16 Aug 2010
Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos is out. This morning, United Russia unveiled its shortlist for governor candidates (from which Medvedev will select the oblast’s next leader), and Mr. Boos’ name was not on it.
Until just last week, most observers (including people who hated Boos) were confident that the governor would receive another term, despite mass protests earlier this year that were hugely embarrassing for the Kremlin and Russia’s most powerful political party. The likely media reaction to Boos’ ousting now will be to credit the opposition with having pressured a compromise from the president, whose office appointed Boos five years ago. Indeed, Vladimir Milov and Boris Nemtsov rushed to their LiveJournal blogs with updates. Nemtsov proclaimed it “a serious victory for the opposition,” whereas Milov qualified his celebration somewhat, saying “this is a big victory for the Kaliningrad opposition” (my emphasis).
So why did Boos lose his job?
Unpopularity. Undeniably, one of the reasons Boos fell out of favor with the Kremlin was his extraordinary unpopularity with his electorate. In a June 2010 poll, 57% of the local population supported his resignation (though only 8% expected it). Despite summer successes preventing mass rallies, initial failures at the beginning of the year made Boos a liability and a symbol of the shortcomings and unaccountability of the unelected governor appointment system. As a simple matter of political theater, the Kremlin made the smart, albeit painful, decision to jettison the Kaliningrad dead weight. Now the party can claim that it responds to the will of the people (while it quietly appoints another apparatchik).
Powerful enemies. But even the shame of last winter’s demonstrations was not enough by itself to get Boos kicked out of office. To explain that, we need to consider more recent events. Over the past few weeks, two independent scandals involving the governor have surfaced — and they both suggest that Boos made enemies of political actors with far greater power than anyone like Boris Nemtsov or Vladimir Milov.
The first incident involved Boos’ military epaulets. In December 2007, the Ministry of Defense awarded him the rank of ‘Colonel.’ Then, last year, Boos attended a May 9th Victory Day celebration in military uniform wearing his ‘colonel’ shoulder ornaments. As a result, someone initiated an official investigation into Boos’ military record. This process lasted an entire year. More than two months ago, the case was concluded, with the Defense Ministry determining that Boos had been illegally promoted from ‘captain’ to ‘lieutenant colonel’ in 2000 (when he was serving in the Duma). That promotion and his later bump to ‘colonel’ were invalidated and “the appropriate measures” were taken against those responsible for the whole thing.
Then just a few days ago — a week before the Kremlin needed to decide whether or not to reappoint Kaliningrad’s governor — the media suddenly caught wind of this story, and Boos’ name was dragged back into the mud a calm summer had seemed to shake off.
Also last week, the press learned that local Interior Ministry police have opened a criminal investigation into possible embezzlement and theft in Mr. Boos’ government. Raiding the offices of the ‘Fund for Housing and Social Construction,’ officers seized documents that allegedly prove the theft of 89 million rubles (2.9 million USD) from the state budget.
In the words of ‘Petersburg Fund’ president Mikhail Vinograd, “Mr. Boos’ competitor has a very strong lobby. The battle between them will go until the last man standing.” Boos appears to have lost that battle, but it was against forces with extensive political connections. It was this “competition” (not the liberal opposition) that seems to have played the biggest role in unseating Kaliningrad’s governor.
United Russia on the Defensive. Just a few days ago, one could find people like Kaliningrad oppositionist Solomon Ginzburg, who told Gazeta.ru that the military rank scandal could never cost Boos his job. “This ‘joker’ was thrown in to complicate the process of his reappointment,” he said, “and it’s no coincidence that it was kept hidden until the last minute. It’s clear that Boos didn’t assign himself the promotion — this is done by the Ministry of Defense, who’s now caught its mistake.”
But now that United Russia has indeed decided against nominating Boos for a second term, the opposition is eager to claim credit for having forced a reckoning in the halls of power.
Not one to be caught off guard again by anti-vlast’ sentiment from Kaliningrad, United Russia delivered its announcement about Boos’ ouster alongside a media blitz of explanations about why it booted Boos and denials that it did so to please the opposition. In an amusing triumph of tongue-in-cheek, Pavel Salin compared liberals like Nemtsov and Milov to Georgy Boos himself, saying that they were “trying to wear someone else’s epaulets.” Aleksei Chadaev went one step further and compared Nemtsov to Doku Umarov, the infamous terrorist who has been criticized for claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks in which he likely had very little involvement.
United Russia has also taken upon itself the difficult task of explaining this move as a reflection of the party’s commitment to democracy. Viacheslav Volodin, Secretary of the Presidium of the party’s General Council, declared in fine Orwellian speak, “for us, the opinion of the voters is law.” While this principle has apparently not motivated the EdRosy to push for the return of direct elections for governors, Volodin does insist that “President Medvedev has repeatedly stated that the level of popular support is one of the main criteria for evaluating the work of governors.” Dmitri Orlov told reporters that Boos lost the support of the citizenry, but highlighted that such things happen “even in perfectly benign conditions,” again seeming to play up the normality of United Russia’s split with Boos.
Perhaps in order to save face (or maybe because he still has a few well-placed friends left), the party leadership promised Boos another job soon. “We’re sure that his experience and knowledge will be in demand in a senior position at the federal level,” Head of the Central Executive Committee, Andrei Vorob’ev, told the media.
As for the four candidates who did make the list of possible Kaliningrad governors: one is a former mayor of Kaliningrad and another is the current mayor of Kaliningrad. Clearly, the opposition has delivered a “revolution” in the most literal sense of the word.