Author Archives: Eugene Huskey

Russia – The Anti-Tweeter: President Vladimir Putin and the Art of the Interview

Earlier this month, while President Donald Trump was busy avoiding queries from the American press, his Russian counterpart appeared on television in two sets of four-hour interviews. In the first, broadcast live on June 15, Vladimir Putin continued his annual tradition of responding to questions and concerns raised by journalists, members of a studio audience, and several dozen fortunate–and presumably carefully-selected–viewers, this year from Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. Several days later, the leading Russian television network began airing uncut the four-part series of interviews that Putin granted to the American film director, Oliver Stone, interviews conducted from early 2015 to February 2017.

What does this media blitz tell us about Russian–and by extension American–presidential leadership? First, the system of presidential communication in Russia is at once ancient and modern. The cavernous, specially-designed studio for the live call-in show, Direct Line with Vladimir Putin, boasted all the accoutrements of cutting-edge television. Surrounding a central stage with the president and two news anchors were multiple platforms with earnest-looking and identically-dressed young people who worked at computers in front of a massive, interactive map of Russia. In the digital version of the gigantomania inherited from the Soviet era, reporters roaming the studio spoke breathlessly about the millions of phone calls, texts, emails, and video messages pouring in from around the country.

Yet amid all the advanced technology, the specter of supplicants appealing to a single, powerful leader to resolve their personal medical, housing, or education issues was a throwback to an earlier age, when monarchs received plaintive subjects seeking redress. The exercise was not the sort associated with modern democratic states, where well-developed administrative, political, legal, and market institutions exist to provide remedies. Because of the level of inefficiency and corruption in the Russian state, many citizens have felt the need to turn directly to the president to take their problems “under his personal control” [pod lichnym kontrolem]. By doing so on the Direct Line program, Vladimir Putin was able to exhibit empathy and understanding that almost certainly played well in Pskov.

Even more than earlier versions, this year’s Direct Line with Vladimir Putin exposed viewers to pointed criticisms of the president and the Russian political system, apparently as a means of illustrating that Vladimir Putin, who is preparing to contest his fourth presidential election next year, does not live in a bubble. Between the largely benign questions from the anchors, the studio audience, and ordinary citizens, the directors flashed attention-grabbing text messages on the screen, which ranged from the humorous, “Why is this summer so cold?,” to the awkward, “Will there be a new first lady?,” to the politically charged, “All Russia thinks you’ve overstayed your time on the throne.”

Although this last text may have been the harshest critique of the president, there were many other messages that cast Vladimir Putin and his government in an unfavorable light. “Do you realize your own mistakes, and who will correct them?”; “Why are all the issues resolved only after your personal involvement?”; and “Stop throwing money at the army and the arms race.” Given the preference of younger Russians for texts over emails and phone calls, the critical content of many texts may have reflected both the demographic source of the comments as well as a desire by the presidential communications staff to appeal to a youth audience, who would no doubt have found it difficult to stay focused on many of the ponderous, wonkishly-detailed responses provided by the Russian president during the lengthy live broadcast. However we describe Putin’s Russia, the odd combination of adulation and criticism that characterized the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin confirms that the Russian political system differs dramatically from hard authoritarian regimes like Turkmenistan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two issues that received little attention in Putin’s talkathon were corruption and the political opposition, topics that are closely related in contemporary Russia. The first brief mention of corruption came in a text almost two and a half hours into the program, and shortly thereafter, Putin responded to a young questioner in the studio audience who suggested that corruption had prevented his family from receiving the housing to which it was entitled. The Russian president dealt with the question quickly and almost dismissively, wishing, no doubt, to deflect attention from a subject on which the most prominent leader of the political opposition, Alexei Naval’nyi, had built his reputation.

When asked directly at the end of the program about the political opposition, Putin’s body stiffened and his tone became testier. “I’m willing to meet with anyone who is focused on improving the life of Russians instead of using current difficulties for their own PR,” Putin said. But anyone who “only uses problems to make a name for themselves rather than offering solutions…has no right to speak to those in power.” In effect, the Russian president was dividing the opposition into those willing to cooperate with the regime on its terms and those intent on dismantling the autocratic order that has been under construction since Putin’s accession to power in 2000.

Both the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin and the Putin Interviews of Oliver Stone highlight the stark differences in leadership styles of the Russian and American presidents. For his part, Putin favors lengthy responses that allow him to show off his impressively detailed knowledge of everything from public policy and demography to Russian culture. At one point in Direct Line, Putin recited a poem by Lermontov. The current American president, on the other hand, prefers to interact with the nation through tweets of no more than 140 characters. To be sure, facility with facts and figures comes more easily to a man like Putin, who has spent two-thirds of his life in government service, but one suspects that Putin’s technocratic approach to presidential communication would hold little attraction for Donald Trump even if Trump had spent several years in the presidency.

Where President Trump has been intent on emphasizing his wealth as an indicator of his leadership abilities, Vladimir Putin rejected out of hand suggestions from Oliver Stone that he had amassed a personal fortune. To do otherwise, of course, would have been to admit that he had used the office of the presidency for self-enrichment. When Stone asked President Putin about his children, he was quick to note with pride that his children were not involved in politics or business–two spheres even more tightly entwined in Russia than in the United States. Instead, they were active, in his telling, in education and science, which he was pleased to admit kept them out of public view and, it goes without saying, away from the dangerous intersection of politics and business in Russia. The contrast with the Trump family–and indeed with presidential families in many of the authoritarian regimes on Russia’s borders–could not have been more pronounced.

Oliver Stone’s questions to Putin about Russia’s alleged interference in the American presidential election prompted vigorous denials. Confidently claiming to occupy the moral high ground on this and all other matters, Putin baldly and improbably asserted that “unlike many of our partners [a reference to the US and other Western nations], we never interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.” In trying to account for the accusations of hacking, he offered up almost playfully an explanation advanced by Donald Trump during the election campaign: it could have easily been someone sitting in bed. Here and elsewhere in the Putin Interviews, the Russian president turned detailed knowledge of the inner workings of American democracy to his advantage.

In a rare moment of real or feigned outrage during the taping with Stone, the Russian president turned the tables on the issue of electoral interference by accusing the United States of enlisting its diplomats as well as friendly NGOs to disrupt elections in the region. Accompanying these accusations were video clips that sought to bolster the Russian case, one of several moments in the film where Stone and his production team revealed their willingness to tilt the scales in Russia’s favor. Even more tellingly, Stone avoided confronting Putin with questions about the most sensitive subjects in recent Russian political history, such as the apartment bombings in late 1999 that created a groundswell of popular support for Russian involvement in the Second Chechen War and Putin’s own rise to the presidency.

It is easy, of course, to accuse Oliver Stone of being a “useful idiot,” the term used in the Soviet era for Westerners who were taken in by the narratives advanced by Moscow. But for all its limitations, the Putin Interviews offers important insights into the mode of thought and communication of a Russian president who has helped to remake his country–and who is already the longest-serving leader of Russia since Stalin. Moreover, the documentary takes the viewer into rarely-seen corners of President Putin’s homes and offices, including the Russian equivalent of the White House Situation Room.

In the end, what is most revealing in Stone’s documentary is Putin’s sense of infallibility, derived from viewing the world through a narrow Russian lens. The resulting “mirror imaging” leads him to adopt a sober, even pessimistic, view of the chances for improvements in US-Russian relations. Although admitting that he preferred Trump over Clinton, he confessed to Stone that little is likely to change under the new administration. Raising the specter of the influence of the Deep State, a concept touted by some frustrated Trump supporters in the United States, President Putin claimed that officials carried over from the Obama Administration had placed roadblocks in the way of the new American president. In Putin’s words, “the power of the bureaucratic apparatus in the US is great,” and so Trump will be stymied by it, just as Obama was during his presidency on issues like closing the base at Guantanamo.

Putin still found reason to hope, however. Echoing the comments of Stalin in 1935, he noted, when asked about the difficulties of getting the foreign ministries and intelligence services of the United States and Russia to work together, that it was merely a “question of [finding the right] personnel” [kadrovoi vopros]. In Russian internal politics, of course, the central “personnel question” is looming ever larger. At the end of the Putin Interviews, Oliver Stone asked the Russian president whether he would run again next year. Putin responded: “I won’t answer the question about 2018. There should be some mystery and intrigue.”

Kyrgyzstan’s One-Term President Positions Himself for the Transition of Power

Outside of Latin America, where one-term limitations on presidencies are relatively common, only the Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Kyrgyzstan restrict their presidents to a single term.[i]  Kyrgyzstan introduced this restriction in its 2010 Constitution in order to prevent the repetition of “family rule,” which had characterized Kyrgyzstani politics under Presidents Akaev (1991-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010). As the example of Vladimir Putin illustrates, however, constitutional restrictions do not prevent term-limited presidents from remaining active in politics.[ii]  Kyrgyzstan’s current President, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent months signaled his intention to continue on the political stage after the end of his single, six-year term in November of this year.

The opening gambit in his transition strategy came last year, when Atambaev engineered changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution designed to shift considerable power from the office of the president to that of the prime minister.[iii]  These changes gave rise to speculation that President Atambaev was planning to assume the role of prime minister after he completes his presidential term. However, he has insisted in recent weeks that he will eschew a government post and concentrate instead on strengthening his political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), which currently has a plurality of seats in the one-chamber parliament.  Atambaev has recently launched a purge of the SDPK’s parliamentary party in order to remove members whose personal reputation or loyalty is suspect.[iv]

In order to ensure that his successor as president is to his liking, President Atambaev has embraced the idea of an internal party primary within the SDPK to select the party’s nominee for the presidency.  In his public pronouncements, Atambaev has insisted that a primary battle within the part will weed out candidates on whom the opposition has kompromat [compromising materials] that could render them vulnerable in the general election.  However, the more likely reason for the president’s support of the party primary is that it would allow him to serve as the king-maker.  Atambaev’s influence over the mass media and his control of the state’s “administrative resources” should allow him to pick his preferred candidate from the SDPK, who could well emerge as the next president.

Not satisfied with influencing political outcomes through the low-cost and relatively benign strategies outlined above, President Atambaev has pursued in recent weeks a more disruptive and dangerous agenda: the destruction of the political careers of prominent opposition politicians who could pose a challenge to his plans for the political transition.   Among a series of arrests of heavyweights from Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class, the most troubling was that of Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and perennial presidential candidate who, as a member of the country’s Interim Government in 2010, fathered the current constitution.  Agents from the secret police (GKNB) detained Tekebaev at the Bishkek airport in the early morning of February 26 on his return from a trip to Austria and Cyprus, and several days later a court authorized his detention by the GKNB for an additional two months.  Whatever the validity of the fraud charges being brought against him, the timing was suspect.  The alleged fraud had occurred six years earlier and the Russian businessman who accused Tekebaev of wrongdoing only recently came forward with testimony implicating Tekebaev.

Other opposition politicians caught up in what appear to be politically-motivated prosecutions include parliamentary deputies from Tekebaev’s party, Ata-Meken, among whom were Aida Salianova and Almambek Shykmamatov, both former Justice Ministers.  In addition, on March 25, the authorities arrested a former deputy from the Ata-Jurt Party, Sadyr Japarov, who had just returned to Bishkek after three years of self-imposed exile.  The arrest of Japarov, who had recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, prompted 500 of his supporters to gather at the gates of the GKNB. In clashes with police that followed, 68 demonstrators were arrested.[v]

Although all of the politicians arrested have been critics of President Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev appears to pose the greatest threat to the sitting president.  The threat does not lie primarily in Tekebaev’s announced candidacy for the November presidential election–he was hardly a favorite for the post–but in the compromising material he had been collecting on President Atambaev.  Media reports allege that Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan with evidence linking President Atambaev to inappropriate business activities in Cyprus.  Moreover, as chair of a parliamentary commission investigating the crash of a cargo aircraft near Bishkek airport in January of this year, Tekebaev was pursuing the possibility that President Atambaev or those in his entourage were involved in a smuggling operation exposed by the plane crash.  Although the aircraft, which stopped in Bishkek on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul, was not licensed to deliver goods to Kyrgyzstan, investigators found in the  wreckage “charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets…” with Chinese-produced manuals in the Kyrgyz language.[vi]

Besides disqualifying prominent political opponents and bending the institutional rules to their advantage, it has been traditional in the run up to elections for Kyrgyzstani leaders to attempt to stifle media outlets that are critical of the president, and President Atambaev has remained true to form on all counts.   As part of his early preparations for the November presidential elections and his own repositioning in the Kyrgyzstani political system, President Atambaev instructed the Procurator-General earlier this month to launch civil cases against a local news outlet, Zanoza, as well as the Kyrgyz arm of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, for attacking the “honor and dignity” of the President.  The Procurator-General is seeking damages on the President’s behalf of over $86,000 from Zanoza and almost $3 million from Azattyk.  Even though the case has not yet been tried, a judge has frozen the domestic bank accounts of both news organizations.

As Atambaev’s attacks against opposition-oriented politicians and journalists have escalated in recent months, his conduct has become more unpredictable and his rhetoric has grown increasingly intemperate.  At one point he labeled the Ata-Meken Party “putrid” [voniuchii].  Atambaev no longer hesitates to refer to himself in the third person, and he has at times cast diplomatic niceties aside by issuing pointed comments on domestic politics in the presence of foreign dignitaries.[vii]  On March 15th, he chose a formal ceremony accrediting new ambassadors in Bishkek to criticize the purveyors of slander and “fake news” in the country, including Russian journalists working in the country.[viii]  During the visit of Vladimir Putin a few weeks earlier, President Atambaev had used a joint press conference to play down the likelihood of a third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, reminding the assembled journalists and his Russian guest that he, Atambaev, was the real revolutionary, having been instrumental in toppling Presidents Akaev and Bakiev.[ix]

Kyrgyzstan may not be on the eve of its third revolution in the last twelve years, but it is facing its most serious political crisis since the parliamentary election campaign of 2010.  Atambaev’s control of the formal levers of power, most notably state legal institutions, give him an advantage in this latest standoff between government and opposition.  However, his critics have at their disposal new media as well as significant numbers of supporters in the capital–and in the home districts of repressed politicians–that are willing to take to the streets to defend their patrons.  Moreover, in choosing to engage in select prosecution of his enemies and a frontal assault on the independent media, President Atambaev risks overplaying his hand and undermining his own reputation and that of the party on which he plans to build his political future.   The ultimate winners in this conflict may be non-SDPK presidential candidates, such as former prime ministers Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov, who have managed thus far to keep their distance from the warring sides.

Notes

[i] The reference here is to presidents in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

[ii] In 2008, having completed the two four-year terms allowed him under the constitution of that era, Vladimir Putin installed one of his clients, Dmitrii Medvedev, as president.  Medvedev served a single term and then made way for Putin’s return in 2012, this time to assume a presidency whose term had been extended to six years.  In the Kyrgyzstani case, the constitution does not allow a president to return to office.

[iii] On the adoption of revisions to the constitution, see Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog, December 15, 2016.  http://presidential-power.com/?cat=193

[iv] One source notes that Atambaev intends to replace two-thirds of current SDPK deputies with more loyal members.  Grigorii Mikhailov, “Boeing s gruzom dlia prezidenta ‘vzorval’ parlament Kirgizii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 7, 2017.  At one point Atambaev came out in favor of the early dissolution of parliament, something supported by at least one critic of the president in the assembly, which presumably would simplify efforts to renew the SDPK’s parliamentary party.  Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held until 2020.  See “Zamira Sydykova prezidentu Almazbeku Atambaevu: ty luchshe pokaisia!” Zanoza, March 15, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/354140_zamira_sydykova_prezidenty_almazbeky_atambaevy:_ty_lychshe_pokaysia.html

[v] “Kyrgyz Police Detain 68 at Protests over Jailing of Ex-Law Maker,” RFE/RL, March 25, 2017.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-opposition-japarov-supporters-protesters-arrested/28390782.html

[vi] Catherine Putz, “Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan May Have Uncovered a Smuggling Scheme,” The Diplomat, February 3, 2017.  http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/plane-crash-in-kyrgyzstan-may-have-uncovered-a-smuggling-scheme/

[vii] Atambaev’s behavior has rekindled rumors about his psychological state, and lawyers from the Ata-Meken Party recently filed a motion with the Procurator-General’s office asking for a psychiatric examination of the president. “Zapakh pravdy: arest Tekebaeva vyzval voinu iskov,” Zanoza, March 9, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/353828_zapah_pravdy:_arest_tekebaeva_vyzval_voyny_iskov.html One Western outlet covering Central Asia observed that Atambaev seemed to be mimicking Donald Trump, and of late had been in “full berserker mode in his comments about the fourth estate.” “Kyrgyzstan: Kremlin-Friendly Reporter Expelled,” Eurasianet.org, March 13, 2017.  http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82801

[viii] A few days earlier the Kyrgyzstani authorities had expelled a Russian journalist, Grigorii Mikhailov, whose articles had often been critical of Atambaev.  “Emu li byt’ v pechati: pochemu prezident Kirgizii tak boitsia kritiki v rossiiskoi presse,” Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017.  At a press conference on March 11, Atambaev attacked “so-called independent journalists, media outlets, and politicians, who de facto demand the right to defame with impunity and spout filth about people they don’t like, in the first rank the popularly-elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan.”  “Zaiavlenie Prezidenta KR A. Atambaeva,” Kabar, March 11, 2017.  For a perceptive account of Atambaev’s assaults on journalists and politicians, see Ulugbek Babakulov, “Vo imia mira i stabil’nosti: Prezident Kyrygzstana initsiiroval raspravu nad SMI i zhurnalistami,” Ferghana, March 13, 2017.  http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9319

[ix] Moscow-based newspapers have speculated that one purpose of Putin’s visit was to look over potential presidential candidates to determine whom the Kremlin should back.  See, for example, Elena Egorova, “Tsentral’naia dlia Rossii Aziia,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 27, 2017.

Primaries Russian-Style – Selecting Parliamentary Candidates for United Russia

As the widely-followed American presidential primaries wound down, Russia was quietly experimenting with its own version of political primaries.[i]  For the first time in Russian history, a political party, United Russia, used a nationwide primary election to select its parliamentary candidates, who will contest the 450 seats in the lower house, the State Duma, on September 18.  Designed to steal a march on opposing parties and to shed United Russia’s reputation as what critics called a “party of swindlers and thieves, the party primary, which took place on May 22, followed rules that sought put a fresh face on an organization needing rebranding amid a severe financial crisis and popular disillusionment with parties and parliament.  The party’s chair, Sergei Neverov, boldly asserted that United Russia “had made a definitive choice between party bureaucracy and direct democracy.”[ii]

Putin’s “political technologists” produced an imaginative set of internal electoral rules for the country’s hegemonic party that have the potential to strengthen United Russia as an institution as well as to legitimate its claim to power in the eyes of some voters.  Among the novelties are:

— an open primary, which allows all Russian voters to participate in the selection of United Russia’s candidates for the September election.  Earlier experiments with party primaries in Russia had a limited selectorate.

–“approval voting,” which permits voters to select as many candidates as they wish from the field.

—no serious “filters” to limit nominations on the primary ballots.  Not only do candidates self-nominate, but one need not be a member of the United Russia party to run.  All candidates must pledge, however, not to run as an independent or on another party’s ticket in September if they participate in the United Russia primary and lose.  In addition, as part of the Kremlin’s stated goal of “de-oligarchizing” the parliament, candidates may not have assets overseas.  Given the widespread use of family members and shell companies to shield wealth abroad, it will be difficult, of course, to police this restriction.[iii]

–the reintroduction of single-member districts, which had been eliminated after the 2003 parliamentary election.  Thus, voters in the United Russia primary received two ballots, one for the single-member district race in their area (225 districts in all) and the other for the party list in their territory (with 35-40 territorially-based party lists in all).  Restoring the idea of local representation through single-member district voting was one element of a broader campaign to reframe the electoral system, which in Putin’s words should appear “more transparent and closer to the people.”[iv]

United Russia officials declared the May 22 primary to be a success, and on several levels it was.  Although turnout nationwide was just under 10 percent, that figure represented almost a third of the United Russia vote total received during the last parliamentary election, when it won a majority of the seats in the Duma.[v]  Given the relatively low visibility and stakes of May’s primary contest and the greater difficulty in many areas of getting to the polls (there were far fewer voting precincts than in the general election), the turnout did not disappoint party leaders or neutral observers.   Just as during general elections, the participation rate of Russian voters differed widely by region of the country during the May primary, with ethnic republics like Tatarstan and Chechnya posting turnout rates of 15 percent, while in the northern Russian region of Arkhangel’sk, less than 3 percent of the electorate came to the polls.[vi]  There were reports of voting infractions and intimidation in some regions, including ballot stuffing in Moscow and the storming of an electoral precinct in Russia’s Far East.  Overall, however, the primary election took place with relatively few irregularities by Russian standards, which supported the regime’s narrative of a political reset in this electoral cycle.

United Russia’s May primary appeared to bring numerous benefits to the party, including:

–the ability to claim that it was the only party in Russia willing to give ordinary citizens a say in the selection of parliamentary candidates,[vii] and that their participation resulted in the removal or “de-selection” of incumbent United Russia deputies.  Although most sitting members of parliament from United Russia who contested the primaries maintained their eligibility for their seats, a significant minority did not.[viii]

–the recruitment of not only a popular but tested slate of candidates for the September elections.   The primary rules required that all candidates engage in at least two public debates, and this experience, plus the need to develop a professional campaign team and a convincing message capable of mobilizing the electorate, ensured that all United Russia candidates had a dry run in advance of the general election.  This dress rehearsal presents a special advantage in this electoral cycle because single-member district contests will be held for the first time in 13 years.  In addition, of course, the party primary in May exposed voters to the platform and candidates of United Russia well before the start of the regular parliamentary campaign.

–the opportunity to attract new blood into the party.[ix]  By opening places on the ballot to all comers, United Russia encouraged those with political ambitions but no party home to run in United Russia’s primary.[x]  If the candidates win, they join the ranks of the party; if they lose, they are prevented from contesting the forthcoming general election for the opposition.  Introducing an open nomination system in primaries for the country’s party of power is a logical initiative for a regime that is obsessed with developing a “cadres reserve”–a pool of eligible replacement personnel–in politics and government.  In Putin’s words, the primaries should become a “tool for finding promising, interesting people, and these are the people we need.”[xi]

Having set out the advantages of the party primary for Putin and United Russia, which serves as the president’s loyal base in the parliament and country, it is important to recognize the new challenges that open primaries present for the regime.  These include:

–a potential backlash from political elites who were defeated in the May voting as well as those who “won” in May but whose candidacies will not be confirmed by the party Congress, which meets later this month.  Although it appears that the leadership of United Russia is likely to accept the results overall, especially those in the single-member district races, the final formation of regional party lists could exclude persons who enjoyed success in the May primary.

–“approval voting” may exacerbate the trend toward a reliance on celebrity politicians from the world of sports and culture as a core group of pro-regime elites.  This voting system also threatens to produce candidates who may have support among a vocal minority but who do not enjoy broader popularity among their constituents.  One successful candidate in a single-member district race won with only 19 percent of the vote.

–a dilution of party values due to the influx of persons with no previous ties to United Russia.  Of course, given that the core values of United Russia are to gain, wield, and maintain power, and that non-party nominees are attracted to a party with such values, the threat posed by new blood is probably limited, but at a minimum it has the potential to disrupt existing patronage and protection networks.

The most serious long-term dangers to the current regime come from the possibility that party primaries could destabilize or overturn consolidated elites at the regional level or that regional elites could use the primary system to increase their influence in national politics.  The return to single-member districts will decouple half of the deputies’ mandates from the party bureaucracy and therefore make it more difficult for the center to manage members of parliament.  It may also allow some governors to gain control over deputies from their region, which would re-introduce some of the center-periphery bargaining that characterized Russian politics in the period up to 2003.  To prevent that from happening, the president administration, through its eight federal district offices and other institutions, will need to ensure that regional parliamentary “delegations” limit their dependence on governors.  It is instructive in this regard that United Russia went out of its way to warn governors against using their administrative resources to assist their political allies during the primary campaign.  The question is whether the Kremlin is really willing to continue that ban in the general election, when United Russia will presumably need such tools traditionally employed by governors in order to guarantee a victory.

Notes

[i] Russians even adopted the English term “praimeriz” in preference to the Russian “predvaritel’noe golosovanie” [preliminary voting].

[ii] Sergei Konovalov, “Praimeriz kak forma priamoi demokratii,” Nezasimaia gazeta, May 25, 2016.  http://www.ng.ru/politics/2016-05-25/3_kartblansh.html

[iii] Candidates with criminal convictions are also ineligible to run in the United Russia primary.

[iv] “10 voprosov o sisteme praimeriz v Rossii,” TASS, May 16, 2016.  http://tass.ru/politika/3280114

[v] Contrary to assertions in some Russian publications, turnout in congressional primaries during midterm elections in the United States was somewhat higher than this, about 15 percent, though aggregating state-by-state data to reach a national turnout average is problematic because of the different rules in each state and the number of races on the ballot at the same time as the party primary.  Given that the United Russia primary did not occur along with other political races, the 9.5 percent turnout is not out of line with what one might find in the United States.

[vi] For turnout rates by region, see the results on the United Russia website at pr.er.ru.  There was also wide variation by region in the “mobilization index” of UR voters, that is the percentage of voters in the May primary compared to those voting for UR in the 2011 parliamentary election.  The mean was about one-third, with the range stretching from 13 percent in the Komi Republic to 63 percent in Murmansk oblast.  “Itogi predvaritel’nogo golosovaniia ‘Edninoi Rossii’, situatsiia v partelite, intrigi i stsenarii kampanii-2016,” United Russia website, June 8, 2016.  https://er.ru/news/143000/

[vii] Other parties either rejected the idea of primary elections, conducted them with a limited selectorate, or had to abandon them because of technical problems.

[viii] Of the 109 incumbent State Duma deputies contesting single-member districts, 27 failed to win; 22 lost in party list contests.

[ix] A total of 2781 persons contested the UR primaries, 1171 for the single-member districts and 2107 for places on the regional party lists. “10 voprosov o sisteme praimeriz v Rossii,” TASS .  A few prominent candidates ran for both SMD and party list spots simultaneously.

[x] Many non-party candidates were members of the All-Russian Popular Front (ONF), a Putin support group masquerading as a mass movement.

[xi] “‘Edinaia Rossiia’ provodit predvaritel’noe golosovanie za kandidatov na vybory v Gosdumu,” Vzgliad, May 22, 2016.  http://www.vz.ru/news/2016/5/22/811949.html  Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev claimed that those non-party candidates who lost will be placed in United Russia’s cadres reserve.  Ivan Rodin, “Edinorossy repetitsiiu vyborov schitaiut uspeshnoi,” Nezavismaia gazeta, May 23, 2016.  http://www.ng.ru/politics/2016-05-23/1_edro.html

Russia – The Presidency as Mediator Between Business and Law Enforcement

On February 14, Vladimir Putin met with Alexander Shokhin, the head of the main lobbying group for Russian business–The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP).  In this tete-a-tete in the presidential residence of Novo-Ogarevo, outside of Moscow, Putin listened quietly to Shokhin’s lengthy assessment of the state of Russian business and to his ideas for improving business activity.  The Russian President then made an announcement that surprised the country’s political and economic establishment: the formation of an ad hoc presidential committee to resolve disagreements between the business community and law enforcement.

To be chaired by the president’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, who is widely regarded as the second or third most powerful man in the country–either just ahead or behind the prime minister, the working group will include representatives from law enforcement and the business community.[i] Putin called for the group to meet once a quarter, with Shokhin encouraging the President to attend some sessions when needed to iron out disagreements between the two sides.  As one newspaper observed, the President’s move was a tacit admission that the existing arrangements were not working, and that the Procuracy, charged with the oversight of legality, among other functions, was incapable of protecting businessmen and women from shakedowns by law enforcement agencies.  As in so many other areas of public policy, the formation of this forum for business and law enforcement confirmed that Putin’s regime was moving increasingly toward what the Russians call “manual steering” [ruchnoe upravlenie], where the President is constantly behind the wheel, and away from rule-based governance.[ii]

Apparently responding to the economic crisis occasioned by Western sanctions and the collapse of oil prices, Putin has in recent months been more attentive to the barriers impeding business development outside the energy sector, especially barriers imposed by law enforcement organizations.  In his annual State of the Union message in November, he noted that criminal investigative agencies opened 200,000 cases of economic crimes against businessmen and women in 2014, yet only 46,000 of these made it to court, and of that number 15,000 cases were thrown out or resulted in an acquittal, an unusually high percentage of failed cases by Russian standards.[iii]  Putin left little doubt about why so few convictions resulted from this police activity.  “[Law enforcement] pressured, worked over, and then released [the suspects],” which meant, for those unfamiliar with justice in much of the developing world, that police, prosecutors, and investigators used these cases to extort money from the suspects or to destroy their businesses so that others might take them over.[iv]  Putin noted that 83 percent of entrepreneurs who were subjected to criminal prosecution in 2014 lost all or part of their businesses.  At a moment when the “commanding heights of the economy” are under strain from global developments, the self-imposed sanctions on Russia’s business community, especially its vulnerable small and mid-sized enterprises, which often lack the political patronage [krysha] available to large firms, represent an intolerable strain on the country’s economy.

Numerous institutions already in place are supposed to provide forums for the airing of business complaints against the abuse of law enforcement power.  These include a business ombudsmen’s office, headed by Boris Titov, a co-head of Business Russia and the Kremlin-friendly Right Cause [Pravoe delo] political party, as well as business representatives on public advisory boards attached to law enforcement agencies.[v]  The failure of these recently-created organizations to reduce the problem of shakedowns and selective prosecutions reflects the difficulty of restraining the self-serving instincts of officialdom without the direct intervention of the President or the presidential apparatus.

Since Putin’s accession to power in 2000, the regime has launched periodic campaigns against corruption and abuse of office in executive agencies.  Revealing his openness to liberal and not just law enforcement solutions to the problem of corruption, Putin championed new legislation in the early 2000s that sought to “de-bureaucratize” the system, for example by reducing the barriers to entry for small businesses.  The result was a “single window” [odno okno] reform that greatly simplified and expedited the registration of businesses by making it more difficult for state officials to extract bribes from applicants.[vi]

Despite these initiatives, and periodic public attacks by Presidents Putin and Medvedev on corruption in the justice system that undermines business development, Russia continues to lag well behind developed countries in the formation and survival of small and medium-sized businesses.  Where such businesses hire from 50 to 80 percent of all workers in the United States, the European Union, and China, the figure is only 20 percent in Russia; likewise small and mid-sized firms account for 50 to 80 percent of GDP in the US, EU, and China, and only 27 percent in Russia.[vii]

Many scholars have argued that countries that are heavily dependent on the energy sector lack incentives to democratize their polities or liberalize their economies.  When prices for oil and gas are high, these rentier states have little need to diversify their economies or make the political leadership more accountable, given that energy profits can be used to pay for social services and keep taxes relatively low.  For the last year, however, Russia has faced a mounting economic crisis, which appears to have strengthened the hand of those in the political establishment who wish to unleash the potential of Russian business.  Putin’s formation of the new working group with representatives from business and law enforcement may be a signal–along with proposals to decriminalize some economic infractions and the recent dropping of charges against the Russian billionaire, Vladimir Evtushenkov–that the Kremlin is willing to serve as the business community’s protector in order to revive and diversify the economy.  Speaking at a conference of judges the day following his announcement of the formation of the working group, Putin urged the judiciary “‘to place barriers’ in the path of those who are using criminal prosecutions in corporate disputes or to gain control of property.”[viii]

The question now is whether such a small working group, meeting only quarterly, will be able to go beyond symbolic acts of redress to more systemic changes in the relationship between Russian business and the law enforcement agencies, which have traditionally seen economic enterprises as a source of income to be squeezed rather than a national resource to be protected.  Even if the President or his team can push the two sides to agree on reforms that would restrain the use of criminal law for the enrichment of officialdom, there is little evidence that such reforms could be implemented.  Without the enabling institutions that serve as checks on bureaucratic self-dealing, such as independent courts and media, the new working group in the presidency is unlikely to be more than an informal, and short-lived, court of arbitration between business and law enforcement interests.

Notes

[i] More specifically, the members will be, from one side, the deputy heads of the Procuracy, the Ministry of Interior, the Federal Security Agency (secret police), and the Criminal Investigative Committee), and from the other, the leaders of business associations like RSPP, Business Russia, the Foundation of Russia (Opora), and the Trade and Industrial Chamber (TPP).  Note that all of these law enforcement agencies answer directly to the President rather than the Prime Minister, a distinct feature of semi-presidentialism in the post-communist world.

[ii] Vstrecha s prezidentom Rossiiskogo soiuza promyshlennikov i predprinimatelei Aleksandrom Shokhinym, Kremlin.ru, 15 February 2016.  Anastasiia Kornia, “Putin prismotrit za biznesom,” Vedomosti, 11 February 2016.  https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/02/17/629971-kreml-otreguliruet-spori-biznesmenov-silovikami-ruchnom-rezhime

[iii] Aleksandr Dmitriev, “Bratva, ne streliaite drug v druga…,” Trud, 19 February 2016. http://www.trud.ru/article/19-02-2016/1334385_bratva_ne_streljajte_drug_v_druga.html

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Titov noted recently that every sixth complaint coming into his office was about an illegal criminal prosecution.  Ibid.

[vi] Eugene Huskey, “De-bureaucratizing the State,” in Lena Johnson and Stephen White (eds.), Waiting for Reform under Putin and Medvedev (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012); and Eugene Huskey, “The Challenges to Deregulating Russia: Business Registration Policy and Practice under Putin,” in David Linnan (ed.), Legitimacy, Legal Development & Change:  Law and Modernization Reconsidered  (Ashgate, 2012).

[vii] E.A. Laricheva and E.N. Skliar, Sravnitel’yi analiz razvitiia malogo i srednego predprinimatel’stva v Rossii i za rubezhom (2014).  http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.science-bsea.bgita.ru/2014/ekonom_2014_22/laricheva_sravnit.htm  The number of small businesses has not been growing in recent years.

[viii] Kornia, “Putin prismotrit za biznesom,” Vedomosti.

Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency

Constitutional reform has been a national pastime during Kyrgyzstan’s first quarter-century as an independent state.  Since the adoption of the first post-communist constitution in 1993, Kyrgyzstan has introduced new constitutions–or significant constitutional changes–six times.  From 1993 to 2007, under Presidents Akaev and Bakiev, these institutional reforms were designed to concentrate greater power in the presidency and to keep the political opposition off balance.[i]  However, in the wake of the ouster of President Bakiev during a popular revolt in April 2010, former opposition politicians succeeded in pushing through, by referendum, a new constitution that promised to introduce a parliamentary republic in Kyrgyzstan.  The 2010 Constitution contained numerous provisions that reduced the power of the presidency, strengthened the role of the parliament and the prime minister, and protected the opposition.  However, as we noted in an earlier entry on this blog,[ii] the new constitutional order in Kyrgyzstan retained many features that are associated with semi-presidential rather than parliamentary models of government, including direct presidential elections and the subordination of the security services to the office of the president.

Relegated to a single six-year term by the current constitution, President Almazbek Atambaev is now leading an effort to reduce the powers of the presidency and align the country’s institutions with those of classic parliamentarism, following the script of President Sarkisian of Armenia, who recently engineered a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system.[iii]  The initiative in Kyrgyzstan appears to have the support of the leaders of the country’s five parliamentary parties, which is an unexpected development given that some of these parties had previously favored the return to a stronger presidency.[iv]  Not surprisingly in a country with a vibrant civil society, the consensus of the governing establishment around constitutional reform has generated vigorous opposition from non-governmental organizations, which suspect Atambaev of maneuvering to maintain his political power after he steps down from the presidency.[v]  In the view of some, Atambaev lacks confidence in his ability to ensure that a sympathetic successor will win the next presidential election, and therefore he prefers to take his chances with a parliamentary system, in which his party, the Social Democrats, would play a prominent role.[vi]  For his part, Atambaev has insisted that he is looking forward to a quiet retirement when his term ends in late 2017.  “I am not planning to remain President for a second term or to become prime minister or speaker…..In less than two years, I’ll be going into retirement.  Of course, I’ll sleep and read books, and I haven’t given up my dream of playing the piano.”[vii]

As to why constitutional reform is needed at this juncture, Atambaev points to two dangers for the country under the existing institutional arrangements.  The first is the possibility of “cohabitation,” where two “young hotheads” who are politically and personally at odds occupy the posts of president and prime minister, “with one [the President] controlling the army and the secret police while the other [the Prime Minister] is in charge of the Minister of the Interior, whose forces outnumber those of the army.”[viii] Kyrgyzstan has thus far avoided the perils of cohabitation because Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party has always been in the ruling coalition, usually as the leading party.

The second fear advanced by Atambaev is that the presidential election, always a high-stakes, winner-take-all contest, will be closely contested in 2017. Unlike in his own election in 2011, where he captured 60 percent of the votes and the second-place finisher garnered only 14 percent, Atambaev notes that the next election could be much closer, and “someone could storm the gates [of the White House] if they lost by only .5 percent.”[ix] Atambaev claims that he knows “such dinosaurs,” who are willing to spill the blood of young supporters in this kind of effort.[x]  Therefore, in his view, the country must adopt a constitution that can serve as “defense against a fool” [idiot-proofing].[xi]

However, the proposed constitutional reforms do not merely envisage a reduction in presidential power and a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary model of government.  They also promise to undermine judicial independence, local self-governance, and the freedom of maneuver for individual members of parliament.  In the name of judicial accountability, the reforms would allow the President and Prime Minister, rather than the members of the court, to select the chair and deputy chair of the Supreme Court, who have responsibilities for the allocation of cases and the assessment of judicial performance.  In Russia and some other post-communist countries, this ability to appoint the court’s leadership has seriously eroded judicial independence. [xii]  Furthermore, the constitutional reform would reduce the ability of the judicial branch to restrain executive power by removing the Constitutional Chamber from the judicial system and potentially transforming it into a body issuing merely advisory opinions.[xiii]

The proposed constitutional changes would also strengthen considerably the authority of the leaders of Government and parliament, from the Prime Minister to the heads of parties.  Besides exercising some existing powers now carried out by the President, the Prime Minister would assume several new powers, among them the right to dismiss ministers unilaterally and to appoint the heads of local governments, who are currently selected by local councils.  For their part, party leaders would be empowered to remove from parliament individual rank-and-file members of their fractions who vote against the party line.  Thus, while touted as a corrective to certain perils of the existing constitution, the proposed changes would also weaken the independence of the judiciary and local government and the accountability of the parliamentary leadership.

Standing in the way of the introduction of the new institutional arrangements is Article 4 of the Law on the Enactment of the 2010 Constitution, which states that no changes may be made to the constitution for ten years–that is before 2020–unless they are made by a popular referendum.  Although there is some discussion of trying to circumvent this rule by introducing the reforms through so-called “constitutional laws,” which require a supermajority vote of parliamentary deputies, President Atambaev has stated that he is willing to call a referendum if necessary to revise the constitution.  That Kyrgyzstan has gone almost six years without  a constitutional overhaul is unprecedented, and efforts to block the proposed changes may yet prolong the country’s streak of constitutional stability.

Notes

[i] Eugene Huskey and Gulnara Iskakova, “Narrowing the Sites and Moving the Targets: Institutional Instability and the Development of a Political Opposition in Kyrgyzstan,” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 58, no. 3 (2011), pp. 3-10.

[ii] Eugene Huskey, “Another Year, Another Prime Minister,” Presidential Power blog, 18 May 2015 http://presidential-power.com/?p=3321.

[iii] On the Armenian reforms, see the entries on this blog by Chiara Lodi, “Armenia–From Semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism,” 16 September 2015, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3805, and “Armenia–The Constitutional Referendum and the Role of the President during the Campaign,” 9 December 2015.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=4231

[iv] Daniiar Karimov, “Atambaev ubedil,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 July 2015. http://www.rg.ru/2015/07/02/konst.html

[v] Aidanbek Akmat uulu, “Konstitutsionnaia reforma: usloviia i sroki,” Radio Azattyk, 13 November 2015. http://rus.azattyk.org/content/article/27362706.html  Some politicians, like Kubatbek Baibolov, former presidential candidate and Minister of Interior, believe that “whatever the real motivations [podopleka] behind the initiative, a transition to a purely parliamentary form of government should be supported.” Ibid.

[vi] Some observers claim that Atambaev favors the indirect election of the president by parliament, but Atambaev has stated that he has no such intent.  As Emil’ Juraev notes, Atambaev’s concerns about his successor relate in part to how he would be treated once he left office.  Without a sympathetic successor, a departing president could be the subject of litigation endangering his property and person.   IWPR Central Asia, “V Kyrgyzstane vnov’ govoriat o politicheskoi reforme,” Global  Voices, 11 December 2015.  https://iwpr.net/ru/global-voices/в-кыргызстане-вновь-говорят-о-политической-реформе

[vii] Leila Saralaeva, “Spasibo nashim liudiam za ikh vyderzhku i spravedlivost’,” Novye litsa, 24 December 2015.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/politics/prezident-kyrgyzstana-almazbek-atambaev-spasibo-nashim-lyudyam-za-ix-vyderzhku-i-spravedlivost

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.  The reference is to the ousters of former presidents by crowds that climbed over the White House fence in 2005 and 2010, and the unsuccessful attempt by opposition figure Kamchibek Tashiev to do that with a group of supporters in 2013.

[x] Ibid.  Left unsaid by Atambaev is the possibility that candidates from the North and South of the country could be in a close contest, which could endanger the country’s stability and even its integrity.

[xi] This concept was first advanced by an industrial engineer from Toyota, Shigeo Shingo.

[xii] Peter H. Solomon, Jr., “Informal Practices in Russian Justice: Probing the Limits of Post-Soviet Reform,” in Ferdinand Feldbrugge (ed.), Russia, Europe, and the Rule of Law (Leiden: Nijhoff, 2007), pp. 79-92.  According to some of President Atambaev’s critics, the presidency already dictates many judicial decisions, especially in cases of political corruption.  See Makhimur Niiazova, “Femida–chto dyshlo,” Respublika [Bishkek], no. 24, 19 November 2015.  http://www.respub.kg/2015/11/20/%D1%84%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B0-%D1%87%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%B4%D1%8B%D1%88%D0%BB%D0%BE/

[xiii] The Venice Commission and other international organizations have expressed their concerns about the proposed reforms.  Anna Ialovkina, “Kyrgyzstan: popravki v Konstitutsiiu ‘neizbezhny’,” Institute po osveshcheniiu voiny i mira [Institute for War and Peace Reporting], 3 July 2015. RCA Issue 764.  http://www.refworld.org.ru/docid/559fc6344.html

Russia – Vladimir Putin: President of his Country, and its Diaspora

Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin gave the opening address at the V Global Congress of Compatriots [Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov], a forum sponsored by the Russian President’s and Prime Minister’s offices. Established in 2001,[i] in Putin’s second year of office, the organization unites persons living outside Russia who feel an affinity toward the Russian Federation and have cultural, linguistic, kinship, or citizenship ties to the country or its predecessors–Tsarist Russia[ii] and the USSR. In his speech to 400 delegates drawn from 97 different countries, Putin made it clear that his responsibilities as president extend beyond the borders of Russia. “Persons [compatriots] living outside of Russia, for whatever reason, should be fully confident: we will always defend your interests, especially in challenging and crisis situations.”[iii]

Appealing in equal parts to the diaspora’s sense of pride and indignation, Putin explained to the representatives of the “huge and varied overseas Russian community”–approximately 30 million strong–that for the Russian state, “a reliable defense of compatriots against any form of discrimination” experienced overseas was a matter of principle. For their part, delegates from overseas reveled in Russia’s new prominence on the world stage and Putin’s muscular foreign policy. As an ethnic Russian from Kyrgyzstan observed, “it used to be that only the lazy failed to spit on Russia, which sapped the spirit of compatriots…but the insolent Saudis and Qataris suddenly understood that they could be smashed to smithereens by rockets from the Caspian fleet! In principle, I’m a pacifist, but I fully support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!! I’m happy that Russia has come alive!”[iv]

By appearing personally at the Congress of Compatriots, Putin signaled his support for a range of recent initiatives designed to expand the linkages between the Russian state and its diaspora, and in so doing to strengthen Russia’s soft power capabilities outside its borders.   On one level, official policy seeks to nurture the language, culture, and religions of Russia among compatriots living permanently abroad, often in countries of the Near Abroad whose governments have pursued policies of de-russification since the collapse of the USSR. Russian officials lament the fact that the Russian language has declined more rapidly than any other major world language, falling from 350 million speakers in 1985 to 270 million today. As Putin explained in his speech, in order to reverse this trend, the government has recently developed a new program, “The Russian School Abroad,” whose goal is to expose youth in the diaspora to traditional Russian methods of language instruction as well as approaches to Russian history, culture, and geography that align with official narratives advanced by the Russian state. Referencing an essay contest entitled “My Motherland is the Russian Language,” one journalist noted that “geolinguistics has become a part of Russian geopolitics today.” Extending an old saying attributed to Tsar Alexander III, he observed that “besides its two faithful allies, the army and navy, Russia also has a third, which is very strong: the Russian language.”[v]

In order to correct what the Russian political establishment regards as false impressions of their homeland and its foreign and domestic policies, Russia has also made significant investments of late in international broadcasting, including the RT network in English, and in programs that bring young compatriots back to Russia for higher education or for short-term travel. In 2015, Russia reserved 15,000 places in its higher educational institutions for members of the diaspora, and it is expanding its efforts to reach young compatriots outside the country, in part through distance learning and branches of Russian universities abroad. In April of this year, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, the country organized in Sochi the first Global Games for Young Compatriots, which brought together 600 participants from 33 countries. “All of this,” Putin noted in his remarks to the Congress of Compatriots, “serves to strengthen the international authority and influence of our country; it helps to eliminate the stereotypes and prejudices of recent years; and it replaces various propaganda campaigns and cliches about our country with the truth.”[vi]

Besides initiatives designed to heighten the diaspora’s attachment to the “Russian World” [russkii mir], the Putin presidency has vigorously pursued resettlement efforts that encourage compatriots to return permanently to their ancestral homeland. Speaking in Kazakhstan in the early years of his presidency, Putin observed that due to the demographic crisis facing Russia, the country would need to attract up to 50,000,000 additional citizens.[vii] In recent years, significant numbers of labor migrants have moved to Russia from the poorer reaches of the Near Abroad, and in particular from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It is clear, however, that the Russian political establishment would prefer to make up this demographic deficit with immigrants whose linguistic, ethnic, and confessional backgrounds align with the majority population in the country.

Toward this end, both the Russian federal government and the governments of individual regions have developed resettlement programs that facilitate the return of compatriots by assisting with housing and employment. Operating under the umbrella of the “State Program for Offering Assistance for the Volunteer Return to Russia of Compatriots Abroad,” these efforts have resulted in the return over the last eight years of 367,000 persons, of whom 130,000 moved from Ukraine.[viii] Although these numbers are significant–and an additional stream of settlers from Ukraine is underway[ix]–this program is far from eliminating Russia’s demographic deficit, which is felt especially keenly in the sparsely settled areas along the Chinese border.[x]

Putin’s appearance at the Global Congress of Compatriots is a reminder that, in some countries, studies of the presidency must consider not just a leader’s relations with domestic audiences and representatives of foreign states but also those living abroad who remain attached to their homeland. As we have seen in Ukraine over the last two years, the Russian President has been able to mobilize members of the “Russian World” as a means of consolidating Russia’s position in the region and his own political support. How Putin uses these ties to his compatriots in surrounding countries, most notably in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic, will serve as a barometer of his own, and his country’s, ambitions in the region and the world.

Notes

[i] Organizers had attempted to launch such a congress in 1991, but its initial meeting was cut short due to the August coup, and the organization never recovered.   Mariia Chunikhina, “Chto takoe Vsemirnyi kongress sootechestvennikov?” Argumenty i fakty, 5 November 2015. http://www.aif.ru/dontknows/file/chto_takoe_vsemirnyy_kongress_sootechestvennikov More than 150 local Russian compatriot organizations exist around the world, and the overwhelming majority of their members, according to an official in the Moscow mayor’s office, “support Russia on practically all issues.” Ibid.

[ii] Speaking at the Congress, Count Nikita Lobanov-Rostovskii, a representative of the post-revolutionary emigration, recounted a comment attributed to Vladimir Putin as he passed the grave of a White Guard member in a Parisian cemetery. “These are children of the same mother, Russia, and it’s time for us to unite.” Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” Kommersant, 6 November 2015, p. 2. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2847377

[iii] A transcript of Putin’s address may be found at Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639. A transcript of his remarks to the previous congress, delivered on tape to the delegates in 2012, is available at Privetstvie uchastnikam Vsemirnogo kongress sootechestvennikov, 26 October 2012. http://kremlin.ru/catalog/keywords/32/events/16719 One observer remarked that the reception Putin received at the V Congress was even more enthusiastic than that at the All-Russian Popular Front, Putin’s domestic political movement. Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 5 November 2015, p. 1. http://www.mk.ru/politics/2015/11/05/podnyal-rossiyu-s-kolen-na-sezde-sootechestvennikov-putina-vstretili-ovaciyami.html

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voistinu kongress!” For his part, Mikhail Drozdov, the chairman of the Congress and the head of the local group of compatriots in Shanghai, commented that “An aimless and perplexed Russia no longer exists….We are now a people who have again recognized our historical mission….” Elena Egorova, “Russkii mir i russkii marsh.”

[v] Iadviga Iuferova, “Uchit’ nel’zia zabyt’,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 4 September 2015, p. 11. http://www.rg.ru/2015/09/03/pushkin-poln.htm

[vi] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015.

[vii] Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 3 August 2015, p. 14. http://www.rg.ru/2015/08/02/bezhency.htm

[viii] Vsemirnyi Kongress sootechestvennikov, 5 November 2015. http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50639

[ix] The figure of 137,000 represents only those Ukrainian citizens who have formally resettled in Russia. The Federal Migration Service indicates that more than a million refugees from Ukraine are now located in Russia. How many will remain in the country depends on the future course of developments in eastern Ukraine. Lidiia Grafova, “Tiazhelo ty, bremia dostepriimstva,” Rossiiskaia gazeta.

[x] The Government recently submitted a draft law to the Duma that would grant citizens up to one hectare of land free of charge in the Far East. “Zakon o razdache zemli na Dal’nem Vostoke mozhet vstupit’ v silu s 1 maia 2016 goda,” Kommersant, 19 November 2015. http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2857367

Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s Lone Democracy Elects a New Parliament

Citizens in Kyrgyzstan went to the polls on Sunday, October 4, to elect 120 deputies to the country’s unicameral legislature, the Zhogorku Kenesh [Supreme Council]. It was the second parliamentary election under a new constitution that was introduced in the wake of the April 2010 revolution and the interethnic violence of June of that year. Although observers in Kyrgyzstan label the country a “parliamentary republic,” the constitution in fact created a semi-presidential system in which the directly-elected president, currently Almazbek Atambaev, enjoys considerable powers, including the ability to appoint and supervise the “power ministries,” such as defense, interior, and secret police. President Atambaev also serves as the de facto leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, which received the largest share of the vote (27.41%) in Sunday’s election. As President, he has the right to select the formateur of the new coalition government, which will clearly be the Social Democrats, who finished seven points ahead of their nearest rival, the Respublica–Ata Jurt Party.

Given the violence and chaos that wracked the country only five years ago, the mere holding of a peaceful and highly-competitive election must be considered an accomplishment of the first order.[i] There were certainly irregularities in some polling places, accusations of vote buying, and a suspicious jump in the turnout rate, from almost 46 percent at 6pm to approximately 60 percent by the close of polling at 8pm. However, international observers monitoring the elections assessed them as highly-contested and noteworthy for the use of the latest technologies in electoral administration.[ii] For the first time, the Central Election Commission used biometric data (thumbprints) to identity voters at the polls. It also forbade the use of mobile phones or cameras in the voting booths in order to maintain the sanctity of the secret ballot and discourage vote-buying or intimidation. The biometric data requirement was not without its downside, however. Observers estimate that there were almost one million fewer voters on the rolls because of this registration requirement.[iii]

The high level of competitiveness of the electoral campaign benefitted from a reduction in the use of administrative resources by officials allied to the President as well as the presence of numerous well-funded parties that were able to get out their message to voters across this mountainous country, where a sizable portion of the population lives in remote areas. According to preliminary figures, campaign expenditures of the parties securing seats in the new parliament ranged from less than 3 million soms ($43,500) per seat by the Social Democrats to over 9 million soms ($130,400) per seat by the Ata Meken party.[iv] The 14 parties that contested the election were also able to reach voters through a series of televised debates whose spirited exchanges and high production value rivaled debates in mature democracies. In fact, the television anchors questioning the candidates–using a bilingual format in both Kyrgyz and Russian–were models of professionalism.

Although the recent increase in the national threshold from 5 to 7 percent in Kyrgyzstan’s closed list PR system was designed in part to reduce the number of parties in parliament, the new parliament will have one more party than the old (6 instead of 5).[v] The preliminary seat totals are as follows:

Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan 38
Respublica-Ata Zhurt 28
Kyrgyzstan 18
Onuguu-Progress 13
Bir Bol 12
Ata Meken 11

Falling out of the new parliament is the Ar-Narmys Party, whose leader, Felix Kulov, had been unable to impose discipline on his members in the previous parliament.[vi]  The incoming parliament will have three new parties–Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu-Progress, and Bir Bol–while one bloc, Respublica-Ata Zhurt, represents a fusion of two existing parties.[vii]

In at least two important respects, the results appear to consolidate democracy in Kyrgyzstan. First, although the Social Democrats were able to increase their seat total by almost 50 percent from the last election, from 26 to 38, they will need to share power with at least one other party, and many commentators believe a three-party coalition, with Kyrgyzstan and Onuguu-Progress, is most likely. Thus, the election did not produce a dominant “party of power” whose support for the president could diminish the political accountability of the executive, a common pattern in post-Soviet states. Second, and in many ways more importantly, the deep political divisions between the North and South of the country that were on full display in 2010 and 2011–during the revolution, ethnic violence, and parliamentary and presidential elections–have receded in this electoral cycle.[viii] Instead of parties with dominant bases of support in the North or South, Kyrgyzstan in this election has moved decidedly toward national parties that appeal to significant numbers of voters in all of the country’s seven electoral regions and its two main cities–Bishkek and Osh.[ix] This nationalization of parties will certainly not eliminate regional divisions, but it should allow the main locus of politics on this issue to shift from the public square to party caucuses.[x]

Although the regional divisions may be subsiding, tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the South of the country show few signs of abating. The strong showing of the Social Democrats in Osh city and Osh regions almost certainly reflects the support of the ethnic Uzbek population for the party of the president. It is doubtful, however, given the virulence of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism in recent years, that this Uzbek support will translate into significant concessions to the Uzbek population on cultural or political issues.

If the last electoral cycle is a guide, it may take some weeks before the Social Democrats can form a ruling coalition. Besides negotiating over the usual claims to ministerial portfolios and the speakership of the Zhogorku Kenesh, parties will be arguing over the division of the spoils for lower-level appointments in Bishkek and the provinces. What is unlikely to delay the negotiations are disagreements about policy. Kyrgyzstan remains a personality and identity-driven political system, and the October 2015 parliamentary election does not appear to have altered that orientation, which the country shares with most of the developing world.[xi]

Notes

[i] For an overview of conditions in the country at the time of the election, see International Crisis Group, “Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory,” Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing No. 76, 30 September 2015. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/b076-kyrgyzstan-an-uncertain-trajectory.aspx

[ii] See the press conference of the OSCE Monitoring Team at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kyrgyzstan/177111, and the assessment of the largest internal election-monitoring NGO (Dinara Oshurakhunova, “Vybory proshli chisto, dlia vsekh partii byli sozdany odinakovye usloviia,” Gezitter.org, 5 October 2015). http://www.gezitter.org/vybory/44059_d_oshurahunova_predsedatel_koalitsii_za_demokratiyu_i_grajdanskoe_obschestvo_vyiboryi_proshli_chisto_dlya_vseh_partiy_byili_sozdanyi_odinakovyie_usloviya/

[iii] Six weeks before the elections, as part of a bureaucratic turf war, the head of the Central Election Commission severely criticized the State Registration for putting together a voters’ list that he described as “the lowest quality in the history of the country.” “Takogo nekachestvennogo spiska izbiratelei v istorii Kyrgyzstan eshche ne bylo–Abdraimiov,” KirTAG, 29 August 2015. http://kyrtag.kg/society/takogo-nekachestvennogo-spiska-izbirateley-v-istorii-kyrgyzstana-eshche-ne-bylo-abdraimov

[iv] “14 partii potratili na vybory v ZhK 778 mln somov,” AkiPress, 5 October 2015. http://kg.akipress.org/news:624801

[v] Because the new threshold is based on the percentage of actual voters, whereas the earlier threshold was based on the percentage of registered voters, the current threshold of 7 percent is in practice less restrictive than the former 5-percent threshold.

[vi] An indication of the instability of parties in Kyrgyzstan is that during the previous parliamentary session, 56 percent of Ar-Namys deputies switched parties, a level that was on par with that for Respublica (60 percent) and Ata Zhurt (53 percent). The most stable parties were the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, which witnessed 7 and 16 percent defections, respectively, from their ranks.

[vii] On recent party realignments see Arslan Sabyrbekov, “Party Restructuring in Kyrgyzstan Prior to 2015 Elections,” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 27 May 2015. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/field-reports/item/13211-party-restructuring-in-kyrgyzstan-prior-to-2015-elections.html

[viii] Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “Regionalism, Personalism, Ethnicity, and Violence: Parties and Voter Preference in the 2010 Parliamentary Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 29, no. 3 (June 2013), pp. 237-267; David Hill and Eugene Huskey, “Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Demokratizatsiya, no. 1 (January 2015), pp. 3-30.

[ix] Regional results are available at “Predvaritel’nye rezul’taty golosovaniia na parliamentskikh vyborakh,” Sputnik, 4 October 2015. http://ru.sputnik.kg/infographics/20151004/1018946828.html Despite the adoption of sophisticated new technologies in some areas of electoral administration in Kyrgyzstan, the website of the Central Election Commission, which publishes results at the precinct, district, and national level, has not been accessible since the election. http://www.shailoo.gov.kg/

[x] One potential source of tension surrounds the failure of a party with its primary electoral base in the South, Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek, to cross the 7 percent threshold, garnering just over 6 percent of the votes. This party, led by the charismatic and divisive politician, Adakhan Madumarov, also fell just short of securing seats in the parliament in the 2010 parliamentary election.

[xi] Despite some suggestions to the contrary in the Russian and Western press, foreign policy did not appear to be a major issue in the election campaign. Almost all major parties accept the basic pro-Russian orientation of Kyrgyzstan, and Russia appears to have made its peace with the more competitive and open environment in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in 2010, when Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, warned that Kyrgyzstan could not survive the transition to a system with a strong parliament and multiple parties, the official line today from Moscow is more tolerant of Kyrgyzstani exceptionalism. See, for example, Vladislav Vorob’ev and Konstantin Volkov, “Liudi ustali ot revoliutsii,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 October 2015, p. 6. Kyrgyzstan’s recent entry into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union further solidified ties between the two countries.

Russia – Inviting Voice without Accepting Accountability: Putin’s Search for Alternative Sources of Legitimation

Electoral success in competitive authoritarian regimes poses a conundrum for political leaders. The less competitive the election, the more likely it is to prompt a backlash, witness the color revolutions in the post-communist world in the 2000s. In the case of Russia, the fear of a popular rebellion led to restrictions on NGOs, especially those with foreign ties, and to a greater reliance on institutions that project an aura of popular accountability without actually restraining political power. In other words, as the legitimating potential of traditional liberal institutions, such as elections, parties, and parliaments, fades, the regime seeks substitutes in alternative organizations and rituals that can buttress leadership claims of responsiveness to the public.[i]

Insisting that existing NGOs were unrepresentative of Russian society, Putin established the system of Public Chambers [Obshchestvennye palaty] in April 2005, shortly after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as a state-sanctioned alternative to traditional liberal institutions. Filled for the most part with pro-regime experts and dignitaries, the organization has acquired more responsibilities in recent years and is now a quasi-parliament, a quarter of whose members are elected through an internet poll.[ii] The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation sits atop a network of regional chambers and affiliated public councils that monitor the activities of executive agencies.[iii] Although it is tempting to write off this Russian experiment in horizontal accountability as yet another example of “virtual politics,”[iv] it does provide opportunities for feedback, especially from those whose concerns about specific policies and organizations do not spring from a general critique of the regime.

Besides organizations like the Public Chambers, Putin has introduced or enhanced other institutions that seek to illustrate the President’s attentiveness and accessibility to citizens. Perhaps the most ambitious and risky of these efforts is the prime-time call-in show entitled Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Instead of regularly receiving supplicants at Court, like traditional rulers, Russia’s republican monarch of the digital age makes himself available periodically to the nation in a marathon television broadcast in which he answers questions posed by text, email, letters, Skype, and by anchors and selected members of the studio audience. Over the years Putin has developed a mastery of this form of communication, alternating between stern statements directed at the country’s enemies to wonkish discussions of obscure areas of public policy and humorous banter with questioners.

Although the event is carefully scripted, the live format gives the program an edge, which is heightened by the willingness of the organizers to allow the occasional critique of Putin’s leadership. For example, at the last Direct Line, in April 2015, a member of the studio audience, Aleksei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister, asked Putin why GDP growth in his first term [2000-2004] had been almost 7 percent annually, when the price of oil averaged $30 a barrel, whereas it was only 1.5 percent in his current term [2012-present], with oil between $65 and $70 a barrel.[v] The rare uncomfortable moments like these only heighten the program’s authenticity and popularity, and one suspects that most of the massive audience that tunes in would agree with Putin’s assessment, made at the end of the 2015 version of the show, that the almost four-hour event, with no breaks, was “the most powerful public opinion poll…which allows us to understand what people are really concerned about….”[vi]

Between these episodic high-profile encounters with the nation, Putin receives a constant stream of letters and email messages from citizens, who also have the option of visiting in person presidential reception centers [priemnye] in Moscow and the regions to communicate their concerns. Receiving, analyzing, and following through on these requests and complaints of Russian citizens is the job of the presidency’s Department for Work with Communications from Citizens and Organizations [Upravlenie po rabote s obrashcheniiami grazhdan i organizatsii]. Continuing a tradition of the “complaint bureaucracy” that had formed part of the tsarist and communist regimes,[vii] the presidential Department for Work with Communications has in recent years devoted more resources to tracking complaints through officialdom and analyzing and presenting graphically this store of governmental data. This year the Department is on track to process more than a million requests and complaints from citizens and social groups.[viii]

Accessible on the presidential website, the monthly and annual reports provide a treasure trove of information about the concerns of Russian citizens, which are broken down by policy area and by the region of the sender.[ix] The changing focus of citizen concerns is evident in these materials, witness the 32 percent month-on-month increase from August 2014 to August 2015 in the number of communications relating to the economy, which has produced considerable anxiety of late because of the effects of Western sanctions and the declining oil price. There was an even greater percentage decrease in the number of requests and complaints relating to the State/Society/Politics rubric, reflecting perhaps greater popular resignation about the shape of the political order amid the further consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his team.

Whether directed to the President’s complaints office or parallel institutions in agencies like the Procuracy, these messages–a quintessential form of individual political action–serve as a barometer of the public mood and represent a low-cost, low-risk way of exhibiting openness to public voice while avoiding the dangers to the regime of collective political action. It is unclear, however, how responsive political leaders are in competitive authoritarian regimes to the signals received through these alternatives to liberal institutions. It is also difficult to assess how effective such alternatives are with the public as substitutes for the traditional means of legitimation found in democratic countries. Inviting voice without accepting accountability may be difficult to sustain as a long-term strategy in the absence of levels of repression and information control that are higher than those in place at the moment in Russia and other competitive authoritarian regimes.

[i] Among Russian political institutions, parties and parliament inspire little confidence among the public. A poll conducted in late 2013 found that whereas the President, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the army were trusted by 55, 48, and 43 percent of the population, respectively, the figures for the parliament and political parties were 25 and 12 percent. Doverie institutam vlasti, Levada-Tsentr, 7 October 2013. http://www.levada.ru/07-10-2013/doverie-institutam-vlasti

[ii] The Russian president selects another quarter of the members and regional Public Chambers select half of the body.

[iii] A similar, though more robust, network of public monitoring boards has functioned in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. See Eugene Huskey, “Public Advisory Boards in Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian Experiment with Horizontal Accountability,” IREX Scholar Research Brief, August 2013. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/EPS%20Scholar%20Research%20Brief%20Huskey.pdf

[iv] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Communist World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[v] Priamaia liniia s Vladimirom Putinym (15 aprelia 2015), at 32:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhHtS4oVst8

[vi] Ibid., at 3:57:00. For an assessment of this program as political and discursive performance, see Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The discourse of a spectacle at the end of the presidential term,” in Helena Goscilo (ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 104-110.

[vii] There is a rich literature on citizen complaints in Russia; see, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s,” Slavic Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 78-105. Studies of the contemporary complaint bureaucracy include Laura A. Henry, “Complaint-Making as Political Participation in Contemporary Russia,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 45, nos. 3-4 (September-December 2012), pp. 243-254; Danielle N. Lussier, “Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 3 (July-September 2011), pp. 289-325; and Joshua Solomon, Citizen-State Relations in Hybrid Regimes: The Case of the Correspondence Directorate of the Russian Presidency, Senior Thesis, Stetson University, May 2013.

[viii] Informatsionno-statisticheskii obzor rasmotrennykh v avguste 2015 goda obrashchenii grazhdan, organizatsii i obshchestvennykh ob’edinenii, adresovannykh Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, p. 20. http://letters.kremlin.ru/media/letters/digests/41d57b5db0d596e13201.pdf

[ix] Complaints and questions from citizens are categorized into five major policy areas–State, Society, Politics; Social Sphere; Economics; Defense, Security, Legality; Housing Sphere–and each of these is disaggregated further into five sub-categories. Maps, graphs, and pie charts abound in these lengthy reports; the August 2015 monthly report, for example, was over 100 pages. Ibid.Put

Russia – From Public Politics to Public Management: Mayors and the Completion of Putin’s “Power Vertical”

One of the hallmarks of Vladimir Putin’s rule has been an attempt to “depoliticize” Russian government.[i] Rather than viewing governance as the art of reconciling competing claims by various groups and individuals, the current Russian leadership embraces the concept of government as a science of bureaucratic management.[ii] This approach requires insulating policy-making as much as possible from the “short-sighted” demands of opposition politicians, who are branded as populists and demagogues, and entrusting it to those–the current ruling elite, headed by the president–who allegedly have the long term interests of the Russian state at heart. It is easy, of course, to dismiss this perspective as a self-serving means of legitimating authoritarian rule and keeping the incumbents in power. Although it certainly serves those purposes, it is more than a cynical ploy; it reflects the worldview of Russia’s contemporary ruling class, which has a deep distrust, if not fear, of the common people, the narod, as political actors.

To move Russia from public politics to public management, the political leadership has employed a number of tactics over the last decade and a half, the most visible of which is the construction of what Putin has called a “power vertical” [vertikal’ vlasti]. In this system, the president sits atop a hierarchy of executive officials–from Moscow to the provinces–who are supposed to carry out policies introduced or negotiated by Putin in the center. Among the many factors complicating the operation of the power vertical is the presence of various elected officials, at the federal, regional, and local levels, whose loyalty to the president may be limited by their sensitivity to the views of constituents. In order to neutralize the constraints imposed by the election of other public officials, Putin has placed virtually insurmountable barriers in the path of opposition parties and politicians and transformed many elective offices into appointed ones.[iii]

Over the last year, President Putin’s team has revived a campaign to “depoliticize” local government through electoral reform. Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician assassinated earlier this year, asked facetiously in December 2014 what the political leadership was doing while the ruble fell 50 percent in value and 130 billion rubles fled the country? His answer: “The Kremlin…gave an order to eliminate the election of mayors of the capital cities [of Russian regions].”[iv] In fact, the shift to appointed rather than elected mayors had begun a decade earlier, though it had affected less than half of Russian territories by late 2011.[v] And it was not just regional capitals–where local governors often find themselves in disputes with popular local mayors–but larger cities throughout Russia that have been capitulating in recent months to political pressure from above to abandon elections for mayor. In many cases, the mayors are being replaced by city managers, an institution that appeared in Russia for the first time in 2003 as part of the depoliticization initiative.[vi]

Although President Putin had succeeded earlier in marginalizing the opposition in federal and regional politics, public politics remained vibrant at the local level, where mayoral contests were often genuinely competitive. In the race for Moscow mayor, for example, one of Putin’s harshest and most visible critics, Alexei Navalnyi, received over 27 percent of the vote in a losing but impressive effort. According to one source, “[o]ne quarter of mayoral elections held between 2001 and 2012 were decided by less than 15 percentage points….[and] in many notable instances, opposition mayoral candidates have been able to defeat United Russia candidates, although many of those opposition mayors were subsequently arrested.”[vii] It is no surprise, then, that a Russian president intent on eliminating pockets of resistance to the power vertical would seek to complete the depoliticization of local government.

There is a danger for Putin, however, that the attempt to strip mayors of public accountability will prove a pyrrhic victory. Not only are Putin’s tactics running roughshod over more than two decades of constitutional traditions on the autonomy of local government, they fly directly in the face of public opinion on the issue. According to a poll taken by the Levada Center in May 2014, 77 percent of Russians believed that mayors of large cities should be directly elected.[viii] In a survey conducted at the end of last year, 80 percent of Yaroslavl residents favored direct mayoral election.[ix] Even for a normally compliant population, many of the justifications offered by the regime’s representatives for diminishing the power of the ballot appear insulting. The governor of Krasnodar region noted that the government would save considerable money by not having elections, and at any rate the population was “tired” of all the campaigns.[x] The vice speaker of the regional assembly in Ulianovsk admitted that the elimination of direct mayoral elections would subordinate the office of mayor to the regional governor, which “will strengthen the power vertical, and that has never hurt Russia.”[xi] For his part, the head of the Karelian Republic argued that the reform would “remove unnecessary politicization from local government…”[xii] More convincing to some will be the opportunity that the new electoral rules provide for the formation of directly elected borough councils within cities, but the candidates drawn to these bodies are likely to resurrect “the image of milk-maids and lathe operators recruited in the Soviet-era local elections.”[xiii]

Students of presidentialism and semi-presidentialism traditionally focus on national politics and on relations between executive and legislative institutions. However, presidential power rests not only on political relations in the center but on the ability of the leader to command the loyalty of the periphery. Designed to ensure that Putin’s writ extends to the farthest reaches of Russia, the current attempt to depoliticize mayors’ offices tests the limits of the Russian power vertical. In Joel Moses’ words, under the new system, “…Russians will be denied accountable citywide institutions responsible for their daily lives and left with protests, demonstrations, and grassroots organizations as their sole political outlets….”[xiv] Given that the biggest winners in this reform are governors rather than the Russian president, one has to wonder if this initiative is a step too far for Putin.[xv]

Notes

[i] An excellent work of Russian scholarship on this subject is Viktor Mart’ianov, “The Decline of Public Politics in Russia: From Public Politics to Political Administration: The Depoliticization of the Regions,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 45, no. 5 (September-October 2007), pp. 67-82 [translation of “Padenie publichnoi politiki v Rossii: ot publichnoi politiki k politicheskomu administrirovaniiu. Depolitizatsiia regionov,” Svobodnaia mysl’, 2006, no. 5, pp. 5-18] The title of this blog entry and the framework for analysis were inspired by this piece.

[ii] This idea is developed with regard to Soviet-style regimes in A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[iii] Although the public regained the right to vote for governors after almost a decade during which the president appointed governors to the country’s 83 regions, new, arcane rules all but ensure that gubernatorial candidates favored by President Putin will emerge as winners. See Joel C. Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 66, no. 9 (November 2014), pp. 1395-1424, and especially pp. 1414-1415 for the rules limiting genuine competition. Recently adopted rules also provide that certain regions may choose to forgo direct elections for governor, and that option has been adopted by violence-plagued regions in the Northern Caucasus. Here, the regional parliaments select the governor.

[iv] Boris Nemtsov, “Panoptikum: rubl’ rukhnul, a oni vybory otmeniaiut,” Ekho Moskvy, 1 December 2014.

[v] The provisions of Russian legislation on mayoral elections are complex, but essentially they allow cities to choose among several options, which allow for an elected mayor, a mayor-city manager tandem, or a city manager. Putin’s recent moves are effectively removing this choice and forcing locales to abandon the direct election option. See Noah Buckley, Guzel Garifullina, Ora John Reuter, and Alexandra Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 22, no. 1 (2014), pp. 93-98.

[vi] Vasilii Skalon and Maksim Rubchenko observed in 2010 that the introduction of city managers was “proceeding apace in places where United Russia [the hegemonic, pro-presidential party] has been unable to win mayoral elections.” Skalon and Rubchenko, “Local Government in the Grip of the ‘Power Vertical’,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 49, no. 4 (July-August 2011), p. 33 [translation of “Samoupravlenie v tiskakh vertikali,” Ekspert, no. 45 (15 November 2010). See also Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” pp. 1402-1403. The study by Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” offers fascinating detail on the differences in backgrounds between elected and appointed mayors in Russia.

[vii] Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” p. 98, citing http://echo.msk.ru/blog/tulsky/826429-echo/

[viii] “V Irkutske deputaty otmenili priamye vybory mera goroda,” NEWSru.com, 23 March 2015.

[ix] “V Iaroslavle otmenili priamye vybory mera,” Russkaia sluzhba BBC, 12 December 2014.

[x] Mariia Epifanova, Nataliia Zotova, “Izbrannykh vse men’she,” Novaia gazeta, 15 December 2014.

[xi] Sergei Titov, “V Ul’ianovske vosstanavlivaiut vertikal’ vlasti,” Kommersant, 27 June 2014.

[xii] “Karel’skie parlamentarii otmenili priamye vybory mera Petrozavodska,” TASS, 18 June 2014.

[xiii] Joel C. Moses, “Putin and Russian Subnational Politics in 2014,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 23, no. 2 (Spring 2015), p. 197.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 201.

[xv] In the Yeltsin era, the Russian president allied with the country’s mayors as a way of constraining gubernatorial power, but Putin’s gambit in this ongoing triangular game assures that local officials will not see the presidency as a protector. See Eugene Huskey, Presidential Power in Russia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), pp. 189-190.

Kyrgyzstan – Another Year, Another Prime Minister

Temir Sariev, the former Minister of Economics, assumed the post of head of government in Kyrgyzstan on April 30, a week after the resignation of Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev. Sariev is the fifth prime minister since Kyrgyzstan became a self-styled “parliamentary republic” in June 2010 and the 26th prime minister since the emergence of an independent Kyrgyzstan at the end of 1991. On departing office, Otorbaev noted that the cabinet needed to be “shaken up,” but Sariev will lead a government with only three new members, and they fill existing vacancies in the portfolios for finance, transport and communications, and economics.

Unlike the previous two prime ministers, who were technocrats, Temir Sariev is a prominent politician who has served as a parliamentary deputy, minister, deputy prime minister, and founder and head of a political party, Ak Shumkar (White Falcon).   He ran unsuccessfully for the presidency against Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2009. Associated with northern politicians who vigorously opposed Bakiev’s rule–and helped to overthrow it in April 2010–Sariev is one of the few Kyrgyzstani politicians who has sought to build a base of support in the nascent middle class. An entrepreneur who achieved considerable success in business in the 1990s, Sariev combines an understanding of, and degree of sympathy toward, market-based economics with a pro-Russian orientation in foreign affairs. He is also an astute observer of Kyrygzstani politics and the author of one of the best political memoirs of the post-communist era.[i]

Because he was brought in from outside the ranks of the three parties in the ruling parliamentary coalition, and because parliamentary elections are scheduled for October of this year, Sariev had to agree as a condition of his appointment that neither he nor his party would contest the forthcoming elections. Facing a term of less than six months as prime minister, Sariev’s willingness to assume the post may appear puzzling. However, his party, Ak Shumkar, stood little chance of crossing the relatively high threshold of seven percent in national list voting, and a successful stint as prime minister could position Sariev to reclaim the prime minister’s office after the election or to run for the presidency in 2017, when President Atambaev’s single six-year term expires.[ii]

Sariev will certainly have every opportunity to prove his mettle as prime minister in the coming months.[iii] Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of a legal and political battle over Kumtor, the foreign-owned gold mine that provides the country with much of its revenue, and it is on the verge of accession to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.[iv] Having overseen much of the preparatory work for admission to the Eurasian Economic Union, and having enjoyed good relations with the political leadership in Moscow, Sariev is in many respects a logical choice for the post of prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits the president’s formal role in government formation to the nomination of the party that seeks to form a ruling coalition, but the politics of Sariev’s appointment provides evidence that Kyrgyzstan’s president exercises a degree of patronage influence not normally associated with a head of state in a “parliamentary republic.” For example, after Prime Minister Otorbaev’s resignation, a leader of the ruling coalition in parliament, Felix Kulov, stated that “the coalition will only propose its [replacement] candidate with the approval of the President.”[v] In fact, both the formal and informal powers of Kyrgyzstan’s president suggest that the country has something closer to a semi-presidential rather than a parliamentary model of government.

Designed by a politician who was opposed to the strong presidencies characteristic of the post-communist world, the 2010 constitution sought to limit the accumulation of presidential power in two primary ways: by making the prime minister’s selection and survival dependent on the parliament and by preventing the creation of a pro-presidential “party of power” that could amass a supermajority capable of amending the constitution. The 2010 constitution’s unusual protections for the opposition included not only a restriction on the number of seats held by any single party–65 out of a total of 120 in the unicameral legislature–but also the allocation of the chairs of the Budget and Law and Order Committees to opposition parties.

The 2010 constitution left in place, however, many of the features of the previous semi-presidential order in Kyrgyzstan. Besides enjoying a direct popular mandate, the president of Kyrgyzstan continues to exercise direct control and appointment authority over the “power bloc” in the cabinet, which includes ministers and their deputies in the fields of defense and national security. An indication of the relative ranking of the offices of president and prime minister in Kyrgyzstan was the decision by an incumbent prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, to run for the single six-year term as president in the fall of 2011 rather than remain as head of government. Thus, whereas the prime minister is traditionally the center of political gravity in a parliamentary system, in Kyrgyzstan the president continues to be the executive figure that exercises greater pull.

Notes

[i] Temir Sariev, Shakh kyrgyzskoi demokratii (Kyrgyz Democracy under Threat). Bishkek: Salam, 2008. Speaking to me in the summer of 2010, Sariev argued that even under favorable conditions it would take 15-20 years to develop genuine political parties in Kyrgyzstan. Interview with Temir Sariev, Bishkek, 20 July 2010.

[ii] Ak Shumkar received 2.6 percent of the votes of registered voters and 4.7 percent of those voting in the previous parliamentary election, in October 2010. Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “The 2010 Referendum and Parliamentary Elections in Kyrgyzstan,” Electoral Studies, vol. 30, no. 3 (2011). The recent shift of the threshold from five percent of registered voters to seven percent of actual voters seemed unlikely to increase Ak Shumkar’s chances of success in the October 2015 elections.

[iii] An indication of the punishing schedule facing the new prime minister was his comment on assuming office that government officials would be working weekends and holidays. Grigorii Mikhailov, “V Kirgizii–integratsionnyi shok” (The Shock of Integration in Kyrgyzstan), Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 May 2015, p. 7. http://www.ng.ru/cis/2015-05-13/7_kirgizia.html

[iv] Accession documents for Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union were signed by the heads of state of member countries in Moscow on 8 May 2015, but formal admission awaits ratification by the parliaments of member states. Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Union poses serious political, technical, and economic challenges for the country, which has been divided over the move.

[v] “Koalitsiia bol’shinstva predlozhit Atambaevu nazvat’ kandidata v prem’ery” (The Ruling Coalition invites Atambaev to name the candidate for Premier), Vechernyi Bishkek, 24 April 2015. http://www.vb.kg/doc/311246_koaliciia_bolshinstva_predlojit_atambaevy_nazvat_kandidata_v_premery.html