BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #5

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from mid-November 2018 to mid-January 2019. Issues discussed in this period include:

  • January 17th: 69 Russians regions are going ahead with a controversial “trash reform,” a year and a half after the first “garbage protests” shook the Moscow region.
  • January 10th: 2019 will see no shortage of political issues across Russia.
  • December 13th: United Russia’s inability reform itself is linked to its very identity.
  • December 6th: a competition to rename airports is a cheap way for the Kremlin to involve citizens in an event devoid of political risks.
  • November 29th: governors are shying away from discussing the distribution of social benefits because citizens are growing more and more skeptical of the state’s ability to guarantee such benefits.
  • November 15th: a study shows how more Communists in regional legislatures can help the Kremlin curb the number of protests.

January 17th

69 Russian regions started a “trash reform”, Interfax wrote on Monday, by “partially or fully” switching to a new municipal waste management system. The same day, Vladimir Putin signed a decree announcing the creation of “Russian Ecological Operator,” a country-wide trash management monopoly.

A year and a half after the first “trash protests” in the Moscow region, the issue has reached the top of the political agenda. Such a delay might have been voluntary (it’s often said that Putin doesn’t like to take decisions under pressure, especially when it comes to reacting to protests), though the issue was already in the government’s sights a year ago: the “May Decrees” featured a lengthy “ecology” section that called for the elimination of all illegal landfills as well as the creation of a more streamlined waste management system, calls that evolved into the “trash reform” mentioned by Interfax.

BMB already talked in Tuesday’s edition about the problems caused by a national trash collection system (in short: such a monopoly is a golden rent opportunity). But such a flashy decision will be easier to leverage for political points than the previous “trash reform,” while giving the Kremlin a single interlocutor to deal with any crisis. This can be an attractive prospect, as the government discovered in 2018 the potential political consequences of bad waste management: a project to send waste from the Moscow region to the Arkhangelsk and Yaroslavl regions led to protests there and, according to Kremlin sources quoted by RBC, tanked the ratings of the regions’ governors.

January 10th

There’ll be no shortage of potential political issues in 2019: rising demands for social equality as economic stagnation sets in, lower trust in state institutions, increasingly strained relations between the centre and the regions and further attempts to control the Russian internet will likely remain key themes in the first full year of Vladimir Putin’s fourth term.

A new gubernatorial shake up is expected around spring, and should continue the replacement of the gubernatorial corps: according to this article from Kommersant, in almost half of the Russian regions with direct local elections (36 out of 75) the local governor held its post for a year or less. Moreover, only nine governors of the 18 appointed in 2012 and eight of the 30 appointed in 2014 are still working. The state is reasserting its control over the regions but, as governors become obvious Kremlin appointees rather than elected officials, they risking losing their function of lightning rod, able to redirect popular anger away from Moscow.

September will also see the elections of 16 governors and 13 regional parliaments, some of which may be problematic for the authorities.

The fall of United Russia’s ratings left something of a vacuum in the political scene, though the nature of Russian politics means it’s most likely to be filled artificially (for example, through the creation of another party that could act as opposition). In theory, the various social grievances, widespread pessimism and distrust in the authorities could be a golden opportunity for the opposition, whether systemic or not. But the limited protests that followed the decision to raise the pension age hints that the opposition still has trouble capitalizing on these issues, something likely to remain true in 2019.

December 13th

“Responsibility” turned out to be a key theme of the United Russia congress, with the word mentioned 16 times in Medvedev’s and Putin’s opening speeches. It is somehow fitting as, in 2018, the party had to take responsibility for the pension reform, leading to a sharp fall in ratings and a few electoral failures in September. For several regional governors, association with United Russia is now seen as more of a liability than an advantage, with Vedomosti reporting that at least 3 of the 9 governors up for re-election in 2019 are looking to run as independent, without United Russia’s support.

There was widespread recognition of this new reality at the congress, but also little understanding of what exactly this entails.

Dmitry Medvedev told party members United Russia “must be ready to make difficult decisions” while Putin reminded them that the party has to “listen to the people.” The specific decisions had little to do with either, however: United Russia announced the creation of a “party school” aimed at “raising the qualifications of regional executive committees.” It will also introduce a new system of evaluation of party members, which both hints at United Russia’s hope that technocratic methods can improve the party. United Russia will also publish an “ethical chart” with the goal of gaining back Russians’ trust.

If these all look like half-measures that will probably do little to change United Russia’s standings (which reached their lowest level since 2005), it’s because United Russia’s core weakness is one unrelated to the pension reform controversy or the September elections, and one that the party cannot address upfront: its lack of any firm ideology, and a support that relies entirely on its status as “Putin’s party.” And while this status is still secured (despite Putin running as an independent candidate in 2018), it has lost a lot of its effectiveness in regional elections.

December 6th

Results of an online poll to rename 42 airports across Russia have been published, the end of a 2 months-long “competition” (dubbed “Great Names of Russia”) that managed to garner significant public attention in Russia but also raised several controversies.

Held on the heels of unsuccessful regional elections and in the context of a fluttering “Crimea consensus,” this poll is a cheap way for the Kremlin to involve citizens in an event devoid of political risks. It looks to have worked, with polls showing a majority of Russians were aware of the competition and supported it. Even the controversies, such as the the bizarre battle surrounding the heritage of Emmanuel Kant in the Kaliningrad region, helped give the impression of a real political debate and mask the largely meaningless nature of the “election.”

Russia is familiar with this kind of event: last year, pro-Kremlin outlet Izvestya reported that the presidential administration was considering holding referendums about possible changes to a city’s name at the same time as the presidential election, in an attempt to raise turnout. The idea was never considered seriously but the electoral goal was pretty clear. And exactly ten years ago, Russia held the “Name of Russia” competition, a televised Russia-wide poll to name the “greatest Russian” – Alexander Nevsky won after much controversy and hints that the poll was rigged to prevent Stalin from winning. Here, the objective was to bolster national identity and patriotic feelings.

The “Great Names of Russia” show has a stronger regional character however, as shown by several results (for example, the choice of Tatar poet Ğabdulla Tuqay in Tatarstan or of local Red army general Dmitry Karbyshev in Omsk), and comes in a more difficult political context. But such one off events look unlikely to give Russians a bigger sense of agency.

November 29th

The Russian think-tank « Petersburg Politics » published a report looking at the speeches governors are required to make every year in front of their respective regional parliaments, with a time frame going from October 2017 to November 2018. The authors’ main conclusion is that governors are shying away from discussing the distribution of social benefits, traditionally the main focus of such speeches, because citizens are growing more and more skeptical of the state’s ability to guarantee such benefits. Many governors are now trying to focus more strongly on economic achievements – but remain vague on the ways to achieve this, with nearly no mention given to the implementation of the May decrees.

Of the 16 speeches that were made after the announcement that pension age would be raised, only two mentioned the pension reform: unsurprisingly, regional leaders attempted to distance themselves from unpopular measures as much as possible and to leave the burden of the reform on federal authorities.

That’s not to say that they are not keen on showing loyalty to the Kremlin: beyond simply mentioning Vladimir Putin (as did 35 governors) or Dmitry Medvedev (as did 10), seven regional leaders made references to the “digital economy”, a buzzword embraced by Vladimir Putin in recent years which has started dripping down to all levels of federal and regional governments. With debts and budget constraints shaping up to be the most important issue regions faces, it’s no surprise that many governors now prefer to stick to the less controversial issues.

November 15th

Can more Communists in regional legislatures help the Kremlin reduce the number of protests? It might, and the victory of 30 years old Communist candidate Valentin Konovalov in the second round of the Khakassia gubernatorial election is a good opportunity to look at what “systemic opposition” really means on the ground. In a 2015 research article, authors Ora John Reuter and Graeme B. Robertson made an interesting discovery: having a Communist in the leadership positions of regional legislatures is correlated with “substantially lower levels of protests” – up to 34% lower.

The researchers analysed the number of protests across Russian regions as well as the results of various regional elections between 2007 and 2012, and found that the Communist Party played a key role in reducing the number of protests. This, however, doesn’t come free: the strongest reduction in the number of protests is achieved when a Communist candidate is given a position in a so-called “Rents Committee,” positions that will help the official enrich himself or advance the interests of its business (for example: land, taxes or budget committees). In other words, the ability to mobilize people on the streets is a bargaining tool used by opposition political elites to rip very tangible benefits. “The specific institutional structure of legislatures facilitates the rationing of spoils to influential opposition elites, who, in return for access to these spoils, refrain from mobilizing their followers on the streets,” the authors write.

The debate on the pension reform and United Russia’s popularity crash gave the Communists a lot more leverage in this regard, showcasing to the Kremlin how important the co-optation of the opposition remain. But such arrangements also explain why, in the current circumstances, Communist opposition can never go so far as to threaten the authorities: both groups need each other.

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