industrial regions such as Nizhny Tagil, as the head of a metallurgical plant there. The Magadan region is rich in natural resources, particularly gold, silver, and other precious metals. Nosov’s understanding of metallurgy would be particularly important in developing this sparsely populated mining region. Official sources seem aligned. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, gold and silver mining in the Magadan region reached record proportions in 2018, with 40 tons of gold and predictions of 44 tons by the end of 2019.

Although governors do not have ultimate decision-making powers, they play a supportive role in Russia’s foreign policy and relationships with other countries. Vasily Orlov in May 2018 became the governor of the Far Eastern Amur region, but his expertise is rather different. While Orlov does have experience in petrochemical companies, having worked at Sibur, a petrochemicals conglomerate, he originally trained as an interpreter of Chinese and English. This is particularly important given Russia’s attempts to attract investment from China and given China’s proximity to the Amur region. Orlov’s knowledge of the country could be very useful for attracting Chinese investment and gaining the trust of foreign investors. It is notable that one of the first things that Orlov has done as part of his governorship has been to revive long-standing but incomplete plans to construct a bridge between the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city of Heihe, which is scheduled for completion in 2020. Most recently, in late, June Orlov delivered a speech in Chinese at a festival in his region, which was designed to promote Russo-Chinese culture.

To be sure, this is not really a discussion about where power lies in Russia, for it remains firmly in the Kremlin—these governorships are not a precursor to national leadership as they might be in other federalized countries such as the United States. The governors’ role is to remain uncontroversial and implement Moscow’s policies, rather than nurturing political aspirations of their own. Instead, some of these regional leadership changes could be reflective of the Kremlin’s strategy toward Russia’s investment climate, which in turn shapes its future foreign policy.

Looking to Russia’s Far East, it appears that the Kremlin—out of economic necessity rather than political power dynamics—is altering its approach to regional governorships. Instead of appointing former intelligence officials or military officers to the administration, the need to develop the Far East and fuel the Russian economy’s dependence on natural resources might be driving a demand for technocrats, with the industrial knowledge of how development works.

In turn, Russia’s strategy sheds light on what it might be prioritizing in its economic and political future, where personnel and financial resources might be allocated, and how the country might approach its neighbors. These rotations also highlight the fact that Russia is more than Putin, and that there are political changes at play beyond the Kremlin.

Emily Ferris is a research fellow in the International Security Studies department at RUSI, specializing in Russia and Eurasia’s foreign policy.