BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #1

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from late May to early June.

June 14th, 2018

In his examination of the state of Russia’s left-wing politics, Sean Guillory described the place of the Communist party (KPRF) in Russia as “something of a Faustian bargain: access to the political system in exchange for loyalty and faint opposition.” Last week provided a glaring example of this situation, as the communist mayor of Novosibirsk announced he would not run in the September gubernatorial election (despite saying the contrary in April). The move basically guarantees the election of Andrey Travnikov, the current acting governor appointed by Vladimir Putin in October 2017.

Novosibirsk has been a bit of a headache for the Kremlin: not only is the city (Russia’s third biggest) lead by a Communist who managed to beat a United Russia candidate in 2014, it is also a strongpoint of protest activity in Russia. Last year, local authorities were forced to backtrack on a planned 15% rise of utilities prices after a series of protests, a rare case of successful opposition.

Novosibirsk mayor Anatoly Lokot would then have been a tough opponent for Travnikov, a Kremlin-appointed outsider with little name recognition in the region. Fearing potential electoral defeat, the presidential administration allegedly pressured Lokot into announcing he would not run.

That the KPRF cannot act independently even where it holds a strong position is not surprising, but it is significant. Russia’s second biggest party looks weak (its score at the presidential election was the lowest since 1996) right when the Kremlin’s pension reform plans would be a golden opportunity for a left-wing party to reinvigorate opposition politics. Right now, the KPRF does not seem ready to do that. The question is whether this will help the Kremlin push through unpopular reforms – or whether it will open the door for other political groups more willing to confront the government.

June 7th, 2018

This week and until the end of June, most Russian political parties will be holding primaries to choose their candidates for the September mayoral, gubernatorial and regional (local councils and parliaments) elections. In Moscow, the primaries held by the Yabloko liberal party mostly served to highlight the continuing inability of the Russian opposition to organize themselves effectively, as the winner of the primary immediately announced he would not run in the mayoral election.

The problem is different for United Russia, which concluded its primaries on June 3. Per official data, 2.8 million voters chose between 5867 candidates across 30 regions. The party hailed the primaries as a success, saying each position had been disputed by an average of 5 candidates, compare to 3.5 last year (numbers which haven’t been independently verified).

Ostensibly, primaries are portray as a way to stimulate internal competition and reduce nepotism. But this approach is dampened by the party’s fear of losing control and the fact that, as soon as an election actually matters (such as gubernatorial elections), candidates are hand-picked by the Kremlin or by regional elites, turning the primary into something of a role-playing game for party officials.

Local cases do show that primaries can be used for other, more ad-hoc purposes, such as co-opting discontent. In the Kemerovo region, one of the winners in the United Russiaprimaries for the elections of the local council was Igor Vostrikov, a local businessman who lost his wife, sister and three children in the mall fire that killed 60 people on 25 March. After the fire, Vostrikov became involved in local protests against the administration, gaining national fame when the deputy-governor accused him of performing a “PR stunt”. For a short time seen as a potential threat to local stability, Vostrikov has been swiftly integrated into United Russia’s political machine, where he is unlikely to exert much influence.

May 31st, 2018

A post-election gubernatorial rotation gained steam this week with the resignation of Yegor Borisov and Vladimir Pecheny, the governors of the Yakutia and Magadan regions. The heads of the Yamalo-Nenets and Tyumen regions were also appointed in the federal government earlier. Changes were expected, but their nature illustrates the continuation of two trends in regional politics: the rise of young technocrats and the importance of delivering electoral results to the centre.

Dmitry Artyukhov, the new head of the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region, turned 30 in February, making him Russia’s youngest governor and a prototype of the quiet, efficient technocrat that the Kremlin seems to have been favouring lately. He is also a local (his father was the head of United Russia in the neighboring Tyumen region), likely a deliberate move from the Kremlin in order not to alienate local elites.

By contrast, the 63 years-old former governor of the Yakutia region was getting old. Maybe more importantly, in the 2018 presidential election, only 64% of the region’s voters cast their ballot for Vladimir Putin (his country-wide score was 76%). Though changes in regional leadership are rarely explained by a single factor, the ability to secure convincing victories for Vladimir Putin or the United Russia party still plays a major role.

Andrey Vorobyov is a good example of this: since the beginning of the year, the head of the Moscow region (which excludes Moscow itself) has been entangled in a series of protests, as locals took to the streets to denounce foul odors and toxic wastes coming from overflowing landfills. The protests –and the governor itself– made international news. Yet, according to RBC, Vorobyov has been approved by Putin himself to run for re-election in the September gubernatorial election. How so? Putin’s 74% score in the Moscow region, and the fact that his score was only 57% in 2012 (when Vorobyov wasn’t governor yet), might have helped.

May 24th, 2018

The Center for Social and Labor Rights counted 52 labour protests across Russia in the first three months of 2018, the lowest number since the 2008-2014 period (which saw an average of 46 protests in the first quarter).

It’s a very sharp fall from the 87 protests counted last year in the same time period, especially since that number had been decreasing quite slowly until now (101 protests in 2015Q1 and 91 in 2016Q1). But it’s too early to say how significant this is: such a sudden decrease could be explained by the presidential campaign, with regional authorities propping up local companies to increase turnout. Meanwhile, wage arrears, traditionally the main cause of work protests, have been steadily rising since the beginning of the year.

Another big political and regional story is the resignation of Ekaterinburg mayor Evgeniy Roizman, in reaction to an earlier decision to cancel mayoral elections in the city. Roizman, mostly known in the West as the only opposition-minded head of a major Russian city, told local outlet Znak that he did not yet have any plans for the future but had received “lots of offers.”

Roizman’s authority in the city was very limited, with Kremlin-appointed regional governor Evgeny Kuyvashev holding most of the powers. But his five year term as mayor gives him experience very few other opposition figures can boast, as well as good name recognition. It would therefore not be surprising to see him try and take a bigger role in the Russian opposition movement: most recently, Roizman supported Navalny’s call to boycott the presidential election, and his resignation gave new strength to rumours about a possible Navalny/Roizman alliance. It’s not clear whether Navalny will be ready to share the spotlight however, and the liberal opposition’s track record when it comes to cooperation between strong-minded figures is notoriously poor.

May 17th, 2018

For years, the Russian political world discussed Alexei Kudrin’s potential return to the Kremlin as a signal that Putin would embrace tough economic reforms. Well, Kudrin is back, sort of: he will be heading the Audit Chamber, an oversight body answering to the Parliament.

For those who hoped to see him take a top position and improve relations with the West, this is disappointing: the Audit Chamber has little policy impact, Kudrin’s appointment wasn’t the result of a coherent plan, and it’s unclear whether he will be able to use the Chamber to effectively oversee the implementation of Putin’s May Decrees. Kudrin may be able to strengthen the influence of the Audit Chamber, an institution that Andrey Kolesnikov describes as “highly personalized.” But Kudrin’s new position points to stability rather than reform for Putin’s new term.

Most changes in the new government as adjustments and not significant. It’s logical that Medvedev kept the position of Prime Minister since appointing anyone else would have jumpstarted talks about a potential successor. Paradoxically, keeping Medvedev could allow Putin to get some real work done before succession questions grind the Kremlin’s work to a halt. This might not be enough if, as Abbas Gallyamov puts it, changes turn out to be mostly “decorative.”

In the regions, a bill aiming to make the teaching of “national languages” (anything other than Russian) purely voluntary is facing backlash. The controversy started last year, when Putin complained that some ethnically Russian kids were forced to learn regional languages at the expense of Russian. This hasn’t been well received in regions where language is closely tied to identity. Tatarstan has been at the forefront of the debate, but several civil groups from the Chuvash republic accused this week two of the bill’s authors of “betraying national [as opposed to “federal”] interests.” Discussion about the bill, introduced in April, has been dragging on, and voting might not happen before the fall session. For regional authorities, this might be another case of being stuck between fulfilling the Kremlin’s perceived desires while trying not to alienate local elites.

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