Protests Not About to Revive 1990s – Style Politics Outside of Moscow, Region.Expert Says

Russia Regions Map

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, January 7, 2020)

The rising tide of protests in Russia’s regions and republics has prompted some in Moscow and the West to predict that the heads of regions will behave much as their predecessors did in the 1990s and seek to exploit such demonstrations to boost their authority relative to Moscow.

That view has been most clearly articulated by Pavel Salin, a political analyst at Moscow’s Finance University, who argues that regional officials have found it ever more difficult to cope with protests from below and prevent them from linking up with other regional demonstrators (club-rf.ru/detail/3715).

Consequently, he continues, it is likely that in the coming year, the regional leaders will not be able to resist; and “on the model of regional elites and governors of the 1990s,” they will stop trying to play a mediating role between the population of the regions and the federal center and seek to assume the leadership of these protests against Moscow.

Viewed from Moscow’s perspective, Salin continues, it has succeeded in ensuring who is the head of the regions – there was no repeat of Moscow’s 2018 defeats in that regard this past year – but a regional “fronde” has succeeded in “sabotaging ‘the trash reform,'” forcing the center to change officials running that program and even retreating in some places.

What this means, the Moscow analyst says, is that “the situation for regional heads was complicated: pressure on them grew booth from below and above. And if it was more or less clear what they had to do with regard to that from above, it was not entirely clear” how they should respond to pressure from below.

At least some of them are seeking to work with those protesting from below; and from Moscow’s perspective, this looks like “a repetition of the 1990s.” According to Salin, some governors are using the protests as a political resource to make demands on the center, arguing that Moscow must make concessions to them or face more anger from below.

That some governors may seek to make use of the protests to boost themselves relative to Moscow is certain and that there is thus a temptation to draw parallels with the 1990s when regional heads formed alliances with the population is clear, but as the Tallinn-based Region.Expert portal points out, such conclusions are overstated (region.expert/regionalisation).

The reason is simple: In the 1990s, the heads of the federal subjects were elected and thus had every reason to defer to the population. Now, they are appointed and have far fewer reasons to do so. Instead, they will defer to those in the center who control their fate as Moscow can remove at will any who don’t.

At the same time, however, the growing number of protests in the regions is changing both the calculations of the regional heads and those of the center. On the one hand, the heads know that if protests in their areas get out of hand or link up with protests elsewhere, they personally will be in trouble.

Consequently, it is likely that at least some of them will seek to defuse the situation by trying to make sufficient concessions to forestall that possibility if reliance on stonewalling or force does not prove sufficient. And on the other, it is also likely that Moscow may even encourage that on occasion if that is the price of keeping the protest wave from growing.

Both of those possibilities are changing politics in the regions, but Moscow has the whip hand now and it, not its appointed representatives, will decide how far to proceed. And that means there isn’t about to be any return to the kind of regional politics there was in the 1990s – as long as the heads are Moscow appointees rather than elected by the people.