Tag Archives: Russia

Fabian Burkhardt – Future Leaders of Russia?

This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen)

A new generation of government officials is gradually emerging, but old hands in Russia’s institutions have been unwilling to make space for fresh faces.

Between October 2017 and February 2018, a competition was held that received little attention outside of Russia. Almost 200,000 applicants – 90% of whom came from outside of public administration – competed in several rounds for the title of future “Leaders of Russia”. The prize? A top job in the civil service or a state corporation. The finals were held in Sochi at the Siriuseducation center for gifted children headed by Elena Shmeleva, who was one of the three co-chairpersons of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign. And indeed, roughly sixty finalists were appointed in ministries and other federal state organs.

It is tempting to dismiss the competition as yet another Potemkin village to embellish Putin’s rather uninspired presidential election campaign. But there seems to be rather more to it than that. The event was organized by the deputy head of the presidential administration Sergei Kirienko and the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). Kirienko’s interest in personnel management is long standing. Back in 2000, when he was presidential representative in the Volga Federal District, Kirienko’s hobby horse had been a recruitment policy known as the “golden cadre reserve”. Several younger bureaucrats, such as economy minister Maksim Oreshkin or Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov, seemed to have been genuinely enthusiastic about boosting vertical upward mobility, unlike some other top officials among the 64 mentors of the program. Also, the unprecedented number of applicants from all over Russia somewhat belies the assertion often met in public discourse that there is a dearth of talent that could be tapped.

The composition of the new Russian government appointed on 18 May by president Putin, however, clearly demonstrated a victory of the cohort of ‘mentors’ over the ‘mentees’, and of horizontal rotation over vertical mobility. Indeed, changes occurred among slightly less than 50% of all cabinet positions, a scale comparable to the transition from Putin’s first to second presidential term when in Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s 2004 government, about half of the ministers had already served in Prime Minister Kasyanov’s 2000-2004 government. Yet, in fact, the new government of Dmitry Medvedev, whose reappointment had been anticipated by many, has actually become older by more than four years on average. In 2012, Medvedev’s government had an average age of 47.17 years while in 2018, the mean jumped to 51.27 years. This is consistent with broader trends among the Russian political elite of governors, in the presidential administration and the Federal Assembly: There is an ever widening gap between presidential rhetoric on bringing in fresh faces and the reality of an aging elite trapped in horizontal cadre rotation. Among the ten deputy prime ministers, really only one among the five newly appointed deputy PMs can be considered a clear case of upward mobility. That would be Maksim Akimov, responsible mainly for civil service and digital technologies, who made his career in the rather progressive Kaluga region. Most others have had cabinet experience in various positions at least since the mid-2000s, most notably Tatyana Golikova (minister of health from 2007 to 2012) and Aleksei Gordeev (minister of agriculture 1999-2009). Among the nine newly appointed officials in the rank of minister, the situation looks slightly better: three are former governors (a common pattern of promotion in the past), and four others stem from second and third layers of the civil service and who were now – as part of a more or less systematic cadre management system – promoted to a cabinet position.

One of the most remarkable features of the new government is what analyst Nikolay Petrov has called the rise of the “school of MinFin”, the Ministry of Finance, including two deputy ministers and three ministers with a background in the most meritocratic structure of Russia’s government. The incumbent Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov was promoted to first deputy prime minister, which made him, according to Sergey Aleksashenko, the most powerful Minister of Finance since the legendary Egor Gaidar in 1991/1992. These fiscal experts should not be understood as a team with a common mission, but the preference for nit-pickers clearly demonstrates that the main goal of the government is not so much reform, but the minimization of political and economic risks with tight resources available, and a foreign policy that puts additional strain to the state budget. This fiscal profile has been further strengthened with the appointment of former Minister of Finance Aleksey Kudrin as new Chairman of the Audit Chamber. In the run-up to Putin’s presidential inauguration, rumors had been circulating that Kudrin might be appointed to a leading position in government (such as deputy PM) or in the presidential administration. Kudrin’s new role appears to be further evidence that the role of the new government in the next presidential term will be confined to fiscal management rather than any kind of reformist endeavor.

Structural changes to the distribution of administrative functions among the ministries were also kept to a minimum. Most notably, the number of deputy ministers was increased by one, the previous Ministry of Education was split up into two ministries, one responsible for research, the other for education, and the position of minister for open government (without portfolio) was abolished altogether.

Chicago University’s Konstantin Sonin rated the past government’s performance with a school grade of 4+ (on a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is the best grade). Judging by the minor fine-tuning of both personal and institutional features of the government, one can assume that president Putin’s overall assessment did not differ much. Moreover, among those deputy PMs and ministers who left government, so far none of them was punished in an all too ostentatious manner by the president that would allow for conclusions about perceived excessive mismanagement or rent-seeking in their policy domains. Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, for instance, was dismissed from his post heading the Russian defense and aerospace sector only to be appointed as new head of Roscosmos, the agency responsible for the Russian space program. He won this new post even though he had drawn significant criticism both from branch specialists and the wider public.

Overall, both the composition and the appointment process seems to confirm that the government’s main purpose is to minimize political and economic risks, and to guarantee macroeconomic stability. In sharp contrast to the principles of openness and meritocracy espoused during the Leaders of Russia competition, the appointment process was characterised by a lack of transparency and the apparent backdoor haggling by various interest groups. This backroom drive for stability has been highlighted by Russian analysts, and the drawbacks are apparent: For the time being, even any only moderately ambitious reform attempt and upward mobility among civil servants have been jammed.

In terms of policy, the main strategic goals for the period between 2018 and 2024 have been set in a presidential decree on May 7 in a similar fashion to a series of ‘developmental’ May decrees at the beginning of the previous term in 2012. The over-arching goal: a “breakthrough in scientific-technological and socio-economic development.” At the recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Aleksey Kudrin compared the new cabinet to a crouching tiger preparing for a big leap forward to achieve the ambitious goals set down by the president. According to Kudrin, since the early 2000s during his time as Minister of Finance, the intra-executive roles have been reversed: back then, the government outlined more ambitious goals that were then reined in by the president. Nevertheless, intra-executive relations in the Russian superpresidential system (president-parliamentary in more technical terms) are still best described in terms of principal-agent relations where the president sets forth wide-ranging goals while implementation is delegated in large parts to the federal government and regional administrations, with all the issues of informational asymmetry and monitoring discrepancies associated with this form of hierarchical control attached.

The urge of top-down strategic planning to a certain degree resembles Soviet five-year plans, according to Vladimir Gel’man. It has led to what Stephen Fortescue calls “policy irresponsibility”: the co-existence of a multitude of strategic documents both on the federal and regional level which posit exceedingly ambitious and compulsory goals that are often mutually contradictory and insufficiently backed by financial resources. Ex-deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich once complained 70% of his time gets spent solving coordination impasses among ministries in his sphere of responsibility. While the goals are set globally, implementation is done within organs of the executive which form vertical ‘silos’ or ‘wells’ (kolodtsy). In these Kolodtsy, ‘blame’drips downward towards the departmental or even regional level, and between ministries and other federal organs, hampering implementation quantity and quality.

Kudrin and his colleagues from the Center for Strategic Research are well aware of these issues. In one CSR paperfrom late 2016, analysts found that previous key strategic documents such as Strategy 2010 or Strategy 2020 have been implemented by just 30-40%. Under electoral authoritarianism, strategic documents are therefore not so much about achieving the goals stipulated in the documents, but about formalizing vertical monitoring and mechanisms of control. If taken seriously, seemingly meritocratic competitions such as ‘Leaders of Russia’ would actually undermine this form of bureaucratic control. Therefore, with the victory of the cohort of ‘mentors’ within the new Medvedev government, the crouching in the status quo seems to be the main implicit goal for the ‘Russian tiger.’

A version of this article was originally published by Riddle.

Russia – Putin Wins! Engineering an Election without Surprises

Following an adroitly-managed presidential election campaign, Russia’s leader for the last 18 years, Vladimir Putin, won a new six-year term of office in decisive fashion on Sunday, garnering over 76 percent of the vote.  If President Putin completes his new term, he would be only the second ruler of post-Imperial Russia to have governed the country for more than 20 years; the other was Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps the only elements of drama in the campaign surrounded the final margin of victory and the level of turnout.  For leaders in soft authoritarian regimes like Russia, it is not enough to defeat opposing candidates.  One must project an aura of political invincibility, which requires reducing opponents to also-rans in high-turnout elections where there are at least the formal trappings of competitiveness.

As the tables below illustrate, Putin’s victory margin was almost 65 percent, the highest in the post-communist era.  His vote total exceeded 56 million, over ten million more votes than he received in the previous presidential election.  Voter turnout reached 67 percent, up from the previous presidential election but below the 70 percent figure that the Kremlin apparently set as its goal.

To engineer these impressive results, Putin and his political allies pursued a carefully-calculated strategy, whose opening move was the exclusion from the presidential race of the Russian president’s most vocal and visible opponent, Alexei Navalny.  An anti-corruption campaigner whose mastery of social media and internet memes had electrified some segments of Russia’s political opposition, Naval’ny was unable to contest the presidency because of a 2014 criminal conviction for fraud, a decision labeled “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable” by the European Court of Human Rights.  Following his disqualification in December of last year, Navalny launched a campaign to boycott the election as a means of sullying Putin’s mandate for his fourth and—under current constitutional provisions—final term of office.

If the official election results are accurate—and there is credible video evidence of ballot stuffing in some Russian precincts—Navalny’s appeals for a boycott were no match for the combination of rule changes, media exhortation, and administrative resources marshalled behind the official get-out-the-vote effort.   In fact, by tossing down the gauntlet, Navalny encouraged the authorities to redouble their efforts to achieve a healthy turnout.  For the first time in the post-communist era, the Central Election Commission allowed voters to cast their ballots outside the precinct in which they were registered, provided they had informed the authorities of their intent by March 12.  Moreover, the Central Election Commission carried out a purge of voter rolls prior to the election in order to remove approximately 1.5 million “dead souls” as well as voters who were registered in multiple districts.  Without this initiative, turnout figures would not have increased appreciably from the last presidential election.

As in earlier electoral contests in Russia, state officials, from governors to university administrators, served as prodders and proctors to boost turnout in the election.  In one provincial university, students faced eviction from their dormitory if they didn’t turn out to the polls.  As observers from the OSCE revealed, governors in some regions organized competitions among electoral commissions and “offered monetary rewards for PECs [Precinct Electoral Commissions] with the best performance and the highest voter turnout.”[iv] Despite the full-court press to mobilize voters, turnout varied widely across the country, with some regions in Western Russia and Siberia lagging 35 points behind the ethnic republics of the Northern Caucasus and Tyva, which are the perennial front-runners in voter turnout in Russian elections.

Whether in Russia or the West, the electoral playing field is never level when an incumbent is in the race.  A sitting president in any country enjoys greater media attention because the daily tasks of governing shine a spotlight on the incumbent that is not available to challengers (see table below).[v]  In the Russian case, however, the Putin campaign was able to control the rules and the narrative in ways that constantly played to the strengths of the incumbent while highlighting the vulnerabilities of his opponent.  For example, the authorities moved election day up by a week to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which remains a wildly popular decision in Russia.   President Putin arranged to give his State of the Union address (Poslanie) just a little over two weeks before the election, an address that dominated several news cycles because of its dramatic claims that Russia possessed novel weapons systems for which the West has no answer.  Even the ballot itself presented President Putin in a distinctly favorable light.  Vladimir Putin’s name stood out in the middle of the ballot with its brief two-line biography, while all of his contenders had unwieldly six to eight-line descriptions of their backgrounds.  More importantly, the ballot listed Putin as a “self-nominee” [samodvyzhenetz], whereas the other candidates stood under a party banner at a moment when parties were the least respected of all Russian political institutions.[vi]

During the electoral campaign, the advantages of incumbency in a soft authoritarian regime were on full display on Russia’s main evening news broadcast, Vremia, which treated its viewers to campaign coverage that set President Putin apart from the seven other contenders for the presidency.  Each broadcast offered a short segment devoted to the campaign activities of Putin’s opponents as they traversed Moscow and the country in search of votes.   This daily news block on the election always ended with coverage of the Putin campaign, without featuring Putin himself.  While the president was pursuing the Russian equivalent of the Rose Garden Strategy, his designated electoral agents [doverennye litsa] were pictured on the hustings.  Among these agents was an assortment of celebrities drawn from the worlds of culture and sports.

Set against the star power of the Putin team was a rag-tag band of opposition candidates for the presidency, whose backgrounds and behavior were no match for the sober, dignified, and professional image projected by President Putin.  During one of the presidential debates, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the mercurial leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, hurled sexist insults against the only woman in the race, Ksenia Sobchak.  Sobchak responded by dousing him with a glass of water.   In another debate, the candidate representing the Communists of Russia, Maxim Suraikin, had to be physically restrained on stage as he charged a designated agent standing in for the candidate of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Pavel Grudinin.

Where most of Putin’s opponents escaped frontal assaults by the country’s media, almost all of which are pro-Kremlin, that was not the case with Pavel Grudinin, the millionaire businessman-cum-Communist who finished second in the presidential race.  The vitriolic news anchor for Vremia, Kirill Kleimenov, relentlessly criticized Grudinin’s business practices and his family’s ownership of luxury properties abroad, including ones in what Kleimenov called the “NATO country of Latvia.”  Kleimenov claimed that such links to the West should be a disqualifying factor for a Russian presidential candidate.  This tactic was emblematic of Putin’s campaign, and of Putin’s leadership more broadly, which has sought support and legitimacy in its championing of what one observer called “anti-Western, isolationalist, and conservative values.”[i]  Portraying Russia as the perennial victim of the actions of nefarious Western elites, who seek to demean and diminish Russia through indignities ranging from doping scandals to economic sanctions, Putin offered himself to the nation as the only guarantor of Russian security, honor, and grandeur.

The question now is what the Russian president will do with the resounding mandate achieved in the March 18 “referendum on Vladimir Putin,” as two Russian journalists dubbed the election Sunday evening.[ii]  The opposition may be in complete disarray, but Putin still faces serious challenges to his presidency from a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, from a shrinking labor force and increasing pension commitments to the morass in Syria.  In recent years Putin has postponed confronting Russia’s systemic problems by deflecting attention onto foreign adventures and by offering the “balm of righteousness”[iii] to a nation whipped into a frenzy about its unfair treatment by the rest of the world.   It is unclear how much longer Putin can rely on these tactics to sustain his personalist regime.

At an impromptu press conference immediately after the election results were announced, a journalist asked the Russian president whether “in the next six years we will see a new Vladimir Putin or the old one?” Putin’s response: “Everything changes…we all change.”  At the moment, though, change does not seem to be in the offing.

Notes

[i] Interim Report (5 February – 1 March), OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Election Observation Mission, Russian Federation, Presidential Election, 18 March 2018, p. 4.  https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/russia/374137?download=true

[ii] The table contains figures drawn from a search of the East View database of central Russian newspapers, using the first and last names of candidates as the search terms.

[iii] Polls conducted in October 2017 showed that political parties were viewed as completely trustworthy by only 19 percent of the population; the corresponding figure for the President was 75 percent.  Levada Center, Institutional Trust, October 11, 2017. https://www.levada.ru/en/2017/11/10/institutional-trust-3/

[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Frozen Landscape: The Russian Political System ahead of the 2018 Presidential Election,” Carnegie Center Moscow, March 7, 2018. http://carnegie.ru/2018/03/07/frozen-landscape-russian-political-system-ahead-of-2018-presidential-election-pub-75722

[v] Pavel Altekar’ and Vladimir Ruvinskii, “Kogo pobedil Vladimir Putin,” Vedomosti, March 18, 2018. https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2018/03/18/754114-kogo-pobedil-vladimir-putin

[vi] A phrase used to describe George Wallace’s rhetoric and actions directed to white Southerners, whom he cast in the role of victims, in this case due to the imposition of Northern values on the South.   Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), p. 109.

Fabian Burkhardt – The non-campaign of the 2018 presidential election in Russia

Keep Navalny out, programmatic statements to a minimum, and turnout up. If one had to summarize the non-campaign of the 2018 presidential elections from the Kremlin’s vantage point in one sentence, this would probably be it. It will most likely go down in history as the most uninspiring presidential election in Russia’s post-Soviet history. Even President Vladimir Putin’s campaign slogan “A strong president – a strong Russia” had been copy-pasted from Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 referendum campaign. The incumbent is slated to win the elections on 18 March with a landslide and will then embark on his fourth presidential term ending in 2024 which – according to the constitution – would be his last six years in power as president. Vladimir Putin’s anticipated status as a “lame duck” in conjunction with the non-competitive, largely predetermined and non-programmatic nature of the campaign has led many analysts to speculate about the “arrival of a post-Putin Russia.” Nevertheless, elections under authoritarianism are not void of meaning. From a functional perspective, researchers conclude that “the role of Russian elections has evolved from information-gathering and co-optation to primarily signaling the regime’s strength and sporadically dividing and embarrassing the opposition.”[i] And indeed, signaling strength by showing strong turnout and splitting the non-parliamentary opposition seemed to be high on the agenda of the presidential administration.

The setup

The incumbent Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for president on 6 December 2017. This unusually late announcement three months before the election fits the overall impression of Putin’s campaign: The campaign trail and programmatic statements were reduced to a minimum. In fact, only the presidential address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March gave the broader public a glimpse into how Putin views the next six years, a vision analysts called “conservative technocracy”. Among the other seven registered candidates, two are outright spoilers (Sergei Baburin and Maksim Suraikin). Two represent parliamentary “systemic” opposition parties: Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the LDPR and Pavel Grudinin for the Communist Party (CPRF). Zhirinovsky has been a regular at presidential elections since 1991. In 2018, too, he played his role well of a scandalous, anti-Western, far-right scarecrow and clown that makes everyone else look well-behaved and decent. Shortly before his candidacy was announced, Pavel Grudinin himself did not know he would replace the CPRF’s long-term general secretary Gennady Zyuganov. Grudinin is not a party member, but was actively promoted by the leftist former protest leader Sergey Udaltsov during the party primaries. As director of the Lenin-Sovkhoz (sic) he merges both a capitalist and pro-Soviet or even Stalinist world view. As a newcomer his popularity quickly rose to higher single digits in official polls, but state television was quick to launch a smear campaign against him. This lead to speculation that his candidacy had not been agreed with the presidential administration or whether it signified infighting of various groups within the elite. Otherwise, Boris Titov – chairman of the Right Cause party and acting business ombudsman officially accountable to the president – admitted that he does not consider himself as a genuine candidate and sees the campaign rather as an opportunity to follow up on his cause as a business representative by other means. Grigory Yavlinsky, the co-founder and long-term leader of the liberal Yabloko party once more decided to take part in the election after he had not been registered in 2012, but observers describe his campaign as half-hearted at best. Probably the biggest surprise was the candidacy of journalist and socialite Kseniya Sobchak. During the campaign she has tried her best to convince the public that she was not a spoiler launched by the presidential administration although she did admit she had informed Vladimir Putin (who had worked under her father in the St. Petersburg city hall) about her plans. The amount of airtime on state TV she receives attests to claims that she fits the presidential administration’s plans rather well. Overall, it remains to be seen whether she aims to capitalize on the publicity she has received to increase the number of Instagram followers she has or to launch a new political party in the future. On the other hand, she has received praise from human rights defenders for speaking out in favor of some repressed activists like Yury Dmitriev and Oyub Titiev.

Boosting turnout to convey strength

Signaling strength to the elite, opposition and the wider population is among the core functions of authoritarian elections[ii]. Despite Putin’s approval ratings, which have remained above 80% since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this “approval” for various reasons does not automatically translate into electoral turnout in favor of the incumbent. In general, turnout has been declining across presidential, parliamentary, and gubernatorial elections (Figure 1). Nevertheless, this decline has been least pronounced for presidential elections, therefore a turnout between 65 and 70 percent might still be in the cards.

Given Vladimir Putin’s predominance in Russia’s state media and public sphere in normal times, pushing his person during the election campaign even more could backfire. Quite the contrary, at times observers have had the impression that the presidential administration has tried to restrict Putin’s election-related campaign events and TV reporting.

Overall, two main strategies to boost turnout can be identified. The first is a massive public relations and ads campaign launched by the Central Election Commission to inform citizens about the upcoming election. The official budget of the CEC for public relations amounts to 770 million rubles (13.6 million USD), but reports indicate that many companies voluntarily place information on the upcoming elections. Mobile telecom operators sent SMS text messages, the state services website Gosuslugi emailed users on behalf of the CEC, and companies ranging from the retailer Magnit to gas stations and Burger King placed election-related information on their receipts. Large state companies such as Aeroflot, Sberbank or VTB also placed ads on their websites, celebrities placed paid-for posts on Instagram, and youth TV channel ran clips about the most fashionable event of the spring.

Second, recent research[iii] has demonstrated that voter intimidation and mobilization at the workplace is an important component of elections in Russia. Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi (2018) report that during the 2012 presidential election campaign “17 per cent of employed respondents experienced intimidation by their employers.” Future research will have to investigate the scale of workplace mobilization during the 2018 elections, but at this point we already have evidence that especially large companies are preparing to do so, such as the Chelyabinsk-based metal producer Mechel or the oil giant Rosneft. It is also crucial to keep in mind that this is as much a bottom-up as a top-down phenomenon. Given the large dominance of the state in the Russian economy, large companies have significant incentives to demonstrate loyalty to the state because they might be treated with sticks such as reprisals in form of oversight bodies or even expropriation, or with carrots such as a preferential treatment with state contracts.

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

While Sobchak’s campaign started from a mostly apolitical (“Sobchak against all”) slogan to a more political and programmatic platform (For Sobchak), Aleksey Navalny’s bid was political from the very beginning with a strong organizational component. His Foundation for the Fight against Corruption (FBK) managed to sign up more than 700,000 supporters and opened 81 regional headquarters all over Russia. Moreover, especially in the first half of 2017 Navalny managed to stage two comparatively successful protest marches with a strong regional focus in March and June despite increasing pressure from the authorities. In November 2017, for example, he announced that his employees in Moscow and the regions (i.e. not counting volunteers and supporters) had spent more than 2000 hours under arrest and had paid more than 10 million rubles (USD 175,000) in fines. As there is little doubt he would have been able to collect the 300,000 signatures demanded by law, Navalny announced a “voters’ strike” (Zabastovka izbiratelei) after the Central Election Commission rejected his bid to register officially as a candidate on 25 December 2017. Given the resources invested by Navalny, a “boycott” seemed rational, but this automatically pitted him against Sobchak and Yavlinsky. From the perspective of the Kremlin, this constellation was ideal for splitting the opposition with a minimum of effort by the presidential administration itself. What ensued was a rather fierce and at times self-destructive debate by supporters of the various camps about the perils and virtues of electoral boycotts. Electoral mathematicians such as Sergey Shpilkin and Andrei Buzin argued that a boycott that comprised only opposition supporters, but not Putin voters, would only marginally decrease turnout, but inevitably increase Putin’s vote. Notable political scientists such as Grigory Golosov and Aleksandr Kynev support the boycott. Quite interestingly, the debate frequently made reference to boycotts around the world. The most-cited reference was Matthew Frankel’s 2010 paper “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea”[iv] who argued that boycotts are rarely the correct strategy unless the opposition has widespread public support. But even supporters of the boycott found arguments in the Frankel piece that seemed to underscore their position, therefore cherry-picking among expert opinions and academic writings for political purposes was widespread. The whole debate illuminates blank spots in the reasoning and what the various political actors omitted. First, not much has been written about electoral boycotts in comparative politics, so it seems doubtful whether it is actually possible to draw robust conclusions “from the literature” for the Russian case. Second, Navalny’s ”voters’ strike” counts as a “minor boycott” at best. But comparative research so far has predominantly focused on major boycotts. In the most comprehensive work on boycotts to date, Emily Beaulieau only includes those boycotts in which more than 50% of the opposition takes part[v]. And third, the public debate mostly focused on the depression of turnout to harm Vladimir Putin’s claim to legitimacy, but other crucial aspects are kept quiet about. Staffan Lindberg found that boycotts are often positively correlated with electoral violence[vi]. Moreover, oppositional actors preferred to ignore that boycotts are frequently associated with a post-electoral crackdown by the authoritarian regime, and that the long-term prospects of democratization in the aftermath of boycotts are rather bleak[vii]. Overall, the debate on boycotts was rather superficial, but managed to drive a wedge between various opposition actors.

Election monitoring

Navalny and his team underscored that the election boycott was only one element of his strategy of voters’ strike, other elements include nation-wide protests and election monitoring. In fact, right after Navalny was denied official registration as a candidate he announced that his regional campaign headquarters would be transformed into election monitoring headquarters that would help organize and train the regional independent monitoring on election day. In early March, his website boasted more than 45,000 registered election monitors with an overall aim of 50-70,000 (there will be more than 95,000 polling stations). More crucially, while the debate on a boycott was mostly divisive, the election monitoring initiative seems to have led to some collective action and cooperation, and therefore also to a build-up of trust, social capital and experience among opposition actors. In late January, former Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, who is largely supportive of Yabloko, reached an agreement with Navalny: Gudkov aimed to cover all of Moscow’s 3500 polling stations with two observers (in early March 5500 had registered on his website), and Gudkov and Navalny would share expertise and training capacities.

While the scale and effect of this monitoring campaign remains to be seen, in the light of recent research this strategy seems to be justified from the opposition’s point of view. Rodion Skovoroda and Tomila Lankina, for instance, show that “reports by independent observers of subnational electoral irregularities could be employed as reasonably reliable indicators of fraud, and could be utilized alongside other data to ascertain the incidence of misconduct in Russia and other settings”[viii] In an another paper on Russian regional politics, Skovoroda and Lankina find that election fraud has the potential to generate protest[ix]. Depending on the degree of electoral fraud and the quality of election monitoring, the signaling effect and potential ensuing protests could actually prove more effective in delegitimizing the elections than the boycott which has been so divisive for opposition actors.

Constitutional politics and presidential power

The presidential campaign has once more highlighted how the expansion of constitutional and subconstitutional presidential powers[x] and the “rule by law” bolsters authoritarianism.

Navalny’s non-registration: On 25 December 2017 the Russian Central Election Commission refused to register Aleksei Navalny as a presidential candidate. In its decision the CEC argued that Navalny did not possess the passive right to be elected president due to his five year suspended criminal conviction in the Kirovles 2 case. The CEC’s point of reference was the federal law “On the elections of the President of the Russian Federation”, which states that persons convicted of severe or very severe crimes cannot be elected. Navalny, for his part, argues that Art. 32 of the Russian constitution only bans those citizens from being elected that are “kept in places of confinement by a court sentence.” Therefore, Russian federal law is more restrictive than the constitution which – as the supreme juridicial force with direct action – in Navalny’s and some notable constitutional lawyers’ reading should therefore trump federal law. Both the Russian Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court declined to review the Navalny case on the merits. Moreover, Navalny filed a second petition with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the repeated Kirovles 2 decision was handed down with major procedural irregularities. It is expected that the ECHR – just as in its first sentence on Kirovles 1 – will decide in favor of Navalny. In September 2017, the Council of Europe’s Council of Ministers already had appealed to Russia to allow Navalny to stand for elections.

Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly: Russia’s equivalent of the American State of the Union Address is usually held by the president every year. In 2017, however, Putin failed to deliver the address to the Russian political elite, a first in the post-Soviet Russian history. If the address is regarded as a duty, and not as a prerogative of the president, then Putin’s omission has to be interpreted as a violation of the constitution. In addition, in February the date of the address was postponed several times and finally took place only on 1 March. Due to the close proximity to the elections, the speech was in fact an address of the main presidential candidate, and not the president, to the political elite, and therefore not only dilutes the constitutional meaning of the address, but also even more distorts the electoral playing field in Putin’s favor.

Presidential term limit: Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 for his third term was accompanied by a debate about the meaning of paragraph 3 of Art. 81 of the constitution that “one and the same person may not be elected President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running [dva sroka podryad]”. Many founding fathers of the constitution argued that this formulation essentially copied and implied the French meaning “two consecutive terms” that would not allow another term, even if the third was not consecutive as in Putin’s case. Kseniya Sobchak reinvigorated this debate by filing a lawsuit with the Supreme Court the aim of which was to achieve a ban of Vladimir Putin running for president in 2018. As expected, the SC confirmed that Vladimir Putin’s registration as a candidate by the CEC was lawful. Nevertheless, both Sobchak’s petition and her speech at the SC as well as her lawyer’s comment on the SC’s justification of its appellate ruling will be useful for posterity to judge Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Sobchak claims that a Constitutional Court ruling from 1998, a SC ruling from 2001 as well as a textbook written by the current chairman of the Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin clearly underscore that one person cannot occupy the post of the president more than two times. But more interestingly, she also argues that Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin admitted on multiple occasions that they secretly conspired to retain the presidency within their elite group. In Sobchak’s reading, this plot constitutes a usurpation of power: even when Vladimir Putin was prime minister he de facto controlled the presidency and therefore in 2018 he has already held the presidency for four consecutive terms. Needless to say, the SC did not expand on the alleged secret deal. But still her legal reasoning resonates with Alexander Baturo’s work on term limits and continuismo[xi].

These three examples illustrate that talks about a post-Putin Russia appear to be premature at this point. At least the legal and political barriers for extending his rule beyond 2024 are low. More crucial still is what Henry Hale has called “the great power of expectations”[xii]. Vladimir Putin will leave the presidency voluntarily or by force only when a significantly large part of the elite will expect him to be weak. Monitoring and assessing these elite beliefs and expectations will be essential for Vladimir Putin’s fourth – or fifth – term to understand whether it will be his last, or not.

Notes

[i] Zavadskaya, M., Grömping, M., & i Coma, F. M. (2017). Electoral Sources of Authoritarian Resilience in Russia: Varieties of Electoral Malpractice, 2007–2016. Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 25(4), 480.

[ii] Simpser, A. (2013). Why governments and parties manipulate elections: theory, practice, and implications. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Frye, T., Reuter, O. J., & Szakonyi, D. (2018). Hitting Them with Carrots: Voter Intimidation and Vote Buying In Russia. British Journal of Political Science, 1-25.

[iv] Frankel, M. (2010). “Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea. Brookings Policy Paper, Nr. 19, 1-12.

[v] Beaulieu, E. (2014). Electoral protest and democracy in the developing world. Cambridge University Press.

[vi] Lindberg, S. I. (2006). When Do Opposition Parties Participate? In: Schedler, A. Electoral Authoritarianism. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 149-163.

[vii] Smith, I. O. (2014). Election boycotts and hybrid regime survival. Comparative Political Studies47(5), 743-765.

[viii] Skovoroda, R., & Lankina, T. (2017). Fabricating votes for Putin: new tests of fraud and electoral manipulations from Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs33(2), 100-123.

[ix] Lankina, T., & Skovoroda, R. (2017). Regional protest and electoral fraud: evidence from analysis of new data on Russian protest. East European Politics33(2), 253-274.

[x] Burkhardt, F. (2017). The institutionalization of relative advantage: formal institutions, subconstitutional presidential powers, and the rise of authoritarian politics in Russia, 1994–2012. Post-Soviet Affairs33(6), 472-495.

[xi] See pages 49 to 53 for Baturo’s discussion of the extension of term limits and the Russian case: Baturo, A. (2014). Democracy, dictatorship, and term limits. University of Michigan Press.

[xii] Hale, H. E. (2014). Patronal politics: Eurasian regime dynamics in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fabian Burkhardt – The Paradox of Presidential Power under Authoritarianism: Studying the Institutionalization of Russia’s Presidential Administration 1994 – 2012


This is a guest post by Fabian Burkhardt (University of Bremen & German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

Rulers cannot rule alone. This simple wisdom is oftentimes forgotten with regard to Putin’s Russia. This blog post summarises a paper presented at the BASEES Annual Conference in Cambridge that attempts a systematic inquiry into the institutionalization of Russia’s ‘institutional presidency’ – the Presidential Administration – between 1994 and 2012. It argues that partial institutionalization over time contributed to an increase in presidential administrative power. But as personalism and proceduralism coexist, presidents remained weak and debilitated at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office (left) | photo via Kremlin.ru

The U.S.-American presidency remains the best-studied example of a presidential administration to date. After early presidents still had to hire staff out of their own pocket, Congress finally granted funds – albeit only for a single clerk. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939, the White House staff has steadily  grown into a fully-fledged bureaucratic organization. In the U.S. literature on the ‘institutional presidency’ – the process of staff growth, functional specialization, increasing complexity and routinized patterns of organizing work – is referred to as ‘institutionalization’ and usually contrasted to Neustadt’s seminal, but president-centered, personalized perspective on presidential power. We know quite a lot about the complexity, centralization, politicization and unilateralism of the U.S. ‘institutional presidency’, but not very much about ‘presidential centers’ elsewhere. Particularly for post-Soviet countries, and the Russian Federation more specifically, much remains to be explored. This can be partly ascribed to a lack of readily available data, yet this is also predicated on the tendency to focus on executive-legislative relations on the one hand, and a president-centered leadership bias on the other. Moreover, Russia scholars have made numerous contributions to the ‘Institutions under Authoritarianism’ literature, but so far they limited themselves to the legislature, parties, elections, or center-region-relations.

My research aims to open up the black box of an “institutional presidency” under authoritarianism: I analyze the ‘institutionalization’ of ‘the Kremlin’ – or more precisely the Presidential Administration (PA) – by taking a longitudinal view from 1994 until 2012, a period which spans the three presidents Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, and ten chiefs of staff. This strategy was chosen, among others, to investigate in how far core characteristics of the PA survive turnover of presidents and chiefs of staffs. To do this I applied a framework that was initially developed by Samuel Huntington who understood institutionalization as an “increasingly stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”, and which was later applied to the U.S. and Latin American ‘institutional presidencies’ (Table 1).

Scholars have attested a high degree of personalism to Russian governance both in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s the PA defied “traditional categories of organizational analysis” as it mixed “hierarchical bureaucracy” and a “loose confederation of offices” (Huskey 2016). Furthermore, Yeltsin’s approach to organizing advice in the administration “was individualized, anti-procedural, and anti-institutional” (Breslauer 2008). In the 2000s, a high degree of regime personalization, neopatrimonialism and patronal politics should also present a major obstacle to institutionalization. However, if we follow the logic of the literature on stable authoritarian regimes, one would expect that autocrats strive to reduce uncertainty of future outcomes by means of stable patterns recurring over time. Huskey sees the Russia of the 2000s as a technocratic authoritarian regime with an ever increasing “bureaucratization of politics”, hence concomitant to the party system or executive-legislative relations one should also expect a certain degree of institutionalization in the PA.

My research shows that, unsurprisingly, both proceduralism and personalism persisted, but their proportion changed over time. In my view, a strong case can be made for at least a partial institutionalization of the PA, mostly thanks to an increased autonomy, regularized procedures and more stable structures in the adaptability and complexity indicators.

With regard to autonomy, a tendency towards a “progressive independence of the executive power” (Schmitter 1976). This can be illustrated by the swelling of the PA’s share of the annual state budget in comparison to other state organs. While in 1994, both the PA and the Duma’s share were comparable at about 0.1 percent, by 2012 the share of the PA grew to around 0.7 percent while the Duma’s was more than 17 times smaller (0.04%). Until 1999 the difference was not that large, yet the years 1999 – 2003 marked a transition period which suggests that the rise of United Russia as a dominant party played a significant role in this.

Recruitment patterns of PA staff were used as a second indicator to find out whether staff was hired and promoted from the outside of the PA, or by means of a more closed hiring system from the inside. The challenge was to choose a category of staff that existed for the whole period of investigation. Therefore, I collected a complete data set of all presidential representatives in Russia’s regions for 1991 and 1999 and Main Federal Inspectors (MFI), who after the 2000 federalism reform fulfilled approximately the same task.

Figure 1 shows that until 1999 Federal Representatives were almost exclusively recruited from outside the PA, most frequently with a background from the federal parliament, or regional executives or legislatures. However, by 2004 more than one third of MFI boasted experience within the PA apparatus of federal representatives before they were promoted to this position.

For the adaptability indicator, a complete set of all units of the PA was compiled with information on their duration of survival over time.

Among the 100 units in the set, only seven “core units” survived for the whole period of investigation. Overall, I find that in the 1990s almost four times as many units were created as in the 2000s, after Putin came to power the units survived on average twice as long as under Yeltsin. Also, electoral cycles, and with them the rotation of chiefs of staff in proximity to elections, became crucial for the survival of units.

For complexity and functional specialization, organigrams were collected from various sources such as archives, presidential decrees and media. These schemes give an idea how structure “shapes the kind, caliber, and amount of information presidents receive on policy matters”. Figure 3 provides just one example to illustrate the approach: 1996 three parallel hierarchies existed within the administration: The Service of Aides (upper left), the security pillar which includes the Security Council (upper right) as well as the general management pillar subordinate directly to the chief of staff (lower middle).

The legendary Service of Aides was soon to abolished and never to be revived, among others because of the competing hierarchy and direct information channel it created paralleling the one of the chief of staff. Overall, it can be posited that at the latest by 1998 a consolidated structure was achieved by excluding some major units that had made the organization exceedingly complex. After that time, merging and adding new smaller units by layering were the main strategies of “institutional gardening” applied.

And finally, coherence refers to unity and consensus, and is operationalized as rule-following and compliance. For this purpose, I compiled annual implementation rates of presidential orders (Porucheniia Prezidenta) from internal statistics of the PA’s own Monitoring Department. Stunningly, for the 2000s only between 40 and 60 percent of presidential orders were implemented by the addressees of these orders. In other words executive actors oftentimes resist Putin’s policy initiatives. While even in Western democracies it cannot be assumed that unilateral executive acts are self-enforcing, in Russia this can be explained by bad governance and “debilitated dirigisme”: the “failure of an activist state”, or in this case an activist president, to control its supposedly subordinate agents.

So where does this leave us? In his seminal work on authoritarian Chile Pablo Policzer remarked that “rulers cannot rule alone”. This might sound a bit simplistic at first glance, but is highly relevant for Russia. Presidents – be it Yeltsin, Putin or Medvedev – were only as powerful as their administrations allowed them to be. Especially Vladimir Putin who is oftentimes portrayed as seemingly omnipotent oftentimes winds up being impotent after all, in particular when other actors need to be empowered to get things done. Due to a partial institutionalization of the PA, the ‘power over’ – its organizational and coercive aspects – increased, but not the ‘power to’, the ability to govern proactively.

Fabian Burkhardt is completing his PhD entitled “Presidential power and institutional change: A study on the presidency of the Russian Federation” at the University of Bremen’s Research Centre for East European Studies. He is a member of the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Munich. Currently, he is also a fellow at the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. More information about his research can be found here (https://lmu-munich.academia.edu/FabianBurkhardt). He tweets @fa_burkhardt.

Ben Noble – Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

This is a guest post by Ben Noble (University of Oxford)

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Ben Noble (benjamin.noble@politics.ox.ac.uk, @Ben_H_Noble) is the Herbert Nicholas Junior Research Fellow in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Regional Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His doctoral dissertation examining executive law-making in the Russian State Duma was awarded the 2017 Sir Walter Bagehot Prize by the Political Studies Association. From September 2017, he will be a Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

 

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.

Moldova – Presidential election Round 2 between Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu

The Republic of Moldova is a small country, penned in between Romania and Ukraine. It holds the sad title of being the poorest nation in Europe. And sure, one reason to engage more thoroughly with Moldova is the unquestionable wine culture; yet even more important is its geopolitical position in between two influential poles (the European Union and Russia) and its fascinating constitutional development since its independence in 1991. The constitutional choices made throughout the last 25 years cover variations of executive-legislative relations rarely found in the post-soviet area: in an earlier blog post I described it as a ping pong game (see Fruhstorfer 2016). At the moment the game is back to a semi-presidential system with a directly elected president. In this post, I try to offer a brief overview of the campaign and an analysis of the second round of the presidential election in Moldova.

One of the important slogans of the presidential campaign was in this or similar style “Viitorul Moldovei este alături de o Rusie puternică“ (Moldova’s future is with a strong Russia). This slogan illustrates the choice that was proposed to the people of Moldova. The two frontrunners after the first round of the election were generally described as the embodiment of this choice. Igor Dodon of the Party of Socialists (PSRM) plays the pro-Russian role and promised – among other things – to call for a referendum to withdraw from the European Union trade agreement. Maia Sandu played the clear role of an outspoken supporter of Moldova’s integration into the European Union.

But next to these candidates, who faced each other also in the second round, there are several other important actors that in one-way or another are of interest for the understanding of these elections. I would like to mention them briefly: First, Renato Usatii, who was no candidate in this presidential election. This is mainly related to the constitutional court decision to abolish the 2000 constitutional amendment and re-establish the direct election of the president. In this decision the court excluded some provisions. Most importantly it did not return to the age limit for running as president as stipulated by the 1994 constitution. This means the court showed great judicial activism and thus presumably excluded Usatii from running for president. In his place, Dumitru Ciubasenco (a journalist and self-proclaimed opponent of Plahotniuc’s oligarchic regime) ran as candidate for Our Party (he received only 6% of votes during the first round).

Another candidate, Andrei Năstase, withdrew his candidacy shortly before the election in support of Maia Sandu. Some argue that he was forced to do so by external pressure (i.e. the United States of America), but Năstase claimed he wanted to help in building a strong anti-Dodon coalition led by Sandu. The presidential bid of Marian Lupu, the chairman of the Democratic Party (Tass 2016) took a similar road, he also withdrew in support of the pro-EU candidate Sandu.

After the first round of the presidential election, during which only 49% of eligible citizens cast their votes (Rusnac 2016), none of the candidates received the necessary absolute majority. 48.3 % votes for Dodon and 38.4 % for Sandu (Rusnac 2016). These two candidates were then also the choice that represented itself to the people of Moldova: voting for Igor Dodon from the Party of Socialists (PSRM), an outspoken Putin fan, who campaigned for closer ties with Russia (BBC 2016) or voting for the pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu. Dodon won with 52.28% of votes (47.82 voted for Sandu). The voter turnout for the second round (53.54%, see BBC 2016) increased, which I initially assumed would lead to a better chance for Sandu to win the election. So why did Igor Dodon win?

There are several reasons and we have to analyze each of them very carefully in further research: Yet for this post I will suggest that the following aspects played an important role.
First, the campaign for the second round was – although brief – dirty, revengeful and consisted merely in the smearing of candidates. But Dodon also managed to paint a slightly different picture of his ties with Russia than during the first round. This obviously was intended to gain the support of more moderate voters. It is also astounding that an anonymous ambassador for a EU member state revealed, “Dodon had privately told diplomats his party would not jettison the EU accord“ (CBC News 2016).

But still, Dodon (Minister of Economy during the ruling of the communist party 2006-2009) was running a smear-campaign. He attacked Sandu, her integrity and her past as member of the ruling elite (she was Minister of Education 2012-2015). He even tried to associate her with the devastating billion-dollar heist that left the country’s monetary system in peril (as far as the evidence suggest this allegation is unsubstantiated and she even demanded a more thorough investigation, see Brett et al. 2015).

Furthermore Dodon was supported by traditional media, had a much stronger ground game and was even supported by the Moldovan Orthodox Church (RFE/RL 2016). The support of the church is a particularly interesting element in this election as it points to an increasing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on Moldova (a phenomenon which can be observed in a variety of post-soviet countries). It is also worth noting that parts of the church leadership also engaged in the smear campaign against Sandu.

Similarly, the media support for Dodon might seem surprising as one of central figures in Moldovan politics and owner of a large media group is Vlad Plahotniuc, vice chair of the pro-EU Democratic Party (PDM). His role is mysterious. Some argue that he did not declare his support for Sandu publicly (see RFE/RL 2016), although some reports suggest otherwise (Popsoi 2016). Either way if Sandu had his support it was not necessarily helpful for her campaign; some labeled the support “toxic“ (Popsoi 2016). What is even more unexpected is that traditional media largely owned by him seem to have been more inclined to support Dodon. Some reports even claim that Dodon used Plahotniuc’s private jet during this campaign, but I cannot confirm this information with reliable sources.

As in many semi-presidential systems, also the Republic of Moldova now faces a period of cohabitation. It is unclear how confrontational this one will be. Prime Minister Pavel Filip from the Democratic Party (PDM) suggested a pragmatic working relationship. Thus, it remains to be seen if the future actually holds a Filip-Plahotniuc-Dodon cooperation or if we will observe a further perpetuation of the conflict between the government in favor of EU integration and a head of state in favor of close ties with Russia.

Literature

BBC (2016): Pro-Moscow figure Igor Dodon claims Moldova presidency. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37970155. November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Brett, Daniel; Knott, Ellie; Popsoi, Mihai (2015): The ‘billion dollar protests’ in Moldova are threatening the survival of the country’s political elite, in http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/09/21/the-billion-dollar-protests-in-moldova-are-threatening-the-survival-of-the-countrys-political-elite/, September 21 [accessed November 15, 2016]
CBC News (2016): Moldova elects a new president, who is seen as friendly to Putin, in http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/moldova-presidential-election-dodon-sandu-1.3849499, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Fruhstorfer, Anna (2016): Back to the future: The abolition of the parliamentary system in Moldova, in http://presidential-power.com/?p=4588
Popsoi, Mihai (2016): Russia Scores Symbolic Victory in Moldova’s Presidential Election, in:  https://moldovanpolitics.com/2016/11/14/russia-scores-symbolic-victory-in-moldovas-presidential-election/, November 14 [accessed November 15, 2016]
RFE/RL (2016): Moldova Presidential Election Headed For Runoff, http://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-presidential-election-close-contentious/28082659.html. October 31 [accessed November 15, 2016]
Rusnac, Cornelia. 2016. “Moldovan Presidential Election Goes to Runoff“, ABC News, In. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/moldovan-presidential-election-runoff-43185557 [accessed October 31, 2016]
TASS (2016): Moldova’s opposition candidate drops out of presidential race, in http://tass.com/world/908914. October 26 [accessed November 15, 2016]

Sources

Constitution of the Republic of Moldova. Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Moldova_2006?lang=en. (accessed July 13, 2015)
Constitutional Amendment. 2000. Law No. 1115-XIV of July 5, 2000. Monitorul Oficial al R. Moldova, No. 88–90 July 28, 2000. Chișinău, July 28.
Constitutional Court of Moldova. 2016. Curtea Constituţională a restabilit dreptul cetăţenilor de a-şi alege Preşedintele. March 4. http://www.constcourt.md/libview.php?l=ro&idc=7&id=759&t=/Prezentare-generala/Serviciul-de-presa/Noutati/Curtea-Constitutionala-a-restabilit-dreptul-cetatenilor-de-a-si-alege-Presedintele. (Accessed March 6, 2016)