Tag Archives: Eugene Huskey

Kyrgyzstan – A Double Transition: Administration and Model of Government

The October 2017 presidential election in Kyrgyzstan ushered in simultaneous transitions of administration and model of government.  Under the 2010 Constitution, Kyrgyzstan, like Mexico, restricts its president to a single six-year term, which ended last month with Almazbek Atambaev handing the reins of power to his hand-picked successor, and fellow Social Democrat, Sooronbai Zheenbekov.  Not only is there a new occupant in the Kyrgyzstani White House in Bishkek, but the office of the presidency itself is being reshaped by constitutional amendments adopted by referendum in December 2016, amendments that took effect in December 2017.  It is, therefore, a period of considerable uncertainty, as observers search for clues that could offer insights into the effects of the double transition on Kyrgyzstani politics.

With regard to the transition in administration, Sooronbai Zheenbekov is no Vladimir Putin, who came into the Kremlin in May 2000 with a packet of far-reaching administrative reforms.  As expected, President Zheenbekov, whose close personal and political relations with Atambaev go back to 1995, has not signaled any significant departures from the policies of his predecessor.  However, last month the new president was able to quickly patch up deteriorating relations with neighboring Kazakhstan, which had brought trade with Kyrgyzstan to a virtual halt after President Atambaev harshly criticized Kazakh President Nazarbaev for supporting Zheenbekov’s major opponent, Omurbek Babanov, in the presidential election campaign.

One way of measuring the extent of continuity in presidential transitions is to examine personnel turnover in the presidential apparatus.  Here the record is mixed.  Just as in the Yeltsin-Putin transition, Jeenbekov has retained the services of his predecessor’s chief of staff, in this case Farid Niazov.[i]  As numerous Kyrgyzstani commentators have remarked, Niazov is now in a position to act as the eyes of Atambaev in the new administration, and given that in post-communist regimes with strong presidencies the chief-of-staff is often the second most influential person in the country, Niazov’s appointment seems to be clear evidence of continuity.  However, retaining Niazov may also represent a transition within the transition, and as Zheenbekov acquires greater confidence in his new role, he may bring on his own person in this critical position.

The first weeks of the Zheenbekov presidency have already witnessed substantial turnover in second-tier positions in the presidential apparatus, with many of the new appointees having served under Zheenbekov in his previous roles as prime minister and governor of the Osh region in the South.  With a tradition that reaches back more than a half-century of alternating northern and southern leaders of the Soviet Kirgiz Republic and now the independent country of Kyrgyzstan, the election of the southerner, Zheenbekov, has brought a predictable influx of appointees to the presidential bureaucracy who hail from the South.  However, given his ties to the Social Democratic Party, which has been sensitive to regional balance in personnel matters, it seems unlikely that Zheenbekov will repeat the mistakes of two earlier presidents, Askar Akaev (1991-2005) and Kurmanbek Bakiev (2005-2010), who were ousted in popular uprisings, in part because of the perception of regional favoritism.

The other form of favoritism that plagued the Akaev and Bakiev presidencies was the appointment of family members to key political and economic roles.  Unlike President Atambaev, whose family members were not prominent public figures, Zheenbekov has several brothers who have had leading positions in government institutions, including a younger brother who is now in parliament and had served earlier as parliamentary speaker. In one of last appointments, President Atambaev selected Zheenbekov’s older brother, an ambassador in the Middle East since the Bakiev days, to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, a post that had been vacant for over two years, apparently in deference to Russia’s break with that country.  Even if recent political history has not inoculated Kyrgyzstan against a repetition of family rule or one-region hegemony, it would be unlikely for a cautious politician like Zheenbekov to succumb to the favoritistic politics that helped to bring down earlier Kyrgyzstani presidents.

Less than two months into the Zheenbekov presidency, evidence remains sparse on the realignment of power between prime minister and president, though Zheenbekov’s negotiations with Nazarbaev indicate that the foreign policy portfolio remains firmly in presidential hands.  Under the new rules, the prime minister has full authority to appoint and dismiss members of the Council of Ministers as well as regional and local chief executives.  The young and relatively inexperienced prime minister, Sapar Isakov, has already replaced a number of cabinet-level officials in the areas of social and economic policy, but what is as yet unclear is the level of informal influence exercised over such appointment decisions by the president and his staff, and whether President Zheenbekov will encourage the selective prosecution of political appointees, which roiled the political establishment in the last year and a half of the Atambaev era.

Between the election and the inauguration, the campaign against the political opposition launched by Atambaev culminated in the threatened prosecution of Omurbek Babanov, who, as noted above, was the loser in the presidential race.  With his personal freedom, business interests, and political party under threat, Babanov sought refuge overseas after the presidential contest.  Then in a dramatic announcement communicated on his Facebook page on 30 December, Babanov issued in effect a political surrender and plea for mercy. In a statement reminiscent of the Melis Eshimkanov’s magnanimous concession to President Akaev after the 2000 presidential election, Babanov thanked Atambaev for his “worthy contribution to the preservation and strengthening of the country.”  He then announced his resignation from his parliamentary seat and his departure from politics.  By so doing, he appeared to salvage his own party’s future and to remove the shadow that the popular politician’s criminal conviction would have cast over the Zheenbekov presidency.[ii]

Looming over the double transition of administration and model of government is the figure of ex-President Atambaev.  Seized in the waning months of his term by the vision of apres moi, le deluge, Atambaev had sought to “idiot-proof the constitution” by further diminishing the power of the presidency, which would, in his words, allow him to learn to play the piano in his retirement.[iii]  However, speculation abounds that a new chapter will unfold in Atambaev’s political career at the late January congress of the Social Democratic Party, when observers expect him to be selected as party chairman.  With Social Democrats holding the posts of president and prime minister, some contend that the party apparatus under Atambaev could begin to usurp constitutional authority accorded to the heads of state and government.  In such a scenario, one observer noted, Kyrgyzstan would have its own Ayatollah.

Notes

[i] Niazov had stepped down temporarily from the chief-of-staff position last year to head Zheenbekov’s election campaign.

[ii] Whatever Zheenbekov’s attitude is to Atambaev’s targeting of his political enemies for prosecution, he apparently did not seek to intervene in the criminal trial against parliamentary deputy Kanat Isaev, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison on 4 January 2018.

[iii]  Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=5770

Kyrgyzstan’s One-Term President Positions Himself for the Transition of Power

Outside of Latin America, where one-term limitations on presidencies are relatively common, only the Philippines, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Kyrgyzstan restrict their presidents to a single term.[i]  Kyrgyzstan introduced this restriction in its 2010 Constitution in order to prevent the repetition of “family rule,” which had characterized Kyrgyzstani politics under Presidents Akaev (1991-2005) and Bakiev (2005-2010). As the example of Vladimir Putin illustrates, however, constitutional restrictions do not prevent term-limited presidents from remaining active in politics.[ii]  Kyrgyzstan’s current President, Almazbek Atambaev, has in recent months signaled his intention to continue on the political stage after the end of his single, six-year term in November of this year.

The opening gambit in his transition strategy came last year, when Atambaev engineered changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution designed to shift considerable power from the office of the president to that of the prime minister.[iii]  These changes gave rise to speculation that President Atambaev was planning to assume the role of prime minister after he completes his presidential term. However, he has insisted in recent weeks that he will eschew a government post and concentrate instead on strengthening his political party, the Social Democrats (SDPK), which currently has a plurality of seats in the one-chamber parliament.  Atambaev has recently launched a purge of the SDPK’s parliamentary party in order to remove members whose personal reputation or loyalty is suspect.[iv]

In order to ensure that his successor as president is to his liking, President Atambaev has embraced the idea of an internal party primary within the SDPK to select the party’s nominee for the presidency.  In his public pronouncements, Atambaev has insisted that a primary battle within the part will weed out candidates on whom the opposition has kompromat [compromising materials] that could render them vulnerable in the general election.  However, the more likely reason for the president’s support of the party primary is that it would allow him to serve as the king-maker.  Atambaev’s influence over the mass media and his control of the state’s “administrative resources” should allow him to pick his preferred candidate from the SDPK, who could well emerge as the next president.

Not satisfied with influencing political outcomes through the low-cost and relatively benign strategies outlined above, President Atambaev has pursued in recent weeks a more disruptive and dangerous agenda: the destruction of the political careers of prominent opposition politicians who could pose a challenge to his plans for the political transition.   Among a series of arrests of heavyweights from Kyrgyzstan’s ruling class, the most troubling was that of Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and perennial presidential candidate who, as a member of the country’s Interim Government in 2010, fathered the current constitution.  Agents from the secret police (GKNB) detained Tekebaev at the Bishkek airport in the early morning of February 26 on his return from a trip to Austria and Cyprus, and several days later a court authorized his detention by the GKNB for an additional two months.  Whatever the validity of the fraud charges being brought against him, the timing was suspect.  The alleged fraud had occurred six years earlier and the Russian businessman who accused Tekebaev of wrongdoing only recently came forward with testimony implicating Tekebaev.

Other opposition politicians caught up in what appear to be politically-motivated prosecutions include parliamentary deputies from Tekebaev’s party, Ata-Meken, among whom were Aida Salianova and Almambek Shykmamatov, both former Justice Ministers.  In addition, on March 25, the authorities arrested a former deputy from the Ata-Jurt Party, Sadyr Japarov, who had just returned to Bishkek after three years of self-imposed exile.  The arrest of Japarov, who had recently announced his intention to run for the presidency, prompted 500 of his supporters to gather at the gates of the GKNB. In clashes with police that followed, 68 demonstrators were arrested.[v]

Although all of the politicians arrested have been critics of President Atambaev, Omurbek Tekebaev appears to pose the greatest threat to the sitting president.  The threat does not lie primarily in Tekebaev’s announced candidacy for the November presidential election–he was hardly a favorite for the post–but in the compromising material he had been collecting on President Atambaev.  Media reports allege that Tekebaev was returning to Kyrgyzstan with evidence linking President Atambaev to inappropriate business activities in Cyprus.  Moreover, as chair of a parliamentary commission investigating the crash of a cargo aircraft near Bishkek airport in January of this year, Tekebaev was pursuing the possibility that President Atambaev or those in his entourage were involved in a smuggling operation exposed by the plane crash.  Although the aircraft, which stopped in Bishkek on its way from Hong Kong to Istanbul, was not licensed to deliver goods to Kyrgyzstan, investigators found in the  wreckage “charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets…” with Chinese-produced manuals in the Kyrgyz language.[vi]

Besides disqualifying prominent political opponents and bending the institutional rules to their advantage, it has been traditional in the run up to elections for Kyrgyzstani leaders to attempt to stifle media outlets that are critical of the president, and President Atambaev has remained true to form on all counts.   As part of his early preparations for the November presidential elections and his own repositioning in the Kyrgyzstani political system, President Atambaev instructed the Procurator-General earlier this month to launch civil cases against a local news outlet, Zanoza, as well as the Kyrgyz arm of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, Azattyk, for attacking the “honor and dignity” of the President.  The Procurator-General is seeking damages on the President’s behalf of over $86,000 from Zanoza and almost $3 million from Azattyk.  Even though the case has not yet been tried, a judge has frozen the domestic bank accounts of both news organizations.

As Atambaev’s attacks against opposition-oriented politicians and journalists have escalated in recent months, his conduct has become more unpredictable and his rhetoric has grown increasingly intemperate.  At one point he labeled the Ata-Meken Party “putrid” [voniuchii].  Atambaev no longer hesitates to refer to himself in the third person, and he has at times cast diplomatic niceties aside by issuing pointed comments on domestic politics in the presence of foreign dignitaries.[vii]  On March 15th, he chose a formal ceremony accrediting new ambassadors in Bishkek to criticize the purveyors of slander and “fake news” in the country, including Russian journalists working in the country.[viii]  During the visit of Vladimir Putin a few weeks earlier, President Atambaev had used a joint press conference to play down the likelihood of a third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, reminding the assembled journalists and his Russian guest that he, Atambaev, was the real revolutionary, having been instrumental in toppling Presidents Akaev and Bakiev.[ix]

Kyrgyzstan may not be on the eve of its third revolution in the last twelve years, but it is facing its most serious political crisis since the parliamentary election campaign of 2010.  Atambaev’s control of the formal levers of power, most notably state legal institutions, give him an advantage in this latest standoff between government and opposition.  However, his critics have at their disposal new media as well as significant numbers of supporters in the capital–and in the home districts of repressed politicians–that are willing to take to the streets to defend their patrons.  Moreover, in choosing to engage in select prosecution of his enemies and a frontal assault on the independent media, President Atambaev risks overplaying his hand and undermining his own reputation and that of the party on which he plans to build his political future.   The ultimate winners in this conflict may be non-SDPK presidential candidates, such as former prime ministers Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov, who have managed thus far to keep their distance from the warring sides.

Notes

[i] The reference here is to presidents in presidential or semi-presidential systems.

[ii] In 2008, having completed the two four-year terms allowed him under the constitution of that era, Vladimir Putin installed one of his clients, Dmitrii Medvedev, as president.  Medvedev served a single term and then made way for Putin’s return in 2012, this time to assume a presidency whose term had been extended to six years.  In the Kyrgyzstani case, the constitution does not allow a president to return to office.

[iii] On the adoption of revisions to the constitution, see Eugene Huskey, Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan, Presidential Power blog, December 15, 2016.  http://presidential-power.com/?cat=193

[iv] One source notes that Atambaev intends to replace two-thirds of current SDPK deputies with more loyal members.  Grigorii Mikhailov, “Boeing s gruzom dlia prezidenta ‘vzorval’ parlament Kirgizii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, March 7, 2017.  At one point Atambaev came out in favor of the early dissolution of parliament, something supported by at least one critic of the president in the assembly, which presumably would simplify efforts to renew the SDPK’s parliamentary party.  Parliamentary elections are not scheduled to be held until 2020.  See “Zamira Sydykova prezidentu Almazbeku Atambaevu: ty luchshe pokaisia!” Zanoza, March 15, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/354140_zamira_sydykova_prezidenty_almazbeky_atambaevy:_ty_lychshe_pokaysia.html

[v] “Kyrgyz Police Detain 68 at Protests over Jailing of Ex-Law Maker,” RFE/RL, March 25, 2017.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-opposition-japarov-supporters-protesters-arrested/28390782.html

[vi] Catherine Putz, “Plane Crash in Kyrgyzstan May Have Uncovered a Smuggling Scheme,” The Diplomat, February 3, 2017.  http://thediplomat.com/2017/02/plane-crash-in-kyrgyzstan-may-have-uncovered-a-smuggling-scheme/

[vii] Atambaev’s behavior has rekindled rumors about his psychological state, and lawyers from the Ata-Meken Party recently filed a motion with the Procurator-General’s office asking for a psychiatric examination of the president. “Zapakh pravdy: arest Tekebaeva vyzval voinu iskov,” Zanoza, March 9, 2017.  http://zanoza.kg/doc/353828_zapah_pravdy:_arest_tekebaeva_vyzval_voyny_iskov.html One Western outlet covering Central Asia observed that Atambaev seemed to be mimicking Donald Trump, and of late had been in “full berserker mode in his comments about the fourth estate.” “Kyrgyzstan: Kremlin-Friendly Reporter Expelled,” Eurasianet.org, March 13, 2017.  http://www.eurasianet.org/node/82801

[viii] A few days earlier the Kyrgyzstani authorities had expelled a Russian journalist, Grigorii Mikhailov, whose articles had often been critical of Atambaev.  “Emu li byt’ v pechati: pochemu prezident Kirgizii tak boitsia kritiki v rossiiskoi presse,” Lenta.ru, March 17, 2017.  At a press conference on March 11, Atambaev attacked “so-called independent journalists, media outlets, and politicians, who de facto demand the right to defame with impunity and spout filth about people they don’t like, in the first rank the popularly-elected president of independent Kyrgyzstan.”  “Zaiavlenie Prezidenta KR A. Atambaeva,” Kabar, March 11, 2017.  For a perceptive account of Atambaev’s assaults on journalists and politicians, see Ulugbek Babakulov, “Vo imia mira i stabil’nosti: Prezident Kyrygzstana initsiiroval raspravu nad SMI i zhurnalistami,” Ferghana, March 13, 2017.  http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9319

[ix] Moscow-based newspapers have speculated that one purpose of Putin’s visit was to look over potential presidential candidates to determine whom the Kremlin should back.  See, for example, Elena Egorova, “Tsentral’naia dlia Rossii Aziia,” Moskovskii komsomolets, February 27, 2017.

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

This is a post by Eugene Huskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugene Huskey – Plebiscitarianism and Constitution-Making: The December 11, 2016 Referendum in Kyrgyzstan

In a referendum that generated fierce opposition from critics of Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev, voters approved 26 revisions to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution on December 11, 2016.[i]  It was the seventh constitutional plebiscite since the adoption of the country’s original post-communist constitution in May 1993, making Kyrgyzstan the regional leader in employing the referendum to change its basic law.[ii]  Sunday’s constitutional referendum was paired with voting for local assembly elections in Kyrgyzstan’s 21 cities, elections that gave a plurality of seats to candidates from President Atambaev’s party, the Social Democrats.

With only a year remaining in his single, six-year term, President Atambaev had presented the amendments to the nation as a means of “idiot-proofing” the Constitution, that is, introducing further safeguards to ensure that the office of the presidency would not be abused by his successors.[iii]  Many elements in the country’s political class and civil society, however, found his explanations unconvincing.  In an unprecedented move, Atambaev’s former colleagues in the Interim Government of 2010–among them former President Roza Otunbaeva and Omurbek Tekebaev, the de facto father of the 2010 Constitution–signed a collective letter condemning any attempt to revise the constitution before 2020, the date set by the Interim Government for the earliest constitutional revisions. President Atambaev responded almost immediately to the letter with an intemperate speech, the harshest of his presidency, which accused his former colleagues of spreading “malicious lies.” He then reminded them that they could be held to account legally for their misdeeds in office six years earlier.  He concluded by assuring the nation that he had no intention of seeking any formal political post after his departure from the presidency in 2017.[iv]

Besides regarding the plebiscite as premature, many critics of the President objected to specific amendments proposed to the Constitution.  Some revisions strengthen the powers of the prime minister vis-a-vis president and parliament by granting the head of government the sole authority to remove ministers as well as local and regional heads of administration.  The prime minister and his deputy will also be able to retain their seats in parliament.  Previously the prime minister and deputy prime minister had had to relinquish their parliamentary seats on assuming executive office.  The referendum included only one seemingly innocuous revision to the presidency itself—changing the name of the presidential defense council to the security council.  Given the existing authority of Kyrgyzstan’s president, which is based largely on his direct popular mandate and his appointment and oversight of the power ministers, the enhancement of the prime minister’s office should produce more complex challenges of cohabitation than had existed heretofore.

Another basket of constitutional amendments sought to increase the stability of the Government in a country that had seen six prime ministers in the first six years of what had been touted as a “parliamentary republic.”  In order to leave a ruling coalition, the revised constitution will now require two-thirds of a party’s deputies to approve the rupture in a written ballot.  Although this amendment and some others were reasonable responses to the inefficiencies that plagued the current system, many critics viewed the enhancing of the prime minister’s role as a means of preparing a landing place for President Atambaev or a Social Democratic politician who would be under his influence.

In order to win support for the referendum from moral traditionalists and ethnic Kyrgyz nationalists, whose ranks often overlap, President Atambaev and his supporters included several amendments that responded to the rising populist tide in the post-communist world and beyond.  This effort included a reworking of Article 1 of the 2010 Constitution, which contained a simple, one-sentence statement of the country’s basic principles, notably the state’s secular, law-based, and democratic character.  The proposed alternative had nine separate points, several of which echoed nativist and socially conservative trends in Russia.  Among the country’s “highest values” in the newly-revised Constitution are “love of country,” “the development of the national [Kyrgyz] language and culture,” and, perhaps most worrying for the opposition, “a respectful attitude toward the country’s history,” a phrase that the Russian authorities have used to condemn domestic and foreign critics and that the Kyrgyzstani government could potentially employ to silence unpopular interpretations of events such as the inter-ethnic violence in Osh in 2010. The constitutional revisions also included an explicit ban on gay marriage.

As part of an ongoing backlash against international criticism of the Kyrgyzstani government’s handling of the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh, President Atambaev included among the constitutional amendments a revision to Article 41.  That article had allowed citizens of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to international human rights bodies if they believed their rights had been violated.  If the international tribunal upheld their complaints, the Kyrgyzstani government was obligated to restore their rights or compensate them for damages.  In the runup to the referendum, President Atambaev had been openly critical of the decision of the UN’s Committee on Human Rights, which called on the government of Kyrgyzstan to free an ethnic Uzbek condemned to life imprisonment.[v]

Constitutional Referendums in Kyrgyzstan[vi]

Although the proposed constitutional amendments were approved by an almost 80 percent Yes vote (see table above), this result was a record low for Kyrgyzstan.  Moreover, only 42 percent of the population turned out to the polls on a day when both the referendum and local elections were on the ballot.  Thus, only slightly more than a third of eligible voters in Kyrgyzstan voted for the constitutional revisions.  Turnout was especially low (28%) in the southern city of Osh, where almost half of the population is ethnic Uzbek.  Taken together with the historically low turnout, a tally of invalid ballots that reached five percent suggests a considerable measure of popular discontent with President Atambaev’s decision to revise the 2010 Constitution,[vii] especially given the herculean—and in some cases inappropriate—efforts of the President’s team to get voters to the polls to support the referendum.[viii]  As Omurbek Tekebaev observed, Atambaev’s political protegees had every reason to go to the mat for him in getting out the Yes vote, recognizing that if the referendum failed, he may have followed the example of de Gaulle and resigned from office, in which case their own futures would have been uncertain.[ix]

The passing of the referendum and the results of local elections will be discouraging reminders to opposition-minded forces in Kyrgyzstan that President Atambaev and his Social Democratic Party appear to be consolidating their hold on the government and the state.[x]  In recent years, a frustrated opposition has organized two popular rebellions that unseated presidents—in 2005 and 2010—but in those cases the ruling elite was divided along North-South lines, and so the opposition was able to tap into regional resentment.  No such easily identified source of political support exists today for the political opposition, and therefore taking to the streets for anything more than symbolic protests would not seem to be an option.  Those who stayed home on election day, or spoiled their ballots, are unlikely to form an easily mobilized force to counter the rise of the Social Democrats as the country’s dominant—if not yet hegemonic—party.  The question now is whether the constitutional revisions to governing institutions will provide the promised efficiencies without undermining the political pluralism that has distinguished Kyrgyzstan from its authoritarian neighbors.

Notes

[i] The amendments were presented to voters as a single package, and so only a Yes or No vote on the entire array of proposed revisions was possible.

[ii] For a comparison of constitution-making in post-communist countries, see Anna Fruhstorfer and Michael Hein, Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: From Post-Socialist Transition to the Reform of Political Systems (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016).

[iii] Eugene Huskey, Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency, Presidential Power Blog, 21 January 2016. http://presidential-power.com/?p=4352  This post discusses some of the changes to the legal system included in the constitutional revisions, which are allegedly designed to root out corruption in the judiciary but will certainly lead to greater executive control of the courts.  For other changes see Bruce Pannier, “What’s in Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Referendum?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 8 December 2016.  http://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-constitutional-referendum-whats-at-stake/28164053.html

[iv] Anna Kapushchenko, “Atambaev raskritikoval Otunbaevu i eks-ministrov za nedovol’stvo popravkami k Konstitutsiiu,” Kloop Media, August 31, 2016. http://kloop.kg/blog/2016/08/31/atambaev-raskritikoval-otunbaevu-i-eks-ministrov-iz-za-popravok-v-konstitutsiyu-glavnoe/  In the middle of President Atambaev’s speech, which was given on Independence Day on Bishkek’s main square, former President Otunbaeva demonstratively walked off the stage to protest Atambaev’s attacks on her and other members of the Interim Government.

[v] See United Nations Human Rights Committee, Views Adopted by the Committee under Article 5 (4) of the Optional Protocol concerning communication No. 2231/2012,  CCPR/C/116/D/2231/2012, 11 May 2016.

[vi] Tat’iana Kudriavtseva, “Kak v Kyrgyzstane khodili na referendumy po konstitutsii,” 24.kg, 12 December 2016.  http://24kg.org/obschestvo/41447_kak_v_kyirgyizstane_hodili_na_referendumyi_po_konstitutsii/  The table of referendum results provided in this article, based on information from the Central Election Commission, mistakenly includes a 75 percent Yes vote for the 2007 referendum, but that is the percentage of eligible voters, not those actually voting, which is the method used for other years in the table.

[vii] The head of the Central Election Commission admitted to being surprised by the high percentage of invalid ballots and suggested that the sensitivity of the new electronic counting machines could have been at fault.  “Glava Tsentral’noi izbiratel’noi komissii rasskazala, chto ee udivilo na referendume,” Sputnik Kyrgyzstana, 12 December 2016.  http://ru.sputnik.kg/politics/20161212/1030753631/mnogo-nedejstvitelnyh-byulletenej-dlya-nas-neozhidannost.html The recent introduction of biometric identification for voters, which required citizens to get finger-printed, was one reason for the lower turnout rate.  A significant share of Kyrgyzstani voters had not gone in for biometric registration before the referendum, and even some who did register did not find their biometric registration on record at the voting precinct.  “Institut ombudsmena vyiavil nekotorye narusheniia izbiratel’nogo prava na vyborakh nakanune,” Akipress.org, 12 December 2016.  http://kg.akipress.org/news:1350601?from=kgnews&place=newstopic

[viii] There were reports, for example, of teachers employed by the state serving as “get out the vote” teams for the Yes camp.

[ix] “Omurbek Tekebaev: ‘Atambaev sposoben na postupki.  Esli referendum ne proidet, on uidet, kak de Goll’’,” Novye litsa, 29 October 2016.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/interview/omurbek-tekebaev-atambaev-sposoben-na-postupki-esli-referendum-ne-projdet_-on-ujdet_-kak-de-goll-

[x] In the weeks before the referendum,the Ata Meken Party’s criticism of the proposed constitutional changes led to the collapse of the ruling coalition and the effective expulsion of Ata-Meken from its ranks.  “Koalitsiia: Ushli, chtoby vernut’sia…no bez ‘Ata Mekena’,” KirTag, 25 October 2016.  http://kyrtag.kg/standpoint/koalitsiya-ushli-chtoby-vernutsya-no-bez-atamekena-/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Russia – The Presidency as Mediator Between Business and Law Enforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

Kyrgyzstan – President Atambaev Seeks to “Idiot-Proof” the Constitution by Reducing the Power of the Presidency

Constitutional reform has been a national pastime during Kyrgyzstan’s first quarter-century as an independent state.  Since the adoption of the first post-communist constitution in 1993, Kyrgyzstan has introduced new constitutions–or significant constitutional changes–six times.  From 1993 to 2007, under Presidents Akaev and Bakiev, these institutional reforms were designed to concentrate greater power in the presidency and to keep the political opposition off balance.[i]  However, in the wake of the ouster of President Bakiev during a popular revolt in April 2010, former opposition politicians succeeded in pushing through, by referendum, a new constitution that promised to introduce a parliamentary republic in Kyrgyzstan.  The 2010 Constitution contained numerous provisions that reduced the power of the presidency, strengthened the role of the parliament and the prime minister, and protected the opposition.  However, as we noted in an earlier entry on this blog,[ii] the new constitutional order in Kyrgyzstan retained many features that are associated with semi-presidential rather than parliamentary models of government, including direct presidential elections and the subordination of the security services to the office of the president.

Relegated to a single six-year term by the current constitution, President Almazbek Atambaev is now leading an effort to reduce the powers of the presidency and align the country’s institutions with those of classic parliamentarism, following the script of President Sarkisian of Armenia, who recently engineered a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary system.[iii]  The initiative in Kyrgyzstan appears to have the support of the leaders of the country’s five parliamentary parties, which is an unexpected development given that some of these parties had previously favored the return to a stronger presidency.[iv]  Not surprisingly in a country with a vibrant civil society, the consensus of the governing establishment around constitutional reform has generated vigorous opposition from non-governmental organizations, which suspect Atambaev of maneuvering to maintain his political power after he steps down from the presidency.[v]  In the view of some, Atambaev lacks confidence in his ability to ensure that a sympathetic successor will win the next presidential election, and therefore he prefers to take his chances with a parliamentary system, in which his party, the Social Democrats, would play a prominent role.[vi]  For his part, Atambaev has insisted that he is looking forward to a quiet retirement when his term ends in late 2017.  “I am not planning to remain President for a second term or to become prime minister or speaker…..In less than two years, I’ll be going into retirement.  Of course, I’ll sleep and read books, and I haven’t given up my dream of playing the piano.”[vii]

As to why constitutional reform is needed at this juncture, Atambaev points to two dangers for the country under the existing institutional arrangements.  The first is the possibility of “cohabitation,” where two “young hotheads” who are politically and personally at odds occupy the posts of president and prime minister, “with one [the President] controlling the army and the secret police while the other [the Prime Minister] is in charge of the Minister of the Interior, whose forces outnumber those of the army.”[viii] Kyrgyzstan has thus far avoided the perils of cohabitation because Atambaev’s Social Democratic Party has always been in the ruling coalition, usually as the leading party.

The second fear advanced by Atambaev is that the presidential election, always a high-stakes, winner-take-all contest, will be closely contested in 2017. Unlike in his own election in 2011, where he captured 60 percent of the votes and the second-place finisher garnered only 14 percent, Atambaev notes that the next election could be much closer, and “someone could storm the gates [of the White House] if they lost by only .5 percent.”[ix] Atambaev claims that he knows “such dinosaurs,” who are willing to spill the blood of young supporters in this kind of effort.[x]  Therefore, in his view, the country must adopt a constitution that can serve as “defense against a fool” [idiot-proofing].[xi]

However, the proposed constitutional reforms do not merely envisage a reduction in presidential power and a transition from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary model of government.  They also promise to undermine judicial independence, local self-governance, and the freedom of maneuver for individual members of parliament.  In the name of judicial accountability, the reforms would allow the President and Prime Minister, rather than the members of the court, to select the chair and deputy chair of the Supreme Court, who have responsibilities for the allocation of cases and the assessment of judicial performance.  In Russia and some other post-communist countries, this ability to appoint the court’s leadership has seriously eroded judicial independence. [xii]  Furthermore, the constitutional reform would reduce the ability of the judicial branch to restrain executive power by removing the Constitutional Chamber from the judicial system and potentially transforming it into a body issuing merely advisory opinions.[xiii]

The proposed constitutional changes would also strengthen considerably the authority of the leaders of Government and parliament, from the Prime Minister to the heads of parties.  Besides exercising some existing powers now carried out by the President, the Prime Minister would assume several new powers, among them the right to dismiss ministers unilaterally and to appoint the heads of local governments, who are currently selected by local councils.  For their part, party leaders would be empowered to remove from parliament individual rank-and-file members of their fractions who vote against the party line.  Thus, while touted as a corrective to certain perils of the existing constitution, the proposed changes would also weaken the independence of the judiciary and local government and the accountability of the parliamentary leadership.

Standing in the way of the introduction of the new institutional arrangements is Article 4 of the Law on the Enactment of the 2010 Constitution, which states that no changes may be made to the constitution for ten years–that is before 2020–unless they are made by a popular referendum.  Although there is some discussion of trying to circumvent this rule by introducing the reforms through so-called “constitutional laws,” which require a supermajority vote of parliamentary deputies, President Atambaev has stated that he is willing to call a referendum if necessary to revise the constitution.  That Kyrgyzstan has gone almost six years without  a constitutional overhaul is unprecedented, and efforts to block the proposed changes may yet prolong the country’s streak of constitutional stability.

Notes

[i] Eugene Huskey and Gulnara Iskakova, “Narrowing the Sites and Moving the Targets: Institutional Instability and the Development of a Political Opposition in Kyrgyzstan,” Problems of Post-Communism, vol. 58, no. 3 (2011), pp. 3-10.

[ii] Eugene Huskey, “Another Year, Another Prime Minister,” Presidential Power blog, 18 May 2015 http://presidential-power.com/?p=3321.

[iii] On the Armenian reforms, see the entries on this blog by Chiara Lodi, “Armenia–From Semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism,” 16 September 2015, http://presidential-power.com/?p=3805, and “Armenia–The Constitutional Referendum and the Role of the President during the Campaign,” 9 December 2015.  http://presidential-power.com/?p=4231

[iv] Daniiar Karimov, “Atambaev ubedil,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 July 2015. http://www.rg.ru/2015/07/02/konst.html

[v] Aidanbek Akmat uulu, “Konstitutsionnaia reforma: usloviia i sroki,” Radio Azattyk, 13 November 2015. http://rus.azattyk.org/content/article/27362706.html  Some politicians, like Kubatbek Baibolov, former presidential candidate and Minister of Interior, believe that “whatever the real motivations [podopleka] behind the initiative, a transition to a purely parliamentary form of government should be supported.” Ibid.

[vi] Some observers claim that Atambaev favors the indirect election of the president by parliament, but Atambaev has stated that he has no such intent.  As Emil’ Juraev notes, Atambaev’s concerns about his successor relate in part to how he would be treated once he left office.  Without a sympathetic successor, a departing president could be the subject of litigation endangering his property and person.   IWPR Central Asia, “V Kyrgyzstane vnov’ govoriat o politicheskoi reforme,” Global  Voices, 11 December 2015.  https://iwpr.net/ru/global-voices/в-кыргызстане-вновь-говорят-о-политической-реформе

[vii] Leila Saralaeva, “Spasibo nashim liudiam za ikh vyderzhku i spravedlivost’,” Novye litsa, 24 December 2015.  http://www.nlkg.kg/ru/politics/prezident-kyrgyzstana-almazbek-atambaev-spasibo-nashim-lyudyam-za-ix-vyderzhku-i-spravedlivost

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.  The reference is to the ousters of former presidents by crowds that climbed over the White House fence in 2005 and 2010, and the unsuccessful attempt by opposition figure Kamchibek Tashiev to do that with a group of supporters in 2013.

[x] Ibid.  Left unsaid by Atambaev is the possibility that candidates from the North and South of the country could be in a close contest, which could endanger the country’s stability and even its integrity.

[xi] This concept was first advanced by an industrial engineer from Toyota, Shigeo Shingo.

[xii] Peter H. Solomon, Jr., “Informal Practices in Russian Justice: Probing the Limits of Post-Soviet Reform,” in Ferdinand Feldbrugge (ed.), Russia, Europe, and the Rule of Law (Leiden: Nijhoff, 2007), pp. 79-92.  According to some of President Atambaev’s critics, the presidency already dictates many judicial decisions, especially in cases of political corruption.  See Makhimur Niiazova, “Femida–chto dyshlo,” Respublika [Bishkek], no. 24, 19 November 2015.  http://www.respub.kg/2015/11/20/%D1%84%D0%B5%D0%BC%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%B0-%D1%87%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%B4%D1%8B%D1%88%D0%BB%D0%BE/

[xiii] The Venice Commission and other international organizations have expressed their concerns about the proposed reforms.  Anna Ialovkina, “Kyrgyzstan: popravki v Konstitutsiiu ‘neizbezhny’,” Institute po osveshcheniiu voiny i mira [Institute for War and Peace Reporting], 3 July 2015. RCA Issue 764.  http://www.refworld.org.ru/docid/559fc6344.html

Kyrgyzstan – Central Asia’s Lone Democracy Elects a New Parliament

Citizens in Kyrgyzstan went to the polls on Sunday, October 4, to elect 120 deputies to the country’s unicameral legislature, the Zhogorku Kenesh [Supreme Council]. It was the second parliamentary election under a new constitution that was introduced in the wake of the April 2010 revolution and the interethnic violence of June of that year. Although observers in Kyrgyzstan label the country a “parliamentary republic,” the constitution in fact created a semi-presidential system in which the directly-elected president, currently Almazbek Atambaev, enjoys considerable powers, including the ability to appoint and supervise the “power ministries,” such as defense, interior, and secret police. President Atambaev also serves as the de facto leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, which received the largest share of the vote (27.41%) in Sunday’s election. As President, he has the right to select the formateur of the new coalition government, which will clearly be the Social Democrats, who finished seven points ahead of their nearest rival, the Respublica–Ata Jurt Party.

Given the violence and chaos that wracked the country only five years ago, the mere holding of a peaceful and highly-competitive election must be considered an accomplishment of the first order.[i] There were certainly irregularities in some polling places, accusations of vote buying, and a suspicious jump in the turnout rate, from almost 46 percent at 6pm to approximately 60 percent by the close of polling at 8pm. However, international observers monitoring the elections assessed them as highly-contested and noteworthy for the use of the latest technologies in electoral administration.[ii] For the first time, the Central Election Commission used biometric data (thumbprints) to identity voters at the polls. It also forbade the use of mobile phones or cameras in the voting booths in order to maintain the sanctity of the secret ballot and discourage vote-buying or intimidation. The biometric data requirement was not without its downside, however. Observers estimate that there were almost one million fewer voters on the rolls because of this registration requirement.[iii]

The high level of competitiveness of the electoral campaign benefitted from a reduction in the use of administrative resources by officials allied to the President as well as the presence of numerous well-funded parties that were able to get out their message to voters across this mountainous country, where a sizable portion of the population lives in remote areas. According to preliminary figures, campaign expenditures of the parties securing seats in the new parliament ranged from less than 3 million soms ($43,500) per seat by the Social Democrats to over 9 million soms ($130,400) per seat by the Ata Meken party.[iv] The 14 parties that contested the election were also able to reach voters through a series of televised debates whose spirited exchanges and high production value rivaled debates in mature democracies. In fact, the television anchors questioning the candidates–using a bilingual format in both Kyrgyz and Russian–were models of professionalism.

Although the recent increase in the national threshold from 5 to 7 percent in Kyrgyzstan’s closed list PR system was designed in part to reduce the number of parties in parliament, the new parliament will have one more party than the old (6 instead of 5).[v] The preliminary seat totals are as follows:

Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan 38
Respublica-Ata Zhurt 28
Kyrgyzstan 18
Onuguu-Progress 13
Bir Bol 12
Ata Meken 11

Falling out of the new parliament is the Ar-Narmys Party, whose leader, Felix Kulov, had been unable to impose discipline on his members in the previous parliament.[vi]  The incoming parliament will have three new parties–Kyrgyzstan, Onuguu-Progress, and Bir Bol–while one bloc, Respublica-Ata Zhurt, represents a fusion of two existing parties.[vii]

In at least two important respects, the results appear to consolidate democracy in Kyrgyzstan. First, although the Social Democrats were able to increase their seat total by almost 50 percent from the last election, from 26 to 38, they will need to share power with at least one other party, and many commentators believe a three-party coalition, with Kyrgyzstan and Onuguu-Progress, is most likely. Thus, the election did not produce a dominant “party of power” whose support for the president could diminish the political accountability of the executive, a common pattern in post-Soviet states. Second, and in many ways more importantly, the deep political divisions between the North and South of the country that were on full display in 2010 and 2011–during the revolution, ethnic violence, and parliamentary and presidential elections–have receded in this electoral cycle.[viii] Instead of parties with dominant bases of support in the North or South, Kyrgyzstan in this election has moved decidedly toward national parties that appeal to significant numbers of voters in all of the country’s seven electoral regions and its two main cities–Bishkek and Osh.[ix] This nationalization of parties will certainly not eliminate regional divisions, but it should allow the main locus of politics on this issue to shift from the public square to party caucuses.[x]

Although the regional divisions may be subsiding, tensions between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the South of the country show few signs of abating. The strong showing of the Social Democrats in Osh city and Osh regions almost certainly reflects the support of the ethnic Uzbek population for the party of the president. It is doubtful, however, given the virulence of ethnic Kyrgyz nationalism in recent years, that this Uzbek support will translate into significant concessions to the Uzbek population on cultural or political issues.

If the last electoral cycle is a guide, it may take some weeks before the Social Democrats can form a ruling coalition. Besides negotiating over the usual claims to ministerial portfolios and the speakership of the Zhogorku Kenesh, parties will be arguing over the division of the spoils for lower-level appointments in Bishkek and the provinces. What is unlikely to delay the negotiations are disagreements about policy. Kyrgyzstan remains a personality and identity-driven political system, and the October 2015 parliamentary election does not appear to have altered that orientation, which the country shares with most of the developing world.[xi]

Notes

[i] For an overview of conditions in the country at the time of the election, see International Crisis Group, “Kyrgyzstan: An Uncertain Trajectory,” Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing No. 76, 30 September 2015. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/central-asia/kyrgyzstan/b076-kyrgyzstan-an-uncertain-trajectory.aspx

[ii] See the press conference of the OSCE Monitoring Team at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/kyrgyzstan/177111, and the assessment of the largest internal election-monitoring NGO (Dinara Oshurakhunova, “Vybory proshli chisto, dlia vsekh partii byli sozdany odinakovye usloviia,” Gezitter.org, 5 October 2015). http://www.gezitter.org/vybory/44059_d_oshurahunova_predsedatel_koalitsii_za_demokratiyu_i_grajdanskoe_obschestvo_vyiboryi_proshli_chisto_dlya_vseh_partiy_byili_sozdanyi_odinakovyie_usloviya/

[iii] Six weeks before the elections, as part of a bureaucratic turf war, the head of the Central Election Commission severely criticized the State Registration for putting together a voters’ list that he described as “the lowest quality in the history of the country.” “Takogo nekachestvennogo spiska izbiratelei v istorii Kyrgyzstan eshche ne bylo–Abdraimiov,” KirTAG, 29 August 2015. http://kyrtag.kg/society/takogo-nekachestvennogo-spiska-izbirateley-v-istorii-kyrgyzstana-eshche-ne-bylo-abdraimov

[iv] “14 partii potratili na vybory v ZhK 778 mln somov,” AkiPress, 5 October 2015. http://kg.akipress.org/news:624801

[v] Because the new threshold is based on the percentage of actual voters, whereas the earlier threshold was based on the percentage of registered voters, the current threshold of 7 percent is in practice less restrictive than the former 5-percent threshold.

[vi] An indication of the instability of parties in Kyrgyzstan is that during the previous parliamentary session, 56 percent of Ar-Namys deputies switched parties, a level that was on par with that for Respublica (60 percent) and Ata Zhurt (53 percent). The most stable parties were the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, which witnessed 7 and 16 percent defections, respectively, from their ranks.

[vii] On recent party realignments see Arslan Sabyrbekov, “Party Restructuring in Kyrgyzstan Prior to 2015 Elections,” The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 27 May 2015. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/field-reports/item/13211-party-restructuring-in-kyrgyzstan-prior-to-2015-elections.html

[viii] Eugene Huskey and David Hill, “Regionalism, Personalism, Ethnicity, and Violence: Parties and Voter Preference in the 2010 Parliamentary Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 29, no. 3 (June 2013), pp. 237-267; David Hill and Eugene Huskey, “Electoral Stakes, Labor Migration, and Voter Turnout: The 2011 Presidential Election in Kyrgyzstan,” Demokratizatsiya, no. 1 (January 2015), pp. 3-30.

[ix] Regional results are available at “Predvaritel’nye rezul’taty golosovaniia na parliamentskikh vyborakh,” Sputnik, 4 October 2015. http://ru.sputnik.kg/infographics/20151004/1018946828.html Despite the adoption of sophisticated new technologies in some areas of electoral administration in Kyrgyzstan, the website of the Central Election Commission, which publishes results at the precinct, district, and national level, has not been accessible since the election. http://www.shailoo.gov.kg/

[x] One potential source of tension surrounds the failure of a party with its primary electoral base in the South, Butun Kyrgyzstan-Emgek, to cross the 7 percent threshold, garnering just over 6 percent of the votes. This party, led by the charismatic and divisive politician, Adakhan Madumarov, also fell just short of securing seats in the parliament in the 2010 parliamentary election.

[xi] Despite some suggestions to the contrary in the Russian and Western press, foreign policy did not appear to be a major issue in the election campaign. Almost all major parties accept the basic pro-Russian orientation of Kyrgyzstan, and Russia appears to have made its peace with the more competitive and open environment in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in 2010, when Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, warned that Kyrgyzstan could not survive the transition to a system with a strong parliament and multiple parties, the official line today from Moscow is more tolerant of Kyrgyzstani exceptionalism. See, for example, Vladislav Vorob’ev and Konstantin Volkov, “Liudi ustali ot revoliutsii,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 October 2015, p. 6. Kyrgyzstan’s recent entry into the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union further solidified ties between the two countries.

Russia – Inviting Voice without Accepting Accountability: Putin’s Search for Alternative Sources of Legitimation

Electoral success in competitive authoritarian regimes poses a conundrum for political leaders. The less competitive the election, the more likely it is to prompt a backlash, witness the color revolutions in the post-communist world in the 2000s. In the case of Russia, the fear of a popular rebellion led to restrictions on NGOs, especially those with foreign ties, and to a greater reliance on institutions that project an aura of popular accountability without actually restraining political power. In other words, as the legitimating potential of traditional liberal institutions, such as elections, parties, and parliaments, fades, the regime seeks substitutes in alternative organizations and rituals that can buttress leadership claims of responsiveness to the public.[i]

Insisting that existing NGOs were unrepresentative of Russian society, Putin established the system of Public Chambers [Obshchestvennye palaty] in April 2005, shortly after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as a state-sanctioned alternative to traditional liberal institutions. Filled for the most part with pro-regime experts and dignitaries, the organization has acquired more responsibilities in recent years and is now a quasi-parliament, a quarter of whose members are elected through an internet poll.[ii] The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation sits atop a network of regional chambers and affiliated public councils that monitor the activities of executive agencies.[iii] Although it is tempting to write off this Russian experiment in horizontal accountability as yet another example of “virtual politics,”[iv] it does provide opportunities for feedback, especially from those whose concerns about specific policies and organizations do not spring from a general critique of the regime.

Besides organizations like the Public Chambers, Putin has introduced or enhanced other institutions that seek to illustrate the President’s attentiveness and accessibility to citizens. Perhaps the most ambitious and risky of these efforts is the prime-time call-in show entitled Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Instead of regularly receiving supplicants at Court, like traditional rulers, Russia’s republican monarch of the digital age makes himself available periodically to the nation in a marathon television broadcast in which he answers questions posed by text, email, letters, Skype, and by anchors and selected members of the studio audience. Over the years Putin has developed a mastery of this form of communication, alternating between stern statements directed at the country’s enemies to wonkish discussions of obscure areas of public policy and humorous banter with questioners.

Although the event is carefully scripted, the live format gives the program an edge, which is heightened by the willingness of the organizers to allow the occasional critique of Putin’s leadership. For example, at the last Direct Line, in April 2015, a member of the studio audience, Aleksei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister, asked Putin why GDP growth in his first term [2000-2004] had been almost 7 percent annually, when the price of oil averaged $30 a barrel, whereas it was only 1.5 percent in his current term [2012-present], with oil between $65 and $70 a barrel.[v] The rare uncomfortable moments like these only heighten the program’s authenticity and popularity, and one suspects that most of the massive audience that tunes in would agree with Putin’s assessment, made at the end of the 2015 version of the show, that the almost four-hour event, with no breaks, was “the most powerful public opinion poll…which allows us to understand what people are really concerned about….”[vi]

Between these episodic high-profile encounters with the nation, Putin receives a constant stream of letters and email messages from citizens, who also have the option of visiting in person presidential reception centers [priemnye] in Moscow and the regions to communicate their concerns. Receiving, analyzing, and following through on these requests and complaints of Russian citizens is the job of the presidency’s Department for Work with Communications from Citizens and Organizations [Upravlenie po rabote s obrashcheniiami grazhdan i organizatsii]. Continuing a tradition of the “complaint bureaucracy” that had formed part of the tsarist and communist regimes,[vii] the presidential Department for Work with Communications has in recent years devoted more resources to tracking complaints through officialdom and analyzing and presenting graphically this store of governmental data. This year the Department is on track to process more than a million requests and complaints from citizens and social groups.[viii]

Accessible on the presidential website, the monthly and annual reports provide a treasure trove of information about the concerns of Russian citizens, which are broken down by policy area and by the region of the sender.[ix] The changing focus of citizen concerns is evident in these materials, witness the 32 percent month-on-month increase from August 2014 to August 2015 in the number of communications relating to the economy, which has produced considerable anxiety of late because of the effects of Western sanctions and the declining oil price. There was an even greater percentage decrease in the number of requests and complaints relating to the State/Society/Politics rubric, reflecting perhaps greater popular resignation about the shape of the political order amid the further consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his team.

Whether directed to the President’s complaints office or parallel institutions in agencies like the Procuracy, these messages–a quintessential form of individual political action–serve as a barometer of the public mood and represent a low-cost, low-risk way of exhibiting openness to public voice while avoiding the dangers to the regime of collective political action. It is unclear, however, how responsive political leaders are in competitive authoritarian regimes to the signals received through these alternatives to liberal institutions. It is also difficult to assess how effective such alternatives are with the public as substitutes for the traditional means of legitimation found in democratic countries. Inviting voice without accepting accountability may be difficult to sustain as a long-term strategy in the absence of levels of repression and information control that are higher than those in place at the moment in Russia and other competitive authoritarian regimes.

[i] Among Russian political institutions, parties and parliament inspire little confidence among the public. A poll conducted in late 2013 found that whereas the President, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the army were trusted by 55, 48, and 43 percent of the population, respectively, the figures for the parliament and political parties were 25 and 12 percent. Doverie institutam vlasti, Levada-Tsentr, 7 October 2013. http://www.levada.ru/07-10-2013/doverie-institutam-vlasti

[ii] The Russian president selects another quarter of the members and regional Public Chambers select half of the body.

[iii] A similar, though more robust, network of public monitoring boards has functioned in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. See Eugene Huskey, “Public Advisory Boards in Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian Experiment with Horizontal Accountability,” IREX Scholar Research Brief, August 2013. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/EPS%20Scholar%20Research%20Brief%20Huskey.pdf

[iv] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Communist World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[v] Priamaia liniia s Vladimirom Putinym (15 aprelia 2015), at 32:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhHtS4oVst8

[vi] Ibid., at 3:57:00. For an assessment of this program as political and discursive performance, see Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The discourse of a spectacle at the end of the presidential term,” in Helena Goscilo (ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 104-110.

[vii] There is a rich literature on citizen complaints in Russia; see, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s,” Slavic Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 78-105. Studies of the contemporary complaint bureaucracy include Laura A. Henry, “Complaint-Making as Political Participation in Contemporary Russia,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 45, nos. 3-4 (September-December 2012), pp. 243-254; Danielle N. Lussier, “Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 3 (July-September 2011), pp. 289-325; and Joshua Solomon, Citizen-State Relations in Hybrid Regimes: The Case of the Correspondence Directorate of the Russian Presidency, Senior Thesis, Stetson University, May 2013.

[viii] Informatsionno-statisticheskii obzor rasmotrennykh v avguste 2015 goda obrashchenii grazhdan, organizatsii i obshchestvennykh ob’edinenii, adresovannykh Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, p. 20. http://letters.kremlin.ru/media/letters/digests/41d57b5db0d596e13201.pdf

[ix] Complaints and questions from citizens are categorized into five major policy areas–State, Society, Politics; Social Sphere; Economics; Defense, Security, Legality; Housing Sphere–and each of these is disaggregated further into five sub-categories. Maps, graphs, and pie charts abound in these lengthy reports; the August 2015 monthly report, for example, was over 100 pages. Ibid.Put

Russia – From Public Politics to Public Management: Mayors and the Completion of Putin’s “Power Vertical”

One of the hallmarks of Vladimir Putin’s rule has been an attempt to “depoliticize” Russian government.[i] Rather than viewing governance as the art of reconciling competing claims by various groups and individuals, the current Russian leadership embraces the concept of government as a science of bureaucratic management.[ii] This approach requires insulating policy-making as much as possible from the “short-sighted” demands of opposition politicians, who are branded as populists and demagogues, and entrusting it to those–the current ruling elite, headed by the president–who allegedly have the long term interests of the Russian state at heart. It is easy, of course, to dismiss this perspective as a self-serving means of legitimating authoritarian rule and keeping the incumbents in power. Although it certainly serves those purposes, it is more than a cynical ploy; it reflects the worldview of Russia’s contemporary ruling class, which has a deep distrust, if not fear, of the common people, the narod, as political actors.

To move Russia from public politics to public management, the political leadership has employed a number of tactics over the last decade and a half, the most visible of which is the construction of what Putin has called a “power vertical” [vertikal’ vlasti]. In this system, the president sits atop a hierarchy of executive officials–from Moscow to the provinces–who are supposed to carry out policies introduced or negotiated by Putin in the center. Among the many factors complicating the operation of the power vertical is the presence of various elected officials, at the federal, regional, and local levels, whose loyalty to the president may be limited by their sensitivity to the views of constituents. In order to neutralize the constraints imposed by the election of other public officials, Putin has placed virtually insurmountable barriers in the path of opposition parties and politicians and transformed many elective offices into appointed ones.[iii]

Over the last year, President Putin’s team has revived a campaign to “depoliticize” local government through electoral reform. Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician assassinated earlier this year, asked facetiously in December 2014 what the political leadership was doing while the ruble fell 50 percent in value and 130 billion rubles fled the country? His answer: “The Kremlin…gave an order to eliminate the election of mayors of the capital cities [of Russian regions].”[iv] In fact, the shift to appointed rather than elected mayors had begun a decade earlier, though it had affected less than half of Russian territories by late 2011.[v] And it was not just regional capitals–where local governors often find themselves in disputes with popular local mayors–but larger cities throughout Russia that have been capitulating in recent months to political pressure from above to abandon elections for mayor. In many cases, the mayors are being replaced by city managers, an institution that appeared in Russia for the first time in 2003 as part of the depoliticization initiative.[vi]

Although President Putin had succeeded earlier in marginalizing the opposition in federal and regional politics, public politics remained vibrant at the local level, where mayoral contests were often genuinely competitive. In the race for Moscow mayor, for example, one of Putin’s harshest and most visible critics, Alexei Navalnyi, received over 27 percent of the vote in a losing but impressive effort. According to one source, “[o]ne quarter of mayoral elections held between 2001 and 2012 were decided by less than 15 percentage points….[and] in many notable instances, opposition mayoral candidates have been able to defeat United Russia candidates, although many of those opposition mayors were subsequently arrested.”[vii] It is no surprise, then, that a Russian president intent on eliminating pockets of resistance to the power vertical would seek to complete the depoliticization of local government.

There is a danger for Putin, however, that the attempt to strip mayors of public accountability will prove a pyrrhic victory. Not only are Putin’s tactics running roughshod over more than two decades of constitutional traditions on the autonomy of local government, they fly directly in the face of public opinion on the issue. According to a poll taken by the Levada Center in May 2014, 77 percent of Russians believed that mayors of large cities should be directly elected.[viii] In a survey conducted at the end of last year, 80 percent of Yaroslavl residents favored direct mayoral election.[ix] Even for a normally compliant population, many of the justifications offered by the regime’s representatives for diminishing the power of the ballot appear insulting. The governor of Krasnodar region noted that the government would save considerable money by not having elections, and at any rate the population was “tired” of all the campaigns.[x] The vice speaker of the regional assembly in Ulianovsk admitted that the elimination of direct mayoral elections would subordinate the office of mayor to the regional governor, which “will strengthen the power vertical, and that has never hurt Russia.”[xi] For his part, the head of the Karelian Republic argued that the reform would “remove unnecessary politicization from local government…”[xii] More convincing to some will be the opportunity that the new electoral rules provide for the formation of directly elected borough councils within cities, but the candidates drawn to these bodies are likely to resurrect “the image of milk-maids and lathe operators recruited in the Soviet-era local elections.”[xiii]

Students of presidentialism and semi-presidentialism traditionally focus on national politics and on relations between executive and legislative institutions. However, presidential power rests not only on political relations in the center but on the ability of the leader to command the loyalty of the periphery. Designed to ensure that Putin’s writ extends to the farthest reaches of Russia, the current attempt to depoliticize mayors’ offices tests the limits of the Russian power vertical. In Joel Moses’ words, under the new system, “…Russians will be denied accountable citywide institutions responsible for their daily lives and left with protests, demonstrations, and grassroots organizations as their sole political outlets….”[xiv] Given that the biggest winners in this reform are governors rather than the Russian president, one has to wonder if this initiative is a step too far for Putin.[xv]

Notes

[i] An excellent work of Russian scholarship on this subject is Viktor Mart’ianov, “The Decline of Public Politics in Russia: From Public Politics to Political Administration: The Depoliticization of the Regions,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 45, no. 5 (September-October 2007), pp. 67-82 [translation of “Padenie publichnoi politiki v Rossii: ot publichnoi politiki k politicheskomu administrirovaniiu. Depolitizatsiia regionov,” Svobodnaia mysl’, 2006, no. 5, pp. 5-18] The title of this blog entry and the framework for analysis were inspired by this piece.

[ii] This idea is developed with regard to Soviet-style regimes in A.J. Polan, Lenin and the End of Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[iii] Although the public regained the right to vote for governors after almost a decade during which the president appointed governors to the country’s 83 regions, new, arcane rules all but ensure that gubernatorial candidates favored by President Putin will emerge as winners. See Joel C. Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 66, no. 9 (November 2014), pp. 1395-1424, and especially pp. 1414-1415 for the rules limiting genuine competition. Recently adopted rules also provide that certain regions may choose to forgo direct elections for governor, and that option has been adopted by violence-plagued regions in the Northern Caucasus. Here, the regional parliaments select the governor.

[iv] Boris Nemtsov, “Panoptikum: rubl’ rukhnul, a oni vybory otmeniaiut,” Ekho Moskvy, 1 December 2014.

[v] The provisions of Russian legislation on mayoral elections are complex, but essentially they allow cities to choose among several options, which allow for an elected mayor, a mayor-city manager tandem, or a city manager. Putin’s recent moves are effectively removing this choice and forcing locales to abandon the direct election option. See Noah Buckley, Guzel Garifullina, Ora John Reuter, and Alexandra Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 22, no. 1 (2014), pp. 93-98.

[vi] Vasilii Skalon and Maksim Rubchenko observed in 2010 that the introduction of city managers was “proceeding apace in places where United Russia [the hegemonic, pro-presidential party] has been unable to win mayoral elections.” Skalon and Rubchenko, “Local Government in the Grip of the ‘Power Vertical’,” Russian Politics and Law, vol. 49, no. 4 (July-August 2011), p. 33 [translation of “Samoupravlenie v tiskakh vertikali,” Ekspert, no. 45 (15 November 2010). See also Moses, “The Political Resurrection of Russian Governors,” pp. 1402-1403. The study by Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” offers fascinating detail on the differences in backgrounds between elected and appointed mayors in Russia.

[vii] Buckley, Garifullina, Reuter, and Shubenkova, “Elections, Appointments, and Human Capital: The Case of Russian Mayors,” p. 98, citing http://echo.msk.ru/blog/tulsky/826429-echo/

[viii] “V Irkutske deputaty otmenili priamye vybory mera goroda,” NEWSru.com, 23 March 2015.

[ix] “V Iaroslavle otmenili priamye vybory mera,” Russkaia sluzhba BBC, 12 December 2014.

[x] Mariia Epifanova, Nataliia Zotova, “Izbrannykh vse men’she,” Novaia gazeta, 15 December 2014.

[xi] Sergei Titov, “V Ul’ianovske vosstanavlivaiut vertikal’ vlasti,” Kommersant, 27 June 2014.

[xii] “Karel’skie parlamentarii otmenili priamye vybory mera Petrozavodska,” TASS, 18 June 2014.

[xiii] Joel C. Moses, “Putin and Russian Subnational Politics in 2014,” Demokratizatsiya, vol. 23, no. 2 (Spring 2015), p. 197.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 201.

[xv] In the Yeltsin era, the Russian president allied with the country’s mayors as a way of constraining gubernatorial power, but Putin’s gambit in this ongoing triangular game assures that local officials will not see the presidency as a protector. See Eugene Huskey, Presidential Power in Russia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), pp. 189-190.