BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #8

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

  • June 27th: Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Ingushetia’s leader for more than a decade, resigns.
  • June 20th: the campaign for the local elections in Saint-Petersburg is looking dirty.
  • May 30th: Kremlin-backed politicians or officials are attempting to distance themselves from the United Russia party.
  • May 23rd: The protest against the construction of a new church in Ekaterinburg quieted down after Putin’s “suggestion” to do a local survey about the project.
  • May 16th: The presidential administration performed a series of surveys in March to assess in which regions popular demand for a new governor was the highest.
  • May 9th: Kirill Cherkalin, a colonel working for the FSB directorate officially tasked with counter intelligence in the financial sector, was arrested on suspicion of taking a 10 million rubles bribe.

June 27th

This week’s biggest political and regional event is the resignation of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who had been leading the republic of Ingushetia for more than a decade. His support of an agreement signed last year to enact border changes with Chechnya – which essentially amounted to handing out territory to Ramzan Kadyrov’s region – lead to protests of a rarely-seen intensity in the region and markedly increased his unpopularity.

When Yevkurov took control of the region in 2008, the main problem was violence and terrorism: the murder of a local journalist critical of then-leader Murat Zyazikov lead to large protests in 2008, while the republic was still regularly shaken by terrorist attacks. Yevkurov was himself the target of an assassination attempt in 2009 but eventually manage to stabilize the situation in the region.

There’s some debate about whether Yevkurov’s departure was planned: it certainly was a surprise, and sources in the Kremlin as well as in Ingushetia’s leadership told Meduza rumours about his resignation only spread a few days before the announcement. But, especially in case of popular demonstrations, it’s common for the Kremlin to wait before rotating regional leaders in order not to look like it’s caving to pressure, and Yevkurov’s announcement happened amid a period of relative calm in the region.

There is little doubt that the protests broke the elite status quo in the region and made Yevkurov a liability for the Kremlin, even though, Vedomosti writes, “there is the opinion in Moscow that the border change was a pretext but not the reason of the protests.” Vladimir Putin appointed Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov as acting governor. Kalimatov headed the Samara regional branch of the Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Resources since 2015, but previous served as the prosecutor of Ingushetia from 2004 to 2007.

June 20th

The campaign for the September election of the municipal deputies in Saint-Petersburg is making waves after a representative of the local electoral commission declared that the number of complaints linked to the campaign reminded him of “the mistakes of the 2014 campaign” – which had been notoriously dirty. According to local outlet Fontanka, local authorities secretly declared the start of the campaign without bothering to publish the announcement – members of the “Fair Russia” party found one of the declaration in the district library.

Local elections are an often forgotten battleground, and Meduza’s story about candidates to the Moscow city Duma rushing to distance themselves from United Russia is a great read. Most of the candidates still have tight connections to the ruling party and, most likely, would like to keep them… but without local citizens knowing about it. Expect this predicament to become more and more common.

800 km east of Moscow, the election for the parliament of Tatarstan is marked by the appearance of the garbage issue in the campaign: Kommersant reports that the liberal party Yabloko nominated as a candidate an activist leading the protest against the construction of a trash incinerator in the region. Vera Kerpel will campaign for the single-mandate district where construction of the incinerator is scheduled to start in July. It will be interesting to see if this an isolated event or the beginning of a shift: until now, most environmental protests have relied on the fiction of the “apolitical local protest” which has given protesters some space to denounce local problems without being immediately shut down by the authorities. Here however, Yabloko (a party which has definitely seen better days) is choosing to recognize the issue as a political one.

May 30th

That United Russia is facing some difficult times isn’t news: the party’s rating nosedived from 49% to 35% after the adoption of the pension reform last year, a fall it is yet to recover from. One consequence has been the increasing number of Kremlin-backed politicians or officials attempting to distance themselves from the party: of the 16 Kremlin candidates for the September gubernatorial elections, at least six might run as independent candidates, RBC reported last week. With gubernatorial and local elections only three months away, United Russia is currently going through its primaries and here too, the temptation to go solo is strong: Irkutsk mayor Dmitry Berdnikov walked out of the primaries and announced he would run for the city council as an independent candidate.

In the Khabarovsk region, where United Russia is particularly unpopular (the governor elected last year is from the nationalist LDPR party), something interesting is happening: a new movement called “Time for change” appeared out of the local United Russia office and has become the front through which the primaries were organized. The movement’s manifesto, published in late April, called on United Russia to “recognize its mistakes and correct them, not through speech but with real actions.” A month later, “Time for Change” looked to be in charge of most of the primaries’ organization with the benediction of local governor Sergey Furgal as well as United Russia secretary Andrey Turchak.

Sources in the Khabarovsk region described the new movement as the result of a “split” inside the local United Russia office, an explanation that doesn’t really square with how smoothly this new organisation entered the picture and the support from high-ranking United Russia members it received. This could also be an experiment designed to showcase one way to react to United Russia’s deepening unpopularity.

May 23th

The protest against the construction of a new church in Ekaterinburg quieted down after Putin’s “suggestion” to do a local survey about the project. Beyond its religious flair, the protest is actually quite typical: public opposition to specific, local projects, such as the construction of a building, are among the most common type of protests in Russia, though they rarely echo beyond their locality.

But how does this fit into the general trend of protest mood? As The Bell reported, the two main organizations monitoring protest activity in Russia (Kudrin’s Committee of Civic Initiative and the Center for Economic and Political Reform) reported a sharp rise in the number of protests in 2018 (as well as in 2017, as I wrote at the time), though the Sverdlovsk region, of which Ekaterinburg is the capital, isn’t usually mentioned as a hotbed of unrest. Unfortunately, the main organization tracking labour protests in Russia (the Center for social and labor rights) seems to have stopped its monitoring last year.

Both the Levada Center and the FOM polling agency also recently released data about “protest mood.” In February, 34% of respondents to the Levada Center survey said a protest in their city was “possible,” down from last November (37%) and last July (41%), but still way higher compare to just a year ago (17%). FOM takes a slightly more indirect route to assess protest mood, asking respondents if they have recently heard people around them criticizing Russian authorities. 65% said yes in April, a figure that has remained above the 60% mark since June 2018 (up from 51% in April 2018). The jump in discontent was very directly linked to the law on the rise of the pension age, a topic that did not bring protests as big as anticipated and largely disappeared from the public discourse. And yet, the associated discontent has remained.

May 16th

According to Russian outlet RBC, the presidential administration performed a series of surveys in March to assess in which regions popular demand for a new governor was the highest. Anonymous sources quoted by RBC claim the least popular governors were found in Sevastopol (the city in Crimea is considered a separate region), in the Ingushetia and Komi republics as well as in the Arkhangelsk region.

The article is interesting, first because it’s long, detailed and based largely on anonymous sources, very much giving it the appearance of a controlled leak and a signal to the aforementioned regions. Not coincidentally, it recently emerged that the level of trust governors enjoy in their regions has been included in a new series of KPIs to assess gubernatorial performance.

The reasons for the governors of these four regions to have such a low rating are varied, though RBC’s anonymous sources only give explanations for the ratings in Arkhangelsk and Sevastopol: protests over the transfer of garbage from Moscow to the region for the former, and intra-elite conflicts for the latter. In Ingushetia, the border conflict with Chechnya cost Yunus-bek Yevkurov a lot of credibility. And in the far-away Komi republic, the popularity of Sergey Gaplikov has been eroded by a series of scandals. RBC’s report is more of a warning however, as none of the four regions will see gubernatorial elections in September. For the regions that do, a report released by the “Free Russia” foundation gives a pretty straightforward assessment: the lower the real income of a region’s population, the harder it will be for Kremlin-backed candidates to win.

May 9th

In late April, a small group of antiterrorist Spetsnaz operatives followed officers from the FSB’s Internal Security Directorate (USB) through the corridors of the Lubyanka, the FSB’s ominous headquarters located in the centre of Moscow. There, Kommersant reported on April 26th, they arrested Kirill Cherkalin, a colonel working for the FSB directorate officially tasked with counter intelligence in the financial sector on suspicion of taking a 10 million rubles bribe. Outlet Znak.com claimed four days later that 27 officers close to Cherkalin were fired following his arrest. Only the arrest of Cherkalin has been confirmed so far (Znak quotes only one anonymous source to back up its claim), but the arrest of a key figure inside the FSB’s Economic Security Service (SEB) is definitely enough to warrant attention.

The directorate “K,” where Cherkalin worked, is a little-known but powerful FSB service that oversees the entire Russian financial sector, making it both a major centre of power and a massive source of rent for the officials controlling it. By Kommersant’s account, Cherkalin was a rising figure in the FSB and a trusted ally of Ivan Tkachev, the current head of the directorate “K.”

Under Tkachev, who was the head of the FSB’s Internal Security Directorate until his appointment to the SEB in 2016, the Directorate “K” has been involved in an impressive list of major and politically-tainted cases, most recently the 2017 arrest of former Economy minister Alexey Ulyukaev and, two months ago, the arrest of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister and ally of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Two weeks before Cherkalin’s arrest, analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote that “the prosecution of economic crimes is becoming chaotic.” Now, members the same group which oversaw some of the country’s most controversial anticorruption cases have fallen victim to corruption accusations.

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