BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #2

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from early June to late July. The issues discussed in this time frame were:

  • July 26th: Putin finally speaks on the pension reform; the Kremlin wants regional authorities to react more quickly to “negative events”; and the FSB emerges as one of the winner of Putin’s post-electoral reschuffle
  • July 19th: the governor of Dagestan gets “carte blanche” from Putin for an anticorruption crackdown that is shaking the region’s clan structures.
  • July 12th: Russian politicians’ ratings are crashing down, but it may not only be because of the pension reform.
  • June 28th: the head of Chechnya is maneuvering to make sure his authority remains uncontested in the region – and his interests heard in Moscow.
  • June 21th: Putin is silent about the pension reform. He will have to speak about it, but neither backing it nor criticizing it look like good options.

 

July 26th, 2018

Sticking to the script, Vladimir Putin expressed his (mostly negative) opinion on the pension reform just one day after the Duma approved a harsh version of the bill in its first reading. The timing was a bit of a surprise to some Russia watchers, who expected the president to wait until September to speak. Voicing doubts about the reform now is more comfortable for Putin however, as bringing up the issue for the first time in an electoral period carries its own risks.

In the regions, the Kremlin is pushing authorities to set up social media monitoring systems in order to react more swiftly to “negative events.” According to RBC, this system was thought of by the presidential administration following the disastrous handling of the Kemerovo mall fire and the landfill protests in the Moscow region. Once it’s operational, regional authorities will have to answer –within 24 hours, according to a source quoted by RBC– to complaints on social media. The project is a great illustration of the Kremlin’s ambiguous take on digital technologies: as a way to transmit information, it’s seen as potentially destabilizing, something to be monitored and controlled. At the same time, it is expected to help solve deeply-rooted governance issues such as the authorities’ inability to handle mass discontent.

Back in Moscow, the FSB emerged as one of the winner of Putin’s (limited) post-electoral reshuffle: Alexander Matovnikov, a veteran of the FSB anti-terrorist “Alpha” unit, was appointed Presidential Envoy to Russia’s North Caucasus Federal District, while two of Putin’s newly-appointed advisors, Dmitri Chalkov and Anatoly Seryshev, also held high-ranking positions in the FSB. Combined with the recent operation against a former head of the Investigative Committee in Moscow, the FSB is clearly expanding its influence. But no need to panic, says Russian political expert Nikolay Petrov: the logic of the system, according to which external control over the siloviki is substituted for fragmentation of the security structures and fierce competition between them, is still very much alive.

July 19th, 2018

On the 10th of July, Vladimir Putin met with Vladimir Vasilyev, the incumbent governor of the Dagestan region, for the fourth time since Vasilyev’s appointment in October 2017. Putin’s support (few governors can boast of meeting so often with the president) does not only showcases how closely the Kremlin is still watching the region – it’s also a rare example of an assertive cadre policy in North Caucasus.

The arrival of Vasilyev in Dagestan took many by surprise, as the former United Russia MP was the first ethnic Russian to lead the region in its post-Soviet history. To several observers, the appointment of Vasilyev looked like a dangerous experiment to place a “Varyag” (outsider) at the helm of a region rife with clan struggles. Since then, Vasilyev has embarked on a widespread anticorruption campaign likely designed to undermine local networks and reassert the Kremlin’s control over the region. High-ranking officials such as the head of the Dagestan government and two of his deputies were arrested in February, and more than 200 officials have already been convicted, Vasilyev told Putin during the meeting.

In this context, Vasilyev’s frequent meetings with Vladimir Putin are a clear signal the governor enjoys continued backing from the president. “He has carte blanche, and is receiving strong support from federal siloviki and other ministries” politicist Yevgeny Minchenko told the Caucasus Knot. A few months into Putin’s new term, it’s also an indication the risk-averse Kremlin is still ready to push for potentially risky changes. Doing this in the North Caucasus is particularly noteworthy, as the massive psychological impact of the two Chechen wars (which also impacted Dagestan) lead to an almost paralyzing fear of instability in the region. Kadyrov’s Chechnya might remain near untouchable, but Putin now seems confident enough to deal with its neighbouring region.

July 12th, 2018

If Putin’s fall in popularity is due to the pension reform, why did the ratings of Defense minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign affairs minister Sergey Lavrov fell almost as sharply? In a recent article, Russian outlet Republic laid out an interesting theory: because of the World Cup and the upcoming Putin/Trump summit, Russian state media sharply scaled down its coverage of foreign policy issues, which was enough to lower Russians’ trust in their government. It’s a slightly too Pavlovian take to be entirely convincing, but there is more to the crash of the Russian government’s ratings than just pension reform. Given the key role of foreign policy in ensuring the Kremlin’s legitimacy since 2014, potential shifts of its coverage on state media is something to watch.

Speaking of pension reform: a battle of numbers is unfolding in the media as regional parliaments have been asked to send their takes on the pension reform bill to the Duma by July 17. Vedomosti wrote on July 8 that only 19 regions sent positive feedbacks, while the think tank Peterburgskaya Politika counted 27 “positive” regions, but also 57 where local authorities preferred to avoid commenting on the bill. This forced the Labour Minister to step in and claim that 61 regions already sent positive assessments of the pension reform.

Lukewarm feedback from electoral regions is likely approved by the Kremlin, with the short-term need for successful elections next September trumping other concerns. But beyond those tactical moves, critics does not necessarily mean dissent: they can represent a great way for the authorities to shift the focus of the debate from the relevance of the pension reform itself to the way it should be implemented. As Russia turns the page on the World Cup, expect more controlled leaks and official declarations about potential ways to soften the blow of the pension reform.

June 28th, 2018

Offense is the best defence, Ramzam Kadyrov seems to believe. Faced with a drastic reduction of federal subsidies so crucial to his rule (from 47 billion rubles in 2017 to 27 billion rubles in 2018), the head of Chechnya is maneuvering to make sure his authority remains uncontested in the region – and his interests heard in Moscow.

Since the end of 2017, members of Kadyrov’s family or extended clan have been nominated to head the Grozny Police Department, the regional Road Police department, the Achkhoi-Martan region in Chechnya as well as the city of Grozny itself. This strategy of appointing loyal family members to key administrative positions is not entirely new – but it has accelerated in the last few months, as reduction of funds from Moscow makes it more difficult to simply purchase the loyalty of local elites. The results speak for themselves: according to a monumental investigation by the BBC’s Russia service, out of 158 high-ranking officials inside the republic, 30% are Kadyrov’s relatives, another 23% come from Kadyrov’s native village and another 12% are friends. Kadyrov’s grip on the Muslim republic has never been stronger.

In Moscow, Kadyrov also managed to get one of his close ally nominated as a presidential advisor. Abubakar Edelgeriev, head of the Chechen government, will lobby for Kadyrov’s interests in Moscow (his official portfolio is climate change). Political scientist Rostislav Turovsky described the appointment as a “concession to the Chechen elites,” which, according to Novaya Gazeta, was pushed for a long time by the Kadyrov clan and decided at the last minute. But, just a few days later, it was Kadyrov who announced a proposal to build a $19 billion high-speed Moscow-Grozny railway. The project “makes almost no sense,” BMB Russia wrote earlier, and is likely a bargaining tool for the leader of Chechnya. It is also an indication that, in Moscow, Kadyrov’s most important lobbyist remains Kadyrov himself.

June 21th, 2018

How long can Vladimir Putin stay silent about reform plans to rise the retirement age in Russia? Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has been doing his best to shield the president from this controversial issue, first saying the reform had been the government’s and not the president’s initiative, then claimed it was “still early” to talk about Putin’s position on the subject. Putin himself has not uttered a word yet.

Why is that? Think of it as Schrodinger’s Putin: as long as the president doesn’t state his opinion on the reform, he is both in favour and against it. The reasoning behind this silence isn’t hard to fathom, either: 82% of Russians are reportedly opposed to rising the retirement age, and this type of tough economic measure suits itself perfectly to the “good tsar, bad boyar” narrative.

But Putin will have to say *something* about the reform. Given the timing (just after the election) and importance of the reform, he can hardly claim to be fully opposed to it: not only would this kill any impetus to see the reform –which he very likely initiated– go through, it would also imply the president is so weak that he cannot even rein in his government on a matter so crucial to the Russian people. But supporting it carry its own risks, namely a major blow to a painstakingly crafted narrative in which Putin is both outside and above the normal political system, and thus immune to standard criticism. How can people appeal to Putin for help if it turns out that Putin is the one to have created the problem in the first place?

In short, backing the rise of the retirement age might make Putin a normal politician. Tough call.

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