BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #11

Fabrice Deprez is a weekly columnist on Russian politics for BMB Russia. Following are the columns published in BMB Russia’s daily newsletter from January to March 2020.

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March 12

In January 2020, Vladimir Putin told the Federal Assembly (both the Duma and Federation Council) that constitutional changes should “increase the role and significance of the country’s parliament, the role and significance of the State Duma and of parliamentary parties.” On March 10, the Russian president argued in front of the Duma that a “parliamentary form of government” was an “alternative” that “we cannot use at our current stage of development.” It isn’t the only contradictory statement that the president has made in light of yesterday’s vote (which set the stage for Putin staying in power after 2024), but it is one of the more striking.

The Russian president did however remain consistent in the last few weeks in its emphasis on the need for stability (a concept he referred to four times in his March 10 speech) and a strong vertical of power. “Stability,” he said just before the vote, “may be even more important, and should be a priority.”

The vote was, of course, a foregone conclusion. The only hitch in yesterday’s carefully choreographed performance came, according to anonymous sources quoted by RBC, when the Communist Party refused to support a plan to declare early parliamentary elections in September 2020, one year earlier than planned. The presidential administration had reportedly already decided on early elections, arguing that it would be a way to “complete the process of renewal” started by the president and would come at the time when United Russia’s ratings stabilized (admittedly at a low level). But, according to RBC, Vladimir Putin wanted the move to be supported by all parties, and the Communist Party didn’t agree — or at least, not fast enough.

March 3

89.4% of state contracts in Chechnya were awarded to local companies in 2019, according to a new report on regional protectionism by Russia’s Accounts Chamber. Making the top 5 are the Tatarstan Republic (85.4%), Dagestan Republic (77.6%), Omsk oblast (76.8%) and Voronezh oblast (76.5%). Less than 50% of state contracts are awarded to local companies in only 9 regions, including the Moscow and Leningrad regions.

Chechnya isn’t just the clear leader: it is also one of only three regions that saw its share of state contracts awarded to local companies grow (by almost 15%) since 2014. Another outlier is Crimea, which reportedly awarded 40% of state contracts to local companies in 2014 and 62% today, but the context of the region’s annexation by Russia in 2014 makes those figures potentially unreliable.

Regional authorities obviously have a strong incentive to favor companies who will pay taxes directly into the local budget, while regions with developed economies and supply chains will also naturally tend to work with local companies. Administrative boundaries may also confuse the picture: there’s a good chance the share of state contracts awarded to local companies in the Moscow and Leningrad regions would be much higher if the city of Moscow as well as Saint Petersburg were counted as part of the region, and not as separate administrative entities. But when it comes to a region like Chechnya, such a figure does point to an economy not only reliant on state subsidies but also increasingly closed to outsiders.

February 27

The legislative assembly of the Kamchatka region is discussing a bill that would ban all protests near buildings of state institutions, shopping centers, markets, playgrounds, parks, as well as “educational, medical, military, social, religious, and sport facilities,” from 9am to 7pm. A drastic, blanket ban that echoes similar — though usually less wide-ranging — legislations passed in scores of Russian regions. According to local media, the bill is being considered despite criticism from the Prosecutor’s and Justice ministry’s regional offices.

The far-eastern region of Kamchatka already banned protests less than a 100 meters away from a host of public buildings (from state institutions to, again, parks, markets and similar facilities), a distance it extended to 250 meters in March 2019.

Such geographical restrictions on protests are far from uncommon across Russia: an analysis of regional protest legislations conducted in 2018 by the “OVD-Info” NGO found that 50 regions banned protests near state buildings. The restrictions stem from an amendment to the federal legislation made after the 2012 protests tasking regional authorities to draw up lists of areas where public events would be forbidden.

There are small hints that the pendulum might have started swinging the other way however: in November 2019, the Constitutional Court declared illegal a law voted in the Komi republic that prevented any protests from being held less than 50 meters away from state buildings. Local authorities in the Volgograd and Pskov regions also cancelled similar legislations in the last two months (in Volgograd, the ban on protests near state buildings had been in place since 2005).

February 20

The Russian government took the unprecedented step of banning Chinese citizens from entering the country, starting today, in response to the coronavirus epidemic. China’s official response was tame, though one Chinese diplomat told Russian daily Kommersant they were surprised Moscow took this decision just as the number of new cases started falling. Only two cases have been detected in the country so far, but Moscow isn’t taking any risks.

The temporary ban will be most visible in the tourism industry — Chinese tourists spent $264m in the first three months of 2019, according to the Central Bank. Even if the ban is lifted quickly, the restrictions set up in China to contain the epidemic will hit tourism in Russia as well.

Where the impact will be the strongest is in the far-eastern regions bordering China, where cross-border exchanges are permanent and where millions of Chinese citizens study and work. Russia closed the 4,000 kilometers long land border with China on January 31, but a brutal spike in the price of vegetables — almost all of which are imported from China — forced authorities to partially reopen the border for a few hours a day. In Vladivostok, shops and museums closed as Chinese tourists disappeared and, despite the partial opening of the border, food prices remain much higher than before the outbreak. Crucially however, there is no panic and, so far, no signs of political tension caused by the crisis.

February 13

A day ahead of the deadline on the submission of amendments to the Constitutional bill, let’s look at some of the proposals thrown into the public arena since the Duma voted on the bill in its first reading:

  • Removing the Constitutional provision stipulating that the Duma is automatically dissolved if it refuses to approve the appointment of the Prime minister three times in a row.
  • Allowing former presidents to become members of the Federation Council (senators) for life, and raising the number of senators nominated by the president from 17 to 30.
  • Creating a “mechanism” that would “prevent parliament from delaying the appointment of the Prime minister and its government.”
  • Inscribing in the Constitution the indexation of pensions and social benefits to inflation and a ban on any law that would “reduce the social obligations of the state.”
  • Introducing in the Constitution the concept of “federal territory,” an area which would not be considered part of any region and would be managed exclusively by the federal center.
  • Mentioning God in the Constitution (a suggestion made by Patriarch Kirill and supported by… Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov).

It’s not yet clear which of these proposals will make it into the final bill. Some of them were likely pushed by the Kremlin, others emerged as rent opportunities, and yet others were born out of a desire to “work towards the president,” make suggestions that politicians believe Vladimir Putin will support. Overall, they bend towards strengthening the federal center over the regions, and the president over the parliament.

But perhaps most notable is that there’s been next to no discussion about the future law on the specific prerogatives of the State Council: asked about it, co-chairman of the working group on Constitutional amendments Pavel Kreshenynnykov would only say that the Duma would most likely not vote on the law this year. It’s a card that Putin wants to keep close to his chest.

February 6

Discussions over Vladimir Putin’s proposals for changing the Constitution are in full swing, and a possible (slight) delay in the amendments’ legislative journey could allow the Kremlin to introduce new changes. The vote of the bill in its second reading, initially planned for February 11, could be moved to early march, Kommersant reports. At the same time, a “national vote” on the bill could be held sometime in April, after the changes have already been adopted.

Speaking to academics and university officials in Cherepovets, a city of 315,000 inhabitants 360 kilometers north of Moscow, Putin justified on February 4 his decision to change the Constitution. He also seemed to push for amendments on local government not currently being discussed, but right in line with his December 24 statement about the need “to create a unified system of power.”

“Look,” he told a group of local academic figures, “from my point of view, the amendments that I’m suggesting are dictated by life. As a president and head of government, it became obvious to me that some things do not work the way they should.”

The Russian president then went on to discuss the failure to provide adequate healthcare or education, which he argued is often due to the fact that “municipalities are separate from the State,” making federal and regional authorities unable or unwilling to deal with these issues. The example isn’t just an easy way to shift the responsibility of the state’s failures onto local authorities: just five days prior, an official from the presidential administration told a Kommersant reporter that “mayors should be accountable to governors the same way governors are accountable to the president” — that is, governors should be able to dismiss mayors.

January 23

A lot has been said about the political sequence Russia finds itself in, and BMB Russia has covered the developments extensively. Rather than the changes themselves, one thing I’d like to cover in this column is the dizzying speed with which they were pushed forward. Here’s a recap of the timeline:

  • December 19: Putin says changes to the Constitution could be made, but “after thorough preparation and a deep discussion in society, and very carefully.”
  • January 15: Vladimir Putin announces broad constitutional changes, calling for a public discussion on the matter. Three hours later, Dmitry Medvedev announces his resignation as well as that of the entire government. In the evening, Putin nominates Mikhail Mishustin as the next Prime Minister. Before the day is over, the Russian president has also signed a directive on the creation of a working group “on the preparation of propositions for the introduction of amendments to the Constitution.”
  • January 16: Putin meets with the working group, saying the constitutional amendments should “strengthen the role of civil society and political parties.”
  • January 20: Draft amendments to the Constitution are submitted to the parliament.
  • January 21: the new government is announced.
  • January 23: bill on constitutional changes passed in its first reading.
  • April 12: Potential date of a country-wide vote on the Constitutional changes, according to RBC.

Why did Putin opt to go so fast, making claims about wanting “deep discussion in society” look utterly absurd in the process? The real answer, as usual these days, is that we don’t know. But, from the towers of the Kremlin, preparation for a transition of power is likely seen as a necessary but risky, and potentially destabilizing, moment. The goal might then simply be to move forward before intra elite conflict grows and perceived enemies — internal, or external — get a chance to hamper the process. Changing the Constitution is only the first step, and maybe not the most important (we still do not know what the State Council will actually do), but it is one of the most symbolically sensitive.

January 16

63% of Russians expect 2020 to be better than the previous year, the highest figure since Putin came to power, according to a poll by the Levada Center. The rise has been constant since an all-time low of 46% back in 2016. 57% of respondents nevertheless expect the year to be a tense one for the Russian economy — an 8% drop compare to last year but a high figure nevertheless.

As Russia seems more than ever stuck in a cycle of economic stagnation, where does this optimism come from? In a column for Russian news website RBC, Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov argues that Russians’ relative hopefulness “is most likely due to the general economic stability, low inflation and the lack of shocks on the global currency market, which allowed people to adapt.”

Nevertheless, “Russians have accumulated fatigue and grievances against the authorities,” Volkov says. How these grievances express themselves is the major issue: a still high “protest potential” is most likely to be channeled into localized actions, especially on environmental issues, but Volkov also sees a rise in anti-elite sentiment is that is starting to be internalized and exploited by Russian politicians. As the Kremlin starts pushing for sweeping changes in the country’s political system — including a strengthening of the Duma —, populist rhetoric and actions might become an increasingly valuable political resource.

January 9

During an otherwise dull press conference, Vladimir Putin’s comment on potential changes the Constitution sparked a flurry of comments. It’s been largely suggested that the Kremlin is looking for ways to keep Putin in power after 2024. But the Russian president had, until now, refused to touch the Constitution to keep himself in power, preferring to go with a controversial castling move back in 2008.

Here’s the quote, translation courtesy of the Moscow Times: “Your humble servant served two terms consecutively, then left his post, but with the constitutional right to return to the post of president again, because these two terms were not consecutive. [This clause] troubles some of our political analysts and public figures. Well, maybe it could be removed.”

Putin’s exact words might not be so important, several experts quoted by Vedomosti argued: in that interpretation, the declaration is more akin to a signal that Constitutional change can and should now be openly discussed. The vagueness of Putin’s comment — which doesn’t actually say much about whether the president would run again in 2024 — certainly points in that direction.

From speculation that the move could be aimed at putting Medvedev back in the presidential seat in 2024 while also preventing him from running again after that, to theories about Putin “leaving in 2024, but not going very far” (in the words of political analyst Aleksey Makarkin) or on the contrary staying as president of a Belarus-Russia union, discussion has been rife, and very public. That’s in itself new.

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