- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Russia’s Kremlin-appointed regional governors have enjoyed more freedom since President Dmitry Medvedev took office in 2008, though they could flex even more muscle if they were better organized, one of the governors said last week.

Valery Shantsev, who has led the Nizhny Novgorod region for four years, called during a visit to Washington for the formation of an organization similar to the U.S. National Governors Association.

“No one has proposed it yet, but it would be very useful,” he said in an interview. “An association would serve many purposes. For example, newly elected governors could be trained to make sure they understand their responsibilities.”

All governors are members of Russia’s State Council, an advisory body to the president. However, an association would enable them to cooperate and solve mutual problems without having to go through Moscow, as well as to defend their interests, Mr. Shantsev said.

He said he has felt no significant political pressure from the Kremlin under Mr. Medvedev, who does not try to dictate to governors how to do their job.

“Every one of us is a free agent. No one coordinates or supervises us,” Mr. Shantsev said.

The ruling style of Mr. Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin, was widely criticized in the West as authoritarian, and the George W. Bush administration repeatedly accused him of “backsliding” on democracy. One of the administration’s complaints was that he did not give governors enough autonomy.

Mr. Putin is still in the Kremlin as prime minister, and many diplomats and observers say his influence is as strong as it was when he held the presidency. So he could interfere if he wanted to, but there are outside factors that would make that difficult, analysts said.

“Russia’s dramatic economic decline in the wake of the global financial crisis places more constraints on Moscow’s capacity to buy off political and economic influence in Russia’s regions,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Nizhny Novgorod is one of 83 regions and other areas known as federal subjects of Russia. With its 3.5 million people and about 158 square miles, it is by no means among the largest. However, it is politically important because of its proximity to Moscow.

In the early 1990s, the governorship of Nizhny Novgorod launched the national career of one of Russia’s youngest and most famous politicians, Boris Nemtsov, who later became deputy prime minister in Moscow under former President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Nemtsov was just 32 when he became governor and won praise from former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Shantsev said that even though he has good relations with the Kremlin, his administration is not afraid to take on federal authorities if it disagrees with their actions in the region.

“Our [regional] laws have the same status as federal laws, and [officials in Moscow] are subject to our laws just like anybody else. Such issues come up often, and we sue them, and we win in court,” he said.

“For example, at one point, we worked on a project to provide free distribution of medicines, and a certain company won the tender,” he said, though he declined to name the Russian company. “At that point, the federal anti-monopoly agency stepped in, banned them from working and announced the tender was illegal. We sued, went all the way up to the highest court of appeals and won the case.”

Direct elections for regional parliaments in Russia are held every five years. The majority-winning party proposes three candidates for governor to the president, and he makes his choice, which then has to be approved formally by the legislature, Mr. Shantsev said.

The main purpose of his trip to the United States was to promote investment in his region and learn from the economic and business experience of U.S. states. He visited Annapolis last week and agreed to cooperate with Maryland in the future.

He said one of the main hurdles to attracting foreign investors to Nizhny Novgorod is the very poor condition of the only international airport in the region — in the city with the same name. Germany’s Lufthansa is the only Western airline currently operating flights there.

Mr. Shantsev said he plans to put a significant effort into modernizing the airport and predicted seven times more passengers in 2014 compared to last year’s 300,000.

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