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Restart Transbaikalian reality

The end of the material "Trans-Baikal Territory: Frustration and Hope"

Restart Transbaikalian reality

Rostislav Turovsky

Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor of HSE, Scientific Editor East Russia

To a large extent, the development of the region depends, of course, on the infrastructure. An important perspective will be created by the modernization of BAM, but this is significant only for the northern margin of Transbaikalia. Meanwhile, the Transbaikal Railway based in Chita, which is one of the leading taxpayers and employers in the region, is demonstrating good momentum, which is largely ensured by the transportation of coal. So, last year, ZabZhD increased loading by 7,4% - to 16,4 million tons, of which 9,9 million tons was coal. Freight traffic increased by 4,2% - to 277,4 billion ton-km tariff. As mentioned above, new mining projects inevitably mean creating the necessary energy infrastructure. In this regard, a large project could be the construction of the fourth unit of the Kharanorskaya TPP (which is part of Inter RAO), which is precisely designed to meet the growing demand for electricity in the region. The process of modernization of Russian TPPs launched now by the federal government is very important for the facilities of the local generating company TGK-14 (it also works in Buryatia), which are heavily worn out. It is expected that this could result in a change of ownership of TGK-14, control over which actually belongs to the structures of Russian Railways, which is the only such situation in Russia. It is also worth remembering that it is precisely Chita-based Zabzd and TGK-14 that have strong political positions in the region and are represented in the power elites. But with the recent change of power in the region, TGK-14’s political positions became less stable.

Thus, it is not necessary to invent any special advertising to make sure that there are prospects in the Trans-Baikal Territory, which many other regions might envy. Another thing is that these perspectives now require painstaking work with the federal government and interested FIGs in order to attract investment and get down to real work. In essence, this is exactly the task that becomes one of the main ones for the new regional leader, Alexander Osipov. Recall that after the resignation of Ravil Geniatulin, who was in power 17 for years, using considerable authority, but still allowing stagnation in the region, an attempt was made in the Trans-Baikal Territory to appoint a Varyag represented by Konstantin Ilkovsky, but it was unsuccessful. Having generated a lot of hopes and expectations, the governor did not justify the trust of citizens and was dismissed. However, the return to power of local elites in the face of Natalia Zhdanova did not solve the problem. Now the change of power in Transbaikalia looks much more fundamental, being associated with the need to bring the region out of the administrative impasse and the zone of social depression.

The arrival of Alexander Osipov to the region was already marked by the change of a significant part of the former ruling team. In the new regional government there appear people connected, like Alexander Osipov, with the Ministry of Eastern and Eastern Development and Business Russia, who have experience in other regions of Siberia and the Far East (Primorsky Krai, Irkutsk Region). This process is logical, since the new team is required to have well-built relations with the center and business, experience in the field of investment policy. Local elites may, of course, express dissatisfaction with the weakening of their positions and look for convenient political footholds like the legislative assembly and United Russia structures, but they are not able to offer an alternative agenda for the development of the region. The rotation of the elite is also due to its corruption, given that corruption scandals were associated with officials who worked under both Konstantin Ilkovsky and Natalia Zhdanova. The arrests of ministers are, alas, a frequent case in Transbaikalia. Therefore, the important political task of Alexander Osipov seems to be the energetic formation of a new regional agenda, attractive primarily to society and to investors.

One of the urgent tasks directly in the region is the reorganization of power in the regional capital. The departure of Anatoly Mikhalev, the mayor of Chita, who ruled the city in one way or another from 2000 and already caused great dissatisfaction among citizens, also fit into the renewal policy. But in this case, given the importance of the city and the presence of considerable protest potential in it, there is also the task of renewing the city government as a whole, not excluding the reform of local government and the return of direct elections of the mayor (although this option may turn into political destabilization, and therefore requires careful relations). The upcoming city council elections in September are of no less significance from this point of view than the election of the governor.

A special task for the new regional government inevitably becomes building a relationship with the Buryat elites. It is no secret that dissatisfaction with the association with the Chita Region, which did not lead to an improvement in the economic situation of the Buryats, is widespread on the territory of the Agin-Buryat Okrug. The enlargement of the regions, accompanied by the liquidation of the Buryat autonomies, led in its time to the growth of Buryat nationalism. But there are influential elites with whom the authorities in Chita have always been considered, and who are able to influence the political behavior of the Buryats. These elites are represented by the head of the district, who has the status of deputy prime minister of the regional government, and occupy strong positions in the leadership of the legislative assembly. It will be important for Alexander Osipov to maintain the status quo in this direction, especially given the prospect of gubernatorial elections, where the usually loyal voting of the Buryats can play a big role. In particular, the most influential figure among the Buryats - the former governor of Aginsky Buryat Autonomous Okrug, Bair Zhamsuev, is the senator from the regional executive power, and Alexander Osipov will soon have to make a decision about this post.

Finally, the relations of the new ruling team with the party opposition, which enjoys considerable popularity, will greatly influence the development of the political process in the region. Legislative elections in September last year clearly demonstrated that Transbaikalia is one of the most protest regions of the country. Recall that then the result of "United Russia" fell sharply (from 43,1% to 28,3%), while the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party received 24,6% of votes (another 9% was won by the Social Revolutionaries and 6% - the Party of Pensioners). In fact, the electorate is divided into three approximately equal parts, which, of course, is an alarming signal for the authorities, and it turned out as a result of the resignation of Governor Natalia Zhdanova. The extremely low voter turnout in the region testified to depressive moods in the region - only 22% (in previous similar elections - at least 33,2%). By the way, the turnout in the presidential elections also declined last year, but still Vladimir Putin’s support was at a fairly high level (72% at the turnout of 58%) and increased in comparison with the 2012 campaign. Therefore, the need for strong figures capable of consolidating society , it remains in the region, but no one among the local politicians can claim this role. So far, society’s hopes can be linked to Alexander Osipov, and his likely participation in elections as an independent candidate, rather than a candidate for United Russia, seems quite logical.

At the same time, there is potential for building constructive relations with opposition parties in the region. In particular, this shows the behavior of the Liberal Democratic Party, which entered into a coalition with United Russia, which made it possible to preserve the dominance of the “party of power” in the legislative assembly, although at the expense of a number of personnel concessions to the “Zhirinovtsy”. In essence, the practice of agreements with the Liberal Democratic Party, for which Transbaikalia is one of the most electorally favorable regions of the country, was used earlier when, for example, in the Duma 2016 elections, the party represented by its candidate V. Kuliyeva was ceded to one of two single-member constituencies. However, one cannot ignore the big ambitions of the Liberal Democratic Party in Transbaikalia, which can turn around with all the new requirements, including regarding the city elections in chita

On the contrary, relations with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation promise to be more complex, since the party is at times prone to very harsh criticism of the regional authorities, as was the case with Konstantin Ilkovsky and Natalia Zhdanova. The party has very experienced leaders, be it the active first secretary, Yuri Gaiduk, or the former party leader of the Chita region during the CPSU days, Nikolai Merzlikin, who has experience of participation in gubernatorial elections. These two leaders constantly declare themselves, well knowing the region and its specifics, and can be difficult opponents for any regional government. The practice of mutual concessions in relations between the authorities and the communists has not yet been worked out, as in the case of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Thus, the Trans-Baikal Territory is indeed on the threshold of political changes and on the way to the implementation of very solid plans for economic development. And this is not a quote from promotional material, but an emerging reality. It is safe to say that the economic performance of the region will grow. Transbaikalia has the opportunity, finally, to take advantage of two of its strategic advantages - large mineral deposits and the border position with China. However, the development of the region can be fraught with serious problems.

First, the Trans-Baikal economic history is such that everything is done here for a very long time, given the high costs. Therefore, the implementation of large projects may be delayed, and the current dates will be very conditional. Meanwhile, the accumulation of protest potential may continue, as people quickly get tired of the promises and expectations of the “golden rain”. Sakhalin with its offshore oil and gas projects has already passed this time. Even now, in the Far Eastern Federal District, the implementation of projects within the framework of the TOR and the Free Port of Vladivostok has not yet had significant social results and does not lead to a decrease in the level of protest sentiment.

Secondly, the implementation of large but isolated projects, moreover, in remote areas may not have a significant impact on the regional budget and on the welfare of citizens. It is far from a fact that billions of rubles of tax revenues will flow into the regional budget from these projects, taking into account the fact that FIGs are bargaining for the most favorable conditions for themselves, including the TOP mode. It may easily be the case that for the population of Chita and most of the districts of the Trans-Baikal Territory this process will at best not affect their lives, and at worst it will become another irritating factor. In other words, the implementation of individual large projects and the development of the region are not the same thing, and for the development of the region, a carefully verified expenditure policy of the regional authorities, actions to reanimate small and medium businesses, search for local growth points in districts and cities will be required.

Third, the growing orientation of the Trans-Baikal economy towards China may be a boon, but it will also fuel nationalist sentiments, whose potential in the region is very great. It is already noticeable that almost all new projects are either controlled by China, or are focused on exports to China. Perhaps, in Transbaikalia this is more pronounced now than in other regions of the FEFD. And no one except the regional authorities will be concerned about the task of organizing "positive" cross-border cooperation - tourism and trade, which would reduce tensions over the "Chinese threat"

Fourthly, Alexander Osipov faces a new task for him, as a manager, to gain strong leadership positions in an unfavorable political environment, where he will have to face the discontent of local elites, whose interests can be easily hurt, by the activity of opposition parties and protest groups. The tasks of neutralizing the intra-elite opposition, building relationships with parties and direct communication with society have no less importance for the acting governor than agreements on the implementation of promising investment projects and the allocation of federal transfers, which so far are not so difficult to achieve.
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