Into the donut:
Nils van der Vegte
March 31, 2012
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United Russia has published the list of the next governor of the Moscow Region. There are three names on the list: Minster of Emergency Situations Sergey Shoigu, Deputy Governor of the Moscow Region Igor Parkhomenko and the mayor of the city of Reutov (Moscow Region), Aleksander Khodyrev. Shoigu seems to be the logical choice here but the choice for Shoigu is still quite a surprise, so in what context should we see his nomination and what problems is he facing?

“Let me be honest, in a country in which the Ministry of Emergency Situations is the most popular of all the government institutions, there is definitely something wrong” –Sergey Shoigu

Khimky, hooligans and new year

The Moscow Region has featured prominently in the news over the past years. Sadly, it has mostly been negative news. The best known scandal is the Khimky saga about the construction of a highway through the Khimky forest, which lead to the rise of a large protest group but also to the beating of journalist Michael Beketov and vandals attacking the municipal administration of the city of Khimky. To the Khimky scandal, we can add numerous other scandals including the illegal construction of cottages for the rich in Borodino (where Russia fought Napoleon in 1812), illegal casinos, the endless traffic congestions and the 2011 forest fires. All this took place under the watchful eye of Boris Gromov, who became the governor of the Moscow Region in 2000 and numerous of his Afghanistan comrades ( More on Gromov here ). Needless to say, the Kremlin has become increasingly weary of Gromov and rumors have been circulating for many years about his resignation. For example, during the winter of 2010, the electricity infrastructure collapsed as a consequence of a severe snowstorm. Vladimir Putin promised that by New Years Eve, everything would be repaired and working but after this failed, Putin publicly castigated Gromov and ordered him to celebrate New Year with a family in his own region, who still did not have electricity.

Exit Gromov, enter Shoigu?

On the 23rd of March, Gromov told the media that he sent a request to the supreme council of the United Russia (and president Medvedev) not to put him up for a fourth term as governor of the Moscow region. The first question is why Medvedev allowed Gromov to continue for so long because during his presidency, Medvedev replaced more governors than Putin ever did. As Forbes puts it: “Even for Russia, the corruption and the sheer number of economic issues is huge”. Maybe Gromov ensured a steady result for United Russia or, and that seems more plausible, the big influence of the All Russian Public Organization of Veterans, one of the biggest veteran organizations in Russia, protected Gromov. The most probable reason that he goes now is that the Kremlin is clearly afraid of the result of direct elections for governor in the Moscow Region (what would happen if, say, Evgenya Chirikova would decide to run?).

Boris Gromov will go, that much is sure. But is Shoigu such a good choice to replace him? Shoigu has been minister of Emergency Situations since 1994 and has thus served under three different presidents: Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev. He is also the most popular minister in the Russian government. That is not a surprise, judging by the sheer number of accidents in Russia (and the TV coverage). There are plenty of questions to be answered. The first question is why Medvedev and Putin decided to send their most popular minister to become governor of one of Russia’s regions? The answer to this is twofold. First of all, they are clearly hoping that the appointment of Shoigu will increase the popularity of United Russia and the authorities. But when he headed the regional list of United Russia in 2011 in Krasnoyarsk, United Russia still did miserably but that probably has to do with the fact that United Russia was and is so inpopular that even he could not turn the tide. Secondly, Shoigu is not a member of one of the Kremlin clans (liberals vs. conservatives) which means that he is acceptable to everybody as a compromise.

The big question is how Shoigu will deal with the structure created by Gromov in the Moscow Region. In essence, his job is to do the same as Sobyanin did in Moscow: firing Gromov people. He will have to, otherwise Gromov will stay the shadow governor of the region. Shoigu will have to deal with the likes of Vladimir Strel’chenko, the mayor of Khimky who allegedly ordered the beating of journalist Michael Beketov. Strel’chenko is another one of Gromov’s Afghanistan veterans, as are the other two candidates on United Russia’s list (Pargomenko and Khodyrev).

The question is: is Shoigu strong/powerful enough to throw the Afgantsy out? The next problem is how to manage relations with Moscow city. Igot Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technology, calls the Moscow Region “the hole in the donut” a region without its own economic center and identity which it can only get by cooperating with the city of Moscow intensively. Alternatively, Shoigu could learn from the example of the Leningrad region, where governor Valeriy Serduykov has managed to create a good business climate which has lead to a high amount of foreign investment. The Leningrad region has also managed to attract many western companies because it is cheaper in the region than in St. Petersburg city. The adventures of Ikea in the Moscow Region should serve as an example of how it should not be done. In this sense, Viktor Basargin would have been a better choice because as a minister of Regional Development he knows how Russia works on the regional level and he has some experience in economic matters whilst Shoigu lacks understanding of running a company efficiently, let alone a whole region. Shoigu will need to throw in all his energy and abilities to solve the problems of the Moscow Region, whether he will succeed is highly uncertain.

The same old faces?

From the very start, it seemed that the position of governor of the Moscow Region would be an ideal way to get rid of one of the unpopular ministers. For example, from a point of view of popularity, the Kremlin could have sent Igor Levitin, the minister of Transport, who has received a lot of criticism over transport safety in Russia. But still, the choice of Levitin or Shoigu matters little. It signals that the much-trumpeted personnel change in Russia seems somewhat limited to a rotation of the same people. For example, Igor Sechin leaves the government to either the presidential administration or to head some kind of other agency and the same has happened with Sobyanin (from the Whitehouse to Moscow City) and now with Shoigu. Nobody will know who will take place in the next Russian government (apart from Medvedev) and saying something about it prematurely is still speculation but we can see a certain pattern here.