BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #10

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from October to December 2019.

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December 19

The traditional end-of-the-year wave of gubernatorial resignations started, as we reported in the Monday issue. Let’s look at one of the more notable case, the resignation of the Communist governor of the Irkutsk region, Sergei Levchenko. Back in 2015, Levchenko beat the Kremlin-backed candidate to become at that time the first opposition politician (however mild) to win against a United Russia politician since the return of gubernatorial elections. Last year, the Communist party also emerged victorious from the local elections in Irkutsk, taking 19 seats at the regional parliament while United Russia won 17.

Officials have made it clear that Levchenko’s resignation was precipitated by his management of the floods that hit parts of the Irkutsk region this summer, destroying nearly 10,000 houses and killing 25 people. According to unnamed sources quoted by RBC, the Communist leadership tried to negotiate with the Kremlin so that Levchenko would keep his seat until the 2020 gubernatorial election, but was ultimately met with an ultimatum: have Levchenko resign, or he would be fired for “losing the president’s trust” (a standard formulation indicating the official was sacked).

The Communist Party was apparently hopeful it could leverage its loyalty to the Kremlin and keep Levchenko in place, but to no avail. Levchenko’s 2015 victory was by and large a symbolic one, putting a touch of red on a map of regional leaders covered with the blue of United Russia. Four years later, the map looks different: two regional heads are still from the Communist Party, three from the Liberal Democratic Party and one from Just Russia. And while those governors remain largely obedient to Moscow — with conflicts often coming from the regional rather than federal elites — they are also the product of an increased appetite for the “anyone but United Russia” vote.

December 12

Around 4,000 people took to the streets in the small city of Kotlas (60,000 inhabitants), in the Arkhangelsk region, to protest a landfill project that would see trash from Moscow being brought to the northern region, Novaya Gazeta reported on December 10. The actual landfill would be 200 km north of Kotlas, near the isolated village of Shies, but it has focused protests in cities all over the region and became the most opposed of such projects across the entire country. 2019 is ending and “trash protests,” which first gained steam in the Moscow region in the spring of 2018, have emerged as a major and durable conduct to express discontent.

Regional authorities across Russia started implementing a legislation voted in May 2019 allowing for population settlements to be merged into “municipal districts”, the goal being to “optimize the bureaucracy and centralize power” a source close to the presidential administration told Kommersant. “Municipal districts” already existed in Moscow as well as Saint Petersburg but can now be created in smaller areas: the merger will lead to the liquidation of the local councils, leaving only the councils and associated administrations at the district level. So far, only about a dozen such districts have been created, but some regions, such as Udmurtia, are reportedly planning to halve their numbers of municipalities.

While in theory this reform is supposed to increase efficiency and reduce staff, an expert from the Civic Initiatives Committee quoted by Kommersant says this rarely happens in practice — though he agrees the current “two-tier” system of local government (at the village and district level) is ill-suited for sparsely populated settlements. The reform is also facing political opposition: Tatarstan outright refused to implement it, with the region’s president arguing that “the settlement level is the most correct form of the municipality, where people can reach out to the authorities.”

December 5

United Russia held its party congress on November 23.

There were no major announcements, no ideological shifts, no attempts (as had been rumored in previous months) to kickstart a new political project in response to United Russia’s rankings stagnating at record low levels. On the contrary: by Putin’s presence and Medvedev’s scolding of candidates running as independents, the Kremlin made it clear that United Russia was and remained the only path.

Reasons for this are twofold, analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote for the Carnegie Center: first, Putin considers United Russia “the crucial backbone of power.” Second, the Kremlin remains risk-averse, and “any party or supra-party project seeking to become an alternative to United Russia is much more risky for the regime than keeping the status quo.”

United Russia secretary ‎Andrey Turchak declared during the Congress the party would attempt to keep the constitutional majority (more than 300 seats out of 450) it currently holds during the 2021 Duma elections. But “United Russia’s rating is around 30% now […] and it has no conditions for growth,” former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov told Vedomosti. “The regime will then have to resort to mass fraud.” According to unnamed sources quoted by Vedomosti, the Kremlin could also back up several small parties that would act as spoilers ahead of the Duma elections.

While it was made clear during the congress, a signal about the lack of alternatives to United Russia had already been sent a couple of week before to the regional elites, as we reported in the November 7 issue of this brief: more and more governors are likely to take the reins of their local United Russia offices, making it clear that local power and the ruling party cannot be dissociated.

November 21

It’s a classic of the Levada Center polling agency, a poll conducted since the year 2000 assessing how Russians feel about Vladimir Putin. The last version has been published on November 18th and, compare to the previous one published in 2017, shows a significant decrease in the percentage of people feeling “sympathy” towards the Russian president (from 32% to 24%).

In its poll, the Levada Center gives nine options for the respondents to describe their feelings about Putin: “admiration”; “sympathy”; “I don’t have anything bad to say about him”; “neutral, indifferent”; “cautious”; “I don’t have anything good to say about him”; “antipathy”; “disgust”; “hard to say.” The Levada Center grouped these into three categories: positive, distant, and negative, with the “distant” category being the constant leader since 2000 (with a very, very brief exception in 2008 when the “positive” category came first). The “distant” category is now on the rise again since it reached its lowest point in 2014, but it’s still about 10% away from its highest point in 2013 (when 70% of Russians expressed distant feelings about Putin).

In the regions, this week’s main event is likely the announcement that Vladimir Putin had approved plans to build a bridge that would cross the Lena river in the city of Yakutsk, 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow. It’s, unsurprisingly, an expensive project, with the envisioned 3 kilometers-long bridge estimated to cost around 63 billion rubles.

The city’s 320,000 inhabitants still rely on ferries and ice roads to cross the river, and the construction of a bridge has been discussed by the government at least since 2011, the BBC Russian service reports (with initial projects dating back from the 80s). A project was even initially launched in 2013 but later quickly dropped, a failure (described in 2014 as “the disappointment of the year” by a local outlet) attributed by the much more politically important plan to build a bridge to the Crimean peninsula.

November 14

A seminar for deputy governors held last week in a sanatorium of the Moscow region received wide coverage in the Russian press, most notably in Vedomosti, RBC and Kommersant. File it under “controlled leaks,” as the presidential administration attempts to showcase the effectiveness of its KPIs and to lay the ground for the 2020 Duma elections.

The seminar represented one of the first opportunity for the presidential administration to assess the Key Performance Indicators it introduced for governors early this year. Deputy governors were shown on a screen the five “leaders” as well as the five “outsiders” according to these KPIs — Crimea, Chechnya as well as the regions of Bryansk and Lipetsk came on top for the rating related to presidential trust in the region. Dead last came the region of Khabarovsk where, maybe not coincidentally, the Kremlin-backed candidate was defeated during the 2018 gubernatorial elections. But the message remained that the KPIs proved effective during the 2019 elections as all governors reached their targets — to be elected with a score above 55% and a turnout above 30% (a close call for the Saint Petersburg governor, elected amid a 30,07% turnout).

The other major theme was the preparation of the 2020 Duma elections, for which the deputy governors were told to work with United Russia and “get ready for a competitive race.” They were also instructed to be involved in environmental issues but, RBC writes, while “calculating risks and without kickstarting the situation.” Last but not least — the officials drew graffiti of their respective regional symbols during the seminar’s team building exercise.

November 7

Governor of the Stavropol region Vladimir Vladimirovich Vladimirov just became the head of the local “United Russia” branch, Russian daily Kommersant reported on November 11.

It’s a pretty significant event in the context of the Kremlin’s handling of regional politics, considering that until now, not a single Russian governor also led a United Russia regional office. Vladimirov’s nomination isn’t isolated: Novosibirsk governor Andrey Travnikov also announced he would take the reins of the local United Russia branch, with reports from Vedomosti and RBC claiming than more than ten other regional leaders could follow suit.

The move would represent an attempt from the Kremlin to reverse this past years’ trend, when Kremlin-backed candidates to the gubernatorial elections desperately tried to distance themselves from an unpopular party associated with the widely-disliked pension reform. “It’s a signal to the regional elites that there is no alternative to the party of power,” political analyst Alexey Makarkin told RBC. A Levada Center poll published on October 31 found that the gubernatorial institution is enjoying its highest popular support since 2014, with 65% of Russians approving of their regional leader. By contrast, United Russia’s popularity as calculated by the state polling agency VTsIOM recently reached its lowest number in 14 years — 32,2%.

But there’s another reversal, this time of the policy introduced after 2012 that prevented governors from also holding the position of regional United Russia head. The decision was at the time part of a package of concessions that followed the 2011-2012 mass protests against electoral fraud, and which also included the return of the direct election of regional governors.

October 31

BMB Russia wrote early this year about the way the National Guard (or Rosgvardiya), founded in 2016, had quickly moved to take control of the lucrative private security business. Well, the process is still very much ongoing: according to a presidential decree signed by Vladimir Putin on October 21st, the state company “Okhrana” (controlled by Rosgvardiya) will manage the security agencies of the Agriculture and Energy ministries.

Incorporating the 900 employees of the Agriculture ministry’s security company isn’t the biggest deal. But taking over the protection of major oil and gas infrastructures is a much bigger story, and an event likely to secure even more influence for the state institution led by former Putin bodyguard Viktor Zolotov.

Since this year, Rosgvardya is also in charge of the protection of the Kerch bridge, a massively important infrastructure for both strategic and symbolic reasons — and another sign of the trust the state agency is enjoying at the moment. As part of the taking over of the Energy ministry’s security company, it will also protect a gas pipeline going from the Krasnodar region to Crimea and launched in late 2016. While Zolotov hasn’t put himself much in the spotlight since his bizarre altercation with Alexey Navalny last year, he then remains very active.

October 24

Russia’s electoral system is still driving the discussion this week with a report from the Institute of Socio-economic and Political Research looking at potential changes ahead of the 2021 Duma elections, in particular the switch to a 75/25 system reportedly considered by the Kremlin: 75% of seats would be attributed by single-mandate districts and 25% by party lists (instead of 50/50 currently). This would require raising the number of single-mandate electoral districts from 225 to 337, and 185 of these districts could be in what the report’s authors describe as “protest regions” or “regions of high competition.” This, the theory goes, could in turn make things harder for the Kremlin-backed candidates.

Moscow is looking to expand to 13 new regions a pilot project creating a new tax regime for self-employed people, Finance minister Anton Siluanov said on October 22d. Since January 1st, self-employed individuals in four regions (Moscow and Moscow region, Kaluga and the Tatarstan Republic) see their professional income taxed at 4% (for services to individuals) or 6% (for services to legal entities), an attempt from the authorities to lift part of the Russian economy out of the shadows. 240,000 people have already registered as self-employed in the four regions, according to Siluanov, and the government is looking to expand the legislation to the entire country by the second half of 2020. One obvious weakness of such a tax regime is that companies will be tempted to register some of their employees as self-employed in order to reduce their taxes, something the Federal Tax Service said it would combat using “big data technology.”

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