It’s the summer of mayors in Russia. That’s right: mayors. Those unalluring, often block shaped, overwhelmingly male, cheap suited, bottom feeders in Putin’s power vertical. Their goings-on usually fly under the radar of Russia watchers, especially in the West. Journalists and pundits, myself included, tend to aim high when it comes to ‘figuring out’ Russia. Putin, his inner circle, oligarchs, and other power elites concentrated in Moscow—this is the real stuff of politics. Mayors and their local bailiwicks, well, just don’t figure into the equation.
Focusing too intently on the commanding heights, however, can easily lead to mistaking the grand oaks for the forest. A lot has been going on in Russia’s political hinterlands. The Kremlin and its Investigative Committee have been wielding mighty axes in the regions, felling mayors like trees as part of Putin’s anti-corruption campaign. There’s a house cleaning of city managers. Many of these criminal indictments of mayors are totally legitimate. Many are examples of selective justice: corrupt but also politically advantageous. Others might be fabricated. Mayors are easy targets. Corruption is rife in the regions. Often stuck between a rock and hard place mayors often turn to corruption simply to get things done. Unlike federal officials, mayors are subject to their constituencies, making local elections one of the few places where real politics matter in Russia, and thus the soft underbelly of Putin’s rule.