Category Archives: Europe

Estonia – After one year in office president Kersti Kaljulaid still needs to make her mark

On 3 October 2016, Kersti Kaljulaid was elected the first female president of Estonia. Following  the failure of both the Riigikogu (parliament) and the Valimiskogu (electoral college) to agree on a successor to Toomas Hendrik Ilves (2006-2016), Kaljulaid was elected as the all-party compromise candidate when the election returned to parliament. Kaljulaid follows a three very different different presidents who – despite being consecutively less active politically – all left their mark relatively early on in their term. Since taking the oath of office on 10 October 2016, Kaljulaid has remained largely in the background. So far, she has mainly followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, yet her recent speech at the opening of parliament could be the first step in carving out an independent profile.

Official portrait of president Kersti Kaljulaid | image via president.ee

Given the circumstances of her nomination, Kaljulaid was relatively unkown to the public when she was elected. The (comparatively rare) Estonian opinion polls showed only a very moderate increase in public trust during the first months in office (48% in October 2016 to 66% in April 2017), staying behind the popularity of her predecessor and hitherto least trusted among Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Contrary to her predecessors, Kaljulaid was not a professional politician before taking office. As a former Estonian Auditor at the European Court of Auditors and one-time economic adviser to the Prime Minister, she nevertheless possess some relevant, albeit limited political experience.

To date, Kaljulaid has only had few opportunities to prove herself in her new role, yet likely the most important occured only a month after her inauguration. After a no-confidence motion forced Prime Minister Taavi Roivas to resign, the government of Reform Party, Isaama and Res Publica, and the Social Democrats collapsed, paving the way for a government led by the Centre Party. President Ilves had still publicly declared his mistrust in then party leader and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar and the party – despite often finishing first or second in parliamentary elections – had long ostracised by its competitors due to its sympathies with the ethnic Russian population and Russia’s leadership, Kaljulaid invited all parties for consultations, yet was not involved in the actual negotiations for a new coalition. Although Estonian presidents only have little control over the government formation process and appoint those governments that emerge from parliamentary arithmetic, previous presidents still had some indirect influence on the nomination of individual ministers. Kaljulaid seems to have remained entirely passive and merely accepted the new coalition, although some friction was foreseeable early on (e.g. on the introduction of popular presidential elections – the project forced by the Centre party was however shelved indefinitely in January this year).

A second opportunity for came in December 2016, when Kaljulaid signed off amendments to a number tax laws despite protest by the opposition and a number of large interest groups, which not only criticised the contents of the law but also the procedure in which in had been passed (that did not allow full participation by the opposition). Kaljulaid defended her decision stating that she did not have the power to challenge individual paragraphs of the amendments [the Estonian president only has a block veto] and that these would better be checked by the Chancellor of Justice. This highlights a major difference to her predecessor Ilves; while Ilves too mainly relied on the Chancellor of Justice to ensure the constitutionality of legislation and generally remained uninvolved in the content of legislation, he did in fact veto bills because the correct procedure had been violated and liaised with lawmakers through his staff to pre-emptively tackle potential problems of constitutionality. Kaljulaid however vetoed a law on the so-called sugar tax that would have introduced an – arguably unconstitutional – exception for a Tallink Group cruise liners

Since then, Kaljulaid only rarely voiced her opinion and remained very cautious in public statements. The problem with finding her voice and handling situations such as the tax law amendments might also lie in the turnover of staff in the presidential administration that followed her inauguration. Since the mid-1990s, key staff in the Estonian presidential office has been remarkably stable, thus preserving institutional memory and contacts. Kaljulaid managed her first international visits without any hiccups and largely followed in the footsteps of predecessor Ilves in promoting Estonia as a leader in digital technologies, yet her other public statements have otherwise been criticised as too vague or missing the mark.

In this context, her recent speech at the opening of parliament appears to be a promising exception and potential attempt to carve out an independent profile. In particular, she highlighted the responsibilities of politicians towards the public and the need for political parties to make their finances transparent (a veiled criticism of the Centre party that has been at the centre of a number of allegations and investigations over the past year). Furthermore and most strikingly, Kaljulaid explained “that being proud of being an Estonian cannot be monopolised by anyone” and that “[t]here is no blue, black and white gene pool”. Thereby, she addressed on the of the most long-standing issues in Estonian politics and society – how to deal with the ethnic Russian minority (about 25% of the population are ethnic Russians, many of which hold Russian but not Estonian citizenship).

Both issues would lend themselves well to establishing Kaljulaid as a moral leader – they are timely and relevant, yet general enough to develop over the course of her term in office. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, both are largely within the remit of the role of the presidency as it has developed over the last 25 years. Kaljulaid will be able to launch some concrete initiatives (first president Meri for instance instituted a roundtable on minorities) which can bear fruit merely by raising public awareness rather than through the use of her (limited) formal powers.

Latvia – The President’s legislative initiative on granting citizenship to new-borns is rejected by the Saeima

Latvia is a parliamentary republic with a 100-member unicameral parliament (Saeima), which is elected under a proportional system for a four-year period.

The Saeima elects the President by a secret ballot. To be elected, candidates must win at least fifty-one votes. The President serves for a term of four years and is limited to two consecutive terms. A presidential candidate must be a citizen of Latvia and must be at least forty years old. A person with dual citizenship may not be elected President. The functions of the President are determined by the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia.

The main role of the President is to promote the prosperity of Latvia and its inhabitants.

The President is the Head of State, nominating the Prime Minister, representing Latvia internationally, appointing the diplomatic representatives of Latvia, and receiving foreign representatives to Latvia. The President has the right to convene, to preside over extraordinary meetings of the Cabinet of Ministers, and to determine the agenda of such meetings.

The Head of State is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

In the event that the President is sick, on vacation or resigns from office, the Chairperson of the Saeima assumes the duties of the President.

The current President of the Republic of Latvia is H.E. Mr Raimonds Vējonis. The President took office on July 8, 2015. President Vējonis used to be a member of the Green Party, which is part of the Union of Greens and Farmers. The President has suspended his party membership.

Legislative Power

One of the most powerful functions of the President is the right to initiate legislation, proclaim or veto laws passed by the Saeima and grant clemency. The President proclaims bills passed by the Saeima no earlier than the tenth day after the bill has been adopted and no later than the twenty-first day. A law comes into force fourteen days after its proclamation unless a different term has been specified in the law. The President may use the suspended veto power within ten days of the adoption of a law by the Saeima by means of a written and reasoned request to the Chairperson of the Saeima, requiring the law to be reconsidered. If the Saeima overrides the law, the President then may not raise objections a second time. The President has the right to suspend the proclamation of a law for a period of two months if so requested by not less than one-third of the members of the Saeima. This right may be exercised by the President, or by one-third of the members of the Saeima, within ten days of the adoption of the law by the Saeima. The law thus suspended shall be put to a national referendum if so requested by not less than one-tenth of the electorate. If no such request is received during the two-month period, the law shall then be proclaimed after the expiration of such period. A national referendum shall not take place, however, if the Saeima again votes on the law and not less than three-quarters of all members of the Saeima vote for the adoption of the law. Should the Saeima, by not less than a two-thirds majority vote, determine a law to be urgent, the President may not use suspended veto rights and request reconsideration of such law, it may not be submitted to national referendum, and the adopted law shall be proclaimed no later than the third day after the President has received it.

The President is not politically responsible[1]. The President can propose the dissolution of the Saeima. Following this proposal, a national referendum shall be held. In such case, the President shall determine the agenda of the Saeima. However, if in the referendum more than half of the votes are cast against the dissolution of the Saeima, then the President shall be deemed to be removed from office.

The President’s legislative initiative on granting citizenship to new-borns

In this post, I would like to focus on a latest legislative initiative and political leadership of the President to grant citizenship to all new-borns in Latvia regardless of whether their parents are ‘non-citizens’.

In November 2016, the President initiated the idea, which received a cautious reaction from parties in the coalition government. For a year the President, using a form of network governance, discussed the issue with experts, representatives of different groups in politics and society, such as the Ombudsman, the Ministry of Interior, marketing and public opinion research centres, and academics.

The President’s decision is based on the fact, that granting non-citizens status to new-borns is an inheritance left by the former USSR and should not be maintained for more than 25 years after the restoration of independence. The President emphasizes that Latvia is a modern and democratic European country which needs to do everything to strengthen and consolidate its people. In mid-September the President submitted the legislative initiative to the Saeima, stating that it is a symbolic step which weakens the cleavage between different groups of Latvian society. The President points out that this regulation would apply to approximately 50 to 80 new-borns a year and that in 2016 non-citizen status was granted to 52 children. According to the data from the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, up to October 2017 non-citizen status had been granted to 30 children. According to the report of Arnis Kaktiņš, the executive director of public opinion centre SKDS, in May 76% of the public support the idea that children from non-citizens born in Latvia would automatically become citizens of Latvia at the time of their birth unless the parents of the child chose the citizenship of another country. The draft law complies with Latvia’s international commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If the parents fail to ensure the right on behalf of their children, it should be done by the state.

However, due to the coalition agreement, and after the cursory debates with two speakers at the end of September, the Saeima rejected the President’s proposal. A total of 39 of the 100 members of the Saeima voted to move the proposal forward, 38 voted against and 14 chose to abstain. The opposition supported the initiative, but it was not sufficient to move the legislative process forward, which requires support from half of the Saeima.

The President expressed the hope that the Saeima’s vote would only postpone the decision for a while and that there will be another opportunity to vote on the topic in the future.

Reference:

[1] Dišlers K. Latvijas valsts varas orgāni un viņu funkcijas. Rīga: TNA, 2004., page 137.

France – President Macron: From Jupiter to Janus?

French President Emmanuel Macron has openly declared himself to be an adept of ‘vertical’ relations at the summit of the State. In the Macron presidency, there is little room for doubt: the President determines the main orientations and sets out a roadmap for others to follow and implement. The metaphor of Macron as Jupiter, the god of gods in Roman mythology, is intended to renew with the figure of the Republican monarch, fallen into disuse since Chirac (the absent President), Sarkozy (the fast President) and Hollande (the normal President). Jupiter is above common mortals, and determines the fate even of the most powerful gods. The President is cast as a supra-partisan republican monarch, who symbolizes the State and borrows the trappings of prestige from the pre-Revolutionary monarchy (his victory speech at the Louvre, his reception of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Versailles Palace, where he convoked the Congress a few weeks later) and whose rare parole gives meaning and direction to the Nation. This construction is in obvious contrast with Hollande and his ‘normal’ Presidency. Macron’s positioning is intended not only to signify a return to sources of the Fifth Republic, but equally to impose an image, rather than allow a critical media to dictate a negative image, as in the case of Hollande and Flanby. Jupiter also confers the image of a President above the fray, above the routine competition of parties, suspicious of parliament, alone vested with supreme decision-making authority. Finally, it is a ‘performative’ metaphor: to remind electors that President Macron has renewed with the noble expression of State authority, with the expectation that Saying is equivalent to Doing.

The positive framing of Jupiter was intended to celebrate a return to authority and leadership at the heart of the State, a posture deliberately contrasted with the perceived failings of his three immediate predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. There is no room for a diarchy at the top. The order of protocol and priorities was clearly demonstrated in early July, with Macron addressing the two houses of parliament united in the Congress at Versailles on July 4th , followed by Philippe presenting the governmental programme to the National Assembly in Paris one day later. A rather classical division of authority between the visionary President and the implementation of the presidential programme by the premier. There are several novel features, however: not only did Macron intervene very closely in the selection of ministerial staffs, down to the offices of individual ministers, but the President and Prime Minister share many advisors, in the main selected by Macron and controlled from the Elysée. A similar concern for control is demonstrated in the attempts to reform the operation of the French parliament, perceived more in terms of a body for scrutiny and control of (presidentially determined) objectives than a site for legislation and deliberation.

Quite apart from the natural bombast involved in comparisons with Roman gods, the Jupiterian phase of the Macron presidency was intended to give a new sense of purpose to political choices, in the register of transformative political leadership. The Jupiter metaphor allowed Macron to announce clearly the reforms that would be undertaken during the course of the quinquennat, to guide the way. After a shaky start (the sacking of the chief in staff of the Army, the poor reception of cuts announced across governmental budgets without prior negotiation [and specifically of the housing benefits], the obvious inexperience of several new ministers and members of the governing LREM party), the early months of the presidency have followed, fairly clearly, the roadmap announced by the President. The law on the moralisation of French politics forbids the practice of employing family members as staffers , and places limits on expense claims. The decrees reforming the Labour Code (enhancing firm-level bargaining, limiting severance pay, reforming the operation of trade unions, especially in the smallest firms, simplifying and unifying staff representative committees in the workplace) are intended to modernize France’s system of industrial relations and encourage investment. The 2018 budget is characterized above all by the powerful symbolic reform of the Wealth Tax (impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) into a tax on property (impôt sur la fortune immobilière), along with the adoption of a 30% ‘flat tax’ to encourage investment in the ‘real’ economy and risk taking. The first budget of the Macron presidency has announced education, defense and culture as spending priorities, with housing, transport and sport the main losers. The main novelty is to move towards a five-year budgetary logic. Announcing spending priorities and commitments across the five year period (2018-2022) is intended to modify the meaning of the annual budget cycle, with a view to ensuring fiscal and policy stability over the medium term and encouraging investment. Forthcoming reforms of the pension sector and of professional training will likely reserve surprises and mobilise opposition. But it would be an act as bad faith to accuse Macron of not putting into operation his campaign promises.

Thus far, Macron has been carried by the favorable winds of change. He represents generational and political renewal and is boosted by a higher than expected rate of economic growth. Nowhere has Macron sought to seize the opportunity more than in the field of European integration. Macron was the only candidate explicitly endorsing enhanced European integration during the 2017 campaign. The drive to reform internally is in part a function of restoring France’s good name: demonstrating the capacity to reform, to withstand the Street, to overcome the usual veto players. His European vision was central to his speech at the Sorbonne (September 26th 2017). Macron called for the elaboration of a new democratic bargain and argued for a renewal of democratic dialogue across Europe in relation to the European project. His vision of Europe and its future renews with a repertory not really seen since Mitterrand in the 1980s and early 1990s. Moving beyond process, and the centrality of the Franco-German relationship, the real questions lies in the substance of the new European grand bargain. It is difficult to see the Germans allowing further mutualisation of euro-debts, or agreeing to enhanced fiscal transfers within the Euro-zone. Macron’s proposal for a super minister for the Eurozone budget has thus far been received politely, but its fate will also be determined in part by the Germans and allies? Will the function of such a minister be to tax and spend? Or to ensure conformity with a strict application of rules, in the German ordo-liberal tradition? Even in the latter case, it is unclear that such a proposal would get German support. And what about creating a euro-zone parliament? Here the main obstacle will come from the European Commission, inter alia, for whom the European parliament already provides a democratic oversight of EU institutions. What about new security and defense cooperation? The post-BREXIT scenario certainly makes such co-operation more likely to materialize, but central and eastern European States, as well as more Atlanticist minded ones, remain attached to the primacy of NATO. And what about new taxes on the GAFA (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon)? There might be a political will to move in this direction amongst many EU states, but there are also determined opponents. The commitment to reform the posted workers directive, finally, will be difficult to achieve. After the German elections, the FPD and the CSU are likely to oppose at least some aspects of Macron’s grand bargain.

In the schema of J.-M. Burns, the style of the Jupiteran president is a transformational one, but the hard transactions are only now beginning. Rather than Juperiterian, Macron is likely to adopt a Janus-style approach, looking both ways, twin-faced, integrating contradictory pressures, conscious of past legacies while attempting to provide leadership and direction. Even the best laid plans can go astray. Has Macron decided on too many objectives? On precise timetables that lay too many hostages to fortune? Or, quite simply, is there too much hyperbole? When the tide turns, the Jupiter metaphor might also give rise to ridicule. But one ought not to under-estimate the transformative potential of Macron: he benefits from a favorable constellation of stars, both domestically and in terms of the post-Brexit EU. Drawing on past presidential legacies is a core part of Macron’s message: especially those of Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) and Mitterrand (1981-1995) who provide rather different templates for a leadership vision in the field of European integration. The success of Macron’s presidency will depend in part on whether this vision is performative, whether its guides the actions of others and produces transformation. The jury is still out.

Turkey – A drastic transformation into a hyper-presidential, competitive authoritarian state

According to President Erdoğan, last year’s coup attempt by Fetö (an organisation led by a clerk called Fettullah Gülen who previously was closely allied to the president Erdoğan) was a blessing from God. This statement may sound like an odd claim since the President’s life was also said to be targeted on the night of July 15, 2016. However, sadly it is true that it gave Erdoğan an opportunity to declare a state of emergency, pass 28 decrees with the force of law reorganising many institutions without being bound by the constitution, and that violated many human rights conventions that Turkey has ratified such as the ECHR.

Many of these emergency decrees passed by the government are not even related to the cause of the crisis, even though under the constitution the subject of an emergency decree has to be limited to the cause of the given emergency. Despite their apparent violation of many articles of the constitution, and the ECHR, the constitutional court, two members of which were dismissed from their posts a year ago as a result of one of those decrees, refused to examine the constitutionality of the decrees, waiving its previous jurisdiction stating that the emergency decrees are limited to matter related only to the cause of emergency, and that they may be applied only during an emergency.

The Constitutional Court’s free pass merely reflects the country’s current repressive climate created by the emergency laws. These decrees reregulated public institutions including the National Intelligence Service, the army, local municipalities, and served to dismissed== more than 103000 public servants, university lecturers, appointed trustees replacing elected mayors and other local authorities (mostly pro-Kurdish HDP’s). They enforced new policies at full speed in the light of the AKP’s Islamist political beliefs, such as changing school system to promote religious schools as tools of transformation into a more Islamic country, closing down more than 150 media outlets, 1000 associations and foundations, and seizing private companies worth more than 10 billion dollars. But the most crucial change is the reorganisation of the judiciary, the ministry of justice and criminal enforcement. Currently, more than 4300 judges have been dismissed for being related to the Fetö organisation, some based on their previous decisions. Any judge who passes a judgement contradicting the President’s goals will be accused of being a member of Fetö, and can be easily dismissed since the president has a full control of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which are appointed by him and the majority of the members of the Grand National Assembly which the AKP controls.

Since the coup attempt, more than 50.000 people and 166 journalists have been imprisoned as a result of the government’s crack-down operations. This has created a serious climate of fear and intimidation reflected in the number of people who are seeking asylum. In this climate one important change has also been made; the constitutional reform package introducing a hyper-presidential system was adopted by the AKP and its partner, the MHP, and was approved in a referendum in April that was neither free nor fair. Despite the huge advantages that the government forces enjoyed, their proposal was accepted by the margin of only one percent and with the help of the High Election Council, which ignored Law number 298, article 101 which openly states that unsealed ballot paper are invalid, thus accepting an unknown number of invalid votes that otherwise would not have been counted. The High Election Council’s decision was taken after the actual counting had started. This sparked a reaction that the counting was also not fair. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe’s observers criticized the referendum process for not living up to the democratic standards, including the counting procedure. The main opposition party, the CHP, also claimed that “no votes” were in fact in the majority and that unsealed ballot papers were fakes, filing a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The case is still pending.

This summary of events tells only the final part of Turkey’s transformation from parliamentary democracy into hyper-presidential autocracy within a decade under AKP rule.

President Erdoğan is free from any checks and balances. He enjoys full control of every state institution and most of the media. Due to the state of emergency, constitutional guarantees of basic rights are currently suspended, giving the president the opportunity to transform a formerly parliamentary democracy into an hyper-presidential system (changing laws to fit the new regime such as election law, parliamentary rules and procedures, laws of political parties etc) which will be fully in force in 2019 after the elections to be held then.

Cyprus – Electoral politics and the 2018 presidential elections

The inglorious conclusion of the discussions for finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities last July and despite the personal involvement of the UN Secretary General has set the context for the campaign for the forthcoming presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC). The first round of the elections is scheduled for 28 January 2018 and if a second round is needed this will take place on 4 February. Interestingly, the elections were brought forward by two weeks because they overlapped with one of the most popular public feasts in Cyprus, probably the most popular, the carnival, and amidst fears for increased abstention because of that.

Four candidates have already announced their candidacy and it is expected that at least two more will join them: the current right-wing president N. Anastasiades, former president of the right-wing Democratic Rally (DISY), who is supported by DISY (30.69%); N. Papadopoulos leader of the Democratic Party-DIKO (14.49%), who is supported also by the social democrats EDEK (6.18%) and the Solidarity Movement (5.24%), while the Greens (4.82%) are also expected to support him; S. Malas supported by the left-wing AKEL (25.67%), the former governing party; and G. Lillikas president of the Citizens Alliance (6.01%). The extreme-right ELAM (3.71%) is also expected to place an independent candidacy, whereas the press reports that the Rector of the University of Cyprus is also considering running in the elections appealing to the non-partisan voters and those that systematically abstain and who comprise a large section of those entitled to vote.

As already explained in previous posts, the presidential system of Cyprus requires alliances between the parties to win election. These alliances have been shifting constantly. Although three of the four candidates (except Papadopoulos) also ran in the 2013 elections, in these elections the pattern and dynamics of alliances have shifted once again. In 2013, President Anastasiades was supported by two other parties beyond his own party DISY (DIKO and the right-wing European Party) which have now plead allegiance to N. Papadopoulos; G. Lillikas was supported back in 2013 by EDEK which is now supporting Papadopoulos and a large part of DIKO voters that disagreed with their party’s endorsement of Anastasiades at the time, whereas Malas is again supported by AKEL as in 2013. In 2013 the left-wing AKEL and Malas were in a very disadvantageous position having to defend a government that the people believed was the worst in the history of the Republic. Anastasiades, in 2013, was seen as the leader that could both solve the Cyprus problem and more importantly lead Cyprus out of the economic crisis.

These elections will be contested on two major issues – the Cyprus problem and the economy – around each of which conflicting narratives are presented by the candidates and their supporting parties. After falling back on the agenda for the first time in the electoral history of Cyprus, the Cyprus problem is expected to dominate political discussions once again. A resurfacing of the 2004 cleavage between pro-solutionists and the more hard-liners seems to have resurfaced in the last few months, with citizens, the press and political parties once again taking sides in hotly contested public debates.

The current president N. Anastasiades is considered the favorite to win reelection. However, he finds himself in the middle of crossfire. Anastasiades is targeted both by the pro-solution camp and the more hard-liners. The former accuse the president of missing a great opportunity to reach a solution to the long-standing ethnic conflict because he was already thinking about the elections ahead and because he knew that the more nationalistic part of his party’s electorate and the entire populace would never endorse a solution that provided for power-sharing with the Turkish Cypriots. The more hard-liners accuse the President of completely yielding to the demands of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots and that the only reason an agreement was not reached was because Turkey wanted even more.

The prominence of the Cypriot problem, however, does not mean that the economy will play no part; on the contrary. While Cyprus’s economy is now more stable than in 2013, unemployment is still high, many people are in need of public allowances and the conditions in the labour market have worsened for the working class. Two opposing narratives are already developing. The government and DISY support that the idea that the economy is now entering a phase of stability and growth, whereas the opposition parties and candidates accuse the government of numerous scandals, favouritism towards the big capital and ephemeral growth.

The most crucial aspect of this election campaign concerns the degree to which parties and candidates will succeed in convincing their supporters to go to the polls. As recent elections indicate, a process of dealignment is taking place whereby the electorate is now more suspicious of parties and more volatile than ever before; a quicksand!

Finland – Niinistö the clear favourite to win the presidential elections

The first round of presidential elections in Finland is set for 28 January, and the likelihood of the incumbent Sauli Niinistö getting re-elected is very high indeed. According to the latest survey conducted earlier this month by Helsingin Sanomat, the leading national daily, 68 % would vote for Niinistö. This suggests that Niinistö has a good chance of winning the election already in the first round, something that has not happened since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994.

Contextual factors have clearly favoured Niinistö. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia have become more important, with Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin receiving extensive media coverage. The current cabinet, led by prime minister Juha Sipilä, has also concentrated on its big projects in domestic politics, particularly the reorganization of social and health services, with the government seemingly happy to allow Niinistö to lead foreign and security policy – or at least relations with non-EU countries. Niinistö has consistently reminded the voters that we are living in unstable and turbulent times, and whether the use of such discourse is strategic or not, the heightened tensions have indeed highlighted the role of the president. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security or even survival, a role associated especially with Urho Kekkonen who ruled the country for a quarter of a century between 1956 and 1981.

Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö announced in May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The move came out of the blue, with Niinistö simply stating that the president represents the entire nation instead of any specific political party. Independent candidates are obviously common, for example in several Central and Eastern European countries, but Niinistö’s decision nonetheless came as a big surprise, not least to his old party who is now without a candidate of its own. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign.

The constitutional prerogatives of the president are limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government and to being the head of the armed forces, but it looks certain that the campaign will also focus on domestic issues. This would probably not hurt Laura Huhtasaari, the colourful candidate of the Finns Party known for her outspoken nationalist and anti-immigration views. Her party effectively split into two in June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the new party leadership looks set to take the party economically further to the right whilst engaging in hard-line attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Huhtasaari will no doubt try to steer the debate in that direction. In the survey her support was just 3 %.

Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, Timo Soini, who had chaired the Finns Party since 1997 and had been the key to the phenomenal rise of the party, drew his own conclusions and the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new parliamentary group of their own, the Blue Reform. This enabled Soini and his colleagues to remain in the government, but the future of the group looks very uncertain at the moment. The Blue Reform is yet to nominate a presidential candidate.

Of the other candidates, Pekka Haavisto of the Green League lost to Niinistö in the second round of the 2012 elections. A calm, analytical man with a strong background in UN and EU duties, the former environment minister came second in the Helsingin Sanomat survey with 13 % of the vote. Haavisto will no doubt appeal again to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters. This simultaneously undermines the prospects of MEP Merja Kyllönen, the candidate of the Left Alliance, whose support in the survey was 2 %. The Social Democrats in turn had clear difficulties in finding a good candidate, with Tuula Haatainen in the end nominated in early September. Her support was also extremely low, 3 %.

Moving to the centre-right parties, the candidate of the Centre is Matti Vanhanen, who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. In the survey he garnered 2 % support. The candidate of the Swedish People’s Party is another MEP, Nils Torvalds. The Christian Democrats decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

The popularity and media visibility of Niinistö raises serious problems for the other candidates. According to the public Niinistö has without a doubt performed well, particularly in foreign and security policy where his actions seem beyond criticism. This implies that at least some of the candidates have an incentive to steer the debate into policy areas not falling under the jurisdiction of the president. This would surely not be a good thing, especially as a large section of the population probably does not understand the division of competences between the government and the president.

How Do Minority Presidents Manage Multiparty Coalitions?

This is a blog post by Svitlana Chernykh based on her recent article with Paul Chaisty published in Political Research Quarterly (Online First). The full article can be found here.

Although the concept of coalitional presidentialism is not new, until recently, the question of how presidents form and manage their coalitions has been explored primarily in the context of Latin American presidential democracies. However, we know little about how and whether these theories travel outside Latin America. In “How Do Minority Presidents Manage Multiparty Coalitions? Identifying and Analyzing the Payoffs to Coalition Parties in Presidential Systems” we use original quantitative and qualitative data to analyse how minority presidents manage their multiparty coalitions to achieve legislative support in Ukraine.

Why Ukraine? With few exceptions, the country has been governed by multiparty cabinet coalitions since 1996 and thus offers rich macro-level data. Ukraine is also a difficult case with which to test institutional hypotheses. Many scholars of Ukrainian politics have questioned the applicability of notions of coalitional behavior to the country and have suggested that coalitional solutions to the problems of limited legislative support are difficult to operate in the Ukrainian context. Finally, presidential coalitions in Ukraine frequently contain cabinet parties as well as parties that do not have cabinet representation. This allowed us to explore the non-cabinet strategies that presidents used to manage the support of coalition parties.

Portfolio Allocation and Cabinet Coalition Discipline in Ukraine

In the first part of the paper, we test a now well-established hypothesis in Latin American literature that cabinet portfolio payoffs to coalition allies raise the level of legislative support for presidents. Our dependent variable is coalition discipline. It is measured as the percentage of legislators belonging to cabinet parties who voted in favour of bills introduced by the executive branch. Our main independent variable is the level of cabinet coalescence or the level of fairness in the distribution of cabinet posts among coalition members [1].

We find that cabinet coalescence has a positive and statistically significant effect on cabinet coalition discipline in Ukraine. To put it in substantive terms, an increase in cabinet coalescence by 10 percent increases cabinet coalition discipline by 2.4 percent. Thus, the dynamics of coalitional presidentialism in Ukraine are similar to those that we find in Latin America. The presidents who compose their cabinets more proportionally can expect a higher degree of satisfaction from allied parties and thus higher levels of discipline.

Managing Parties Outside of the Cabinet 

However, Ukrainian presidents also rely on the support of parties that do not receive portfolio payoffs. As the figure below shows, the number of non-cabinet coalition parties is significant in the Ukrainian case. In fact, the inclusion of non-cabinet parties was crucial in giving each president minimum winning majorities or near majorities.

Figure 1. The number of Ukrainian parties in cabinet and floor coalitions, 1996–2011.

 

How did the presidents in Ukraine secure their support? What were the motivations behind these parties’ decision to join the coalitions? To answer these questions, we interviewed 50 legislators, of whom 60 per cent were members of the coalition in 2012. We designed an interview sample and a number of structured and semi-structured questions to help us explore whether the perceived benefits of coalition membership differed significantly between members of coalition parties that had and did not have cabinet representation.

As figures 2 and 3 show, that the motivation to support the president differed between coalition parties that were members of the cabinet and those that were not. Non-cabinet coalition parties were significantly likely to identify extra-cabinet strategies such as patronage, budget payoffs, and informal favours when asked about strategies that the president used to form the coalition (figure2).

Figure 2. Percentage of non-cabinet and cabinet coalition party members who identified the importance of extra- cabinet benefits (patronage, budget resources, and informal favours) in the formation of coalitions.

We find a similar pattern when analysing the responses to a structural question, which asked legislators to choose the first and second most important reason why a political party would decide to join a presidential coalition from a list of options (figire 3). Members of the cabinet party were significantly more likely to identify policy influence and cabinet positions than the members of non-cabinet parties within the floor coalition. In contract, members of non-cabinet parties were more likely to mention budget influence and especially the informal exchange of favours than members of cabinet parties.

Figure 3. Percentage of non-cabinet and cabinet coalition party members who selected as the first or second most important reason why a political party might choose to join a presidential coalition.

Therefore, on the one hand, the Ukraine case validates extant analysis on the effects of cabinet management on legislative behaviour. This suggests that coalitional presidentialism is not simply a unique Latin American phenomenon and gives us good reasons to expect similar dynamics in other regions of the world. Given the increasing preponderance of minority presidents in new democracies, this presents the opportunity to compare a diverse range of presidential cases across other parts of Europe as well as other regions including Africa and Asia.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian case also highlights the multivariate nature of the strategies that presidents deploy to maintain their legislative support. This adds a new dimension to the extant literature, which has mainly focused on the tools deployed by presidents at the cabinet level. By distinguishing between cabinet and floor coalitions, it is possible to identify parties that are motivated to join presidential coalitions by reasons other than cabinet portfolios. This finding highlights the need to consider the entire “toolbox” of resources that presidents can use to maintain their coalitional support [2]. 

 

[1] Amorim Neto, Octavio. 2002. “Presidential Cabinets, Electoral Cycles, and Coalition Discipline in Brazil”, in: Scott Morgenstern and Benito Nacif (eds), Legislative Politics in Latin America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 48–78.

[2] Chaisty, Paul, Nic Cheeseman, and Timothy J. Power. 2014. “Rethinking the ‘Presidentialism Debate’: Coalitional Politics in Cross-Regional Perspective.” Democratization 21: 72–94.

Lee Savage – How do president’s influence coalition bargaining in semi-presidential systems?

This is a guest post by Lee Savage in the Department of European & International Studies at King’s College London. It is based on his article in European Journal of Political Research.

Presidents in semi-presidential systems usually have a constitutionally prescribed role in the government formation process. Often, this is limited to the ability to appoint either a formateur or candidate for prime minister who will then go on to form a cabinet which must maintain the confidence of the legislature. In some countries, such as Bulgaria and Ireland, even the power to appoint a prime minister is limited by constitutional requirements to select the leader of the largest party in the legislature.

Even though the constitution may define a limited role for presidents role in government formation, they can still exert influence over the cabinet that eventually takes office. Previous research has shown that presidents can influence the composition of the cabinet by increasing the proportion of non-partisan ministers that are appointed. In some circumstances, presidents can also increase the likelihood of a cabinet leaving office prematurely. In new research, I have shown how presidents influence the coalition formation process itself by decreasing the duration of bargaining negotiations.

The duration of the government formation process can have significant consequences for a state. For example, the 541-day bargaining process experienced by Belgium between 2010 and 2011 resulted in the legislature’s failure to pass a budget which, in turn, led to an official rebuke from the European Commission. However, it is notable that there are few examples of protracted coalition bargaining processes in semi-presidential systems. But is this a result of presidential influence, and if so, then how is this influence exerted when cabinet formation is usually the preserve of the legislature in semi-presidential democracies? I argue that the influence of presidents on the duration of coalition bargaining is a result of first, the extent of their constitutional powers and second, their partisanship.

Presidential powers and coalition bargaining

The constitutionally-mandated powers of the president increase their legitimacy to intervene in the government formation process. More powerful presidents are seen as possessing greater legitimacy to act in the eyes of other actors in the process, specifically, the legislative parties. This legitimacy to act decreases the duration of the coalition bargaining process by reducing its complexity. More powerful presidents place implicit limits on the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors in the process. Presidents with stronger non-legislative powers, such as the power to appoint the prime minister, dissolve the cabinet, or dissolve the assembly can intervene directly in the process of government formation. The legislative parties will seek to propose a cabinet that is more acceptable to the president and reduce the likelihood that they will use their dissolution powers.

Presidents with stronger legislative powers also reduce the complexity of the bargaining process. Presidents are co-executive actors in semi-presidential systems and will govern alongside the cabinet as both try to satisfy the policy preferences of their voters. Rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will understand this and seek to limit their proposed cabinets to the set that can govern in relative harmony with the president. If a cabinet is appointed that has a completely divergent legislative agenda from that of the president then it increases the likelihood of conflict between the president and the legislature. Presidents can use their powers of veto or delay to disrupt the government legislation, or generally act to impede the cabinet’s legislative agenda as was the case during the period of cohabitation in France between 1986 and 1988.

In sum, when presidents have greater powers the range of potential governments is reduced to the set that will be more likely to be stable and are able to implement its legislative agenda. The chart below shows the effect that presidential powers have on the likelihood that coalition bargaining will end on a given day. At low levels of presidential powers (those that receive a score of 2 on the Shugart-Carey index) the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner is increased by around 50 percentage points in semi-presidential systems. However, when presidents are more powerful (those that receive a score of 8) the likelihood of government formation ending sooner is increased by 120 percentage points.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on presidential powers.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations.

Presidential partisanship and coalition bargaining

Some studies of semi-presidentialism, particularly those that examine cabinet composition, begin from the premise that the president has both a mandate and preferences that diverge from those of their party. This is apparent in those studies which view the appointment of non-partisan ministers to the cabinet as an indicator of presidential influence. Others have argued that presidents have large incentives to act in a more partisan manner. Party organisations provide campaigning support for presidential candidates and presidents that have a base of support in the legislature are more likely to be able to fulfil the policy preferences of their voters. In some instances, it has been argued that legislative parties in semi-presidential systems have become ‘presidentialised’ with the presidential candidate able to set the agenda for the party as a whole. Following the presidentialisation logic, it can be argued that the president will be more likely to see a cabinet proposal that includes their party as more acceptable than one that doesn’t. Other rationally foresighted parties in the legislature will also concede that such a proposal is more sustainable if it avoids a period of unstable cohabitation.

The complexity of coalition bargaining will therefore be lower when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position in the legislature. When the president’s party is a member of a greater proportion of minimal winning coalitions the range of governing proposals that are acceptable to all politically relevant actors is more easily identifiable. Therefore, when the president’s party holds a stronger bargaining position, the duration of coalition bargaining will be reduced.

Simulated marginal effect of semi-presidentialism on the hazard of coalition bargaining ending, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party.

Note: Results are taken from model three of Table 1. Graph is based on 1,000 simulations

 

The chart above shows the effect of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining, conditional on the bargaining power of the president’s party which is measured by the Shapley-Shubik Index (the SSI indicates the proportion of minimal winning coalitions in the legislature to which the president’s party is pivotal). As is clear from the chart, the likelihood of coalition bargaining ending sooner rather than later increases along with the bargaining power of the president’s party. To give an example of this relationship, in Poland, the first government to form after the inauguration of the SLD president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, was an SLD-PSL coalition that took just 12 days to negotiate in 1996. The SLD’s bargaining power was 0.41 on the SSI at the time, meaning that it was a pivotal player in around 41 percent of possible coalitions. Following the 1997 general election, the SLDs bargaining power was reduced to 0.22 and government formation lasted 40 days resulting in the formation of an AWS-UW coalition.

Implications

The results of my research point to the systemic influence of semi-presidentialism on the duration of coalition bargaining. Presidents with greater powers can wield more influence over cabinet formation and other parties in the system adjust their own behaviour and expectations to account for presidential preferences. A further implication of the study is that presidential partisanship matters. Contrary to some studies which assume presidents are almost non-partisan actors, the results presented here indicate that presidents have an interest in seeing their parties succeed and are willing to act to facilitate their success.

Joel C. Moses – President Putin and the 2017 Russian Gubernatorial Elections

This is a guest post by Joel C. Moses, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Iowa State University (jmoses@iastate.edu, jcmoses23@gmail.com)

Elections for 16 Russian governors in the 85 regions of the country were contested on September 10, 2017. They were held in conjunction with nationwide local and regional elections that have taken place annually on the second Sunday of September since 2014.  In 2017, 6,000 races including the 16 for governor would affect 46 million voters, approximately half  the  entire Russian electorate, with 42 political parties registered to participate in one or more of  these races.

President Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia (UR), through its direct association with Putin has a huge monopoly advantage from financial contributions and national media exposure over the three other national parliamentary opposition parties.[i]  With UR winning almost three-fourths of all votes cast nationally in previous annual local-regional September elections, the 16 UR incumbent governors in 2017 counted on mobilizing an ensured turnout of support from the party’s base. The UR political base included state employees pressured to vote as an implicit requirement for their jobs  along with pensioners, students, and military oftentimes compliantly bussed en masse to precincts.

The remaining electorate has lacked equivalent motivation to vote. Many potential voters would only just have returned to work distracted from any campaigning on their August summer holidays or dacha gardening. They would be forced to choose between United Russia and an array of non-competitive party candidates on the ballot intended only to dilute the effect of any anti-UR votes. Low voting turnout in elections has reflected a certain political resignation among many Russian voters outside the UR base that their votes really don’t  matter. Their feeling was that results already were predetermined and if necessary fraudulently reported by regional election commissions to certify victories by the UR candidates.

President Putin suspended all gubernatorial elections in 2005-2011. When they were restored under a 2012 amended federal law, they included a new federally mandated requirement for all regions termed the “municipal filter.” Only candidates with notarized signatures from a minimal percentage of  local municipal deputies and chief executives in their regions from an equivalent minimal percentage of regional locales qualify to be balloted as gubernatorial candidates.

Like governors the previous five years, the 2017 incumbent governors took advantage of this  municipal filter in their regions to disqualify any real competition in Sverdlovsk, Buryatiya, and Sevastopol. They persuaded the overwhelmingly majority UR local deputies not to sign for potentially strong challengers or influenced regional election commissions appointed by the same governors to disallow allegedly invalid signatures. Even pro-Kremlin Russian analysts two weeks before September 10 conceded that only two of the 16 races were even very slightly competitive as a consequence of the municipal filter.[ii]  Russian gubernatorial elections since 2012 have been decided less by outright vote fraud at the polls on the day of the election than the limited choice on the ballot other than incumbents predetermined by the municipal filter  weeks  before the voting itself.

Gubernatorial elections are won by an absolute majority. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the top two finishers in the first round compete to decide the winner in a run-off held two weeks later on Sunday in September. Based on past results since 2012, the prospects for the 16 incumbent governors in 2017 appeared to be very good. A  total 7 gubernatorial elections had   been held annually since 2012. In all 71 races through 2016, the winning incumbent was the official UR nominee 67 times. Their winning margin averaged close to 75% with some achieving victories by 85-95% over all their opponents. The UR-nominated incumbent failed to win the election just once in the only gubernatorial run-off election since 2012 – Irkutsk with the Communist Party candidate winning an upset victory in 2015. The three other non-UR incumbents in Kirov and  Orel in 2014 and Smolensk in 2015 were in effect endorsed by President Putin with United Russia not contesting the races with their own candidates. Five additional UR incumbent governors nominated by Putin also were chosen unanimously by their regional parliaments in 2013 and 2014.[iii]

The 16 governors were slated to run for five-year terms with the allowance to serve not more  than two  terms in the same region since elections were restored in 2012. Yet the 16 scheduled races on September 10 were at least an uncertain political challenge for both the national government and  the incumbent governors. For the national government, Putin’s Russia in the first decade of the century riding high on soaring revenue from oil and gas exports is not Putin’s Russia over the past four years in economic recession with rising unemployment and inflation, drastically falling export earnings, depleted hard-currency reserves, a declining ruble exchange rate, and Western economic sanctions against Putin’s Ukraine aggression. All Russian  governors have been tasked to formulate economic crisis policies resolving the regional effects  of  the country’s national  recession. Adding to the challenge of the economic crisis is rampant official corruption throughout Russia with revenue and resources diverted into bribery, kickbacks, and embezzlement.

To burnish his anti-corruption image, President Putin has used governors as convenient scapegoats for mishandling their own economic situations actually stemming from his own national policy failures. Under provisions of the 2012 amended law on gubernatorial elections, President Putin has the constitutional authority at any time to depose governors for a range of  reasons including his “lack of confidence” in their ability. He has arbitrarily deposed even governors who may just have been elected a previous year. The governors in these 16 regions were appointed by Putin as the acting heads of  their  regions for 2017 under a presidentially granted right to run for election to their offices in the next scheduled September nationwide election.

In his third presidential term since 2012, Putin had replaced 2 of the 85 regions with allegedly incorruptible “outsider” (varyag) governors without any prior association or careers in their regions. Four of the 21 deposed governors  in Komi and Sakhalin in 2015, Kirov in 2016, and  Udmurtiya in 2017 were actually arrested and jailed on charges of bribery and embezzlement.  The problem for governors arises when still in their five-year terms or just appointed acting heads they run for the office. Governors hope by winning a direct election to bank a five-year  mandate with President Putin and their own population before economic conditions get even worse. Like their predecessors, election was the option by the 16 governors in 2017.

For Putin, the 2017 gubernatorial elections had an even more direct personal significance as political theatre. It would be the last nationwide election before the 2018 presidential election.  September 10 was important to have a relatively high voter turnout in regions and a  non-controversial outcome without widespread allegations of dishonest campaigning, election rules violations, and vote fraud by the incumbent governors. A marred election nationally would diminish the legitimacy for Putin’s own subsequent run for a fourth term as president in 2018.  The staged goal for September 10, 2017 was an enthusiastic public endorsement for Putin’s own presidential re-election on March 18, 2018. The election of the 16 whom Putin had appointed acting governors in 2017 was as much a referendum on himself for his 4th term.

Incumbent governors among recently appointed outsiders were less likely to win without dishonest campaigning, election violations, and fraud. More than their predecessors, the 16 faced uncertain campaigns in the few months between their appointments as acting heads by Putin and electoral success in September. Putin had appointed seven the new governors  of  their regions for the first time just from February to April of 2017. They were distrusted by the regional economic-political elites, unfamiliar with the particular nuances of campaigning in their newly assigned regions, and unknown by voters before their appointments. All 16 would have preferred only moderate turnout with a disproportionate UR political base voting and potentially anti-incumbent voters not showing up at the precincts on September 10.

Adding to their liabilities, many of the 16  were technocrats without any prior political experience or elected offices.[iv] They did not debate their opponents in public forums or on regional television over July and August. All 16 campaigned essentially as a public relations outreach of their office as governor. They traveled around their regions issuing policy statements before prearranged audiences to showcase themselves through their internet websites and regional media. Most UR incumbent governors since 2012 had won easily by their close Putin association enhanced since 2014 by the patriotic euphoria in Russia from Putin’s  annexation  of Crimea. The unpredictable factor for the 16 in the run-up to the election on September 10 was  the reaction of voters to the now almost four-year national economic recession.

Despite the uncertainties for the 16 governors and Putin, the results a week ago on September 10 must have seemed reassuring for both.[v] The political base of United Russia held firm for the election. All 16 incumbent governors won with an average victory margin almost exactly the same as governors since 2012 at 74.36%, ranging from 60-64% in four regions to 80-88% in six. The seven new governors just appointed in 2017 were not  disadvantaged with an even higher average victory margin of 77.92%, five between 78 and 88%, and only two marginally competitive at 61 and 68%. The new governor of Marii El just appointed by Putin on April 7 won by a 88% margin over his opponents with a reported 44% of the eligible voters in the region participating.

The election may have fallen short of President Putin’s goal of a large enthusiastic voter turnout as his referendum for 2018. Yet participation in these 16 regions at least was respectably equivalent to past September elections, averaging 39.83% of all their registered voters and only slightly less at 36.42% for the regions headed by his seven newly appointed 2017 governors.  Allegations of rule violations and vote fraud usually require a couple of weeks after an election to be filed with the Central Election Commission and courts, but early reports suggest that a fewer number of complaints will be submitted  than after past elections. As predicted beforehand by analysts in the Russian media, September 10 was a “quiet” election without any major controversies.

Putin soon will announce his intention to run again for president with his national public approval still at 80% or higher despite the economic recession. In retrospect, the election of the 16 incumbent governors only reaffirmed Putin’s seemingly unassailable political authority throughout Russia for his fourth term as president in 2018-24. Putin in Act 4 successfully previewed September 10, 2017.

Notes

[i] Communist Party of  the  Russian Federation, Liberal Democratic Party of  Russia, and A Just Russia.

[ii] Irina Nagornykh, “Munitsipal’nyi  fil’tr slishkom malo propuskaet,” Kommersant, 28 August 2017, at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3395829.

[iii] Under a 2013 federal amendment, regional parliaments are   allowed to suspend their gubernatorial elections and choose their governor from three candidates nominated by President Putin.  On September 10, the incumbent UR appointed governor of  Adygeya was chosen unanimously under the same provision by its regional parliament.

[iv] Carolina De Stefano, “Kremlin-Governor Relations in the Run-Up to the 2018 Presidential Elections,” Russian Analytical Digest, No. 201 (18 April 2017), pp. 2-6.

[v] Calculations for the final election results and voter turnout are based on totals for each of  the  16 regions compiled by Ivan Sinergiev and Andrei Pertsev, “Gubernatorskie vybory: kto bol’she,” Kommersant, 14 September 2017, at https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3408129.

Armenia – The others and Russia: Walking the complementarity tightrope

In the last months, Armenia has been remarkably active in developing and enhancing its international ties. However, Russia has not stopped keeping in check its “small brother”. Armenia’s sudden withdrawal from NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia is illustrative of the pressures and challenges it faces. Rather than being confined to the foreign policy realm, these developments have some domestic implications.

Over the summer, Armenia was working towards the strengthening of the relationship with a plurality of actors. Such diplomatic activism can be interpreted as being in line with its main foreign policy guideline, namely complementarity. That means cultivating ties with as many international partners as possible, within the leeway consented by Russia. Concerning the relationship with the EU, Yerevan and Brussels are expected to sign the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA), whose details were finalized in March. Both Piotr Switalski, the head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, and the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, are confident about a successful outcome. In the words of Mr Sargsyan: “We have no reason to not sign that document”. A similar statement was also made by Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. Other than interacting with the EU, Armenian officials had discussions with their Iranian counterparts about the implementation of a free-trade zone. Additionally, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan and the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pledged to reinforce their bilateral ties. These developments, and some prior diplomatic moves, have domestic implications. Thus, they can be understood as being linked to the September 2016 Government reshuffle, and to the need to promote foreign investments and sustainable developmen[1].

Focusing on the relationship with the EU, CEPA can be interpreted as the last episode of a complex interaction. In addition to being an upgrade in bilateral relations, the signature of CEPA is relevant since at the last minute, in September 2013, Armenia withdrew from the Association Agreement (AA) talks with Brussels and announced instead its decision to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Even though most analysts suspect this U-turn to be the result of Kremlin pressure, Armenian political elites have never publicly admitted that this was the case. For instance, in recent times President Sargsyan denied any such external interference, saying that: “We negotiated with both the EEU and the EU, since initially both sides said that one does not interfere with one another. But, what should we do when the European Union said that it hinders?”[2] In other words, it was hinted that the EU, rather than Armenia, suddenly departed from what had been previously agreed. However, in spite of this official rhetoric, the influence of Russia seems clear[3].

The withdrawal from the Association Agreement shows that Russia can be an unpredictable and capricious “big brother”. Thus, while there should be no objection to signing CEPA[4], the Kremlin still keeps a close eye on its South Caucasian ally. In this regard, notwithstanding the diplomatic activism of the past months, the last-minute withdrawal from the NATO’s Agile Spirit exercise in Georgia, which took place between September 3 and September 11 was remarkable.

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, the country has been developing ties with NATO, as per the Individual Partnership Action Plan and the Partnership for Peace program. Within this framework, some Armenian troops took part in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo[5]. Aware of the possible tensions and misunderstandings arising from this situation, Armenian cadres often specified that cooperation with NATO neither interfered with the CSTO’s commitments nor involved any future plan of membership. For instance, during an interview in July 2017, President Sargsyan ruled out any ambition to join NATO[6].However, in spite of these precautions, the withdrawal from the NATO drill seems indicative of some misunderstanding between Moscow and Yerevan.

Armenian policymakers said that their participation was never confirmed. Notably, Armenian Deputy Speaker Eduard Sharmazanov also remarked that, notwithstanding cooperation with NATO, CSTO plays a crucial role for the security of Armenia[7]. However, that does not mean cutting ties with NATO. In this regard, presidential spokesperson Vladimir Akopyan stated that missing the military exercise did not prelude a reconsideration of the relationship with NATO (i.e. cooperation without membership)[8]. It must be added that it is not the first episode of this kind. In 2009 Armenia, after confirming its involvement in a NATO exercise, also pulled out at the last moment[9].

Despite the aforementioned declarations, some doubts are in order. Georgi Kajarava, the Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman, said that this decision was highly unexpected[10]. Even more explicitly, the Armenian expert Ruben Mehrabyan bluntly said that: “A simple comparison of realities that have taken shape in the region and Armenian-Russian relations simply rule out any theories for the exception of Russia resorting to brazen blackmail and the Armenian leadership back-pedalling.” Mr Mehrabyan also ruled out that the withdrawal of Armenia could be attributed to the participation of Azerbaijan. First, Baku announced its involvement at the very last minute. Second, both Armenia and Azerbaijan participated in games organized and hosted by Russia[11].

The hypotheses about Russian pressure= are reinforced by an analysis of the Russian press. The pro-government newspaper “Pravda” used the expression “common sense prevailed” when commenting on Armenia’s sudden refusal to participate in the NATO drill. In the same article, which also hinted at the unhappiness of Russia with the cooperation between NATO and Armenia, it was plainly stated that: “We would also like to remind our Armenian friends that it was Vladimir Putin (not Angela Merkel) who stopped the offensive of Azerbaijani troops in Nagorno-Karabakh in April [2016][12]”.

While these dynamics relate to the international sphere, they are also relevant to the understanding of domestic developments, first and foremost the future of Serzh Sargsyan[13]. As reported in this blog, Mr Sargsyan declared that in the future he would like to be involved in security affairs. However, he prudently refrained from commenting on the NATO issue. Due to the constitutional reform of 2015[14], Mr Sargsyan could extend his position in power by becoming premier. Given that, his silence could be interpreted as a way to avoid tensions with a crucial partner.

In addition to this prudence in international affairs, an analysis of domestic dynamics also seems to confirm the unwillingness of Mr Sargsyan to quietly retire. While he refrains from declarations about his future, Galust Sahakian, a deputy chairman of President Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), declared that the President should stay in power after the end of his second presidential mandate (i.e. should become Prime Minister), since no other leader could take up such a responsibility.

In conclusion, Armenia needs to find a balance between its desire for investments and modernization, and its need for not displeasing Russia. Turning to the current leadership, prudent decisions seem connected to their permanence in power.

Notes

[1] Refer to Erik Davtyan’s analysis for more insight on Armenia recent diplomatic moves and their implications.

[2] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Kiesler: European Union is ready to sign agreement on extended and comprehensive partnership with Armenia”, September 12 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[3] This author conducted expert interviews in Armenia in Summer 2015 and Summer 2015. All her respondents agreed on Russia having strongly influenced that decision. For further insights, refer to: Loda, C. (2016, May). Perception of the EU in Armenia: A View from the Government and Society. In Caucasus, the EU and Russia-Triangular Cooperation?. Nomos Nomos. Pp 131-152.

[4] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Thai News Service. 2017. “Armenia: Armenian presidential spokesman comments on relations with NATO”, September 8 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[7] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Programme summary of Armenian Public TV news 1700 gmt 4 Sep 17”, September 5 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[8] ITAR-TASS. 2017. “Armenian presidential spokesman says no plans to review relations with NATO”, September 07 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[9] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Dashnaktsakan: Armenia is an independent state, and can independently decide in which exercises to take part, and in which there is no”, September 04 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Armenia to participate in the training “Combat Commonwealth 2017” within the framework of the CIS against the backdrop of refusal to participate in NATO exercises”, September 4 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[11] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2017. “Pundit: Armenia misses US-led drills due to Russia’s “brazen blackmail””, September 6 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] Stepushova, Lyubov. 2017. “Russia tells Armenia where to sit”, Pravda.Ru, September 7, http://www.pravdareport.com/world/ussr/07-09-2017/138617-armenia-0/.

[13] BMI Research. 2017. “New EU Deal No Game Changer”, Armenia Country Risk Report, October 1 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[14] In 2015, a constitutional referendum reduced the powers of the President and enhanced those of the Prime Minister. Considering the political implications of this change, it has been observed that it would enable President Sargsyan, who is serving his second and last presidential mandate, to extend his permanence in power by becoming Premier. This blog extensively covered this topic, focusing on the details of the reform, the campaign before the vote and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.