BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #4

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 October to late November. Issues discussed in this period include:

  • November 8th: In the Russian authorities’ quest for “digital sovereignty,” political plans have long run ahead of technical capabilities.
  • November 1st: Ideological entrepreneurs – people or groups outside the formal circles of power trying to “sell” political projects to the Kremlin – remain a staple of Russian politics.
  • October 25th: The Kremlin is doing everything it can to ensure the victory of its candidate in the Primorsky region after suffering several defeats in the September elections.
  • October 18th: The land-swap agreement signed between the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya is still rocking the region.
  • October 11th: Russian social networks discuss a possible imminent constitutional reform in Russia
  • October 4th: The debate around the pension reform is forcing to Kremlin to change its relationship with the “systemic opposition.”


November 8th

20 minutes: that’s how long messenger services will get to check whether a telephone number used to access the app is linked to an actual registered user, according to a new government act signed by Dmitry Medvedev. If the check fails, access to the application will be blocked. The new regulation, set to take effect in May 2019, is another indication of the authorities’ will to de-anonymize the digital space, even when it might not be technically feasible.

Experts interviewed by Novaya Gazeta doubt the measures will be successfully implemented. But this has never stopped the Russian government: voted in 2016, the “Yarovaya law,” a package of legislation requiring telecom providers and online services to store data such as voice calls, text messages and encrypted conversations for 6 months, might not start working before 2019. Similarly, the ban of the Telegram app failed to root the messenger out of the Runet, though it did manage to curb the number of users. VPNs, officially banned in Russia since November 2017, also remain widely available. Even this latest regulation is actually an attempt to implement an earlier legislation (adopted in July 2017) prohibiting the anonymous use of online messengers. The same law included the restrictions on VPN use.

In the Russian authorities’ quest for “digital sovereignty,” political plans have long run ahead of technical capabilities. In some cases, such as the botched ban of the Telegram app, there are hints that some officials oversold their ability to implement the ban and faced backlash. But it’s also likely that the Kremlin isn’t too worried about those failures, either because it expects technical capabilities to catch up, or because the existence of the legislation allows it to act against perceived opponents. The Kremlin’s focus on de-anonymization is clear and the policies remain coherent, despite troubles in carrying them out.

November 1st

Ideological entrepreneurs – people or groups outside the formal circles of power trying to “sell” political projects to the Kremlin – remain a staple of Russian politics (and even foreign policy).

Take, for example, last week’s announcement about the creation of a new, patriotic, left-wing party called “Sila Rossii” (“Strength of Russia”). The creation of the party was revealed by regional outlet URA, which claimed that the project enjoyed support from the Kremlin and would be led by former Crimea prosecutor and resident United Russia headache Natalia Poklonskaya. Things quickly unravelled however: while the announcement got wide coverage in Russia’s ultraconservative media (Tsargrad was ecstatic), most media ignored it. And, a couple of hours after the announcement, Poklonskaya refuted any plans to participate in a new party. “Sila Rossii” looks to have died as quickly as it was born.

This happened just as a Moscow university published a study saying Russians expected a “left turn” in social policy, with 41% of them waiting for a “new political force with a platform focused on social policies”, RBC reported. And in the same time frame, the Michenko Consulting group (which coined the “Politburo 2.0” expression) released a report which called for a reform of the Russian party system necessary to face and “anti-elite wave.”

The architects behind the “Sila Rossii” party (whose identities and connections to the Kremlin remain unknown) may have jumped the gun a bit too early, or they may not have even planned for the party to actually gain traction. But as ideological entrepreneurs try, with the Kremlin’s benediction, to fill the void left by United Russia’s fall in standing, such attempts are likely to become more numerous.

October 25th

Six weeks have passed since the gubernatorial elections and United Russia’s unexpected defeats in the regions of Primorsky, Khabarovsk, Khakassia and Vladimir (see BMB’s map of the results). Results were cancelled in Primorsky and Khakassia, and the two regions will see re-runs in the next few weeks. But while Communists look set to take the gubernatorial seat in Khakassia, the Kremlin has been hard at work in Primorsky to ensure a “suitable” result.

On September 9, the Far-East region had been the scene of an extraordinary (even for Russia) case of last minute ballot stuffing designed to prevent the defeat of the United Russia candidate. A new election is now planned on December 16, and the authorities are ramping up the pressure to bar Andrei Ishchenko, the Communist candidate who came out ahead in the first election, from running: local deputies have complained of being pressured to support the acting governor, and the Communist party is reportedly unsure whether it will be able to field a candidate. According to Vedomosti, the Presidential Administration even offered Ishenko a position of senator or deputy governor if he decided not to run.

Left spluttering in the days that followed the September 9 elections, the Kremlin is now acting brazenly to ensure the victory of its candidate, acting governor Oleg Kozhemyako. This attitude might point to the importance of the Primorsky Krai, which borders several strategic neighbours (China, North Korea and Japan). I feel it has a more emotional side, however: the September 9 election was, in Primorsky, a humiliating failure for the Kremlin’s internal politics department. With fraud so blatant that the authorities had no choice but to cancel the results, the whole machine of “technocratic elections” broke down that day. Delivering a predictable election is now almost a matter of pride for the presidential administration, as much as a way to show that the situation is still under control.

October 18th

The land-swap agreement signed between the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya is still rocking the region, with unprecedented protests now going on for two consecutive weeks. The Kremlin is finding itself in a difficult position as no side seem ready to back down.

The government of Ingushetia sanctioned protests in the capital of Magas from October 31 to November 2. As the previous permit ended yesterday, October 17, this means protests will be illegal for the next two weeks, raising the risk of clashes with law enforcement. The same day, regional head Yunus-bek Yevkurov claimed the land-swap agreement (the terms of which are still unclear) had already come into force, another signal that local authorities aren’t interested in compromise. Protests have so far been largely peaceful, but journalists on location see no desire from the protesters to leave. Things could escalate.

Yevkurov, whose room for manoeuvre is likely limited, previously told the radio-station Ekho Moskvy that Putin had advised him to refrain from forceful actions and to begin negotiating with the protesters. But he also claimed that most of them were “provocateurs,” a line also adopted by Ramzan Kadyrov. Significantly, Yevrukov later told the TASS agency the land-swap agreement had been signed in order to “prevent a conflict” with Chechnya.

Moscow’s as well as Chechnya’s reaction has been quite muted so far, and it’s likely the Kremlin is hoping the two-week “break period” will lead to protest dying down, which would allow some kind of settlement to be found. The problem is that there hasn’t been any hint so far that Kadyrov is ready to make concessions, while protesters in Magas (they were more than a thousand on Monday) enjoy widespread support in the Republic – not just from the population, but also from local security services, who last week prevented federal police from getting near the protest.

October 11th

First on social networks, then across Russian media, words of a possible constitutional reform spread like wildfire. Outlet RTVI reported that election officials across Russia are being called to attend a meeting in Moscow on October 30. After celebrating the 25 years of the first post-soviet Constitution, Putin may announce change to electoral rules, RTVI writes. The claim had already been made on Telegram political channels, with “Nezygar” writing that the changes could be used to trigger snap presidential elections as early as next year.

Real possibility? “Infoshum” (“Informational noise”: Russia’s political world loves this kind of rumour)? Or deliberate leak to test the water? Obviously, it’s too early to say, though the good thing with this kind of specific claim is that we will know pretty soon. But whether it’s true or not, the discussion points to real nervousness when it comes to Russia’s political future. Part of the elite is still grasping for signals, trying to make sense of it all, and they probably were not reassured by a long article published in government paper “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” saying there was no ground for “radical” changes to the Constitution but “adjustments” may be needed. Foggy.

Constitutional reform is such a big topic because it’s the only way Vladimir Putin could remain president after 2024 – the current Constitution doesn’t allow a president to hold the office more than two consecutive terms. The uncertainty felt by the Russian political class is then a logical consequence of a political system that revolves around a single figure whose future isn’t clear anymore. Looking at it from the Kremlin’s point of view however, uncertainty is also a threat that will only grow if left unchecked. While snap elections in 2019 might be pushing it a bit, it would therefore not be surprising to see the Kremlin openly advocating for a specific transition path way before 2024.

October 4th

An article on the website analysed how the adoption of the pension reform changed the relationship between the Kremlin and the “systemic opposition”. Here’s the gist: crisis was largely adverted in the short term, but the Kremlin now needs to adapt to a “new reality”.

Tensions between the authorities and the parliamentary parties rose significantly because of the pension reform, but this did not affect the vote itself. The Communist Party voted against the reform, but approved the amendments submitted on Putin’s request. LDPR, meanwhile, simply did not participate in the vote. Even on an issue opposed by 80% of the population, those groups did not dare to go fully against the Kremlin. The opposition also failed to mobilize protesters, the author argues, and the Levada Center has now recorded a significant drop in Russians’ readiness to protest (from 53% in August to 35% in September).

The results of the latest regional elections did show that discontent can be express in the polling booths rather than just on the street. United Russia took a bad electoral and, more importantly, reputational hit. The authorities could address these issues in two main ways, according to the article. The first, a large gubernatorial reshuffle, is already underway; the second, the restructuring of a deeply discredited United Russia, is being discussed. But the Kremlin’s “corporate approach to politics” may exacerbate rather than solve the problems, as the authorities still look bent on finding regional “managers” with little real legitimacy. But “the main problem”, the article concludes, “is that the entire mechanism for managing domestic politics is built on the fundamental condition that Putin enjoys a high level of political support. When this factor weakens, the whole system starts moving again”.

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