Riding helicopter with Igor Koshin. Photo from Koshin's vKontakte site, vk.com/koshinigor

A talk with the Nenets governor shows two worlds and two ways of doing business

Why did the head of the region neighboring Murmansk cut his salary in half and why is the budget for his business trips and public relations so small? Spoiler alert: not all governors are equally useless or harmful
September 13, 2017

Text by Tatyana Britskaya

 

I went to work in Naryan-Mar and Kolguev Island. Along the way, I happened to talk with the governor of the Nenets Autonomous District, Igor Koshin. I got to join him for a helicopter ride and though our conversation did show me that our districts have a lot in common; the Arctic, the port, the tundra and the raw materials — still we absolutely live in different worlds. Or in other words, sometimes it seems there actually is another way. 

About flights and tardiness

The helicopter we were riding in was bringing several reindeer from the mainland to island Kolguev to help restore the near-extinct local herd. Koshin took advantage of the opportunity to take a ride and have a look for himself. The governor of the oil-bearing region does not have a personal helicopter.

Koshin did not invite the usual pool of “enthusiastic” journalists along for this ride. He was not particularly interested in what any federal newspaper correspondent had to say to the local people. And the same was true for his officer who helped me get aboard.

And in fact, Comrade Koshin was more interested in talking about the contents of garbage cans in the village. He had found a container for alcohol in one. They do not specifically have a dry law on the island but vodka is the only commodity whose delivery is not subsidized by the district. And the laws do prohibit its delivery, which at least makes obtaining it much more difficult. And the indigenous population is also trying to solve the problem of alcoholism internally.

After a brief investigation of the garbage can, it was discovered that this package had been  ordered on the Internet and delivered via the state post office.  The cost of this bottle of vodka was 1700 rubles, about $30.

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On the way back, after helping unload the deer, some local inhabitants pushed aside the government people and jumped into the helicopter for a free ride. And with this, the  “Gov’na” neighed, settled himself among the hay bales and suitcases, put on his headphones and fell asleep.

Tatyana Baeva, Koshin’s counselor quite easily told us something about him.

“On business trips, he uses business class but not always. He would prefer to travel in economy but he is very tall and simply doesn’t fit.”  –  adding “Yes, I think not flying at all would be a real victory for you,  Igor Viktorovich.”

Nenets AO leader Igor Koshin flies with reindeers. Photo: Tatiana Britskaya

And there is a story connected with his visit to Murmansk in which everything worked out just fine. Koshin needed to fly but was a few minutes late for registration. He asked the airline to let him get to his economy class seat but was surprised to find that he was not on the list. He told the agent that was sure that the Murmansk government clerks had pre-registered him online, as promised. Now, he absolutely said nothing about being a regional governor because, you know, it really should not matter who he was. But upon further inspection, it turned out that the staff of the Murmansk government “yellow house” had indeed registered him in advance for the flight but an airline or airport employee, accustomed to requests from the local political establishment, had automatically added him to the business class list. It had never occurred to them that a Russian “Governor” would ever fly economy.

Koshin’s driver then recommend that I retell some of my own stories about delays on Ms. Kovtun’s flights of and her expenses for VIP-halls. And while I was continuing on about “the other” governor, the driver tossed a question to Koshin:

- How much do you pay for hotels in Moscow on business trips? 
- I will never pay more than 15 (15,000 rubles/$250)   
- Come on, Igor Viktorych, the last time you found one for about 12! 

And if it is interesting, there is a short video in which Koshin talks about repairing a children’s playground and about the fact that his deputies fly only economy class. “We are more modest here,” he says.

About oil and reform

The Nenets Autonomous District is a sparsely populated region with 44 thousand people. Logistics are much more complicated than in Murmansk. Heating is like “gold”  and the average cost for utilities for the region is 16,000 rubles ($280).

The basis of the economy is oil and oil revenues are not limited to taxes (All of the oil companies pay money to the district). In addition, there is a commodity agreement with the Kharyaga oil field and 50% of the total income from Kharyaga goes to the state government.  This amount is then split in half between the Russian Federation and the Nenets district.

And the region is like a miniature Russia. Two years ago, with the fall in the price of hydrocarbons, the region’s budget also collapsed, losing two thirds of its revenues. Instead of seven billion rubles, Kharyaga received two. And naturally, income taxes also fell.

Koshin wanted to tell me how he has reformed the district administration. He promised to carve out about 15 minutes for me but took an entire second hour enthusiastically explaining what he had managed to come up with to keep the district afloat.

A year ago, he explained everything to residents in a five hour Internet session, inviting everyone to an open meeting in the Palace of Culture. He of course stayed to answer all questions. Now, the answers did not satisfy everyone and critics on the Internet and opposition media, including the Communist newspaper “Tovarish”, were in abundance. But in the end, the residents of the district themselves were asked to choose where to cut their expenses. The IT people on hand had built an online game to redistribute the budget. Almost everyone voted to reduce the number of civil servants so Koshin fired 20 percent of the government staff.

He also cut his own salary by a total of 47 percent from the half a million (about $8700) that his predecessor had received, to 285 thousand (a bit less than $5000). Officials of the administration and deputies also had their salaries cut by 30-40 percent.

At the end of 2016, the deputies were still allowing themselves an additional payment of a double salary before the holidays and Koshin did sign this law. However, he personally deleted himself from the list of “beneficiaries”.

Here I offered a story about the fivefold payments once a quarter that Murmansk “servants of the people” have endowed themselves with. This other 43-year-old governor who I was riding with has canceled free travel expenses to anywhere in the world. This is now allowed only within Russia.  

“I had just become governor and I was looking for one of my deputies. They told me he was in Australia. I was wondering how he had gotten there when he was not earning all that much money! But it turns out that he and a lot of people were flying around at the expense of the state. Can you imagine that?! When I canceled these privileges, one official wrote “Farewell, my beloved Dominican Republic!” on his VKontact page.”

About 1% mortgages

“The oil industry does not particularly need our local people. People from all over the country work there, including from Murmansk. But we are introducing a quota requiring the companies to hire a certain number of local workers. Of course, their qualifications do not suit the employers yet. But we are already restructuring the curriculum in the local schools. We will build a training ground with training workshops with a real oil well! And the oil companies have agreed to pay for the equipment themselves.

So I asked him about agriculture. Will it go bankrupt? No. Will there be subsidies? Yes. But the industry will not die. And this is the way: the state has ceased paying for all of the farming requirements up front. The budget for these things simply no longer exists.  

“I managed to stop a tender for 140 million ($2.5 million) for construction of a calving building in the village. I called the farmers to come talk to me. I told them I would not give them the money up front. But if they agreed to build it themselves, I would happily compensate them with 50%. It got built in a short time and for only 75 million. 50% of the budget was subsidized. So we have now switched to subsidizing only the final product. And now the average milk yield in the district is 6 tons of milk per cow. 

Here you might recall Murmansk’s  agriculture scandals with animals and arable lands.

While there has been no special economic growth in the country as a whole and no significant increase in oil prices for the year, the Nenets Autonomous District’s income for the year (as of July 2017) has increased by 92%. The district has become the leader in all of Russia in this indicator. And by October, a project will be launched, according to which residents of the district will be able to receive 1% mortgages. The remaining money will be paid to the bank via the budget.

In sports pants and a jacket, Koshin walks along a road under construction.

“For the first time local people are busy repairing. It has never been this way. There have always been subcontractors and outside agencies. Now the road is being built by the district bureau of road maintenance and I have set one specific condition that we only use local workers.

 And it is the truth because you can find an advertisement for 43 “urgently needed” road workers on Koshin’s VKontact page. First Priority going, of course, to residents of the district.

They began to build the road in July and as of yesterday, the new lanterns were already being lit.

About PR

”How much do you pay for your contracts with the state information services? 

“ It’s nothing to scream about. What for? We had 4 newspapers on the district’s balance sheet but they were all writing the same things so I merged them into one paper. And I do not pay any money to the federation’s news services. Look, you helped bring the reindeer to Kolguev. Do you think this would be interesting to the feds? And yet you have come out here. And nobody has to pay one kopek to anyone. There are events and there will be press. So all of these “contracts” are just throwing money away. And once you pay, I guarantee no one will ever write a single line about us for free.

 So once a week, Koshin’s VKontact page has online conferences with high profile ministers. All answers to the questions go out without any “filter” and the next speaker is chosen by voting users.

 A few members of the press-service have been weaned off of sending texts and pages for approval. Their working time is necessary for other types of information dissemination. The team now ventures out into different types of communications and instead of press releases, Koshin puts up his own cool videos. The budget for this, for example, is about 500 rubles, about the cost of a cheapest possible piece of sausage. They can do the rest of it themselves.  

 


This story is originally posted on the Bloger51.ru and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between news organizations and bloggers in the Barents region

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