Vladimir Putin made his first campaign trip this year. He visited Chukotka, Russia’s easternmost region. The visit’ organisers from the Kremlin’s political and information bloc clearly meant to show Russians and the whole world that the 71-year-old president is in good physical shape and can venture to the far corners of the country. The media were given footage of Putin getting into an impressive off-road vehicle while talking about his workouts and love of sports at a meeting with the region’s residents. The presidential administration tried to revive the earlier uber-masculine image of Putin as a macho and to remind the public about it, but their attempts have failed. Even in publications and Telegram channels loyal to the authorities, it was not the president’s successes that came to the fore, but his arrival at the greenhouse farm and his talk about life during an exchange with the local residents. The farm manager told Putin about different varieties of cucumbers, tomatoes and basil, and these videos went viral due to the combination of Putin’s name and these different types of vegetables in the headings. Even the Kremlin pool’s Telegram channel, RIA Novosti, and the Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel got in on the act. Putin’s musings that Soviet cartoons were better than the Western ones, which, as the president said, «make your head fall off», also went viral. Instead of a macho man, the audience saw an elderly man being entertained by his subordinates while he, at the end of the world, indulges in memories of watching cartoons.
The president’s behaviour was all the more strange given that Putin did not visit the cities of the Moscow region, where there is no heating due to severe frost and power cuts. Residents of this region recorded video messages addressed to the head of state, but he chose not to meet with them, although it would not have been all that difficult to travel to the Moscow region and «perform a miracle» of solving people’s acute problems in one particular locale. Yet he did find both time and energy for a long flight to Chukotka, where cucumbers and tomatoes became the focus of the visit. For the local residents and other Russians who follow the situation in the region, Putin’s trip to the Far East at a time of heating outages close to home will predictably be perceived as a presidential whim and a desire to avoid problems. This is the outcome of what we have already described: the primary focus of Putin’s entourage during his trips is to first and foremost entertain the president himself. The perception of the potential voters, which in normal circumstances should be the target of Putin’s actions, becomes secondary. The vulnerability of this approach is particularly evident in crisis situations. Instead of working for the electorate, the president puzzles the public with his bizzare actions. He does not do what the situation demands of him, but sinks deeper and deeper into the reality that his subordinates conjure up for him. As a result, instead of admiring the superhero-macho, the voters offer the president to touch not the Chukchi cucumbers, but local eggs and heating radiators.
Heating collapse in the Moscow region
The heating failures in the Moscow suburbs have not only dealt a blow to Putin’s reputation since he decided not to interrupt his schedule and not to deal with the consequences of the disaster. The crisis has exposed the contradictions and conflicts within Russia’s system of power. Since 2013, the Moscow region has been headed by Andrei Vorobyev, the son of Senator Yuri Vorobyev, a close associate of Sergei Shoigu. Vorobyev is considered to be one of the most prominent representatives of the Defence Minister’s clan, its likely candidate for the position of prime minister and even Putin’s potential successor. The Moscow region appears quite rich and prosperous compared to other regions, and Vorobyev is always quick to point this out. But the past week has shown that the state of municipal infrastructure in this rich and prosperous region is poor, local authorities have little control over their contractors, and residents cannot get through to them when they need it the most. Andrei Vorobyev is, of course, one of the main culprits of this situation. From the moment he took office, he sought to destroy and subjugate local government in the Moscow region. Only a few years ago, cities, districts, towns and villages in the region had their own heads and deputies, and elections were often won not by the candidates hand picked by the authorities. Vorobyev and his team have abolished most of the municipalities, reducing them to ‘city districts’ based on wards, with a single appointed head and a single council of deputies. Klimovsk, for instance, which made the headlines after a heating main in its plant burst, was not a ‘micro-district of Podolsk’ but a fully independent town with 60,000 residents.
Naturally, the authorities, so far removed from the people and their needs, went into the «too many demands to handle, just leave me alone» mode. Vorobiev appointed imported officials with no connection to the region to run the city, who cared little about the situation in the territory entrusted to them. Moreover, these imported officials were often reshuffled and replaced. At the same time, the city’s outdated infrastructure was being overrun with new apartment blocks and was coming under increasing strain.
It seems that Vorobyov played by the general rules of the power vertical: he simplified the administrative system, abolished local elections and appointed imported officials who had no personal connections to the region they were brought in to manage. His main patron, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, is now held in high esteem by the country’s top brass. Vorobyev should have been able to get away with the heating failures, even though the situation was on the brink of disaster. However, the influential players within the hierarchy sensed the weakness of a member of a rival group and began to attack him. Telegram channels loyal to the government and controlled by people in the president’s inner circle, whether members of the presidential administration, or the Rostec team led by Sergey Chemezov, launched attacks against Vorobyov. They accuse Vorobyov and his team of mismanagement, spread dirt, rightly point to frantic construction activities overrunning the entire region with no respect to regulations (Vorobyov’s brother has a construction company «Airplane» that has launched vigorous business activity throughout the Moscow region). These channels also report that there are no budget problems in this region.
Shoigu’s rivals and other players interested in controlling the Moscow region have realised that they can beat Vorobyov in the media and have launched a media campaign against him.
They are not worried that their efforts are damaging Putin’s campaign: after all, the president has always supported and praised Vorobyev, which means that he is also responsible for the situation. The vociferous discussion of the problems of the Moscow region in newsletters read by politically active citizens draws attention to Putin’s inaction and his avoidance of travelling to the crisis-hit region. We have already discussed the fact that the security services, the so-called siloviki, are not giving up their attacks on officials who are supposed to ensure Putin’s election results, even though previously they used to curb their enthusiasm during the election campaign. It turns out that the election truce is no longer in force among the civilian elites.