BMB Russia: Weekly Columns #13

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

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July 7

One week of voting on the 206 amendments to the Russian constitution concluded as the Electoral Commission announced 77.92% of voters supported the changes. Poor organization (highlighted by the now-famous footage of ballot boxes set up in car trunks or on the street) and fraud allegations tempered what the Kremlin framed as a huge victory and plebiscite for Vladimir Putin.

Given those allegations, it’s hard to discuss any “opposition vote,” but nevertheless interesting to look at the regions that least supported the amendments. Nineteen regions reported an “against” vote above 30%, significantly beyond the official, nationwide result of 21.27% opposed. Only the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) actually voted against the amendments (55% “against”), a result largely explained by recent protests against a now-canceled plan to merge the territory with the neighboring Arkhangelsk region.

Overall however, two areas saw the most opposition to the amendments: the Far East, in particular the Kamchatka (37% “against”), Khabarovsk (36%) and Yakutia (40%) regions, as well as the Northern regions of Murmansk (36%), Arkhangelsk (33%), Komi (33%) and, of course, the NAO. Between regular protests, powerful local clans, troublesome elections (the 2018 gubernatorial election in Khabarovsk saw the defeat of the United Russia candidate) and general difficulties in delivering the “proper” results, several of these regions have been a source of headache for the presidential administration in the last few years. And with parties gearing up ahead of the September regional elections, the trend could strengthen as the economic impact of the coronavirus epidemic becomes more acute.

June 25

What Russian authorities have recently said about the vote on the Constitutional amendments shows a curious mix of shyness and near-frankness, from the official website on the vote initially omitting to mention the resetting of presidential terms, to Vladimir Putin outright saying at the very end of a one-hour long report on state TV he might run again for president. The reluctance is a consequence of the reason for setting up the vote in the first place; the (very limited) frankness, of the Kremlin’s focus on stability.

Senator Andrey Klishas argued several days before the vote even kicked off that an amendment criticized by the Council of Europe’s Venice commission would not be changed because it “reflects the position of the majority of citizens.” Of course, part of the reason for such a comment is that nobody has doubts about the result of the vote, but I’d argue it’s more than that: the Kremlin wanted the vote to give the changes some popular legitimacy, but without triggering an actual debate about Putin potentially staying in power. One way to do this is to adopt a stance where the authorities aren’t asking the population what they think of the amendments — they know Russians approve of them, and are simply giving them an opportunity to publicly express that approval.

Amid falling ratings, economic hardship and a lack of trust that the vote will be fair (according to state pollster VTSIOM), this is a difficult line to hold. Which might be why, despite amendments covering a broad range of topics, the Kremlin ended up focusing on two major aspects: social protection and political stability. By contrast, public discussion about “traditional values” has been much more limited.

This focus allowed the authorities to bring up the thorny issue of the resetting of presidential terms by framing it as a way to preserve stability: in the aforementioned hour-long report on state TV, footage of the 1993 shelling of Russia’s White House preceded Putin’s comment about the how the “zeroing” would prevent political infighting as the elite starts looking for a successor. And, when asked why the zeroing of presidential terms was necessary, the governor of the Vladimir region Vladimir Sipyagin explained it this way: “Vladimir Putin is a strong president [and] a very important question is whether the next president will be as strong, will be able to follow the line that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin chose. We have no such guarantees.”

June 18

“Vedomosti is dead” seems to be the unanimous verdict following the resignation of all five deputy editors at Russia’s most prominent business outlet (as we covered on Tuesday). But it’s not the first time a scandal with political overtones has gutted a once-respected Russian news outlet:

  • The Kommersant business daily saw its editorial independence slowly chipped away since it was acquired in 2006 by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov. The most recent controversy came last year, when Usmanov allegedly sacked two journalists because of a story about the replacement of the speaker of the parliament’s upper house. The entire political desk announced their resignation in solidarity. The scandal that came to symbolize Kommersant’s loss of independence happened back in 2011 however, when the media group ran a special issue of its weekly magazine Vlast focused on voter fraud. Published just as Russians started taking to the street to protest fraud during the parliamentary election, the issue triggered a furious reaction from Usmanov who quickly sacked Vlast’s chief editor as well as Kommersant’s top manager.
  • For Lenta, in the early 2010s a highly regarded and popular news website, it’s a 2014 interview with the head of “Right Sector”, a Ukrainian, far-right paramilitary organization that triggered the sacking of then-editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko. With 20 other journalists from Lenta, Timchenko went on to create the Riga-based outlet Meduza.
  • A 2016 months-long controversy did not end the business news website RBC—but it killed the high-quality investigative reporting it had been developing. Stories about the large-scale public projects ran by Putin’s daughter as well as the business dealings of her husband is most likely what triggered a campaign of pressure on the outlet that only ended three of RBC’s top editors announced their departure.

June 11

“How the Novosibirsk authorities lifted restrictions in tandem with the rise of coronavirus cases.” The headline and accompanying graph published by regional outlet Tayga.Info look pretty damning, showing how local authorities have been removing various quarantine measures in the last month (ban on walks, closure of markets, closure of shops) even as the number of daily cases kept growing and reached an all-time high of 107 new cases on June 7.

Novosibirsk’s situation isn’t isolated, as the abrupt lifting of most quarantine restrictions in Moscow this Tuesday starkly showed. The plateauing of new infections throughout the country (and serious decrease in Moscow), quarantine fatigue (which led to a de facto softening of the quarantine across Russia), fear of the measures’ economic impact and similar moves made by other countries can all partially explain these decisions. But it’s also clear that the Kremlin is now looking to close the coronavirus chapter to focus on the vote on the Constitutional amendments. Referring to a report by the think-tank “Petersburg Politics,” Russian daily Vedomosti wrote on Sunday that “experts expect a change of priorities from regional authorities in June, from supporting quarantine measures to the preparation of the vote on the Constitution.”

The government seems to have identified the lockdown as the major reason for Russians’ current discontent and is looking to lift moods ahead of the vote. This puts the country’s governors in a difficult position however, as they’re still expected to deal with the epidemic in their respective regions, but now with the added pressure of delivering a convincing electoral result (both in turnout and actual support for the amendments) to the federal center.

June 4

It’s a common assumption that the Kremlin doesn’t like to back down under pressure, especially coming from the street, and prefers to revert decisions quietly to maintain the appearance of full control. The failed merger of the Arkhangelsk region and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug provides a stark counter-example, one where it took a mere two weeks of peaceful protests and opposition from local power brokers for the authorities to pull the plug on an ill-conceived plan.

The governors of both regions signed a memorandum on unification on May 13; by May 26, local officials were hinting that plans for a referendum on the issue would likely be postponed indefinitely, something the head of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug confirmed on Tuesday.

Meduza: Regional unification plans in northern Russia awaken a dormant protest movement

Quick mobilization of civil society groups and resistance from the local political class led to plans for the unification of the two Arctic regions being shelved in a matter of days. The decision did not come from the regions themselves however: acting governor of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug Yury Bezdudny first announced on May 26 there was “no hurry” to conduct a referendum immediately following a meeting with the presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, Yury Trutnev. One day later, the arrival of acting United Russia general secretary Andrey Turchak to the regional capital of Naryan-Mar reportedly sealed the deal: Turchak had already visited the region earlier in the month to try and secure the support of local politicians but quickly realized that most deputies – including those from United Russia – would oppose the referendum. “Turchak flew in on May 27 and said that the issue of the referendum was closed, the page had been turned,” one deputy told Moskovsky Komsomolets.

May 28

Four political parties created in recent months have now deployed regional headquarters in more than half of Russia’s regions and received the right to participate in elections, Vedomosti reports this week. Back in late 2019, the arrival of these new organisations was largely seen as a attempt for the Kremlin to give the appearance of increased competition in future elections. This, of course, is nothing new. But it’s worth taking a look at them, if only to get a hint of the lens through which the Kremlin – or some political operatives inside it – approaches political issues, in this case by attempting to create “cool” versions of previous political projects:

  • For Truth”: the party’s communication still largely centers on its founder, writer and national-bolshevik personality Zakhar Prilepin. Its platform is both anti-capitalist and nationalist, advocating in its program the annexation of the Ukrainian Donbass region to Russia (the party is also planning to set up offices in separatist-controlled Eastern Ukraine, as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). It is in that sense closest to LDPR, with a bit of Communist party mixed in.
  • New People” and “Party of Direct Democracy:” those two parties are slight variations on attempts to attract a young, urban, middle-class electorate that the Kremlin sees as the most likely to protest. “New People”, created by the head of a cosmetics company, targets more specifically business-oriented people (think of a cooler “Party of Growth”), while the “Direct Democracy” party, made by the creator of popular video game “World of Tanks”, is all about IT and digitalization. From the platform to the design of their websites, it’s also clear both parties are looking to mimic Alexei Navalny’s style.
  • Green alternative:” a cooler “Green party,” its creation likely triggered by the rise of ecological issues across Russia.

May 21

Secretary of Russia’s National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said on Wednesday corruption was threatening the realization of the country’s ambitious “national projects.” Patrushev denounced “numerous violations” linked to “corruption, non-observance of state procurement rules, work that is poorly done or not done at all but still paid, falsification of indicators” and singled out the Volga Federal District where, he said, the identification of 49 such violations prevented the loss of 7,5 billion rubles ($105m).

The declaration is the latest indication of the nervousness surrounding the “national projects,” a massive investment plan meant to kickstart growth thanks to the spending of more than $420 billion in at least 13 sectors. On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin also mentioned the obvious: the coronavirus epidemic has thrown a wrench into the government’s plan. “It is clear that, for a number of objective reasons, some of our [national projects] will have to be delayed […] we won’t be able to implement them this year,” Putin said. Finance minister Anton Siluanov has already made it clear in early May that indicators on the fulfillment of the national projects would have to be “corrected” in light the of the pandemic.

Patrushev’s comments fall into a different category however, and relate more closely to a comment made by Vladimir Putin during a meeting of the FSB in February, in which the Russian president called on the security service to focus their work on the national projects in order to “establish a severe control on these huge financial flows.” Patrushev is, in addition, targeting local players with a simple message: in times of severe economic crisis, the pie is getting smaller, and the Kremlin simply cannot afford massive embezzlement.

May 14

Vladimir Putin announced a Monday a first easing of the coronavirus lockdown, but left it to regional governors to decide on whether and when to lift quarantine measures. So how is this panning out in the regions? Let’s take a look:

  • Both Moscow and Saint Petersburg have extended quarantine measures until May 31, made masks and gloves mandatory in the public space and allowed construction companies to resume work.
  • The Bashkortostan republic (1,696 confirmed cases) also introduced a “mask regime” as local authorities decided to open parks on May 12. New restrictions were introduced for schoolchildren, people older than 65 or suffering from chronic diseases however: the latter two are forbidden from going outside from 6pm to 6am, while the curfew for schoolchildren runs from 8pm to 2pm.
  • In the Novgorod region, people over 65 years-old are allowed to go out from 8am to 11am.
  • In the North Caucasus region of Dagestan, local authorities claimed that 481 people died from pneumonia since the start of the pandemic, with an official Covid-19 death toll of just 23. Self-isolation measures are maintained.
  • The “self-isolation regime” was lifted in the Murmansk region, except for people older than 65 or suffering from chronic diseases. With 2,471 cases as of Wednesday, the region is the 5th hardest hit in the country.
  • The Tatarstan republic (1,919 confirmed cases) cancelled on Tuesday the obligation to secure a permit (through a website or by text message) in order to move further than 100 meters away from one’s house. Eighty police roadblocks set up at the entrance and exit of 14 cities in the region were also removed on May 12, after reportedly controlling more than 2 million people, leading to nearly 5,000 fines for violations of the self-isolation measures.

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