Category Archives: Russia

Russia – An American Maidan? Analyzing Russian Press Coverage of President Trump’s Accession to Power

This is a post by Eugene Huskey

In the days before and after Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, the Russian press provided extensive coverage of the American transition of power (see Table below).  Based on a reading of all articles on Donald Trump that were published in eight leading Russian newspapers in the period from January 18-25, 2017, this post assesses the image of the new American president and administration in the Russian press.  Five major conclusions emerge from this assessment.

First, in comparison with Russia’s broadcast media, which are, with very few exceptions, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, newspapers offer a far more complete and nuanced picture of world affairs.[i]  In fact, during the week under review, many Russian newspapers published stories relating to the American transition of power that cast the Russian government and even President Vladimir Putin in an unfavorable light.  An article on the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 informed readers of a button on sale with the slogan: “Trump, Putin: Make Tyranny Great Again.”[ii]  Other versions of anti-Trump signs on display in Washington that were mentioned in the Russian press contained messages such as: “Putin’s Puppet,” “Kremlin Employee of the Month,” and “Welcome to the New Russia.”[iii]

Russian newspapers in this period also provided detailed accusations of Russian government attempts to undermine the integrity of American elections.  To be sure, the more sycophantic newspapers prefaced or followed such accusations with dismissive comments, and all publications tended to bury the lead on these stories.  However, a discerning reader of the Russian press had plenty of evidence to develop a sophisticated understanding of the claims being made about Russian involvement in American elections as well as the unusual affinity of Donald Trump toward Russia and the Russian President.

One of the most widely-covered stories during Inauguration week concerned the seemingly offhand comments made by President Putin at a news conference in the Kremlin with the visiting president of Moldova.  Seeking to squelch rumors that Trump’s infatuation with Putin and Russia was due to kompromat [compromising material] that the Russian government had on the new American president, Putin claimed–somewhat improbably–that because Trump was not a political figure when he stayed in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, it would not have occurred to the security organs to have entrapped him.  Feigning outrage, Putin then noted that persons who would make such accusations were worse than prostitutes.  As if to establish his own bona fides as a nationalist politician who had little time for political correctness, he quickly added that he could, of course, see how someone could be tempted by Russian prostitutes, given that they are the best in the world.[iv]

Second, the Russian press framed the deeply polarized nature of current American politics in terms borrowed from the post-communist experience.  It was a classic example of mirror imaging–the tendency to read one’s own experience into the affairs of others.  With the streets of the American capital filling with demonstrators on the day after Trump’s inauguration, numerous articles raised the specter of an American Maidan, a reference to the post-election uprising in Kiev that led to the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich.[v]  Others compared the Women’s March to the massive protests that occurred on the streets of Moscow in December 2011, in the wake of Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections.[vi]

The specter of the traditional American Establishment rising up against the arrival of an unwelcome populist, and possibly removing him from office, was a central theme in Russian press coverage during Inauguration week.[vii]  Some articles relied on fake news from American sources to support this assertion, including accepting at face value hoax ads that offered to pay demonstrators from $50 to $2500 to join protests against President Trump.[viii]  Such accusations would have resonated with Russian readers, who had been subjected to similar claims about rent-a-crowds participating in color revolutions in post-communist states.

Third, if the Russian press during Inauguration week was united in its criticism of Barack Obama,[ix] it revealed a deep ambivalence about the future of US-Russian relations and about Donald Trump as the new American leader.  On the one hand, Russian newspapers published American polling data and man-on-the-street interviews from Washington that revealed favorable opinions toward Russia.[x]  At the same time, many newspapers cautioned their readers against assuming that Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric would easily translate into a resolution of issues that divided the two powers, from Ukraine to sanctions and Syria to nuclear arms.  Alongside references to Trump as a pragmatist or “our man”–#Trumpnash, meaning “Trump is Ours,” was a Twitter handle mentioned in one story–there were efforts to lower expectations by preparing the Russian population for a long struggle for pre-eminence among different factions in the American political establishment and even within the Trump White House itself.[xi]

Fourth, where there was considerable uncertainty in the Russian press about the prospects for a Trump presidency, there was a clear consensus among Russian commentators that the world was entering a new, turbulent, and potentially dangerous era.   For one, Trump’s harsh comments on China threatened to upend Russia’s own fledgling partnership with its populous neighbor.[xii]  This undercurrent of discomfort, if not alarm, in stories about developments outside of Russia is something of a paradox.  For years, Putin had been seeking to replace the American-dominated international order with a multi-polar world. Now that this more pluralistic and dynamic order appears to be on the horizon, the Russian press is warning the population to fasten its seat belts.

Russian observers cited approvingly Trump’s rejection of the role of “world’s policeman” for the United States, as well as his apparent willingness to consider dividing the world into spheres of interest.[xiii]  However, several articles suggested that the old ruling class would not fade easily into history.  One article noted that Obama-era threats against Russia were part of the “agony of an Anglo-Saxon elite that for 200 years had been setting the tone for democracy and serving as the main arbiter of morals.”[xiv]  Another compared the hapless position of American liberals to that of the Russian bourgeoisie on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.[xv]

Some commentators used the occasion of the change of American administrations to remind readers of Russia’s position as a defender of Christianity and traditional values at a time when the West was moving rapidly toward a post-Christian future.[xvi]  Thus, to nationalists as well as religious conservatives in Europe and the United States, Russia was offering itself as a bulwark against globalism and atheism, while for Christian minorities in the Middle East, Russia held itself out as the Protector of the Faithful, a role reprised from tsarist times.[xvii]  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s insistence on January 18 that Russia was “very concerned about the departure of Christians” from the Middle East was followed several days later by a similar statement from Donald Trump in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.[xviii]

Fifth, and finally, the Russian press revealed its preoccupation during Inauguration week with the symbols and rituals of American power.  Newspaper articles offered detailed descriptions of everything from the desk in the Oval Office to the two Bibles on which President Trump swore the oath of office.[xix]  Although these articles may have satisfied the curiosity of readers about ceremonial niceties, they also–perhaps unwittingly–pointed out the contrasts with the succession process in Russia itself.  Descriptions in the Russian press of President Obama voluntarily transferring power to an adversary, Donald Trump, and then departing the ceremony in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, would have reminded some Russian readers of the gap between their own political traditions and those in the West.  In short, both supporters and critics of the Russian president would have found evidence in the Russian coverage of American Inauguration week to sustain their points of view, an illustration of the limits of Putin’s control over his country’s “information space.”

Notes

[i] For a sophisticated essay on the collapse of the American dream, see Anna Krotkina, “Svoi paren’, khotia i milliarder,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 15.

[ii] Elena Chinkova, “‘Svobodu Malenii!’–protiv Trampa vyshli ‘pussi-shapki’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 4.

[iii] Aleksandr Panov, “Ves’ Tramp–narodu!” Novaia gazeta, January 23, 2017, pp. 12-13.  This publication is the most prominent opposition paper in Russia.

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voskhozhdenie po Trampu,” Kommersant Daily, January 18, 2017, p. 1.

[v] Putin himself raised the specter of an American Maidan in comments to the Russian press.  Kira Latukhina, “VVS, ser!” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 2.  See also “Zhdet li Trampa svoi Maidan?” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Aleksei Zabrodin, “Demokraty opasaiutsia sdelki po Ukraine,” Izvestiia, January 20, 2017, p. 3; and Dmitrii Egorchenkov, “Nezhno-rozovyi Maidan,” Izvestiia, January 24, 2017, p. 6.

[vi] One prominent Russian politician compared America in recent years to the period of “stagnation” experienced by the Soviet Union under Brezhnev.  Igor’ Ivanov, “Tramp i Rossiia,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.

[vii] See, for example, Eduard Lozannskii, “Nastali budni,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 6.

[viii] Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Nepyl’naia rabotenka,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 8.

[ix] Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev insisted that Obama’s destruction of relations between Russia and the US will be remembered as his “worst foreign policy mistake.” Elena Kriviakina, “Dmitrii Medvedev: my ne bananovaia respublika! SShA etogo ne uchli,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 21, 2017, p. 2. One correspondent noted that “all that will be needed is a single meeting between Putin and Trump to bring down the wall of disinformation, moratoriums, sanctions, and lies that Obama had constructed.” Oleg Shevtsov, “Chto Tramp griadushchil nam gotovit’,” Trud, January 20, 2017, p. 1.

[x] Aleksei Zabrodin, “Izmeneniia nachnutsia priamo seichas na etoi zemle,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Georgii Asatrian, “Konservativnye i religioznye amerikantsy poliubili Rossiiu,” Izvestiia, January 23, p. 3.  One journalist even noted that Russians’ newfound attachment to an American president could help them overcome their desire to be needed in the world again, a sentiment identified by Eduard Limonov, the Russian radical writer, in 2014. Dmitrii Ol’shanskii, “Pochemu nash chelovek poliubil Donal’da Fredycha,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 24, 2017, p. 4.

[xi]Mikhail Zubov, “Itogo za nedeliu,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 20, 2017, p. 2; Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Kogo slushaet Tramp,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 8. For the views of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, see Ekaterina Zabrodina, “Dozhdemsia inauguratsii Trampa,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 5. In general, Trump received very favorable press in Russia, though one interview with a handwriting expert reported that Trump’s handwriting indicated that he had an authoritarian personality.  Dar’ia Zavgorodniaia, “Grafolog–o pocherke Donal’da Trampa: u takogo cheloveka stil’ pravleniia–avtoritarnyi,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 5.

[xii] Among the many articles warning of tensions in the triangular relationship among Russia, China, and the US, see Vladimir Skosyrev, “Si Tszin’pin opasaetsia druzhby Putina s Trampom,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 13, 2017, p. 1.

[xiii] Ibid.; Pavel Tarasenko, “Pobednyi sorok piatyi,” Kommersant Daily, January 21, 2017, p. 1;

[xiv] Elena Chinkova, Abbas Dzhuma, “Eks-postpred SShA pri OON Samanta Pauer: Koshmar–vse bol’she amerikantsev doveriaiut Putinu!” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 19, 2017, p. 4; Fedor Luk’ianov, “Ochevidnoe–neveroiatnoe,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 20, 2017, p. 8.

[xv] Mikhail Rostovskii, “Pryzhok k neizvestnost’,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 21, 2017, p. 1.

[xvi] Iurii Paniev, “Tramp ne vyzyvaet v Moskve ni opasanii, ni vostorga,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.

[xvii] Foreign Minister Lavrov argued that the so-called “liberal” values of the West had led to a massive exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria.  Edvard Chesnokov, “Sergei Lavrov: blizhnevostochnyi krizis–rezul’tat ‘eksporta demokratii’,” Komsomolskaia pravda, January 18, 2017, p. 3; Andrei Kortunov, “Chem opasno ‘vechnoe vozrashchenie’,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 9; and Mikhael’ Dorfman, “Iskupitel’naia missiia Trampa,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 14.

[xviii] Liubov’ Glazunova, “Lavrov rasskazal o tufte i feikakh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 18, 2017, p. 3.

[xix] Edvard Chesnokov, Aleksei Osipov, “Vmeste s Trampom v Oval’nyi kabinet v’ekhal Cherchill’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 25, 2017, p. 4.

Eugene Huskey – Did Putin Lose by Winning? The September 18 Duma Election

Amid challenging economic conditions, Russian voters went to the polls on Sunday, September 18 to elect the 450 members of the country’s lower house, the Duma. They also cast ballots in seven gubernatorial races, in contests for seats in 39 of 85 regional assemblies, and in a number of local elections. In light of the massive demonstrations that followed the last parliamentary elections, which were widely regarded as fraudulent, and the rise in popularity of certain “non- systemic opposition” leaders, such as Alexei Navalny, this Duma election presented officials in Putin’s administration with a difficult challenge. They needed to portray the election as open and competitive while eliminating pathways to power for Putin’s opponents, guaranteeing a healthy legislative majority for the pro-Putin party, United Russia, and assuring some representation for small parties of the “systemic opposition,” whose continued presence in the Duma offered the illusion of pluralism.

Putin’s administration did seek to eliminate blatant violations of electoral law, and toward that end it installed this spring Ella Pamfilova, the respected human rights activist, as head of the Central Election Commission. However, the Russian political leadership also disqualified insurgent candidates like Navalny, effectively shut down the country’s only independent polling company, and redesigned the rulebook in order to benefit United Russia and the collaborationist parties that make up Russia’s “systemic opposition.” Among the rule changes was the replacement of pure Proportional Representation (PR) voting with a mixed system in which 225 seats would be elected by PR, with winners drawn from regionally-based party lists, while the other 225 seats would be filled by winners in single-member district races.

The return to a mixed voting system, in place in Russia from 1993 through 2003, benefitted United Russia because of the latter’s deep bench and dense support networks in single-member districts (SMDs). In addition, because of the large field of candidates that was typical for these local contests–as well as the “first past the post” method of determining winners in these elections–the United Russia candidates would be able to win many seats in SMDs with a mere plurality of the vote. Furthermore, those drawing the district boundaries took care to gerrymander district lines in order to dilute the influence of voters in large urban centers, who were generally less supportive of the Putin administration than other voters. Finally, the authorities moved up the election from December to September as a further means of suppressing the urban vote. Especially in the bigger and more prosperous cities, many urbanites spend the weekends at their dachas in September, although the cold, damp weather last Sunday probably kept many Russian voters in the city.1

This carefully-designed electoral plan worked well for Putin and his allies–perhaps too well. United Russia improved upon its nationwide PR results from 2011, winning 54 percent of the vote and 62 percent of the seats. This gap between votes received and seats won was even more dramatic in the single-member district races, where United Russia garnered 90 percent of the seats (203 of 225) while receiving only about half of the overall SMD vote. In other words, for United Russia, half of the vote share turned into 76 percent of the parliamentary seats.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-21-03-29

The support base underpinning this lopsided result looks even more suspect when one considers the voter participation rate. As the graph below illustrates, well under half of Russians turned out for the September 18 Duma elections, a figure that is almost eight percentage points below the previous low-water mark in participation in Duma elections. Due to the historically low turnout, United Russia received 4 million fewer votes than in 2011, and yet the new mixed voting system allowed the party to capture a record number of seats in the Duma, so many that they acquired a “constitutional majority,” that is, more than two-thirds of the assembly. With such a majority, United Russia can amend the constitution as well as pass legislation without the backing of other parliamentary parties. As Russian political scientist Ekaterina Shul’man observed, in the new parliament “all conflicts will take place inside United Russia rather than in inter-party commissions.”2

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-21-04-25

Parties from the traditional “systemic opposition” retained their presence in the Duma but at much reduced levels. The Liberal Democrats led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky pulled almost even with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, with 39 and 42 seats, respectively, while A Just Russia received 23 seats. The three remaining places in the Duma were captured in single- member district races by a member of Rodina [Motherland Party], a member of Civic Platform,

and an independent candidate, Vladislav Reznik, a Putin ally and former United Russia deputy who is under criminal investigation in Spain for his business dealings. For their part, the two leading parties from the Western-oriented “non-systemic opposition,” Yabloko and PARNAS, received together less than three percent of the PR vote nationwide and they were not competitive in any of the single-member contests.

The new correlation of forces in the Russian legislature will simplify the mechanics of governing for Putin but it potentially leave him more exposed politically. The efforts to clean up certain aspects of electoral administration now seem inconsequential compared with the yawning gap between the extent of Putin’s victory and the electoral support behind it. To be sure, single- member district voting is known for manufacturing ruling majorities, but that is usually in countries like Britain where the political system is well-entrenched and markets, courts, and the press serve as effective brakes on the exercise of political power. One cannot help but think that the Kremlin would have preferred a more modest win rather than a crushing victory, especially given the light turnout.

Aware of the system’s vulnerability to criticism in the wake of the vote, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitrii Peskov, and other Kremlin allies rushed to fend off complaints about a low poll, and thus the legitimacy of the election and of the Putin regime itself. Peskov noted that “in the overwhelming majority of European countries turnout is much lower” [than in Russia].3 In fact, in recent years only two of fifty European countries, Kosovo and Romania, have experienced higher levels of voter apathy.4 With less than two years remaining before the next presidential election, Putin now owns the political system even more than in the past, and so it will be difficult to deflect responsibility onto others if economic and social conditions in the country deteriorate before he stands for re-election.

The 2016 Duma elections serve as a reminder that Putin still governs a country with a wide range of intra-elite and elite-mass relations across its 85 regions and republics. One of those territories, Crimea, participated in Duma elections for the first time last Sunday, and predictably Western governments refused to recognize the latest step in the integration of this recently annexed peninsula into the Russian Federation. Although United Russia won a clear victory in the PR voting in Crimea, its candidate in the single-member district race in Sevastopol emerged as the winner with only 33 percent of the vote. And while the turnout in Crimea was in line with national levels, it fell below that seen in the last Ukrainian parliamentary elections, apparently due in part to a boycott of the vote announced by Crimean Tatars.

Russia’s territories continue to reveal enormous variations in turnout for national elections. In earlier elections one might have attributed much of the differential to falsified results–in the 2011 Duma elections United Russia reportedly received 99.5 percent of the vote in Chechnya on a 99.4 percent turnout–but this time even Chechnya reported a more believable turnout figure, just under 85 percent. Turnout above 70 percent in regions like Kemerovo, Tiumen’, and several republics of the northern Caucasus presented a dramatic contrast to participation rates in several territories that just squeaked past the 30 percent level. How to interpret this variation is not straightforward. Although it is tempting to regard low turnout as a sign of disaffection with the regime, it is also linked to the effectiveness and seriousness of efforts by local leaders to get out the vote. As Joel Moses has argued, in some regions where regional elections are taking place at the same time as a national race, a governor or other prominent officials may wish to suppress turnout in order to assure a desirable outcome.5

Through closed communications networks, governors and their allies may seek to mobilize only their most devoted supporters, such as the so-called biudzhetniki–those on the regional or federal payroll, who can generally be relied upon to support the existing political structure in the region. In this sense, the center’s interest in seeing a healthy voter turnout may at times clash with the interests of prominent local elites.6 How well President Putin can manage these and other tensions between the center and periphery will be evident in the next electoral cycle, which begins with gubernatorial and regional assembly elections next fall.

Notes

1 For a discussion of these methods, see Darrell Slider and Nikolai Petrov, “Kremlin Strategy: ‘Just Good Enough” Elections While Maintaining Control,” Russian Analytical Digest, no. 186, 15 July 2016, pp. 2-3. http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities- studies/pdfs/RAD186.pdf
2 Marina Ozerova, “Portret novoi Gosdumy: ‘kollektivnyi Putin’ vmestil 343 deputata,” Moskovskii komsomets, 19 September 2016. http://www.mk.ru/politics/2016/09/19/portret-novoy-gosdumy- kollektivnyy-putin-vmestil-343-deputata.html
3 “Peskov otkazalsia schitat’ iavku na vyborakh nizkoi,” Lenta.ru, 19 September 2016. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/09/19/yavilis/
4 See IDEA, Voter Turnout Database. http://www.idea.int/vt/viewdata.cfm#
5 Personal correspondence.
6 On the political dynamics of multi-tiered elections in Russia, see Velimir Razuvaev, “Mnogosloinye vybory sozdaiut problemy Kremliu,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 July 2016. http://www.ng.ru/politics/2016-07- 13/1_vybory.html

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.

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

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.

Russia – Putin and Ukraine: One Year Later

A live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a TV screen at a restaurant in Moscow on December 18, 2014, as Putin speaks during his annual press conference. AFP PHOTO / DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV

A live broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a TV screen at a restaurant in Moscow on December 18, 2014, as Putin speaks during his annual press conference. AFP PHOTO / DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV

On December 18th 2014, President of Russia Vladimir Putin gave an annual Year-End news conference. What seemed to be a very relaxed President spent about 3 hours talking to the journalists and the Russian public about the economy, crisis in Ukraine, NATO expansion and US military bases in Europe. Putin assured his audience that economic setbacks that country was facing were temporary, mostly caused by the external factors, and were unlikely to last longer than two years.

Although not a stranger to controversy, Putin has been thrown into limelight like never before almost exactly a year ago, when unidentified gunmen took over key buildings in the capital of autonomous republic of Crimea in Ukraine. Three short weeks later, on March 18th Putin signed a bill to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation. Not stoping at Crimea, the crisis in Ukraine has spread to the Eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and is currently on-going.

In response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, the European Union and the US instituted economic sanctions against Russia with the hope that worsening economic conditions, which President Putin so easily brushed off in his end of the year conference, will undermine his support at home. Sanctions seem to have worked when it came to damaging the Russian economy. Just this past Friday, Moody’s downgraded the rating of Russian sovereign debt to Ba1 (Not Prime), predicting a deep recession in 2015 and further contraction of the Russian economy in 2016.

The sanctions, however, seem to have had little impact on Putin’s popularity back home. Already pretty high before the conflict, Putin’s approval rating seems to have risen even higher as the crisis in Ukraine unfolded, reaching 88% in October 2014 and staying at a comfortable 85% since November 2014.

Approval Rate of Vladimir Putin (August 2014 – January 2015)

Source: Levada Center

Source: Levada Center

This result is not surprising as the historical success of economic sanctions offers little encouragement in this situation. But what motivates Putin to continue Russian military involvement in Ukraine? John Mearsheimer goes as far as to suggest that the crisis in Ukraine is a “realist” response by Putin to NATO enlargement and EU expansion eastwards. [1] However, as the former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul points out, both NATO’s and the EU expansion started more than 15 years ago. Thus, it is unclear why Putin would wait so long to intervene. [2]

However, the question of who started the Ukraine crisis is not as relevant as how it can be ended. From the research on authoritarian regimes, we know that, on average, dictatorships are almost as likely to survive when their economies grow as when they decline. Adam Przeworski found that some dictatorships fell after several years of continuous growth while some other died after several years of economic decline. [3] This notwithstanding, economic sanctions remain to be a necessary evil in the current situation. However, as the current ceasefire in Ukraine is hanging by a thread, it is worse asking what else can be done.

[1] Mearsheimer, John. “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014.

[2] McFaul, Michael. “Faulty Powers: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis?” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2014.

[3] Przeworski, Adam. 2004. “Democracy and Economic Development” in Edward D. Mansfield and Richard Sisson (eds.), The Evolution of Political Knowledge: Democracy, Autonomy, and Conflict in Comparative and International Politics (Columbus: Ohio State University Press).

Thomas Sedelius – Semi-Presidentialism and Intra-Executive Conflict

This is a guest post by Thomas Sedelius, Dalarna University, Sweden.

Thomas Sedelius

The journal East European Politics (EEP) has awarded the 2013 EEP prize  to Thomas Sedelius & Olga Mashtaler for their article “Two Decades of Semi-Presidentialism: Issues of Intra-Executive Conflict in Central and Eastern Europe 1991-2011” as “the most outstanding article in the field of study from the previous year’s volume”. This post summarises the argument in the article. 

As semi-presidentialism has become a very popular form of government worldwide and has appeared as the most common one in Central and Eastern Europe, there are strong reasons for the academic community to go further into analysing the operation of semi-presidentialism and its sub-types.

A built-in risk of semipresidentialism is the occurrence of intra-executive conflict between the president and the prime minister. Although there are few empirically oriented studies substantiating the assumed risks associated with intra-executive conflict, there is a belief in the literature that intra-executive conflict is a “peril” of semi-presidentialism. With few exceptions (e.g. Protsyk 2005, 2006; Sedelius and Ekman 2010) the phenomenon of intra-executive conflict in semi-presidential regimes remains underexplored. From Eastern Europe there are a number of cases where we can observe that intra-executive conflict has been present and has resulted in negative effects such as political instability and stalemate policy situations, e.g. between President Walesa and several prime ministers in Poland 1991–95, between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych in Ukraine 2006–07, and between President Basescu and Prime Minister Ponta in Romania 2012, just to mention a few.

Our article systematically examines intra-executive conflict in eight semi-presidential countries in Central and Eastern Europe from 1991-2011. We ask: To what extent is intra-executive conflict a persistent phenomenon in post-communist semi-presidential regimes? How does the type of semi-presidentialism matter to the frequency of conflict? Has the nature of conflict shifted over the course of the post-communist period in terms of issue and character? Do intra-executive conflicts primarily include differing policy orientations between the president and the cabinet, or do they predominantly reflect power struggles over constitutional prerogatives and domains of influence? Our premier–presidential cases are Bulgaria 1991–2011, Croatia 2000–2011, Lithuania 1991–2011, Moldova 1991–2000,3 Poland 1991–2011, Romania 1991–2011, and Ukraine 2006–10.The president–parliamentary cases are Croatia 1992–2000, Russia 1991–2011, Ukraine 1991–2006, and 2010–2011.

We adhere to the standard academic definition that semi-presidentialism is where the constitution includes both a popularly elected president and a prime minister and cabinet accountable to the parliament (Elgie 1999). In addition, we separate premier-presidentialism, where the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible solely to the legislature, from president-parliamentarism, where both the prime minister and cabinet are collectively responsible to both the legislature and the president (Shugart and Carey 1992). Intra-executive conflict is defined by us as struggles between the president and the prime minister/cabinet over the control of the executive branch. In order to have a more operational definition, the relationship between the president and the cabinet is considered as conflict-ridden when there has been an observable clash between the president and the prime minister and/or between the president and other government ministers, manifested through obstructive or antagonistic behaviour from either side, directed towards the other. The level of intra-executive conflict is then compressed into ordinal estimations of low and high conflict.

Initially we formulated some theoretically derived propositions regarding the trend and issues of conflict. We expected:

1) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under premier–presidentialism than under president–parliamentary systems,

2) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflict under cohabitation (premier-presidentialism only) than under a united executive.

3) more frequent occurrences of intra-executive conflicts in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

4) conflicts emanating from confrontations over formal rules of the game to be most frequent in the earliest period following the transition and then a gradual decrease as the institutionalisation process continued.

Based on expert survey data as well as indicators derived from documents and literature analysis, 76 instances of intra-executive relations between 1991 and 2011 were examined.

Strong support was provided only for the second proposition above, i.e. intra-executive conflict has clearly been more frequent under periods of cohabitation than under united executives. The remaining three propositions found weak or no support in our data. Intra-executive conflict has occurred frequently under both types of semi-presidentialism, and has persisted at similar levels throughout the post-communist era. In addition, we found that over time the character of conflicts have only slightly changed from being predominantly power struggles over formal rules and competences to being more issue-specific and policy-oriented.

Reservations regarding the limited number of cases are of course necessary, especially when separating between premier-presidentialism and president-parliamentarism.

Intra-executive conflict illustrates one of the main challenges of semipresidentialism, i.e. the often vaguely defined, and partly overlapping, competences between the president and the prime minister. Many conflicts are essentially a pure struggle for domination, power, and influence within the executive branch. Clashes over appointments, dismissals, policy reforms, and constitutional prerogatives are often logical expressions of the institutional competition embedded into the dual executive structure of semi-presidentialism. Apparently, intra-executive conflict has not led to the collapse of democratisation in the premier–presidential systems of Central and Eastern Europe. Periods of strong conflict may in fact demonstrate a normal and healthy sign of any maturing political system and the absence of such manifest conflicts (e.g. Putin’s Russia) could be a worrying sign of increasing authoritarianism. But intra-executive conflict poses considerable strains on transitional countries since it negatively affects cabinet stability and policy effectiveness. We need to know more about if, when, and under what conditions intra-executive conflict may also pose a serious threat to democratisation and regime stability.

References

Elgie, Robert, ed. 1999. Semi-Presidentialism in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2005. ”Politics of Intra-executive Conflict in Semi-presidential Regimes in Eastern Europe.” East European Politics and Society 18 (2): 1–20.

Protsyk, Oleh. 2006.”Intra-executive Competition between President and Prime Minister: Patterns of Institutional Conflict and Cooperation in Semi-presidential Regimes.” Political Studies 56 (2): 219–241.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” 45 (4): 505–530.

Sedelius, Thomas & Joakim Ekman. 2010. “Intra-executive Conflict and Cabinet Instability: Effects of Semi-presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe.” Government and Opposition 45 (4): 505–530.

Shugart, M. S., and J. M. Carey. 1992. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The full text article is free to download here [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21599165.2012.748662#.VNS56k10ylY]

Thomas Sedelius is Associate Professor in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research covers semi-presidentialism, political institutions, transition, democratisation, and East European politics. In addition to a number of articles, his publications include The Tug-of-War between Presidents and Prime Ministers: Semi-Presidentialism in Central and Eastern Europe (Örebro Studies, 2006) and Demokratiseringsprocesser: nya perspektiv och utmaningar (Studentlitteratur, 2014, with Joakim Ekman & Jonas Linde). Thomas currently leads a research project (2015-2018) financed by the Swedish Research Council on semi-presidentialism and governability in transitional countries.

Olga Mashtaler is a researcher and PhD student at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Kiev. She currently (2014-15) holds a guest scholarship at Örebro University granted by the Swedish Institute. Her research covers political culture, political institutions, semi-presidentialism and East European politics.

Thomas F. Remington – Presidential decree power in Russia

Tom Remington

This is a guest post by Professor Thomas F. Remington. The post is based on the presentation that he gave to the Conference on Coalitional Presidentialism at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, on May 2, 2014.

When newly elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin left his position as chair of the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet to take up his duties as president in June 1991, there was no successful model of a balance of powers between legislative and executive branches, nor any model of parliamentary government. The only available model was Lenin’s: a system where legislative and executive power were fused under the control of a single party. Gorbachev had created and occupied a new USSR-level presidency the year before but without abandoning post as General Secretary of the CPSU. Yeltsin now had to maintain majority support in the two-tiered Russian legislative structure consisting of the Congress of People’s Deputies and Supreme Soviet. His departure led to shift in parliament as many coalition members left to join his administration and even more turned away from him and into opposition. As he lost his base of support in the legislature, a question arose that he and his successors as Russian president have had to deal with with: how to use presidential powers, especially decree, to achieve his policy agenda.

Initially, President Yeltsin’s limited constitutional decree power was extended through amendments and emergency delegations of power during 1990-1993 period. Yeltsin unilaterally ended that period with his decree dissolving parliament in September 1993. There followed a period of rule by decree through the end of the year. Then the 1993 constitution assigned the president wide decree and veto power. The combination of the two permits president to block, prompt, or interpret legislative acts. The use of decree power for these purposes is spelled out in a series of papers I have written with Steven Smith and Moshe Haspel, and is the subject of a book I recently published, Presidential Decree Power in Russia: A Comparative Perspective.

The 1993 constitution’s rules establish key strategic premises for Russian decree power: a statute can supersede a decree, but not vice versa; a decree can fill gaps in law; a decree cannot make policy in areas reserved for federal legislation (including budgeting and taxation), or matters requiring a constitutional law)

The use of decree power by presidents Yeltsin, Medvedev and Putin is consistent with the premise–associated with Richard Neustadt’s picture of US presidential authority–that presidents must anticipate how other political actors will react to their exercise of decision-making power. A few cases from the recent of presidential decrees in Russia illustrate the point.

In summer 1994, Yeltsin fell a few votes short of winning passage of a law governing privatization of state enterprises after the early voucher privatization program. Although he made concessions to parliament, the bill failed. He responded immediately by issuing a decree that contained many of the provisions embodied in the law, but shifting the policy location closer to his own preferences.

Later in the 1990s, Yeltsin repeated vetoed budget-busting pension hikes passed by the Duma, only to issue decrees raising pensions but by lower amounts.

In the late 1990s, the Duma passed a communist-sponsored bill to institute a “Mother’s Day” holiday in Russia (Russia had traditionally observed an annual Women’s Day holiday, but not a mother’s day). Yeltsin immediately vetoed the bill as infringing on presidential prerogatives (traditionally, only the president declares a holiday), then issued a decree of identifical content. It has, however, been completely forgotten.

In 2000, President Vladimir Putin bundled three contentious issues of state symbols–the national anthem, the national flag, and the national coat of arms–into a package of linked bills and, through deft legislative maneuvering, won passage for them in the Duma. However, the text of the national anthem was not decided by the legislation, only the melody. Because national symbols require constitutional laws, Putin was not entitled to set them by decree. Nonetheless, he issued a decree enacting the new words to the national anthem, urging the parliament to follow up with legislation superseding the decree. This the Duma readily did, thus avoiding the difficulty of asking 450 deputies to hammer out a new text.

These cases illustrate various ways presidents in Russia use their decree power: to prompt legislation, to block it, or to implement it. In all cases, the decrees are part of a larger political interaction with the legislature and the bureaucracy. My research suggests that the problem of enforcement of decrees is at least as serious for Russian presidents as it is for American presidents (recall Neustadt’s famous reference to Truman’s prediction that Eisenhower would face trouble getting his orders enforced: “‘Poor Ike! He’ll find it’s not a bit like the army…'”) Generally, decrees that grant rights to actors (such as a stream of rents from control of an asset) are closer to being self-enforcing than decrees that try to roll back or withhold rights and rents.

Therefore to understand when and how decrees are used, we must consider the president’s support base in the legislature, as well as the president’s assessment of the urgency of the issue and the relative importance of the durability of the policy he wishes to enact. A president is unlikely to make educational policy by decree, because the returns are long-term in nature. But a president is more likely to privatize assets by decree, because he may calculate that it is in his interest to act quickly and decisively to create a fait accompli that is politically difficult to overturn.

Thus decrees can be alternatives to acting through legislation under a limited range of conditions. A president is aware that a decree can be overturned (for example, by a successor) as readily as it is adopted. He is also aware that decrees can readily be ignored by a bureaucracy deeply skilled in the arts of evasion. Thus not only constitutional, but quite practical strategic considerations affect the use of decree power.

Thomas F. Remington is Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science at Emory University. He is author of a number of books and articles on Russian politics. Among his publications are The Politics of Inequality in Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2011); The Russian Parliament: Institutional Evolution in a Transitional Regime, 1989-1999 (Yale University Press, 2001); The Politics of Institutional Choice: Formation of the Russian State Duma (co-authored with Steven S. Smith) (Princeton University Press, 2001). Other books include Politics in Russia (7th edition, 2011); Parliaments in Transition (1994); and The Truth of Authority: Ideology and Communication in the Soviet Union (1988).