By Paul Goble
Caught between the demands of the Kremlin which decides whether they will be in office and the opposing views of their populations that could make their time there easy or difficult, Russia’s governors are simultaneously telling Moscow they support the pension plan but asking it to exempt their own populations people from its provisions.
Novaya gazeta commentator Tatyana Vasilchuk says that “the regions formally support the pension reform” as they really have no other choice in Russia today “but they are demanding exemptions for their residents,” exemptions that would gut the proposed law but calm some who are protesting the legislation (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/07/16/77178-odobrenie-stroptivyh).
The Kremlin has been keeping careful track of support by regional officials and especially governors and legislatures. Two-thirds have declared that they support the proposed boost in the retirement age, a figure that is not surprising and even not that impressive given that United Russia controls these positions and legislatures.
But much more interesting, Vasilchuk says, is that even those who have declared their support of the measure have caveated it with requests for exemptions for this or that group of the population, often of people who form a key element of the electorate and many of whom are completely opposed to the Kremlin measure.
“For example,” she continues, “the deputies of Chukotka supported the regime, but asked that there be an exception for all Northern peoples who should be allowed to retire at the current ages rather than the new ones.” The same thing happened in the Nenets AO and in Primorsky Kray.
In the last, the legislators asked that Moscow take into consideration the specifics of their region; and as regional specialist Natalya Zubarevich observes, they did not do so in “Aesopian language” but made the argument directly – we’ve been supporting what you want; you mustn’t undermine us with by raising the pension age.
Moscow political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov calls this behavior by the regions “a forced improvisation.” The regional politicians can’t afford to offend Moscow or their own populations; and so they are trying to find a middle way, declaring support over all but gutting the meaning of those declarations by demanding exceptions.
How long they can maintain this balance is uncertain, he and the Petersburg Politics Foundation say. On the one hand, Moscow is certain to come down hard on those who oppose it; but on the other, regional elites who don’t show they are listening to the population are going to face even more massive protests in the future.
One indication of the dilemma of such political figures is that Moscow appears to be allowing those who face the voters in September to avoid having to make a public declaration in support of the pension law, an indication that the Kremlin itself recognizes just how explosive this measure is in Russia today.
If the protests peter out, the regional officials will almost certainly fall in line with what Moscow wants; but if the protests become larger, it is entirely possible that the political figures in the region will decide that their best course is to side with the population and oppose increasing the pension age.
The decision of regional politicians to take a middle course – and the Novaya gazeta journalist lists numerous examples across the country – suggest that they want to be able to jump in either direction depending on developments. That in itself is a new kind of regional politics in Russia, one not seen at least so dramatically ever before.