Tag Archives: Russia

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Primaries Russian-Style – Selecting Parliamentary Candidates for United Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia – The Presidency as Mediator Between Business and Law Enforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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