From petition to resignation of Astrakhan Governor Zhilkin 

From petition to resignation of Astrakhan Governor Zhilkin
The Astrakhan Governor Aleksander Zhilkin is one of the weakest regional leaders in Russia

The Astrakhan region can not boast of considerable economic growth or high living standards for ordinary people. Corruption scandals shake the regional authorities on a regular basis. A petition for resignation of Aleksander Zhilkin has appeared on change.org web site. How realistic is this possibility, taking that well-informed members of the regional elite speak of it more and more persistently?

What do the people think?

Evgeny Mironov, author of the petition, sets forth his position pretty emotionally. He is concerned of orphaned kids and multiple-children families abandoned by the authorities.

“We all watch the news with Zhilkin reporting that everything is fine, that the region is flourishing and growing rich – but in fact, everything is just opposite. Nothing changed in the Astrakhan region in 11 years. How long this could be tolerated? Why do we need such a governor who has pushed the region over the edge? We all live in the Astrakhan region; what future do we anticipate for our children?” – Evgeny Mironov wrote in his petition.

The author hopes that the federal center would follow the voice of the people.

The core of complaints asserted against Aleksander Zhilkin by the Astrakhan region residents is that he speaks nicely and makes ambitious plans about future prosperity of the region – but in fact, does nothing. Resettlement of people from dilapidated and unsafe housing, construction of roads and bridges, industrial and social development, and many other issues are not being resolved for many years – while funds allocated by the federal budget for these purposes disappear without a trace.

Жилкин

Aleksander Zhilkin, the Governor of the Astrakhan Region

It is necessary to note that main employers in the Astrakhan region are subsidiary structures of Gazprom and Lukoil.

Therefore, there is an opinion that, instead of Zhilkin, the large businesses would like to appoint to this post somebody who would lobby interests of the oil and gas sector.

How strong are positions of Zhilkin?

Based on the official biography of the Governor, Aleksander Zhilkin is one of those Komsomol leaders who have come to power on the wave of Perestroika reforms. In August 1991, he participated in the defense of the White House and was awarded a medal Defendant of the Free Russia. Being the First Deputy Head of the Astrakhan Regional Administration, Zhilkin was positioning himself as a democratically-inclined professional manager – thus, distancing from the Communist nomenclature of the past.

Aleksander Zhilkin has become the Head of the region due to an unexpected death of his boss – Anatoly Guzhvin – who was the first Governor of the Astrakhan Region in the contemporary history. In the end of 2004, the regional elite did not want any changes – and Zhilkin has promises that “everything will be like it was under Guzhvin”. Residents of the Astrakhan region, who deeply respected the first Governor, considered his young deputy a continuer of works started by Guzhvin. The outcome of elections was predetermined. Since then, Aleksander Zhilkin has been in charge of the region.

Гужвин

Anatoly Guzhvin, the late first Governor of the Astrakhan Region 

It must be admitted that Zhilkin knows how to hold his grounds by consistently surpassing his open and secret rivals. For instance, Oleg Shein, an opposition politician, had never attempted to become the Governor and participated (without success) only in Astrakhan mayoral elections – while many other contenders trying to seize the power had to retreat.

The most bitter confrontation Aleksander Zhilkin had with Sergey Bozhenov, who was the Astrakhan Mayor in the period of 2004–2011. Ultimately, Bozhenov has become the Governor of the Volgograd Region – to a mutual satisfaction of both opponents.

The next Astrakhan Mayor was Mikhail Stolyarov – a member of the Bozhenov’s team. However, he hadn’t held this post for long – on November 13, 2013, the functionary was arrested red-handed while accepting a bribe. Upon the elimination of Stolyarov from the Astrakhan political arena, Aleksander Zhilkin, in fact, has consolidated control over the Mayor’s Office in his hands and appointed his own people to key posts.

Some media mentioned Leonid Ogul, the Chief Physician of the Clinical Maternity Hospital Municipal Medical Institution of the City of Astrakhan, as another opponent to the Governor. Being the Deputy of the Astrakhan Regional Duma representing Edinaya Rossia (the United Russia) Party, Ogul had been repeatedly reminding the residents that he personally cares of the life and health of children and was making populist statements. For instance, he suggested to return to the regional budget taxes paid by Gazprom Dobycha Astrakhan.

Огуль

Leonid Ogul, the Deputy of the State Duma

In the end of the last year, Astrakhanskie Novosti news agency announced that Leonid Ogul was spreading rumors about upcoming resignation of Aleksander Zhilkin in social networks.

“Since the appearance of the rumors and up until now, we have been monitoring the information that had come out of the blue. Our speciality is information. Almost any information can be analyzed and tracked. I can tell you for sure that the mastermind behind this process is known. It is also known why was this done. His last name is Ogul... You can make conclusions yourself. Results of our information analysis will be provided to all interested persons. Apparently, after such a cheap political trick, his days as a regional politician are numbered. Because a person unable to measure his political weight comparable with a statistical error would never be able to contend with the Governor elected by the majority of the Astrakhan region residents,” Aleksander Alymov, the Coordinator of Astrakhan Media Group, said at that time.

Interestingly, Leonid Ogul has denied these accusations as inadequate and evidence-free and noted that he works and will continue working in the team of Aleksander Zhilkin.

On September 18, 2016, Ogul has been elected the Deputy of the State Duma – in other words, the Governor has effectively eliminated this opponent by diverting his activity to federal politics. It is necessary to note that at the last elections in 2014, Zhilkin gained 75% of votes in the region.

Igor Martynov – a creature of the Kremlin? 

But the holy place is never empty – and now experts name Igor Martynov, the former Head of the Kamyzyak District, the most likely candidate for the governorship in the region. After the September 18, 2016 elections, this young politician has become the Chairman of the Regional Duma.

Мартынов

Igor Martynov, the Speaker of the Regional Duma

A CrimeRussia source in the regional authorities explained that a few years ago, rumors that Zhilkin might be sent to Kazakhstan as an ambassador could only elicit a smile – but now resignation of the current Governor seems pretty realistic.

“He managed to unite against him a whole group of influential businessmen and politicians. Many of those express their total support to the Governor in public – but you must hear what they say behind his back. Many his rivals are closely linked with subsidiary structures of Gazprom and Lukoil. Law enforcement agencies have been actively digging something up on him in recent years; many his old friends and colleagues have already been prosecuted. Most probably, the Governor would retire voluntarily. As far as I know, they are going to offer him a cushy job in a federal agency. Perhaps, in the Federal Fishery Agency,” – the source said. He did not provide any specific dates, though.

Igor Martynov is called a creature of the Kremlin. The federal authorities were allegedly looking for someone not affiliated with Gazprom and Lukoil to make him the Governor of the Astrakhan Region instead of Zhilkin. Martynov is 42, he has a proven track record of managing the Kamyzyak District. In addition, the current Speaker of the Regional Duma has become a member of the Council of the Federation in 2014 – since then, the Kremlin started paying a closer attention to him.

The CrimeRussia source in one of the Astrakhan federal ministries told that Moscow has been unhappy with the performance of Aleksander Zhilkin for some time already. Under his rule, the region has become a bankrupt surviving only on federal subsidies. Low financial and economic parameters of the Astrakhan region, lack of industrial development, and poor investment efficiency are not acceptable for the Kremlin.

Promises of new industrialization

Like many politicians, Aleksander Zhilkin is lavish of nice words. For example, the official web site of the Astrakhan Regional Government has a banner to a portal with an imposing name: New Industrialization of the Region. In fact, this is just a set of unsupported promises. According to the Governor, by 2020, the Astrakhan region can expect a growth in public prosperity, development of shipbuilding industry and oil and gas sector, job creation, implementation of innovative projects, etc.

Astrakhan residents hardly believe the promises of the Governor because they see the harsh reality with their own eyes – for instance, the ever-under repairs Kirikilinsky bridge. The project cost is almost 500 million rubles, and as long as the federal budget continues allocating funds for it, the regional authorities have no reasons to finish the repairs. The project completion date is being postponed on a regular basis. Currently, the authorities promise to complete all works in August 2017.

Мост

The Kirikilinsky bridge in Astrakhan

It is necessary to note that the official web site of the Astrakhan Regional Government had promised to repair the bridge connecting Babaevsky neighborhood and Kirikili settlement with Svobodny settlement back in 2015. At that time, the project cost was 446.4 million rubles. Two years ago, workers had been hastily brought to the site to imitate a frenzied activity – which faded away immediately after the departure of Aleksander Zhilkin.

Zhilkin also failed to fulfill his promise to resettle people from dilapidated and unsafe housing. Back in 2012, at a meeting with the former Mayor Mikhail Stolyarov – currently serving a prison term – the Governor told the public about forthcoming construction of a new neighborhood at Plesheeva, Bakinskaya, and Akhsharumova streets. A modern residential complex with kindergartens, policlinics, playgrounds, etc. was supposed to be built instead of wretched small houses there. This project, like many others, was never implemented.

Another ambitious idea of the Governor – creation of LOTUS special economic zone in the Astrakhan region – has also ended up in nothing. Although the dedicated web portal looks truly impressive, it even states that the “Astrakhan region is among the most industrially developed regions of Russia”.

SEZ LOTUS has been created in the end of 2014 for deployment of high-tech shipbuilding and mechanical engineering industries. In the near future, the federal budget shall allocate 500 million rubles for infrastructural development of the special economic zone. But in reality the project is developing stridently. According to the Governor, only five companies agreed to become SEZ residents so far.

It appears that the only purpose of all the much-hyped projects initiated by Aleksander Zhilkin was to gain budget funding from the federal center.

The overall rating on the efficacy of governors produced by the Civil Society Development Foundation traditionally puts Zhilkin in the end of the list, among his most weak colleagues. In 2015, he was on the lowest position in the rating.

The inner circle

Enforcement structures of the Astrakhan region continue to tighten the noose around the Governor by charging more and more high-ranked officials from his inner circle with corruption crimes. For example, Viktor Yakovlev, the Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Astrakhan Region for Life Supporting Infrastructure and Environmental Security, has been placed under investigation.

Яковлев

The Governor Aleksander Zhilkin and Viktor Yakovlev (on the right)

The criminal case against the Astrakhan official pertains to his activities at the previous post. Being the Minister of the Housing Services and Utilities, Viktor Yakovlev used to supervise the implementation of the Clean Water governmental program in the region. Back in 2013 the functionary had signed a work completion certificate for reconstruction of sewage treatment facilities in Ikryanoe settlement – although nothing was actually done.

The contractor, Kanalvodstroy Production Commercial Firm Limited Liability Company, has received the payment in the amount of 21 million rubles from the budget. By the way, Pavel Grigorshev, the General Director of this company, is currently a suspect in a criminal case related to swindling on a large scale.

On June 30, 2016 Ekaterina Lukianenko, the ex-Minister of Social Development and Labor in the Astrakhan Region, was found guilty under part 6 of Article 290 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Bribe-Taking by a functionary on an especially large scale) and sentenced to 4 years in a general regime penal colony and fine of 52 million rubles.

On June 4, 2015, the Kirovsky District Court of Astrakhan has closed a criminal case against Ivan Nesterenko, the ex-Minister of Agriculture in the Astrakhan Region, due to the expiry of the period of limitation. The high-ranked official was accused of negligence that caused damages of 30 million rubles to the state budget. The investigators started looking into activities of the former minister because of machinations with state subsidies for Astrakhancky Product Open Joint Stock Company, which was later privatized.

The following people have lost their positions in the Astrakhan Regional Government following anti-corruption inquiries: Viktor Chalov, the Minister of Health; Nina Popova, the Head of the Agency for State Property Management in the Astrakhan Region; and Irina Tarasova, the Minister of Culture, whose spending of budget funds on restoration of historical and architectural monuments raised questions from law enforcement authorities. It is also necessary to note the suicide of Oleg Dupak, the Regional Prosecutor, in 2015. The CrimeRussia earlier reported that he has taken his own life because could not fulfil a promise to close a criminal case for 15 million rubles. The investigative authorities became aware of the bribe and allegedly got a permission from Moscow to start the proceedings. And the fatal shot rang out.

Дупак

Oleg Dupak, the former Prosecutor of the Astrakhan Region

All the above-mentioned officials were members of the team led by Alexander Zhilkin. It is hard to believe that he was not aware of their corruption activities. It is also difficult to say how long the Astrakhan Governor would hold his post. During the 11 years of his rule, the local economy has degraded – while major social issues became strained beyond all limits. But what region of Russia is not plagued by such problems these days?

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