Across Russia, Political Battles between Governors and Mayors Intensify

June 7, 2015
Galina Shirshina

Staunton, June 3 – On June 3, the unpopular appointed governor of Karelia orchestrated a vote by the Petrozavodsk city council against that city’s popular elected mayor, the latest development in what is an ever-intensifying struggle between governors and mayors in Russia’s regions and republics over just how “power verticals” at the regional level are to function.

In 2013, Galina Shirshina, running as an independent but drawing on support from Yabloko, won office as mayor of the Karelian capital, and last year, she was rated “satisfactory” by the United Russia-dominated city council. But her links with opponents of Governor Aleksandr Khudilainen and their efforts to oust him have changed the situation.

On June 3, 23 of the 27 city council members in attendance (there are 30 in all) voted to declare her work “unsatisfactory.” If she is rated that way a second time, the deputies have the right to hold an election to replace her, a vote they might hope to win and thus oust an opponent (see here and here).

After the vote, Shirshina reassured her supporters that “nothing terrible had happened” and that they could continue to work in the same way as before because they are performing in an entirely satisfactory way – a clear challenge to Khudilainen and even to his Moscow backers.

Tensions between society and the governor have long been a feature of politics in Karelia, largely because the governor is viewed by the population as insensitive to the concerns of the population of the republic. But what is happening between Shirsina and the governor calls attention to tensions that are much more common.

In Novyye Izvestiya June 4, commentator Sergey Yezhov suggests that what is going on is no less than “a war” within “regional verticals” between governors who have nominal control over entire territories and the mayors of major cities who in fact continue to exercise real powers in portions of them.

According to Yezhov, “the authorities of Petrozavodsk are at risk of sharing the fate of the mayor of Novgorod Veliky” whose leader was sent into retirement after he clashed with the governor over performance. But as the Moscow commentator notes, almost any mayor is at risk of facing charges that he has failed to fulfill his responsibilities.

There is an inherent tension between mayors and governors, a tension exacerbated by Moscow’s efforts to “liquidate” the last remnants of local democracy. In recent months, Yezhov says, direct elections of mayors have been banned in Blagoveshchensk, Yaroslavl, Sochi, Omsk and in numerous cities of Novosibirsk oblast.

These bans have not gone down well everywhere: In Krasnoyarsk Kray, deputies of the capital city refused to amend the city code in the way the governor wanted. Another place where such tensions are running high is Yekaterinburg, where independent Mayor Yevgeny Royzman is under attack from United Russia officials.

While governors have more resources and generally win, they often face a problem many of them apparently did not expect: even when they name their loyalists to mayoral positions, those people often break with them because they conclude that their cities and their own political futures would be better if they did so, Yezhov says.

Such tensions are likely to be exacerbated in the run up to the September elections of several governors. Arkhangelsk is likely to challenge the regional governor there. Elsewhere there are likely to be problems as well, all the more so because the struggle over resources is certain to intensify.

In the past, Moscow could keep such tensions under control, but now with its own resources running low, the center doesn’t have the ability to do so everywhere. Consequently, Yezhov suggests, the next step in elaborating a power vertical at the regional level may become more politically controversial than was its earlier one.