BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #3

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 August to late September. Issues discussed in this time frame include:

  • September 27th: In the North Caucasus, a border conflict between Ingushetia and Chechnya threatens local stability.
  • September 20th: The 9th of September elections have defied expectations, leading to nervousness inside the Kremlin.
  • August 30th: It’s not just political competition – across Russia, political activity as a whole is dying out.
  • August 23rd: The State Duma held parliamentary hearings on the pension reform, in an attempt to show broad support for the reform.
  • August 16th: Alexey Kudrin might not have gotten the political position some were hoping, but he’s been active turning the Accounts Chamber into an influential institution.
  • August 9th: While Crimea remains one of Russia’s poorest regions, it is becoming a bit of a secondary issue in Moscow.


September 27th

Several recent events in Russia’s North Caucasus have emphasized how fragile political stability can be across the region. In Dagestan, the arrest of Rajab Abdulatipov (rus), the brother of the region’s former head, showed that a months-long campaign to reassert federal authority in the republic is still very much on-going.

Potentially much more far-reaching is a border conflict between the two republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya, and the agreement signed yesterday in which the two regions traded several districts. The exact terms of the agreement remain unclear. Chechnya, and its leader Ramzan Kadyrov, looks to be the biggest winner however, as Ingushetia might have to surrender nearly 18,000 hectares or 5% of the republic’s territory. This trade is the latest event in a long-standing territorial feud between the two regions, and lead to protests in several cities of Ingushetia. In the capital, Magas, the city was reportedly cordoned off yesterday, with concrete blocks laid across roads, internet shut down (rus) and National Guards troops deployed. Several hundred protesters nevertheless came out and clashed with riot police.

This territorial change cements Kadyrov’s unprecedented authority but carries major risks for local stability. “It’s a watershed moment” North Caucasus expert Neil Hauer wrote in a Twitter thread. “The (very dangerous) precedent has now been set that it’s okay to challenge borders in the North Caucasus. We just saw days of ethnic riots in Kabardino-Balkaria, where some activists long pushed to split republic.”

The September ethnic clashes could have precipitated the departure, announced yesterday by Vladimir Putin, of Yuri Kokov from the position of head of the Kabardino-Balkaria republic. Leadership will stay in the Kokov clan however, with the new leader, Kazbek Kokov, being the son of the republic’s first president, Valery Kokov.

September 20th

These 9th of September elections have defied expectations and been the scene of many « firsts » in recent electoral history. It’s the first time since gubernatorial elections were reinstated in 2012 that so many elections –four– go to a second round (it only happened once before, in 2015); The Primorsky Krai gubernatorial election also represents both the first case of extremely blatant electoral fraud since 2012 as well as the first time since 2002 a gubernatorial election is annulled. Timing was surely poor, with elections held right in the midst of the pension reform controversy. But such “firsts” could also point out to an expiration of the model used by the authorities to handle elections since 2012.

Nervousness is palpable in the Kremlin, as well as the three other regions were second rounds are set to go down this Sunday. In the Khabarovsk region, the LDPR candidate has already accepted a proposition from United Russia to become the next deputy governor… while saying he would still be running in the election. According to sources quoted by various Russian outlets, such “deals” have been attempted in all four regions where a second round was planned. The hope of Kremlin poli-technologists is that such agreements will lower the turnout and favour the incumbent governors.

The paradox is that this is exactly the kind of political technology that lead to the present situation. Since 2012, the Kremlin has preferred vetting elections in advance, picking “appropriate candidates” and preventing unsuitable politicians from running thanks to tools such as the infamous municipal filter. And while it worked as long as no major controversy got in the way, the pension reform has been enough to throw a wrench into this system of “technocratic elections”. The question now is whether the Kremlin will try to make any adjustments (it can hardly do more) or just hope that this was a one-time complication.

August 30th

Political activity in the regions is “dying out,” a report by the election monitoring NGO “Golos” found. The report gives the example of the upcoming election for the parliament of Yekaterinburg, where 491 candidates from seven parties are set to run. In 2013, they were 1365 candidates from 23 parties. The organisation “Liberal mission” calculated the 9 of September elections will have the smallest number of registered candidates and parties since 2012.

That’s not to say that elections used to be fair. Then, just like today, most local elections lacked real competition, with outcomes often decided by local power brokers, administrative barriers designed to prevent genuine opposition from running and “spoiler parties” splitting votes. The situation is even worse when it comes to this year’s gubernatorial elections: agreements with the Kremlin and the infamous “municipal filter” means groups like the Communist Party are not running even in places like Omsk and Novosibirsk, where they historically perform well.

But the Golos report touches on something else: as political activity dies down, many parties are losing the skills necessary to participate in the political process. Registering a candidate, organizing protests, leading campaigns… all these require experienced people. Arguably, this was one of the key motives behind Navalny’s drive to set up regional campaign offices for the presidential election: to foster a group of dedicated activists who could use the presidential campaign to learn valuable political skills.

The catch is that those skills are also necessary to the Kremlin’s balancing act between legitimacy (which implies clean-ish elections) and the need for the “right” results. United Russia can’t run alone, and other parties need to be able to file registration documents properly to give at least the appearance of genuine competition. It’s the fun of hybrid democracy: even to run fake campaigns, you need a minimal amount of people who know how the real democratic process works.

August 23rd

On August 21st, more than 600 MPs, ministers, officials, experts and members of various professional unions and NGOs gathered in the State Duma to hold parliamentary hearings on the pension reform (or the “pension issue” if, like state TV channel Rossiya 24, you want to avoid using the dreaded R-word). The hearings had several goals: to let off some steam by allowing selected members of the political class to criticize the reform; to get a feel of which softening measures would be best received; and to try and convince Russians that the reform is not being forced through, but is in fact still being discussed.

Everyone played their assigned roles: leaders of the “systemic opposition” vehemently criticized the bill while members of the government got out of the trenches to emphasize the reform’s urgency. “Today we need to discuss the details,” Alexey Kudrin said, repeating that the reform itself should have already been enacted a long time ago. Most indicative of the theatrical character of the hearings was Mikhail Shmakov’s speech: the head of the Federation of independent trade unions declared his opposition to the reform but argued that no referendum was needed, because the issue had to be decided by experts. The deputy chairman of the United Russia group in the parliament drove that point home by describing the hearings as a “professional alternative to a referendum.”

It wasn’t, of course, and though the hearings will give some material to State media and politicians to claim the issue is in fact being debated, it’s unclear whether this will work. Both Duma and government are weak institutions in the eyes of Russians, and few believe they can carry the reform by themselves. In the end, despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to insulate the president from the debate, all eyes remain on Vladimir Putin to see which version of the reform will go through.

August 16th

Don’t bury Alexey Kudrin too quickly. His appointment as Chairman of the Audit Chamber was disappointing news to many who, following Vladimir Putin’s re-election, expected the former Finance minister to take a top position in the government. Since then however, Kudrin hasn’t remained idle: in early August, Russian daily Vedomosti reported the Audit Chamber was requesting [RU] broader powers to fight corruption, a request that follows the release of a report that criticized the ineffectiveness [RU] of the state program for the development of small and medium-sized businesses.

The demand for more prerogatives in the anti-corruption field emphasizes Kudrin’s ambitions, which he summed up pretty neatly back in May: “The question is not only whether the money is spent in accordance with the procedures, but also whether these expenditures bring us closer to national goals, whether they lead to essential changes in the lives of the citizens.” Kudrin doesn’t simply want the Audit Chamber to become a powerful institution tasked with policing government spending (its stated goal). Rather, he’s aiming at turning it into the central institution dedicated to the country’s modernization, drawing on his experience with the “Committee for Civic Initiatives” (the NGO he founded after leaving the government) and his status as a heavyweight of Russian politics.

Kudrin is then not only looking at making the Audit Chamber more powerful (though that’s certainly part of the plan) but at politicizing it, a goal that is likely to attract opposition: the Antimonopoly Agency had, for example, previously requested similar extended anti-corruption powers and won’t be happy if the Audit Chamber gets them. But the biggest –and most likely– pitfall would be for Kudrin to remain isolated, as most of his main proposals (reducing the number of bureaucrats; a large-scale judicial reform) would require strong political will and a broad consensus that doesn’t exist today.

August 9th

The regional elections of September 9th were supposed to be boring and predictable, but the pension reform is bringing some life into it. Opposition politician Alexei Navalny announced he would organize protests against the reform throughout Russia on the day of the elections. His main challenge will be to set up tactical alliances with other opposition forces (regional offices of the Communist party and professional unions) to maximize turnout, something that isn’t guaranteed.

Opposition to the reform has also thrown a wrench into the campaigns of United Russia politicians running for office in September. Caught between the hammer of allegiance to the government and the anvil of the reform’s deep unpopularity, they have tried to avoid discussing the issue as much as possible while distancing themselves from the federal authorities (probably a first for many United Russia politicians). When forced to bring up the pension reform, the typical tactic is to play for time by telling voters the law could still be changed before its final adoption in the fall. It’s not enough: United Russia’s ratings have crumbled from an already paltry 47% in July 2017 to 33% today, the lowest score registered by the FOM polling agency since 2007. In the regions, newspapers published “name and shame” style articles, identifying local United Russia MPs who voted in favour of the reform and asking why they supported the decision.

The demonstrations probably won’t sway the Kremlin, but the sharp rise in Russians’ willingness to protest is nothing to scoff at: if anything, it points to a renewed politicization of Russia’s society, including segments of the population (such as pensioners) which haven’t been involved in previous protests. The next key date in the pension reform saga is the 21st of July, when the Duma will hold parliamentary hearings during which measures to soften the reform might be brought up.

August 2d

RBC reported last week that Crimea’s government is asking 125 billion rubles ($2 billion) from the state budget to repair the region’s roads. The request –not approved or even confirmed yet– could be an attempt to keep the region on Moscow’s agenda. But it is also a stark reminder that, four years after its annexation, Crimea is still far from being fully integrated to Russia.

Crimea’s economic development remains hampered by regular electricity and water shortages as well as western sanctions, which prevent foreign companies from operating in the peninsula. Working in Crimea also expose global Russian companies to sanctions, meaning many of them still aren’t present in the region. The Kremlin has, so far, let this happen – within limits: last week, Russia’s Antimonopoly Service sanctioned mobile operator “Tinkoff Mobile” for advertising its services as “available across all Russia” despite not operating in Crimea.

Reports of widespread disillusionment among the population has not translated into actual discontent, and a protest against the pension reform brought out a mere 20 people in Sevastopol last Sunday. Local government is bearing the brunt of the criticism, but the memory of Crimea’s “reunification” is probably still fresh enough to make the idea of protesting against Russian authorities uncomfortable for most locals.

More worrying for local elites is that Crimea is becoming a bit of a secondary issue in Moscow. While as much as 80% of the local budget is coming from the federal budget, Crimea will receive in 2018 slightly less subsidies compare to the year before. The inauguration in May of the bridge linking Crimea to the Russian mainland was Putin’s “mission accomplished” moment, meant as a representation of the peninsula’s complete integration to Russia. But it also signalled the end of a “transition period” during which Crimea deserved special attention: with the peninsula considered “integrated”, it will be harder for local elites to leverage the region’s status as a symbol of Russia’s resurgence.

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