Category Archives: Russia

New publications

Special Issue, Leaders, Crisis Behavior, and International Conflict, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume 62 Issue 10, November 2018.

Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution: A Special Issue, Volume 26, Number 4, Fall 2018.

Kaitlen J. Cassell, John A. Booth, and Mitchell A. Seligson, ‘Support for Coups in the Americas: Mass Norms and Democratization’, Latin American, Politics and Society, Volume 60, Number 4, pp. 1-25.

Hamid Akin Unver, ‘The fog of leadership: How Turkish and Russian presidents manage information constraints and uncertainty in crisis decision-making’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:3, 325-344, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2018.1510207

Trump – Causes and Consequences, series of articles in Perspectives on Politics, available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/information/trump-causes-and-consequences#

Andrea Schneiker, ‘ Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’, Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929918807712

Ebenezer Obadare and Adebanwi Wale (eds.). Governance and the crisis of rule in Africa: Leadership in transformation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin’s Counterrevolution, The Brookings Institution Press, located in Washington, D.C, 2018.

Gubernatorial elections in Russia

In a post for this blog on 12 September, I provided an early review of the 9 September regional elections in Russia. This was a real mix of races, including ballots for regional legislatures, by-elections for the State Duma, and contests for regional heads. The last set of elections – for regional executives – has proved the most interesting, as no candidate secured more than 50 percent of votes in four of the first-round gubernatorial races, forcing run-off votes. What has happened since – and what can this tell us about politics in general at the start of Putin’s fourth presidential term?

 

Opposition-party victories

Of the four interesting gubernatorial races, opposition-party governors have already been elected in two regions. The second-round gubernatorial vote took place in Vladimir Oblast’ – a region to the east of Moscow – on 23 September. The sitting, Kremlin-backed governor, Svetlana Orlova (United Russia), lost to Vladimir Sipyagin – a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – who secured 57 percent of the vote. Similarly, an LDPR candidate, Sergei Furgal, beat the United Russia incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport, in the second-round vote in Khabarovsk Krai – a region in Russia’s far east – on 23 September, with 70 percent of the vote. Commentators have wondered whether this might be a moment when merely nominal opposition actors become real critics of the Kremlin, emboldened by electoral successes.

We should bear three things in mind when making sense of these opposition wins. Firstly, these losses for the Kremlin come in the context of the decision to implement a deeply unpopular pension reform – a policy change that has resulted in a sharp drop in support for United Russia. Rather than a positive vote for LDPR or KPRF (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), therefore, many Russians were using their votes in the 9 September elections (and subsequent ballots) to protest against this particular policy. Secondly, even though members of nominally opposition parties have become regional heads, that certainly does not mean that they will be combative with Moscow and Kremlin-backed actors. It has been reported, for instance, that Sergei Furgal has suspended his membership of LDPR in order to appease, and work with, members of the regional elite. Thirdly, and relatedly, these are not the first opposition governors in Russia. In Irkutsk Oblast’, for example, a KPRF politician – Sergei Levchenko – has been regional head since 2015. And LDPR’s Aleksei Ostrovskii has been the head of Smolensk Oblast’ since 2012. We should not, therefore, lose perspective on these opposition wins, regardless of whether they were a surprise for the Kremlin.

 

Unfinished contests

Two other regions have unfinished gubernatorial races. In Khakassia – a region relatively near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia – the second-round vote was scheduled to take place on 23 September. However, the incumbent governor – Viktor Zimin (United Russia) – withdrew his candidacy on 21 September, meaning that the ballot had to be postponed. In the run-up to the new voting date of 7 October, the “Just Russia” party candidate, Andrei Filyagin, also withdrew his candidacy, resulting in another postponement. The “Party of Growth” candidate, Aleksandr Myakhar, also withdrew on 15 October. The second-round vote is now scheduled for 11 November, with only one candidate, KPRF’s Valentin Konovalov, who secured 45 percent of votes in the first round on 9 September. One obvious explanation for the multiple postponements is that the authorities want to do all they can to frustrate another opposition-party victory – an explanation that fits with attempts to disqualify Konovalov from the race. Konovalov has a chance to win, but there have been further recent attempts to block his pathway to power.

The final gubernatorial vote is scheduled to take place in Primorsky Krai – a region in the far east – on 16 December. In the first-round vote on 9 September, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Andrew Tarasenko, won 47 percent of the vote, with the KPRF candidate, Andrei Ishchenko, achieving 25 percent. In the second-round vote on 16 September, Ishchenko looked certain to win. However, a dramatic surge for Tarasenko during counting of the final votes resulted both in his provisional victory and accusations of vote rigging. Indeed, these electoral fraud allegations resulted in the official invalidation of the voting results – something that deprived Tarasenko victory, but that has been challenged by Ishchenko in the courts, as he sees himself as the rightful winner. In light of this voting scandal, Tarasenko resigned and was replaced by Oleg Kozhemyako – until then head of Sakhalin Oblast’ – who will run as an independent in the 16 December ballot (although United Russia has declared its support for his candidacy).

The picture in Primorsky Krai has become even more complicated. On Saturday 3 November, the Primorsky regional KPRF branch voted not to field Andrei Ishchenko as its candidate in the December election. There are a number of reasons why this decision might have been taken. One possible consideration relates to reports of Kozhemyako’s rising popularity – something (if true) that will have been supported by the activities of Kremlin-funded political technologists dispatched to the region. Ishchenko’s withdrawal is, therefore, a pre-emptive move in anticipation of expected electoral defeat. Another possible reason relates to doubts about whether Ishchenko could clear the ‘municipal filter’ – a mechanism whereby electoral candidacy is only possible with the support of a specified number of municipal deputies. In practice, this provides a way for the authorities to block particular politicians from participating in elections. Indeed, there were reports that some municipal deputies in Primorsky Krai had complained of pressure not to vote for Ishchenko’s candidacy. The withdrawal decision might also signal the KPRF’s reluctance to incur the costs of opposing the Kremlin too publicly and meaningfully. As a member of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, the KPRF elite has to find the right balance between Kremlin loyalty and maintaining the semblance of an opposition political stance. It could be that the campaign leading up to the 16 December vote – never mind the prospect of an Ishchenko victory – upset that balance too much for comfort.

 

Not the end for Putin

Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term began six months ago, and should run until 2024. Do these regional election results constitute flashes of democracy in Russian politics – or signs that the Putin regime is in crisis?

No. But the electoral setbacks were not welcome for Putin’s team. A number of United Russia officials were fired following the regional race setbacks. This has been followed by moves to strengthen the party’s capacity in Russia’s regions. The reason is obvious: the Kremlin is keen not to see a repeat of the regional election surprises in 2019. It has been reported that the Kremlin has already begun evaluating the electoral appeal of governors up for re-election next year. Those who do not make the cut will be replaced with acting governors that the Kremlin thinks have better prospects of winning. This means that the Kremlin will reduce the likelihood of embarrassing electoral defeats, as well as giving incumbency advantage to more popular candidates. There is also a debate about whether to amend electoral legislation – a popular battleground for elements of the elite with differing views on how managed Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ should be.

Overall, then, the Kremlin was taken by surprise by opposition-party wins, but it is not in panic. Putin’s approval rating certainly took a significant hit as a result of the unpopular pension reform, but the numbers have stopped falling. Now, the task for ‘Team Putin’ is to adjust to the new normal – and to do what it can to prevent further opposition electoral gains. As the early anger resulting from pension reform has subsided, the protest-vote potential relating to this particular policy has certainly declined. But the regional election results will strengthen the position of those arguing for tighter, not looser, control of electoral campaigns – in the short-run, at least. In the longer term, this management might come into closer conflict with the rising importance placed by Russian citizens on democracy and human rights.

Making Russia Great Again? Three New Books on Putinism

Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Domestic Security Wars: Putin’s Use of Divide and Rule against his Hardline Allies (Palgrave Pivot, 2018).

Brian D. Taylor, The Code of Putinism (Oxford University Press, 2018).

In recent months, three Western political scientists have published books on the Russian presidency that challenge the conventions of their discipline. Instead of focusing on the institutional, economic, and ideational structures that drive most contemporary political analysis, they place the agents of history at the center of their works, specifically Vladimir Putin and his close associates. That scholars of Russian politics should be focusing their attention on questions of leadership should come as no surprise. As Brian Taylor suggests—with more than a little understatement—in The Code of Putinism, “in the Russian political system, given the prominence of the leader and the weakness of institutional constraints, there is more space for the mentality of the ruling group to play a significant role and drive outcomes” (p. 199).

Attempts to capture the mentality of the Russian leadership can be traced to Nathan Leites’ much-discussed, and in certain circles much-derided, Rand Corporation study of 1951, The Operational Code of the Politburo. Where Leites sought to set out what he called the sources of the “general rules” of conduct of Soviet leaders, Peter Reddaway’s new book, Russia’s Domestic Security Wars, uses case studies of intra-elite conflict to illustrate the implicit “understandings”, or poniatiia, that shape the worldview and behavior of the informal clans competing for Putin’s favor at the apex of the Russian political system. Reddaway’s short and tightly-focused work brings to life the bureaucratic wars between factions in the uniformed services (the siloviki) in Putin’s second presidential term, from 2004 to 2008. In this period and beyond, in Reddaway’s view, Putin acted alternately as observer, referee, and manipulator of the internecine warfare, where the weapons included violence, selective prosecution, corporate raids, and the leaking of compromising materials (kompromat) about adversaries. According to Reddaway, Putin’s “leadership” here was a means of guaranteeing his own personal security as well as “manually steering” the political system writ large.

Brian Taylor’s The Code of Putinism represents a more ambitious and systematic attempt to deduce the patterns of thought and behavior characterizing the Russian leadership under Putin. Taylor’s methodology is distinctly Weberian. While most social science analysis of Russia is grounded in what Weber called instrumental rationality, Taylor highlights the other three influences on human behavior discussed by Weber: “value rationality” (values or ideas), “affect” (emotion), and “tradition” (habit). Eschewing explanations that emphasize “pure, rational pragmatism or the inevitable pull of Russian culture and traditions,” Taylor finds the sources of leadership conduct in Putin’s (and his associates’) belief in great power statism, anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism, and conservatism/anti-liberalism (their ideas); a penchant for control, order, unity/antipluralism, loyalty, and hypermasculinity (their habits); and feelings of respect/disrespect and humiliation, resentment and desire for revenge, and vulnerability/fear (their emotions).

As Taylor recognizes, Putinism as a bundle of interwoven ideas, habits, and emotions was not fully developed in 2000, when Putin assumed the Russian presidency, or even in 2003-4, by which time authoritarianism had been more or less consolidated in Russia. It has instead crystallized over time. Where the habits underpinning Putinism may have changed little, if at all, during Putin’s almost two decades of rule, certain ideas and emotions have become especially prominent and influential since 2011, most notably anti-liberalism, anti-Westernism, and resentment.

If Putinism itself is a dynamic concept in Taylor’s assessment, the country’s organizational landscape is more static, resting as it does on two fundamental pillars: formal state institutions, which Taylor calls collectively hyperpresidentialism, and the informal political networks that penetrate them. Having produced an earlier, path-breaking work on the power ministries and their role in Russian politics, Taylor understands that the conflict among high-ranking political clans is shaped not just by informal poniatiia but by the rules of the state. He pushes back, therefore, against those who would view Russia as a mere kleptocracy or mafia state. While Putin may be operating behind the scenes in the inter-clan battles as the capo di tutte capi, as the occupant of the presidency he must project the majesty of a head of state while publicly navigating a minefield of formal rules and policy challenges that limit his freedom of maneuver. As Taylor argues, no small part of his success in the public realm is due to his ability to substitute performance legitimacy for procedural legitimacy. Putin’s growing mastery of politics in two distinct but intersecting realms has allowed him to occupy a position of visibility and political dominance not seen in Russia for decades.

Michael McFaul’s best-selling autobiography, From Cold War to Hot Peace, does not set out to offer a fully-formed portrait of Putin as leader, but in chronicling his own three decades of democracy-promotion, academic research, and government service in the Russian field, McFaul offers a wealth of evidence about the ideas, habits, and emotions that Brian Taylor finds embedded in the code of Putinism. On first meeting Putin in 1991, when he was Leningrad’s deputy mayor, McFaul found the former KGB officer unremarkable—“careful, unenthusiastic, diminutive—an apparatchik” (p. 17). Lacking the traditional skills of a democratic politician, Putin reached power, in McFaul’s reading, because he was “simply in the right place at the right time” (p. 58), meaning that he was viewed by Yeltsin as the aging president’s best hope of protecting the interests of the Yeltsin family, broadly defined.

In a passage in From Cold War to Hot Peace that speaks directly to the Putinist habit of order as well as the emotion associated with vulnerability and fear, McFaul notes that Putin expressed allegiance to Bashir al-Assad during the Arab Spring “not because he had any deep personal affection for the Syrian leader, but because his removal…would precipitate chaos” (224). From Cold War to Hot Peace also reveals Putin’s emotional response to perceived insults. At Obama’s first summit with Putin in 2009, which McFaul attended as the Russia specialist in the National Security Council, the Russian president not only held forth about “several instances of disrespect from the Bush administration,” but “[f]or each vignette of disrespect or confrontation, he told the president the date, the place, and who was at the meeting.” In McFaul’s words, “[t]his was a guy with a chip on his shoulder” (p. 131). Having been subjected to constant abuse and intimidation by the Russian authorities while he was US ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, McFaul believed that his own career was testimony to the fact that “Putin carries grudges” (p. 72). In McFaul’s view, one of the sources of that resentment was an article that he wrote years earlier with a colleague in Foreign Affairs, an article arguing that rising oil and gas prices, and not Putin’s leadership, explained Russian economic growth.

As an inveterate democracy-promoter, what irks McFaul most about Putin as president are his ideas, and particularly his anti-Westernism and anti-liberalism, to return to the elements of value rationality mentioned by Taylor. If not for a particular historical turn, McFaul insists, someone with very different ideas might have risen to power in Russia. Specifically, absent Russia’s economic collapse in 1998, “Yeltsin might have very well selected [Boris] Nemtsov as his successor, and the world might never have heard of Vladimir Putin….[Nemtsov] had the skills and charisma to have become a successful president—a successful democratic president” (p. 58). Thus, the through line of McFaul’s book supports Brian Taylor’s conclusion: “Russia is authoritarian because Vladimir Putin made it so” (51). In the view of some in Russia, of course, the ideas, habits, and emotions of Putinism have been a godsend. In the words of a Kremlin official quoted in the opening lines of Taylor’s book: “There is Putin—There is Russia. There is no Putin—There is no Russia” (p. 1). In discussing the distinct path of recent Russian political development, the idea of Putin the Indispensable is therefore one of the few points of agreement between many supporters and critics of the Russian president.

Notes

1.) Nathan Leites, The Operational Code of the Politburo, First Edition (McGraw Hill Book Company, 1951). http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a473408.pdf

2.) Although the primary focus is on the siloviki, the conflict spilled over into other sectors, most notably the business community.

3.) In this project, Taylor builds on numerous works already in print, including Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modify? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Richard Sakwa, The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism, and the Medvedev Succession (Cambridge University Press, 2011). For an attempt to describe Putin’s “ideology” that was written by a Russian supporter of the president, see Aleksei Chadaev, Putin: ego ideologiia (Evropa, 2006).

4.) See Brian Taylor, State Building in Putin’s Russia: Policing and Coercion after Communism (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

5.) These few paragraphs can’t do justice to the richness of The Code of Putinism, which moves beyond the factors animating Putin’s leadership to an assessment of that leadership. Based on extensive empirical evidence, Taylor concludes that Putin is “misruling” Russia (see especially Chapter 5). This assessment builds on his more targeted analysis of state quality in State Building in Putin’s Russia.

6.) Taylor recounts an incident from February 2000 when Putin was running for his first presidential term and a journalist asked him whether the IMF’s recent actions toward Russia were offensive.  Putin interrupted the journalist and stated: “Anyone who offends us will not last three days” (p. 31).

7.) The italics are McFaul’s.

Sub-national elections in Russia

Elections for posts at various levels took place in the Russian Federation on Sunday, 9 September. Although the electoral campaigns were largely seen as “quiet and uncompetitive”, there were some setbacks for Kremlin-backed candidates. The same day, nation-wide protests against planned pension reforms resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.

Sunday was a busy day. There were:

  • 22 direct elections for regional heads, including the mayor of Moscow;
  • three indirect elections for regional heads;
  • a set of 16 elections for deputies of regional legislatures;
  • a set of 12 elections for seats in representative bodies of regional administrative centres;
  • four elections for heads of regional administrative centres;
  • and seven by-election races for seats in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level parliament, the Federal Assembly.

This is a difficult time for President Vladimir Putin. In the middle of June 2018, the Government introduced a bill into the State Duma proposing to raise the retirement age for men and women – a move that was met with widespread criticism and anger from Russian citizens. This was reflected in Putin’s popularity. According to the Levada Centre – an independent polling body – Putin had an approval rating of 82% in April 2018. This, however, fell to 67% by July 2018. Support for United Russia – the Kremlin-controlled ‘party of power’ – fell even further. Although Putin made an address to the nation, proposing measures to soften the reform package, popular opposition to the amended initiative remains high.

These conditions made the Kremlin nervous in the run-up to 9 September election day. To be sure, the Kremlin has extensive experience in un-levelling the electoral playing field, through a combination of things like skewed media coverage, harassment of opposition figures, and outright electoral fraud. But there is still some degree of uncertainty. That is natural for a system of “sovereign democracy” or competitive authoritarianism.

Pension reform unease certainly affected the election results. The most interesting electoral results relate to run-off votes in four gubernatorial races. In Khabarovsk Krai, Khakassia, Vladimir Oblast, and Primorsk Krai, no candidate achieved the necessary 50% to secure victory in the first round of voting. This outcome was largely expected for the first three of these four cases. (For an overview of the electoral campaigns in the broader context of Russian politics, see my pre-elections interview for Bear Market Brief.) This will be an important moment to see whether nominally opposition parties – primarily, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) – can join forces to defeat the Kremlin-backed candidates in second-round voting. It will also be an important moment to see whether voters will carry on their pension reform-related protest votes into the second round.

Much is being made of these second-round votes, given their previous infrequency. 2012 saw the re-introduction of direct gubernatorial elections. Although touted by the Kremlin as a key democratic reform, Putin’s team made sure the federal centre retained broad control over who ended up as regional heads. One such mechanism for control is called the “municipal filter” – a means to help block the candidacies of Kremlin-hostile figures. As a result, a second-round gubernatorial vote took place only once following 2012 – in 2015 in Irkutsk Oblast, when the Communist Party (KPRF) candidate, Sergei Levchenko, beat the sitting United Russia governor, Sergei Eroshchenko.

Results for regional assembly elections on Sunday also proved interesting. In three assembly races – in Khakassia, Irkutsk Oblast, and Ulyanovsk Oblast – United Russia came second to the Communist Party (KPRF) in the party-list portion of the vote. Moreover, in 11 of the 16 regional assembly elections, United Russia failed to achieve 50% or above in the party-list vote.

At the same time, even though KPRF achieved a plurality of party-list votes in elections for three regional legislatures, it achieved a majority of seats in none. For example, in Irkutsk Oblast’s regional assembly, of the 45 seats up for grabs, the Communists secured 18, compared to United Russia’s 17 – figures that include seats won both through the party-list and single-mandate-district races.

United Russia’s leadership put on a brave face when the election results became clear. Many of the difficult moments were anticipated, as was the low turnout. But the very public nature of electoral setbacks – regardless of the understandably difficult conditions fostered by an unpopular social policy reform – presents a challenge for the Kremlin. The current political elite – like many other such ruling groups in non-democracies – emphasises the importance of projecting strength as a means of perpetuating its rule. In combination with the country-wide, Navalny-orchestrated protests on 9 September, election results that go against the Kremlin’s wishes weaken that image of invincibility. The Kremlin will, therefore, do everything it can going forward to prevent a fusion of Navalny’s mobilising efforts with those of nominally ‘opposition’ political parties, as well as growing segments of Russian society who are bearing the brunt of difficult economic conditions.

Executive oversight in Russia

 

The Russian State Duma does not have a reputation for grilling executive officials. Especially since United Russia – the Putin-supporting “party of power” – has controlled a majority of seats in the 450-seat lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Duma has done little to act as a check on executive behaviour. In that way, it acts as we expect other parliaments do in non-democracies – a source of strength, rather than irritation, for executive actors.

Nevertheless, the State Duma has the formal capacity for some form of executive oversight. During “government hour” sessions, executive officials are invited to respond to questions from deputies. Figure 1 shows the frequency of these sessions, 2005-2017.

Figure 1: Frequency of “government hour” sessions by year, 2005-2017. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The mere fact that these nominal oversight sessions take place does not, of course, tell us if this is more than mere performance. A key question is whether deputies ask needling, critical questions.

Another important question is who is invited to be questioned by deputies. One way to classify Russian executive actors is by whether their respective bodies are controlled directly (formally, at least) by the president or the government. According to article 32 of Federal Constitutional Law number 2 from 1997 (with amendments), the president directly controls the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Defence, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Emergency Situations, as well as a number of federal agencies and services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB). All other executive bodies are formally controlled by the government.

This divide in direct control is found in other states, including Vietnam, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Myanmar. In the latter, for example, the Constitution states that the military controls a number of core bodies, such as the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

We can think of this executive divide in terms of delegation and principal-agent relationships. In most (if not all) regimes, there will be a leader – whether that be, for example, a monarch, president, general secretary, or a collective body, such as a junta. For shorthand, we can refer to them as “autocrats”. At the same time, the executive can contain other actors, to whom responsibility for certain portfolios are delegated. Thus, whereas the “autocrat” likely retains control over sensitive portfolios relating to security and state sovereignty, non-“autocrat” elements of the executive can be delegated portfolios relating to, say, economic policy.

This division is attractive to elites, not least because it allows for blame deflection during periods of economic hardship. The “autocrat” can use other executive actors as a buffer from societal criticism – something that has been on display recently in Iran, where the president, Hassan Rouhani, was recently grilled by legislators over the deteriorating economic situation. The Guardian Council is, therefore, partially shielded from popular opprobrium.

Executive oversight in the legislature also allows “autocrats” to keep tabs on delegated executive portfolios. By subjecting non-“autocrat” elements of the executive to legislative scrutiny, the hope is to reduce possible agency loss – that is, that agents end up pursuing their own interests, rather than those of their principals.

Going back to Russia, we can ask a basic question: Does executive oversight performed by parliamentarians differ when aimed at officials from president-controlled bodies (PCBs) compared to government-controlled bodies (GCBs)?

In a recent article on executive oversight in the Vietnamese National Assembly, Paul Schuler – a political scientist from the University of Arizona – demonstrates that legislators are able to discuss “hot topics” relating to portfolios delegated from the Communist Party of Vietnam to the government. By contrast, “hot topics” relating to the policy areas of those executive portfolios directly controlled by the Party are off limits. The Party, therefore, allows the legislature to engage in executive oversight, but only in areas that will not make the Party vulnerable to direct critique.

Does the same happen in Russia? To get at this, we can ask a simpler question: Are PCB officials subjected to fewer “government hour” sessions in the State Duma than their GCB colleagues? To answer this, Maxim Ananyev – a Lecturer in UCLA’s Political Science Department – Paul Schuler, and I collected data on “government hour” sessions, 2005-2017. Basic information relates to the date of query sessions, as well as the identity of executive officials, and whether they have posts in president- or government-controlled bodies.

The Russian case is particularly interesting, given Vladimir Putin’s stint as prime minister, 2008-2012. Constitutionally barred from holding a third consecutive term in the presidency, Putin made use of the formally semi-presidential nature of the Russian Constitution, moving to the premiership until resuming the presidency in 2012, with Medvedev moving to the prime ministership.

This switch in formal roles is interesting insofar as it means that Putin’s direct control over executive bodies varied over time. Now, some readers will, no doubt, say that formal control means nothing – especially in Russia and especially with regard to Putin. That hunch may well be well-grounded. At the same time, it is an empirical question amenable to study whether Putin’s move to the premiership affected executive oversight behaviour in the State Duma. Indeed, we can generate some expectations. If Putin remained the “autocrat”, 2005-2017, but was not president, 2008-2012, then it is plausible that he would want to use mechanisms to keep tabs on the performance of those bodies he was used to controlling directly – that is, president-controlled bodies – but which were now controlled (formally, at least) by President Medvedev. Executive oversight in the Duma could be one such mechanism. If that were the case, then we would expect to see increased PCB oversight, 2008-2012.

Figure 2 presents data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by year. The horizontal dashed line marks the percentage of all executive bodies that are controlled directly by the president. If PCBs were overseen at the same “rate” as GCBs (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole), then “government hour” appearance figures should fall around this line.

Figure 2: Percentage of all “government hour” appearances involving officials from president-controlled bodies by year, 2005-2017. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. The dashed vertical lines mark the approximate break points between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies. The dotted horizontal line marks the average percentage of all executive bodies that are PCBs for the period as a whole. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The pattern is striking. During Medvedev’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in PCB oversight. On Putin’s return to the presidency, there was a dramatic decrease in PCB oversight. This pattern is consistent with the idea that Putin used “government hour” sessions to keep tabs on president-controlled bodies during his time as prime minister. It is plausible that he was able to do this, given the stronger ties he had (compared to Medvedev) with legislative agenda-setting actors, such as the State Duma speakers during his premiership, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Naryshkin. When Putin was president himself, however, PCB oversight was largely lower than would be expected if PCB officials were scrutinised at the same rate as GCB officials (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole).

Presidential inaugurations in Russia take place on 7 May. That means that 2008 and 2012 need to be split into Putin and Medvedev periods. Figures 3 and 4 present data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by presidential periods within these two years.

Figures 3 and 4: Left figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2008 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Right figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2012 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).

The patterns are consistent with the picture provided by figure 2: PCB oversight was higher during Medvedev’s presidency than during Putin’s presidencies.

One clear alternative reason for why president-controlled bodies might be overseen by legislators with less vigour than government-controlled bodies is that PCBs handle sensitive subjects. The regime leadership might make clear that such topics are off bounds for parliamentary scrutiny. However, if this were the case, we should not observe changes in PCB oversight across the Putin and Medvedev presidential periods, as the sensitivity of executive bodies should remain relatively stable over time. But we, clearly, do not observe this.

There are a few anomalies with respect to the “autocrat” delegation explanation, however. Firstly, 2008 – why did PCB oversight remain low during Medvedev’s first year in the presidency? Secondly, 2013 – why did PCB oversight not fall even more dramatically on Putin’s return to the presidency? And, finally, 2017 – what explains the upshot in PCB oversight?

Along with answering these questions, much more analysis remains to be done. Most importantly, we need to explore whether meaningful oversight of the executive does, in fact, take place during “government hour” sessions. And we need to entertain alternative explanations. For example, might increased PCB oversight during Medvedev’s presidency reflect his preference for more transparency or checks on executive power?

Regardless of the real answer, this preliminary analysis joins the growing body of work challenging the idea that legislatures in authoritarian regimes are merely ‘rubber stamps’. Evidence from Russia suggests this can involve oversight of the executive in parliament, but needling questions are directed at bodies not directly controlled by Putin.

Fabian Burkhardt – Future Leaders of Russia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this article was originally published by Riddle.

Armenia – In the wake of a colour revolution? Domestic and international context

April 2018 in Armenia was marked by massive grassroots protests, the resignation of the newly-nominated prime minister, and complex political negotiations.

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, who formerly served as President for a decade, resigned on April 23, after 11 days of massive protests. While resigning, Sargsyan said: “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong.” MP Nikol Pashinyan, the head of the Yelk Bloc, emerged as the undisputed leader of these recent protests. On May 1, the failure of the National Assembly to nominate Mr Pashinyan as provisional Prime Minister has led to a new wave of intensified protests.

While most analysts were surprised by the resignation of Sargsyan and the beginning of a new political process, elements of continuity can be observed, both at domestic and international level. First, the grassroots protests against Serzh Sargsyan’s extended term in office were sudden, but can be traced back to December 2015, when a controversial constitutional reform was approved. Second, while Russia has taken a non-interventionist stance, all actors involved are fully aware of the importance of the “big brother”.

Some protests? Business as usual! (or not?)

Armenia is a peculiar case in the post-Soviet space. While Freedom House classifies the country as a “partly-free regime”, Armenians have often taken to the streets against unpopular provisions, such as the increase in bus fares in 2013, the pension reform in 2014[1], and the increase in electricity prices in Summer 2015 (known as ‘Electric Yerevan’). Against this background, it is not surprising that people closely scrutinised the manoeuvring of their political leaders.

In December 2015, following a referendum, a constitutional reform was approved[2]. As a result, most executive prerogatives were transferred from the President to the Prime Minister. While the promoters of this reform repeatedly remarked that a parliamentary system would prompt the full democratisation of the country, the public debate focused on whether this reform was an ‘ad-hoc’ mechanism to extend the rule of (then) President Serzh Sargsyan, who was serving his second and last presidential mandate. Rather than ending after the referendum, these allegations were the subject of further discussion, notably at the parliamentary election in 2017. Throughout this time, Serzh Sargsyan assumed an ambiguous position, neither confirming nor denying his intention to stay in power. In March 2018, when Sargsyan’s transition to the premiership seemed almost certain, MP Nikol Pashinyan announced that massive protests would follow any such development. He said: “If the people are decisive, and as many go onto the streets as on March 1, 2018, I guarantee that we will prevent the next reproduction of Sargsyan[3].”

On April 11, the ruling Republican Party (HHK) officially confirmed that Serzh Sargsyan would be nominated (and therefore elected) prime minister. While initially a limited number of people took to the streets, soon numbers added up, and thousands of people participated in the rallies, during which there were numerous clashes between the police and protesters. On April 22, after a meeting with the now prime minister Serzh Sargsyan, the protest leader Nikol Pashinyan and some of his closest associates were taken into custody. However, Mr Pashinyan was released the following day and shortly after Prime minister Serzh Sargsyan announced his resignation. As required by the law, the government resigned on the same day and first Deputy Prime Minister, Karen Karapetyan, was named acting PM.

However, the rallies did not stop, as Mr Pashinyan, backed by numerous supporters, aimed to become the provisional prime minister, so to supervise the preparation of free and fair elections. It was feared the ruling party HHK would manipulate any transitional process, by using administrative resources to reconsolidate their power.

On May 1, due to the opposition of the Republican Party, Pashinyan failed to be elected provisional Prime Minister. As things stand, a new parliamentary debate has been scheduled for May 8. As per the Armenian constitution, if the National Assembly is again unable to select a premier, this impasse would automatically lead to the dissolution of the legislature and snap elections. As a reaction, Pashinyan called for ‘Nationwide Civil Disobedience’. In the words of Pashinyan: “The peaceful revolution goes on (…) We’re not going to let them steal our victory”.

Nikol Pashinyan’s background is particularly remarkable. While other status-quo challengers in the region, first and foremost former President of Georgia Saakashvili, were previously Cabinet members[4], Pashinyan used to be a political prisoner. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years for his role as an organiser in the anti-government protests of 2008. However, as a result of an amnesty, he was released the following year[5].

Big brother is (discretely) watching you

While the aforementioned dynamics are undisputedly domestic, all parties involved need to take into account the international environment, first and foremost Russia. As of 1999, Armenian foreign policy has been characterised by complementarity, which implies a diversified foreign policy within the leeway granted to it by Russia[6]. While some external observers have interpreted the protests as anti-Russian, Nikol Pashinyan, formerly known for his Russian-sceptic positions, has shown his awareness of the geopolitical constraints faced by his country.

When the protests started, some external observers said that they might be the prelude to an anti-Russian turn in Armenia. Former Georgian President Saakashvili, who framed the events as an anti-Russian uprising, unambiguously said that: “This is a very black day for Vladimir Putin. First, the West threatened him and imposed sanctions against him, hitting his oligarchs, and now they are squeezing the scope of his influence.” Similar comments were made by members of the Georgian parliamentary opposition[7]. Analogously, some Ukrainian media drew parallelisms between the current events in Armenia and the Maidan protests in 2014, which resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government[8]. For instance, journalist Ihor Solovey wrote that: “The street has won, and Russia has lost”, and therefore Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation should be understood as a “Russian foreign police failure[9].

Despite this reading of events, Russian officials clearly refrained from making an alarmist comments, as if to emphasise that the Kremlin was not planning to interfere. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists that Yerevan was: “Not going down the path of destabilisation“. Additionally, he specified that Russia hoped for: “Consensus among all the forces representing the Armenian people“. Similarly, Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, praised Armenia on Facebook for: “Not becoming divided, and maintaining respect for one another, despite definite disagreements“. Looking at the media coverage, Kremlin-friendly channels mostly ignored the events in Armenia until the resignation of Prime Minister Sargsyan and after that they commented on the festive attitude at the rallies. In some cases, it was openly said that the happenings in Yerevan were something completely different from Maidan[10].

This conciliatory attitude by Russia must not be confused with lack of interest. Russian officials and politicians made sure to keep their channels open with all the parties involved. On April 25, Putin had a conversation with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. The same week, while Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian met his Russian counterpart Lavrov, another meeting took place between some Russian diplomats and Nikol Pashinyan, who understands very well that a successful transition cannot happen without Russian support.

Previously, Nikol Pashinyan and his Yelk Bloc adopted clear Russo-sceptic positions. Notably, in Autumn 2017, they proposed a legislative initiative to the Armenian National Assembly which would have created a commission on withdrawal of Armenia from the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). According to Pashinyan, membership in the EEU harmed the growth of Armenia, as it restricted its opportunities for international trade[11].  Additionally, he also made security-related considerations, calling the deepening military ties between Armenia and Russia “humiliating”, just at the Kremlin was also reinforcing its military-strategic cooperation with hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan[12].

Despite these unequivocal declarations, the prospect of becoming Prime Minister has made Pashinyan play down his former Russo-sceptic attitude[13]. In the immediate aftermath of Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation, Pashinyan made it clear that the revolution was a domestic affair and that there was no geopolitical reversal on the agenda. Thus, during a press conference on April 24, Pashinyan declared that:  “We’re not going to make any sharp geopolitical movements. We’re going to do everything in the interests of Armenia“.  This point was made again, and emphasised, during a rally in Gyumry (April 27), where a Russian military base is located. On that occasion, Pashinyan bluntly said that: “We are no enemies to Russia,” and that he would not take Armenia “down the path of unwise [decisions] and adventures.”

Notes

[1] Loda, C., 2017. The European Union as a normative power: the case of Armenia. East European Politics33(2), pp.275-290.

[2] This blog has covered the constitutional reform as of 2015, analysing its detailsthe pre-vote dynamics, and the relevant debate in 2016 and 2017.

[3] ARMINFO News Agency. 2018. ‘In parallel with the reduction of the powers of the president of the country, his apparatus will be reduced’, March 7 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[4] BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2016. “Armenian pundit eyes reasons, future of ‘velvet revolution’”, April 26 (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[5] ARMINFO News Agency. 2011. “Nikol Pashinyan released”, 28 May (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[6] Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University), p. 3.

[7] However, other Georgian politicians spoke about the importance to maintain good relations with Armenia, regardless of the recent development [BBC Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit. 2018. “Some in Georgia see Armenian developments as blow to Russia”, April 24 (Retrieved through LexisNexis)].

[8] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[9] BBC Monitoring Kiev Unit. 2018. “Ukrainian media hail victory of ‘Armenian Maidan’”, 24 April (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[10] BBC Monitoring. 2018. “Former Soviet media view Armenian protests in Russian context”, 25 April (Retrieved through Lexis Nexis).

[11] “Armenian National Assembly discusses legislative initiative on withdrawal from EEU”, 3 October (Retrieved through LexisNexis).

[12] ARMINFO News Agency. 2017. “Hot debates in Armenian Parliament over creating the United Group of Armenian-Russian troops: Block Yelk considers the document humiliating and “vassal””, 4 October (retrieved through LexisNexis).

[13] Providing a full account of the Russo-Armenian relationship/dependency goes beyond the scope of this post. For more insights, refer to: Loda, C., 2017. The foreign policy behaviour of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin City University),

Russia – Putin Wins! Engineering an Election without Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The setup

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

Boosting turnout to convey strength

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

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

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

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

To boycott or not to boycott, and comparative politics

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

Election monitoring

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

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

Constitutional politics and presidential power

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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