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Governor Misharin’s example of how to create regional chaos in Medvedev’s Russia

Governor Misharin’s example of how to create regional chaos in Medvedev’s Russia

17.05.2010 — Analysis

In his desire to pave the way for the 2012 elections, Dmitry Medvedev moved at the very beginning of his presidential term to root out any possible bastions of political resistance. The 43-year-old lawyer had little in common with the dinosaurs of the old Soviet party system, with its 60-year-old Russian regional heads, wise in the ways of the planned economy, but incapable of blogging on the Internet. 

Some important people would have to be sacrificed politically, if Russia was going to modernize itself. Political analysts immediately suggested the resignation of the following quartet of old-time political heavyweights: Yury Luzhkov of Moscow, Murtaz Rakhimov of Bashkortostan, Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, and Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk Region. The Central Urals regional governor, whose term was about to expire, turned out to be the first name on the list for elimination. One analyst for RusBusinessNews attempted to evaluate the apparent results of this "personnel cleansing."

A shameful campaign for the "engine" of the party

The intrigue that went on during the summer and fall of 2009 to choose the governor of the Sverdlovsk Region frayed the nerves of the bureaucrats and businessmen in Moscow and in the Urals. The Kremlin rejected the idea of placing the Russian Minister of Regional Development, Viktor Basargin, in charge of the "backbone of the nation," as the Urals are called. The overwhelming majority of experts felt this would be the best choice. Basargin was a true son of Sverdlovsk, who had climbed his way up the bureaucratic ladder one rung at a time and was a compromise figure for the political and business elite of the region. 

The election ended with a victory for the director of the Russian Department of Industry and Infrastructure, Aleksandr Misharin, who had just turned 40. Considering that he was running against Eduard Rossel, many in the Sverdlovsk Region sighed and said, "Well, at least it isn't Eduard Ergartovish." Some are already regretting that sigh of relief.

It has been six months since Misharin's inauguration and still a third of the population of the Sverdlovsk Region, about 1.5 million people, don't know that they have a new governor. And that's even after Misharin spent most of the spring of 2010 taking inspection trips through his new region, trying to politically rally the population.

His primary concern was to ensure a decisive victory for the United Russia party in the March elections for the Regional Duma. Aleksandr Misharin, a member of United Russia's General Council, tried to show that he was more popular with the voters in the gubernatorial race than his predecessor, Eduard Rossel, had been. He couldn't. Even with a party "engine" like the distinguished railway engineer, Misharin, working for them, the United Russia party did not get even 40% of the vote, whereas the former regional head regularly got over 50%. But it was not the governor who was scapegoated for this, but the head of the regional party committee, Victor Shepty.

"They chose a completely inadequate election strategy," claims the director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, Evgeny Minchenko. "The entire campaign was shockingly unprofessional and embarrassing, even though the Sverdlovsk Region has one of the best political consulting schools in the country."

Despite this major fiasco, United Russia, maintained control of the Regional Duma. But unfortunately for Aleksandr Misharin, he had to watch the orderly party ranks begin to splinter into tiny groups. The Sverdlovsk Regional Parliament had always worked like this, but an old political fox like Rossel knew how to use the carrot and the stick to move through his most complicated projects, despite the deputies' infighting. Misharin is now under a storm of criticism while he is about to begin the painful negotiations about increasing the 2010 regional budget deficit by a third. Much of the blame for this can be laid on his team.

Don't burden a starter budget with debt

The governor has named the son of a personal friend to be finance minister of the Sverdlovsk Region. Twenty-eight-year-old Konstantin Koltonyuk graduated from the Urals State Technical University with a degree in Chemical Industry Equipment and spent four years working as a mid-level functionary in the federal government. After his appointment, financial experts had only one question, how is he going to manage the 91-billion-ruble budget of the entire Sverdlovsk Region? The governor did not address this concern.

The Ministry of Finance proposes increasing the budget deficit of the Sverdlovsk Region by 3 billion rubles, issuing bonds with a yield under 10%, which is double the interest rate for similar municipal bonds issued by the city of Moscow. "This inflated yield shows the government's desire to attract investors, but as a strategy it can backfire. A high yield for debt securities can also be a sign that the issuer has some problems," comments Evgeny Artyukh, a deputy in the Regional Duma.

Even while getting ready to take on this loan, the Cabinet has not turned down the idea of creating business incubators, an idea about which experts have raised doubts. A proposal has been made to allocate 111 million rubles for these incubators in 2010 from the regional treasury. Another 17 million rubles will have to be spent this year to pay the salaries of the officials in the new Ministry of Information Technology and Communications that Aleksandr Misharin created. As has been noted, the governor's young wife, Inna Misharina, happens to be a very successful IT specialist. The regional government is also prepared to spend 30 million rubles on a "walk-through" exhibit about the potential of the Sverdlovsk Region. There is a long list of expenditures of this type.

"But where are those surging tax revenues that the Cabinet was so happy to proclaim?" wonders Andrey Alshevsky, a deputy in the Regional Duma. It turns out that the region's economy is in such poor shape that the treasury is under funded. Or else it could be that the government has some secret stashes of money that the parliament doesn't know about.

A corporate raider for his special projects

Aleksandr Misharin's personnel policies are also threatening to cause him some problems. The business community in the Sverdlovsk District is very concerned about the paralysis of the government ministries, departmental in-fighting, and the inability of the governor's flunkies to actually get something done. But some of his Misharin's officials are waving their swords with a vengeance.

The Culture Minister, 36-year-old Aleksey Badaev, who previously worked as a teacher in a local drama institute, just fired the founder of the Ekaterinburg Variety Theater, Nikolai Golovin, whose colleagues promptly went on strike in protest.

The head of the Regional Ministry for Managing Public Assets, Vladimir Levchenko, who recruited Misharin from the Russian Ministry of Transport, can rouse even more of the region's inhabitants. It was his idea to suspend the regional law that would have distributed free land for building individual homes. Six thousand people had already applied for the land grants, but potentially far more could. "This land is our shared fortune. And every inhabitant of Russia has a right to part of it," declares Vladimir Taskaev, a deputy in the Russian State Duma. "We will not permit this law to be repealed or amended."

To top it all off, Aleksandr Misharin has managed to make an enemy of the local press, which is responsible for not only shaping local opinion, but also how outsiders see the Sverdlovsk Region. The appointment of Liliya Dolganova as the governor's media advisor was particularly offensive to journalists, since she became infamous for a corporate raid on one of Ekaterinburg's television stations in 2000. After milking the station for the cash she needed, she left after three years to go into an agricultural business and has since not been involved with the media.

The blossoming governmental career of this infamous corporate raider was met with protests by the leaders of twenty television stations, newspapers, and news outlets, but the governor's administration ignored the protests. Dolganova is charged with overseeing the governor's special media projects. During the almost twenty years that Eduard Rossel ran the Sverdlovsk Region, he never treated the "fourth estate" with such disrespect.

"But the chaos in Misharin's administration is fodder for the media and prevents his contamination from spreading," notes political analyst Anatoly Gagarin. "If not, then all the government agencies would be constantly threatened with disorder and vacillation. And their leaders can find that unpleasantness can arise at any moment and for any reason."

A temple of discord

One conflict with the people of Ekaterinburg occurred only 100 meters from the governor's residence. The very devout Aleksandr Misharin fervently wanted to help the Ekaterinburg diocese rebuild the old Cathedral of St. Catherine the Martyr in the city's center. The cathedral had been destroyed in the 1930's. Orthodox priests planned a blitzkrieg maneuver to take over the Ekaterinburg's Square of Labor in the name of the Church. The square is a favorite hangout for young people from Ekaterinburg, as well as from other cities. Officials dispatched architects who managed to come up with a budget estimate for the new cathedral - about 400 million rubles.

But it was not to be. To the surprise, and possibly the horror of the governor's contingent, the citizens of Ekaterinburg proved that their city is not only a contender for the title of Russia's third capital because of its size (population - 1.5 mllion people), but because of its activism. In the week before His Holiness Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, was due to arrive in Ekaterinburg for a meeting, about six thousand people gathered in defense of the square. Ekaterinburg had never seen such a protest. Ekaterinburg is, after all, where in Soviet times, the family of Czar Nicholas II was brought under cover of night to the Ipatiev House to be executed. But if a bulldozer tries to get near the Square of Labor today, a human shield will block its path. The cathedral scandal was publicized throughout Russia and immediately even young people who are usually indifferent to politics joined Misharin's opposition.

"The meeting was very successful. Our goal was to show that our citizens care very deeply about this issue and to gather signatures on a petition to protest the desecration of Ekaterinburg's architectural appearance. We succeeded in doing this," emphasizes the meeting's sponsor, Leonid Volkov, a deputy in the Ekaterinburg Municipal Duma.

The priests who were ready with the new cathedral's cornerstone and the bureaucrats with their resolutions about allocating money and land to its construction all had to back down. But political analysts wonder, how was it possible, to rush to approve the total rebuilding of an Orthodox cathedral in a city like Ekaterinburg, which has residents of so many different faiths? Where was the new governor's sense of political correctness?

The distinct history of the Urals

It is just possible to find reminders of Aleksandr Misharin's former profession in his decisions. He dedicated 23 years of his life to the railroads, and as we all know, a train travels on a direct path and is not terribly maneuverable.

According to Evgeny Minchenko, Misharin has not found his new job to be an easy one. This is, after all, his first taste of public service. So far experts agree that he hasn't done too well. "Misharin really needs to evolve and hone his skills. Will this happen? It's hard to say."

Eduard Rossel, for one, will go down in Russian political history for his July 1993 proclamation of the Urals Republic. This independent enclave managed to produce a constitution and was on the verge of issuing its own money, the Ural franc. But the threat of Rossel's separatism was so alarming to President Boris Yeltsin that he had to sign an edict in November of 1993 forcing Rossel's resignation as Administrative Head of the Sverdlovsk Region.

Seventeen years later a new threat has appeared for Russia. Administrative chaos in the regions is divisive for the country as a whole. Russia's vertical power structure, obstinately created by the Kremlin and devoid of common sense, means federal officials can be held hostage by the regional officials. And if Russian public opinion decides that those in charge of the Sverdlovsk Region (195,000 sq. km. - comparable to the size of Denmark, Iceland, or Holland) have created an unprofessional mess, then the Kremlin appointee, Aleksandr Misharin risks becoming a grave-digger of Medvedev's Russia.

Dmitry Buzdalov

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