BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #9

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

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October 17

The Kremlin is looking at the potential creation of a “green party” as an answer to the rising ecological protests, sources inside the presidential administration told Russian business outlet RBC. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov quickly denied any such plans were being discussed.

The unconfirmed plan comes as Russia is changing its position regarding environmental issues and climate change: after years of little to no discussion on the issue and regular expressions of climate change skepticism among Russian politicians, including Vladimir Putin, Moscow joined the Paris Accords in September. The move is a largely pragmatic one, Bloomberg then reported, but environmental issues have taken more space in domestic politics as well. Protests against plans to build massive landfills in the regions have, in particular, made national headlines in the last two years.

“There is no need to keep quiet about ecological problems,” one source is quoted as saying in the RBC article. And indeed, dealing with such issues has multiple advantages for the Kremlin, the biggest of them being that environmental matters are one of the easiest to keep out of the political field and into the realm of “constructive discussion” and “useful dialogue with the authorities” — something a Kremlin-backed “green party” would likely focus on. Ecological protests tend to be portrayed as largely local and over very specific issues, meaning they can be treated through a technocratic lens and the cooptation of the local civil society, while keeping the federal center at a safe distance (as local governments are expected to deal with the problems). And as the Kremlin cracks down on the opposition, it is also also a relatively politically safe way to address what polls regularly mention as a key concern for Russians.

October 10

The increasingly loud public discussion about Russia’s post-Putin future has seemingly reached a new stage, going from broad debates about what this future could look like to specific speculations about the identity of the potential successor(s). In September, two interviews — of Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov and of Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — became the main drivers of this discussion as both men sprinkled their interviews with a few unusually political messages (see Mark Galeotti’s take on the Shoygu interview).

On October 7th, the Riga-based Russian outlet Meduza published a long report entirely dedicated to Sergey Kiriyenko, the deputy head of the presidential administration overseeing internal politics. Kiriyenko hadn’t initially been among the three candidates touted to lead the strategic department, journalist Andrey Pertsev writes, and his name was later added by Putin himself. It’s hard to see Kiriyenko as a Putin successor but, as the man in charge of domestic politics, he could be poised to play an influential role in the transition process.

The Center for social and labor rights, a Russian NGO dedicated to workers’ rights, released a new report on protests across Russia. The Center counted a stable 429 and 434 protests in the first and second quarters of 2019, with “civil” and “political” protests making the bulk of the total in the second quarter. While social protests have declined since the fourth quarter of 2018, ecological protests are on the rise, going from 35, 43 and 56 in the last three quarters. Overall, according to the head of the NGO’s monitoring department, only two regions in Russia saw no protests at all – Chechnya, and the icy northeastern region of Chukotka.

October 3

Russian outlet Nezavisimaya Gazeta released on September 30th a list of Russia’s 100 “leading politicians” compiled by 29 experts as well as representatives from four “systemic” parties (United Russia, Communist Party, Just Russia and LDPR) as well as the Yabloko liberal party — there are no opposition figures in the ranking. Beyond Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev (first and second respectively), the “very influential” part of the list features the usual Putin close circle (Sergey Shoygu, Igor Sechin, Nikolai Patrushev) as well as members of the presidential administration (chief of staff Anton Vaino is ranked as Russia’s third most influential politician) and high-ranking officials (head of Russia’s Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina is 17th).

When it comes to regional elites, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin hasn’t been too affected by the wave of protests and is ranked 16th. The newly elected governor of Saint Petersburg is also considered by the experts as more influential that Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov (51th and 60th).

Further down, the head of the Tatarstan republic Rustam Minnikhanov has dropped from the 75th to the 79th place, something that could be due to the challenges the region has faced in recent weeks. On the wholly important front of financial transfers from the center, the Finance Ministry announced in early September it wasn’t planning to provide the region with budget loans to help pay a 2.9 billion rubles ($45m) budget deficit. Plans to celebrate next year the region’s 30th anniversary of the declaration on the “state sovereignty of the republic” is also raising some concern, Kommersant reports. At a time of increased centralization, celebrations of period when Tatarstan was at its most independant “isn’t very convenient,” according to political analyst Sergey Sergeev. At the same time, the Tatarstan leadership has considerable experience in playing to local regionalism without upsetting Moscow, and is thus likely to toe the line.

September 26

An interesting statistic coming from the Russian think-tank “Petersburg Politics:” this year, Vladimir Putin visited 13% of the regions where gubernatorial elections were being held, a figure that reached 20% in 2018 and 80% in 2017, seemingly giving more weight to the idea that the Russian president has become less and less interested in domestic issues.

In a rare interview, Defense minister Sergei Shoigu pushed back against claims the Defense budget was too high, arguing that “we should not fear high spending, but low income.” Surprisingly, Alexei Kudrin — who has long called for reducing the Defense budget — agreed, writing in a tweet that “the president has already reduced defense spending to a reasonable level. The issue now is efficiency.”

Bots make up 53% of the 683,000 followers subscribed to the Instagram account of Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, according to a report by the Center for Current Policy. Sobyanin tops the ranking of accounts with the most subscribers, but the leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov is the most popular in terms of average number of likes (17,500), with the head of the Khabarovsk region far behind in second place (9,900 likes per post on average). This might be because, while Instagram has become in recent years a key PR tool for governors (68 of them have an Instagram account, according to the report), most use it as just another place to dump press releases. By contrast, Kadyrov — who was briefly banned from the social platform last year — makes a much more “personal” use of Instagram.

September 19

Pro-Kremlin figures joined Russian artists, intellectuals and activists in protesting the 3,5 years jail sentence against Pavel Ustinov, an early-career actor arrested during the August 3 Moscow protest for resisting arrest and hurting a police officer in the process (despite a video showing this did not happen). Such figures include RT head Margarita Simonyan, United Russia secretary Andrey Turchak and and state TV host Vladimir Solovyev. It is of course great news for Ustinov, but such a sudden and targeted outpouring of support from people close to the authorities looks unlikely to be genuine.

Xenophobia across Russia is on the rise for two years in a row, Vedomosti reports based on a Levada Center poll. The share of people who would like to restrict access to Russia to one or several ethnic groups jumped from 54% to 71%, putting it close to the “pre-Crimea” levels. This is one indicator to watch in the context of a possible return of populist politics in Russia.

Vladimir Putin met with the head of the Communist Party, 75 years-old Gennady Zyuganov. The timing is far from random as the Communist Party emerged as one of the winners in the Moscow elections, partly thanks to the “smart voting” strategy of Alexey Navalny. After the elections – which Zyuganov described to Putin as “one of the biggest and most interesting in recent times” – the leader of the Communist Party probably feels the need to ensure Putin of his loyalty. Zyuganov (or the Kremlin through the mouth of the Communist leader) also suggested preparing an “overhaul of the electoral system” in order to “create a system where there would be competition and control and, at the same time, with people who want to develop the country and not bicker.”

September 12

BMB Russia provided in its previous issue the main results of last Sunday’s elections, so let’s focus on a single region today: the krai of Khabarovsk, in the country’s Far East (the regional capital is just 40km from the Chinese border). In last year’s gubernatorial elections, Khabarovsk was the scene of one of the main upset for United Russia as the new head of the region became Sergei Furgal, a member of the nationalist LDPR party. Yesterday’s results showed that this wasn’t just a fluke: LDPR could take as many as 30 out of 36 seats in the regional parliament, while the United Russia candidate also lost in an early election for a Duma seat held in the region.

One lesson for the Kremlin is that alleged plans to raise the number of seats allocated through single-mandate districts (where the candidate’s personalities and resource matter more) rather than party list (where United Russia’s crashing ratings are in full view) might not be such a good idea: Khabarovsk’s regional parliament had previously increased the number of people elected through single-mandate districts, and United Russia ended up losing all of them, analyst Andrey Pertsev noted in an article for the Carnegie center.

A second lesson is that a marginal, provocative, nationalist to the point of caricature (mainly through the voice of its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky) party like LDPR has now acquired some serious political weight that the Kremlin might be tempted to use. “United Russia is finished,” researcher Sam Greene wrote on his blog, “[and] if the Kremlin can’t rely on United Russia anymore, might it rebase itself on the LDPR?” It’s far from guaranteed of course — but the results in Khabarovsk as well as the fact that United Russia candidates in Moscow chose to hide their affiliation to the ruling party is the best indication of United Russia’s agony.

September 5

This Sunday, Russians living in more than 40 regions will go out to vote in a series of elections officially dubbed the “unified day of voting.” Sixteen governors will be elected, while seats in 42 regional parliaments and 22 city councils will be up for grabs.

All eyes are going to be on Moscow, where weeks of protest failed to achieve the registration of opposition candidates to the election of the local city legislature, but highlighted the nervousness of the authorities through the heavy-handedness of the police response. The first judicial sentences pronounced against arrested protesters did hint at some division among the elite about how to best handle this new situation: while at least 4 protesters were sentenced to jail for sometimes very light offenses (Kirill Zhukov could spend three years in prison for trying to lift the visor on a policeman’s helmet), six other people saw their criminal charges dropped. “Cases on ‘mass disorder’ are falling apart,” Russian business daily Vedomosti wrote on Wednesday.

With most opposition candidates denied registration to the Moscow election, opposition figure Alexey Navalny called on locals to vote for any candidate not linked to the United Russia party, and published a list identifying those candidates (officially, there are no candidates from United Russia, though many politicians still enjoy the party’s support). “Smart voting,” as Navalny called the initiative, has divided the opposition and it’s unclear whether it will have much effect.

The results in the elections of the regional parliaments and city councils may act as a key indicator for future electoral changes: according to presidential administration sources quoted by Russian outlet RBC, a score below 40% for United Russia in the party lists may trigger discussion to increase the share of deputies to the federal Duma elected through single-mandate districts.

July 11

2019 hasn’t been the best year for the FSB, Russia’s security service. The arrest in April of Kirill Cherkalin, a colonel working for the FSB directorate officially tasked with counter intelligence in the financial sector, was a major shock, but turned out to only be the beginning. On July 5th, six more FSB officers were arrested on suspicion of stealing more than a hundred million rubles as well as forming a criminal conspiracy. Two of the officers arrested are from the same directorate Cherkalin was part of, while the others belong to the “Alpha” and “Vympel” groups, two FSB elite counter-terrorist units.

The total number of arrests since rose to 15, according to Interfax, including 8 officers of the Alpha unit. Russian outlet Rosbalt wrote that the FSB officers had been pocketing money seized during searches, hiding bills in their ballistic vests. Later, the searches allegedly just became a pretext: the FSB officers would learn through their contacts of the presence of large sums being moved in banks, and would arrive just in time to seize the money.

The crimes those officers are accused of aren’t particularly unusual: it’s an all too well-known story of raiding, pressure on business, and using high-level positions as rent schemes. But the involvement of extremely prestigious anti-terrorist units is a rare event. According to Kommersant, this is the first time that active members of the Alpha and Vympel groups are suspect in such an investigation in the units’ 45 years of existence. The arrests also come just a few weeks after Dmitry Zakharchenko, a former FSB colonel arrested in September 2016, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on bribery charges. The arrest of Zakharchenko in 2016 kickstarted a long process of “cleaning” and redistribution of positions in the ranks of the FSB that may now be culminating.

July 4

Mayor isn’t a flourishing institution in Russia. Since a 2014 reform, more than 40 regions passed legislation to abolish direct mayoral elections, letting municipal councils select the new mayor and appoint a “city manager,” an official hired under contract who often holds the real power. The most resounding recent example happened last year in the city of Yekaterinburg, when the local governor decided to cancel mayoral elections, thus preventing the current mayor and outspoken Kremlin critic Yevgeny Roizman (who had already been stripped of most of its powers) from running for a new term.

The Civic Initiatives Committee, an organization created by the current chairman of the Audit Chamber, Alexei Kudrin, just released a study on Russia’s mayors, showing how the recent reforms favouring managers rather than elected official have changed the position in 109 Russian cities.

First, mayor has become an unstable job, with more than 40% of the city leaders lasting in office from one to three years, less than the duration of a single term. When citizens can directly vote for their mayor however, the average duration of a tenure jumps to 5.5 years. Another very interesting find is that, when it comes to promoting former mayors to regional and even federal positions, city heads who were directly elected fare much better compare to their appointed counterparts: of the 20 former mayors who later became deputies at the Duma, 15 won their mayoral seats through direct elections. “The direct election of mayors is an effective mechanism for the creation of a reserve of federal deputies and regional heads representing mostly the ‘party of power’,” the report argues. In other words, despite the Kremlin’s attempts to favour technocrats and managers in the regions, the legitimacy associated with direct elections remains a powerful political resource.

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