“Taking Someone Else’s Place”. Sipyagin’s Three Years as Vladimir Governor

On September 29, 2021, Vladimir Sipyagin, Governor of the Vladimir region, took the mandate of State Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and leaves his post. He announced this in his farewell address to the region’s residents. He spent three years in the governor’s office – without nine days. ProVladimir recalls what the Liberal Democrat was remembered for in the land of Vladimir.

November 17, 2020. After a visit from the governor’s doctor, Vladimir Sipyagin was hospitalized in a prestigious private clinic in Moscow. In the evening, the head of the region justified himself by saying that he would not be treated in the Vladimir region so as not to occupy a bed that might be needed by a fellow countryman. On the background of a well-known contrast in the quality of poor Vladimir and good Moscow medicine, this justification looked comical.

And it also resonated with the main PR thesis of the governor’s opponents, or as Sipyagin himself used to call them, “the antagonists”. They systematically promoted the idea, through little-known publications and contextual advertising in social networks, that the governor was an accidental and, therefore, took someone else’s place. It is hard to say to what extent this message was perceived by the region’s residents, but until Sipyagin closed his comments on social networks, users responded to the posts of the head of the region with a warmth that is rare for the Russian perception of officials.

There was an impression that for the inhabitants of the region Sipyagin is rather his own, close and logical, as opposed to his predecessor – an appointee from Moscow. The governor became an accidental and unexpected for the local political elite and, what is not excluded, for himself. As if suffering from an impostor complex, for all three years the governor preferred to evade decisions when he had the opportunity to decide nothing, and not to say anything that might displease the federal leadership.

When commenting on the detentions of residents of Vladimir during the January protests (when police officers in plain clothes illegally seized citizens), the regional leader said that everything was done “accurately and correctly. And then, through his subordinates, the governor made it clear that it was none of his business to determine who was wringing hands on the city streets.

On the next anniversary of Crimea’s annexation (aka reunion), the head of the region held a social media stream with his subscribers. People asked about medicine and how to send a child to kindergarten. With a half-smile, the head of the region tried to translate the conversation into the importance of the peninsula’s return to Russia.

Crimea has become a favorite destination for the governor’s work trips and vacations. In July 2019 he celebrated Navy Day here, in October 2020 he participated in a maritime forum, in between these visits there was another business trip – from June 24 to 26 – to a business forum (an exhibition of fishing boats), which ended with a suspected coronavirus and the need to stay on the peninsula for self-isolation until August 10.

On his return, the governor was greeted with a “gift” from his captors. The state TV site published photos of Vladimir Sipyagin and his young girlfriend on vacation. It is hard to say how much the “gift” shook the governor’s rating, but it seems to have helped the couple: after the publication, the head of the region began to openly attend public events with his girlfriend.

The Crimean vacation was not the first public discussion of the personal life of the head of the region. A year before the story about the vacation, Sipyagin, answering journalists’ questions, said that he saw no problem with the fact that his (at that time) common-law wife and mother of a common child, Maria Astafieva, was employed as the financial director of the regional company Vladimirteplogaz. Under her, the region bought 49% of the company from Gazprom.

Another possible scandal with people close to him was successfully levelled by the governor’s PR people: in September 2020, Sipyagin’s son Alexei recorded a video appeal, where he asked the federal TV channels to stop harassing him. Alexei also explained that back in the spring of 2019 he got a job at the regional enterprise DSU-3. He started with a rank-and-file position and here, grew up to a quality engineer. Social network users supported both the son and the governor.

ProVladimir’s interlocutor, who previously worked in the White House, believes that it was very easy to work for Sipyagin as a publicist. The boss tries not to make mistakes, there is essentially nothing to criticize him for, and everything else is like water off a duck’s back.

After Vladimir Sipyagin came to power, he replaced the editor-in-chief of local “Vladimirskie Vedomosti” – the former editor went to the “enemy camp” to work in the mayor’s office. Orlov, the head of the television channel Gubernia-33 founded by Svetlana Orlova, who openly spoke out against Sipyagin, was also laid off. The regional VGTRK TV channel put the new governor on the “stop list,” and its head Andrei Filinov, who is no stranger to the “United Russia” party, explained the disappearance of news about Sipyagin by his policy of showing only interesting things. It sounded unconvincing: 2013 through 2018, viewers of the local second button were served Governor Svetlana Orlova daily for the first course. Sipyagin could not influence VGTRK, so viewers of this channel continued to watch only interesting things until September 2021, such as stories about United Russia candidates and their “small affairs”.

Federal TV channels, on the other hand, did not limit themselves to silence and immediately moved on to decisive action. Already in November 2018, Rossiya 1 broadcast a 15-minute video listing ten crisis situations that occurred during Svetlana Orlova’s time. The culprit in them was appointed Vladimir Sipyagin, who had not yet been in office for two months. In the ten months of 2020, Vladimir Sipyagin was mentioned negatively 40 times on federal channels. Of all the Russian governors, only Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, received more criticism in the media. However, Sipyagin was scolded almost only by the pro-governmental media, while the head of Chechnya was scolded by the opposition media.

In a situation of information attacks, the press service of the head of the region has switched to a “besieged fortress” mode. The quarterly press conferences announced by Sipyagin after the elections in reality turned into annual and rather short meetings in the media. The governor’s press service always saw enemies behind any criticism of Sipyagin and behind any questions to the head of the region they saw the vested interests of opposition groups.

More often than not, Sipyagin was criticized for his personnel turmoil. Journalists joked that they saw no point in remembering the names of officials, and old-time deputies joked that they had never seen so many strangers in the White House. Immediately after the 2018 elections, many of Orlova’s deputies resigned from the regional administration. Sipyagin made it clear that he was ready to work with the former governor’s team, but he would not keep anyone either. At the time of his sudden election victory, it appears that the new governor did not have a large team. It remained to hope for help from the home party. Alexei Konyshev, the vice-governor, quit the White House rather unexpectedly, despite initial promises to work with Sipyagin.

As it turned out, frequent changes of personnel in this or that department did not interfere with the fulfillment of the indicators of the national projects. On the other hand, the turmoil led to the loss of contact between the authorities and social groups. This happened, for example, with youth policy. Appointees simply did not have time to develop ties before leaving office.

In April 2020, at Vladimir Sipyagin’s suggestion, Olga Efimova, who had worked at the organization for 18 years, was dismissed from her post. The staff of the regional branch of the fund appealed to the governor to keep in place a valuable manager, under whom there had never been any disruptions in the receipt of funds to the account of medical organizations in the region. This was not done. Yefimova’s dismissal was caught on video by the White House. Vladimir Sipyagin presented her with flowers and said, “Your experience is important to us. Vice-Governor Sergey Shevchenko, who was standing next to her, nodded approvingly.

Oblzdrav initiated a reform of the regional pharmacy warehouse. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus, employees responsible for organizing the procurement of drugs were fired from the department due to difficult working conditions. After the New Year there was a collapse with the supply of medicines in the region. Out of the budgeted 111 million, only 14 million rubles worth of medicines reached the beneficiaries. A criminal case was initiated. Both the deputy governor Sergey Shevchenko and Elena Utemova, head of the Regional Public Health Department, lost their jobs. It was possible to restore the work of pharmacies only by the end of spring. At the beginning of September 2021, there were 2,500 patients in the region who were receiving delayed medications.

Since 2018, the White House was helped with staffing by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. According to Denis Lyakishev, former curator of domestic policy and a member of the LDPR party, together with the human resources in the region from the LDPR were also sent investors, and the governor was not able to work with them. It seems, however, that the head of the region succeeded in solving this problem. Under Sipyagin, investors began to turn to the 33rd Region.

Speaking at the September pre-election press conference as a man of the party’s five candidates, Sipyagin listed among his own achievements an increase in investment:

“The region ranked first in the Central Federal District and third in Russia by the index of industrial production based on the results of the hardest covid year of 2020. This is a very important indicator both for the region and for the state of the economy. From 2018 to 2020, the index increased by 32.8%. And the volume of investment in fixed capital grew by 27%. During the hard and busy year of 2020, we had 14 new industries and production lines and about 6,000 small and medium-sized businesses.”

In recent years, the White House has really strengthened the economic bloc, betting on attracting investment and working with entrepreneurs. Not everything has turned out smoothly – there are a lot of dissatisfied with the “unpaid” lockdown, and the demographics of entrepreneurship are still negative. Overall, however, the region’s business performance by 2021 was optimistic.

The time of coronavirus shocks and increased federal subsidies to equalize the regional budget, which fell on Sipyagin’s term, coincided with the strengths of Vyacheslav Kuzin, Vladimir’s main financier of the last 25 years. An emphasis on economy, practically absence of a regional debt and a filigree distribution of budgetary funds in the social sphere have placed the Vladimir region among the Russian leaders on budgetary efficiency and a number of other indicators.

The fact that the region is specializing in the food and pharmaceutical industry also played a role. At a time when production in other regions was declining due to the coronavirus, the Vladimir region was showing growth and collecting additional taxes. Apartment buildings, built under Orlova, were commissioned under Sipyagin and also gave good figures in the statistics.

“Here, the governor for three years. All the indicators are better than they were under the previous administration. What else is needed?”, Vladimir Zhirinovsky praised the party member at a pre-election press conference at TASS.

During Vladimir Sipyagin’s term in office, a number of demographic trends have come true in the Vladimir region: people with lower incomes are poorer, people with higher incomes and professions that are in demand have become more resilient to the crisis, and some have even won. According to observations of local sociologists, Vladimir residents have stopped associating their personal financial successes and failures with the actions of the authorities; people are increasingly relying on themselves. The blasts about “Sipyagin’s” failures and personnel turmoil hardly caused any noticeable reaction.

Large advertising banners with the inscription “Random Experiment Failed” hung all over the city and in the vicinity of the White House for the paid period. It is hard to imagine that such posters would have lasted even a few hours under the previous governor, Svetlana Orlova.

The response proved to be also unproductive. The response to the criticism proved to be poorly productive. Sipyagin’s occasional “shots across the bow” to his political opponents, including city manager Andrei Shokhin and the United Russia faction in the Legislative Assembly, did not do him any good. The phrase thrown at a press conference about the actions of the Vladimir administration, demanding more subsidies from the region, “fascists did not do this,” turned into the cries of insulted Vladimir “social activists” and the governor’s veto on the law prohibiting Sipyagin himself to manage the subsidies for municipalities, overcome with the help of the United Russia majority.

Andrei Shokhin, Vladimir Sipiagin

In 2020, representatives of the ruling party repeatedly stated at meetings of the regional parliament about the ineffectiveness of the governor. Sipyagin did not respond and avoided direct communication whenever possible. Vice-Governor Arkady Botsan-Kharchenko, with a diplomatic background, was appointed as a special representative to explain himself to the legislature. The governor’s report to the people’s deputies since the spring of 2020 was repeatedly postponed, until finally disappeared for lack of need.

In mid-September, the proVladimir TV channel conducted a survey in which readers were asked to choose from ten options the epithets that best describe Vladimir Sipyagin. A total of 368 people took part in it. 70% chose the epithet “casual,” 29% chose “loving,” 16% chose “non-public,” 14% chose “conflict-free,” and 11% chose “popular. Less than 5% received such epithets as “effective,” “trustworthy,” and “honest.” The option “bright” was chosen by 1% of respondents.

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