Nikolai Petrov’s weekly bulletin
February 6-10, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
A short summary of the most important political developments by Nikolai Petrov.
Fast and even faster

The first full week of February proved quite eventful. Putin held a number of meetings: with Russian Railways head Oleg Belozerov on February 6; with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin on February 7; with the permanent members of Russia’s Security Council to discuss infrastructure on February 8; with the Presidential Council for Science and Education on February 8; and with the supervisory board of the Agency of Strategic Initiatives on February 9. Meanwhile, the government – following a series of trips by deputy prime ministers to the regions – held its own meeting on February 9, while the Government Coordination Council on the Needs of the Armed Forces, Other Troops, Military Formations and Bodies convened the day before.

On February 8, the working group on the special military operation created in December and headed by Federation Council First Deputy Speaker Andrei Turchak met near the frontline, in Kursk Region. It includes members of both the Duma and Federation Council, together with representatives of veterans and public organizations, and journalists and military correspondents. It is preparing a “heat map” of issues that will be put on the president’s desk next week, along with its first report.

The Duma adopted a plan to implement the president’s instructions given at the December 15 meeting of the Presidential Council for Strategic Development and National Projects this year, while Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin designated the ministries and departments responsible for implementation, with monthly progress reports due starting from mid-February. Thus, Putin’s speech to the Council on December 15 was in fact given the status of a presidential address. Meanwhile, the annual presidential address is expected to take place on February 20-22, ahead of the one-year mark for the war in Ukraine.

In repression news, former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal, whose arrest back in 2020 provoked long-lasting mass protests among his loyal supporters, was sentenced to 22 years behind bars. Unexpectedly, Furgal’s supporters protested against the ruling, despite the government’s tough policy toward any street activism. The number of people who defied the risk of persecution was fairly small, though, with only about 70 protesting.

Another target of government repression was the blogger Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who was sentenced in absentia to nine years in prison for spreading “fakes” about the Russian army.

Several intra-elite conflicts spilled over into the public sphere. For example, there is the one between the government and business, represented by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, over a planned one-off, voluntary budget contribution of RUB 200-250 billion from businesses. To cover the budget deficit that emerged in late 2022-early 2023, the government has stepped pressure on business, seeking to extract additional funds without officially raising taxes.

In addition, the government was reportedly pressuring the Central Bank to lower interest rates to boost investment activity and growth in the economy. However, on February 10 the bank decided to keep rates unchanged.

A noteworthy event last week was the appointment of Elena Pronicheva as the general director of the State Tretyakov Gallery, in place of Zelfira Tregulova. Tregulova was praised as a first-rate professional by art critics here and here, one of whom described the replacement as “inglorious.” Pronicheva had headed other museums, though, as critics argue, no less important for her new appointment was the fact that she is the daughter of former FSB First Deputy Director Vladimir Pronichev.

The emperor’s new clothes

The meeting of the Council for Science and Education, which took place on the Day of Russian Science on February 8, is an interesting window into the current state of the system through the example of one of its small fragments. The annual ceremonial meeting, however, turned out very lively and interesting. Speakers included portfolio Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Chernyshenko, the new Russian Academy of Sciences President Gennady Krasnikov and Mikhail Kovalchuk – the brother of Putin ally Yuri Kovalchuk.

On the one hand, the fact that the outlook for the development of science, along with Putin’s statement about the importance of basic research, was discussed looks like an attempt to demonstrate strategic thinking and planning. On the other hand, the speech of Kovalchuk, whose pseudoscientific theories Putin likes to reference, reads like a prequel to Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. He talked about the biosecurity of Russia and creating national centers for genetic resources on the basis, naturally, of the Kurchatov Institute (headed by Kovalchuk); about restoring the unity of the country’s research sphere; about the project to create a national center for modeling biological systems; about the need to “eliminate internal competition at the current stage” and, to this end, to restore the institution of “chief scientific officer,” to be appointed by direct government decree, as it was in the Soviet Union. Putin sometimes asked a question, but mostly nodded approvingly.

Some participants of the discussion like Deputy Prime Minister for Social Policy Tatyana Golikova and General Director of the Russian Science Foundation Alexander Khlunov took the liberty of gently objecting to Kovalchuk. Meanwhile, the others talked about their own things: Rosatom head Alexei Likhachev pointed out that funding for projects like the national Program for the Development of Equipment, Technologies and Research in the Field of Atomic Energy and the planning for a conference on quantum technologies (for some reason, together with Russian Railways) comes from Rosatom, and added that it would be nice to chip in some budget funds; Finance Minister Anton Siluanov fought back, saying that the 70 subprograms in the state program for scientific and technological development is already too many.

Everything that is related to the war is subject to a new, wartime discipline by the Russian elites, with public statements having to be in line as well. However, when it comes to things that are not directly related to the war, the inner tensions, intrigues and unfolding conflicts come to the surface.

Putin and incumbent governors

Putin’s working meeting with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, whose term expires in September, was a nod to the approaching election season. The first such meeting in which Putin gave his blessing to an incumbent took place on January 16 with Andrei Travnikov, head of Novosibirsk Region. Interestingly, Sobyanin did not mention the special military operation, though he did compare Moscow – whose accomplishments supposedly include breaking into the top three of global cities by GDP – with London and other major global cities.

Recall that two dozen Russian regions will elect their leaders in September: the regions of Khakassia, Yakutia, Altai, Krasnoyarsk, Primorsky, Amur, Voronezh, Ivanovo, Magadan, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Oryol, Pskov, Samara, Tyumen, Chukotka and Yamalo-Nenets; the city of Moscow; and the four annexed regions of Ukraine. Unlike the 2022 elections, many of these regions are “electorally challenging” for the Kremlin, since they have a long history of protest vote; elections in these regions cannot be fully controlled “from above”.

According to Minchenko Consulting’s Governor Political Survival Ranking published last week, only a few of the governors, including Sobyanin, can feel themselves secure. Others who should not worry include Andrei Vorobyov (Moscow Region), Dmitri Azarov (Samara Region), Gleb Nikitin (Nizhny Novgorod Region) and Mikhail Vedernikov (Pskov Region). Meanwhile, three – Roman Kopin (Chukotka), Alexander Uss (Krasnoyarsk) and Valentin Konovalov (Khakassia) – are said to be in the “risk zone,” which means a high probability of resignation or defeat. Chukotka’s Kopin has long wanted to resign; Konovalov is the only governor among the three who has remained in place since the series of protest votes in 2018; and Uss, who generally suits the Kremlin, does not enjoy the support of local elites, meaning it might cost the Kremlin too much effort to have him reelected. (The Presidential Administration, however, may well replace them before the election).

Note that the experts involved in compiling the ranking rely on Kremlin inside information and several other signals, which together usually help them to predict the prospects for governors with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

Most of the governors whose term ends in September were picked by the office of Sergei Kiriyenko, who has undertaken to replace many regional elites with so-called “technocrats,” most of them being government officials from Moscow. Last year, the replacements were only a few, and the Kremlin maintained the status quo by replacing federal officials with other federal figures and regional officials with other ones. It will be interesting to see how this will look this year against the backdrop of the ongoing war.
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