According to Stratfor's Third-Quarter Forecast, the Kremlin will continue to crack down on the protest movements that have grown throughout the year and on social and economic dissent more broadly to keep its grip on power. In Stratfor's Annual Forecast, we predicted heightened tension between the Kremlin and regional leaders, forcing the Kremlin to try to further centralize control. The president's most recent purge of regional governors who have been refusing to follow his government's directives is part of those efforts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is purging more regions of their governors. The Kremlin dismissed Samara Gov. Nikolai Merkushkin on Sept. 25 and Nizhny Novgorod Gov. Valery Shantsev on Sept. 26. On Sept. 27, Krasnoyarsk Gov. Viktor Tolokonsky and Dagestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov both resigned. The Russian media had been ripe with rumors over the weekend of a coming purge. One source told Kommersant that the president was considering firing the heads of Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Murmansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Nenets Autonomous District, Krasnoyarsk, Altai, and several republics in the Northern Caucasus, including Dagestan. Vedomosti added Primorsky to the list. Putin's press secretary declined to comment on the rumors.
The Kremlin has been increasingly concerned about the loyalty of regional leaders to the government's message and directives. A handful of the 17 governorships that were up for grabs on Sept. 10 regional elections were slated to go to various opposition group candidates. The Kremlin was able to massage those results, but several opposition candidates still won seats in municipal legislatures — a worrying sign for the government in Moscow.
But even many of the current regional leaders have bucked Kremlin orders, particularly because financial constraints are building in their local budgets. On Sept. 22, Putin ordered a crackdown on the regions' debt, proposing a program to restructure budget loans that would launch in January 2018. After all, in more than 50 regions, debt exceeds half of revenues, and eight regions have possibly defaulted on their debt already. Some governors have also used revenues set aside to pay next year’s federal taxes just to keep their regions afloat. The Kremlin demands those tax payments to supplement the federal budget, much to the regions' detriment. (It's a tense balance the Kremlin has struggled to maintain for decades.) And so, it seems Shantsev and Tolokonsky were resisting Kremlin orders to reel in their regions' debts and to hand over vast sums to the federal government, leading to their dismissals.
Regional leaders have been more outspoken against Kremlin narratives as well, including the need for continued heavy taxes and the need to stifle opposition groups and their right to protest. Many, such as Novosibirsk and Murmansk, have permitted protests this year, defying Kremlin orders to quash them. Merkushkin and Abdulatipov have also been fairly vocal about the burdens in their regions and, rather than bending to pressure from the Kremlin, have chosen to bend to pressure from the people and protest movements.
For now, the Kremlin is cracking down only on the most unruly regional leaders. Many of those regions are on the brink of financial disaster. The opposition has made political gains in others. And all of this comes before decisive elections set for 2018 choose not only the next president, but also the leaders of some regions.