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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: February 3, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
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Gazeta.ru's Natalya Galimova reported on a conference of Russia's governors last weekend convened by Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy head of the presidential administration.

At one level, the meeting was not particularly remarkable -- governors don't have as much power as they once did, and now, if their local legislatures decide to scrap direct elections, they are no longer chosen democratically but selected by the Kremlin. Even where democratic elections remain, the ruling United Russian party, a conveyor-belt for the Kremlin, tends to prevail.

But at another level, the meeting was important to get a glimpse into the provinces of Russia, which tend to get neglected by the Moscow and world press, and also see the Kremlin's plan for trying to control regional challenges from non-compliant regional bosses to non-Russian minorities.

This three-day meeting was designed for Volodin, Putin's main ideology czar, and other officials to give doctrinal lectures on the current domestic political agenda and enable governors to vent -- which they did, about everything from lack of authority to make decisions to qualms about to the anti-crisis plan to evils of minority-rights NGOs and the Lutheran Church (hardly a threat).

Volodin's 61-page report was titled "The Current Domestic Political Agenda and Tasks for Its Realization" and consists of an ambitious if vague plan for addressing Russia's key challenges, with a mixture of sycophantic chapters like "The Activity of President Putin Totally Meets People's Interests" to disturbing sections like "'To Be and Remain Russia': Identity and Patriotism as Conditions for Development"; "The Growth of Popularity in the World of the Concept of Deliberative Democracy" and "Regulation of the Internet." (We will have more on this report in the next post.)

Volodin instructed those governors still being elected not to look for too high percentages in their wins, or they might not be credible. As a model election, he cited the Moscow mayor election that brought United Russia-backed incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to power, but in which opposition leader Alexey Navalny managed to garner 29% of the vote. He urged governors not to prevent registration of parliamentary candidates, i.e. parties already approved and in parliaments -- a problem which applies to Navalny's party still, which hasn't been registered for elections.

The scolding was intended for Oleg Korolev of Lipetsk and Valery Shantsev of Nizhegorod regions, respecitvely, since they had recently blocked candidates from the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF) -- the Kremlin's preferred opponent, if they have to have one.

"You are responsible for the formation of the elite," Volodin told the governors. "If the opposition parties are driven into a corner, political processes will be marginalized." Gazeta.ru writes that governors seemed nervous about asking questions, after the first day of the seminar, when Nikita Belykh, governor of Kirov Region, challenged a history lecture from Aleksandr Myasnikov who described how the Decembrists were financed by the British and Alexander Herzen was given money by the Rothschilds.

"Is that official history?" he asked. Later, Volodin finessed the awkward question by ascribing to Belikh support for a unified national history textbook -- and he wasn't in a position to object.

Sergei Sitnikov, governor of Kostroma Region, complained about the press services of the Investigative Committee, Interior Ministry and prosecutor's office -- they seemed to "work according to a plan" and report totals of crimes at the end of months and quarterly, and this had a negative effect on investment. Aleksandr Drozdenko, governor of Leningrad Region, was unhappy with an NGO that he said was financed by Estonians and Finns and was raising the issue of the numerically-small peoples of Russia. Couldn't the Moscow government do something?

Volodin -- as Kremlin officials often do on this subject -- tendentiously referenced US law, which makes a distinction between 501-c-3 organizations, that are not subject to taxation as they engage in educational or charitable activity, and 501-c-4 organizations, that run political campaigns, and are taxed. Of course, there's a difference between groups that seek to affect legislation or run candidates, and those that raise awareness or promote rights, and Volodin was not keen to make that distinction. 

"All countries that think of their sovereignty strictly regulate such issues. Our legislation in that regard is one of the most liberal," said Volodin -- an assessment regularly challenged by Paul Goble in The Interpreter.

Volodin said an amendment was being worked on in the "foreign agents' law" that would specify how groups could get off the "foreign agents" registry once put on. He conceded there weren't very many (currently there are 30). He said most groups were engaged in "socially-useful activity" -- although that's the rub, as the definition of what is "useful" is set arbitrarily by the government. Anatoly Artamonov, governor of Kaluga Region then spoke up about another channel besides NGO for foreign funds -- churches -- and complained about the Lutheran Church. "This channel has to be closed down soon because they actively use it." Gazeta.ru wondered who "they" were, and concluded: "enemies," although nothing more specific was said.

Svetlana Orlova, governor of Vladimir Region, said the regions needed more authority -- and money -- and more participation in decision-making. She pointed out that the governors should have been involved in drafting the anti-crisis plan, but wrapped her point in a loyal statement: "At the end of the day, we are one team and we have a new stage of development of our country." Her emphasis was on import substitutions -- which means stimulating local production and manufacturing to replace things that Russia is banning from the West in retaliation of Western sanctions over Crimea.

Perhaps among the most telling moments was when Mikhail Abyzov, minister for "open government" -- a concept that became popular in the West and was imported with mixed results to Russia -- explained that even he and his colleagues never saw the drafts of the anti-crisis plan -- but he chalked that up to the haste with which it was prepared, not a lack of openness. The press was then kicked out for a closed-door meeting of the governors with Economic Development Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev, Finance Minister Siluanov, Central Bank Chair Elivira Nabiullina.

One governor, Evgeny Savchenko of Belgorod Region said that among the topics discussed was the wish of the regions to regulate the liquor market and place "the harshest control over production and sale" -- which they see as a revenue generator. This comes at a time when Putin, for reasons of populism, however, wants to reduce the price of alcohol.

The regions of Russia are hurting; Prof. Natalya Zubarevich of Moscow State University, an economic geographer, told Gazeta.ru that the deficit for provinces tripled to 642 billion rubles ($9.5 billion) in 2013 when the regions went into debt to fulfill Putin's post-election populist promises. This is a telling moment, as it indicates the beginnings of the economic crisis long before the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions, and the fall in the price of oil.

Moscow would not accept demands to restructure the debt, and an urgent issue for governors was the conversion of commercial loans into budget (state) loans; the difference is 8-12% interest for the former and 0.25% for the latter.

Sergei Morozov, governor of Ulyanovsk Region called for re-capitalization of the banks in the region, but found that the response of the financial ministers was to support the concept in principle, but they were not sure how to best do it. Morozov believes that Moscow tends to ascribe all its problems to Western sanctions, but there are deeper problems, and the anti-crisis plan is "a collection of activities where there is no regional segment," he told gazeta.ru.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick