United Russia makes way for independents in a bid to retain loyalist dominance in Russian regional elections

Russia’s regional and local elections in September will be a major test for the Putin regime, and it appears that his United Russia party is being abandoned in many regions as more loyalists run as independents. Reports also highlight activities designed to try to keep genuine competitors off the ballot.

The elections on September 8th will see 16 governors elected – many of whom have been appointed by Putin mid-term. In addition, 14 regions and the City of Moscow will select legislative assemblies and 21 other cities will choose municipal councils.

The gloss has come off United Russia after President Putin’s public opinion highpoint of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Pension reforms, corruption and even the expansion of rubbish dumps have all proved massively unpopular and the party is currently polling at around 35% nationwide – far below the 50% or more they secured in Duma (Parliament) elections three years ago. In key cities support might be as low as one in four voters.

Putin himself ran as an independent in the Presidential election last year and the vast majority of regional governors will be doing the same in order to keep the United Russia brand off the ballot. How much this will fool voters is open to debate.

There is also a switch to boost the proportion of single mandate constituencies in many council areas and a lessening of the number of party list seats. This too will allow loyalists to be elected as independents rather than relying on the United Russia label. This move has been unpopular with party apparatchiks however, as they have seen their chances of advancement fall dramatically.

But it might only be a short-term fix for the Kremlin. The next Duma elections are due in 2021 and by then President Putin will need to have a plan for securing a loyalist majority.

Putin’s strategy for regional governors has changed over the past cycle. More and more are being appointed from areas far from the region they will be administering. Perhaps this is a way of preventing the establishment of local power-bases or of testing people out for more senior ministerial appointments in the future. But it means that appointees have little in the way of local support when they have to face the voters.

Various tactics appear to be in use to ensure that governors and others face little real challenge in September. According to RFE/RL, opposition parties such as the Communists, LDPR and A Just Russia are declining to nominate candidates even in areas of strength, thus giving the Putin supported candidate a free run. Any other name on the ballot paper will be a token opponent to give a fig leaf of credibility to the contest.

In other areas there are claims that loyalist candidates are being put on the ballot paper thanks to false signatures and opposition candidates are finding it tough to gather their own signatures due to violence and intimidation.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has released a video purporting to show such a ‘signature factory’ in a local administration building.

Opposition candidates are also said to be finding their path to registration quite literally blocked as fake candidates are summoned to stand in front of them in queues to register and ‘terrorist threats’ are declared to prevent candidates having access to local administration buildings.

What will happen during the campaign period and on election day will largely not be visible. As is common with sub-national elections in most countries, international election observers have not been invited to view these contests. In addition, Russia has adopted a new law on domestic election observation which largely denies established and independent groups the ability to participate. Instead, a single ‘citizens chamber’ has been created in each area, made up of all NGOs and civic society organisations in the region. In reality, this means that the chamber is dominated by state employees and is not at all independent. OSCE observation of these chambers in the 2018 Presidential election (a mission of which I was a part) found that its members were not interested in proper observation and they were simply there to prevent genuine groups having access to polling stations. 

Theresa May’s meeting with Putin and the idea of a new normal (UPDATED following the meeting)

UPDATE 28/6/19 The meeting happened and here is the read out from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson.

Confirmation that a UK-Russia meeting will be held on the margins of the G20 in Japan this weekend in a bid to re-set the fractured relationship between the UK and Russia is encouraging and will be welcomed by many, but there are a lot of issues to get past if any sort of regular relationship is to be re-established. If temperatures do thaw then it will be time to get used the idea of ‘a new normal’.

At the top of the agenda, there needs to be some resolution to the issue of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Talks must begin there in order to satisfy not just the UK, but Russia too, Russia has been impacted by the sanctions that were imposed by a wide range of Western countries after the poisoning, perhaps the most tangible achievement of the entire Theresa May premiership. As time passes these sanctions will start to pale as Russia finds a way around them and targeted individuals are replaced. The decision this week by the Council of Europe to readmit Russia will be seen as the first major crack in the dam. But for the moment they are still having an impact and Russia wants them gone.

Talks on Salisbury won’t necessarily produce the outcome that May wants. Against all the evidence, Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the poisoning and won’t change their tune now. But there may be a chance to reach a form of words that moves things forward. A pledge by Russia to take action to prevent any such attacks happening in the future, perhaps.

But the strains in the relationship are not just about Salisbury. Russian cyber attacks on elections and other state institutions are a concern, as is aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The cyber attacks issue may reach the same conclusion as Salisbury. Russia will continue to deny involvement in the face of evidence to the contrary. But whilst it is pretty clear that Russia has developed the capability to use cyber as a weapon at many levels, it has used a range of arms-length companies to do much of this work and no longer totally controls what is happening in the field. The Russian Federation has long been gripped by a power vertical, a top down control of everything that happens, but that control has shattered in a few key areas. Introducing deniability in special operations is one such, as former state officers are setting themselves up to conduct clandestine projects at the request of the Kremlin. And Russia is not the only country where extensive cyber capabilities have been developed. Although Chinese targets tend to be of a different nature, it is clear that they too have the ability to use cyber as an offensive tool. There are other countries and private concerns that are working in the field too, including the UK which is said to be ahead of most countries.

So Putin may feel that he can continue deny responsibility for attacks on the US elections, Brexit referendum and so on. And it is clear that Russia does not believe it needs to play by the rules on free and fair internal elections, despite the international commitments it has made. What May and others will want to see, however, is some sort of agreement that elections in the West are off-limits.

This, however, creates a significant problem for Theresa May as she and the west have been loathe to accept Russian suggestions that there be defined spheres of influence. In particular, Russia sees Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and central Asian republics as ‘their’ territory. Although NATO expansion into these areas might not be immediately on the cards, it is clear that blocking a return of a Russian-led union is a key goal, alongside a move to western style democracy for those that want it. Ukraine very clearly wants to move in this direction and Russia is determined to stop it. A deal which alludes to spheres of influence, even if it gives some peace to the West, cannot be acceptable to relatively new found allies in the East.

If some sort of rapprochement is achieved then it will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Particularly as this means different things to each side. Relations between Russia and the West have been in a continued state of flux since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time there was real certainty was during the Brezhnev era. For most in the West, they probably mean the mid-nineties when Russia appeared to be in a state of liberal capitalism and business could be done. But Russians often look back to that time with far less than fond memories as ordinary citizens were struggling to get by whilst the oligarchs built their empires.

Instead we are likely to see a new normal as the relationship re-sets itself according to new rules and accepted mores. These rules will take some time to bed in and will be continue to be defined by the actions of nation states. But a willingness by May and Putin to start the ball rolling with a formal meeting is the only way that a period of some stability will be possible.

Russian readmission to Council of Europe could have an impact on Ukraine’s Parliamentary election

UPDATE 28/6/19: Six more PACE delegations have walked out of the General Assembly in solidarity with Ukraine.

A row over the readmission of Russia to the Council of Europe could have repurcussions for the up-coming Parliamentary elections in Ukraine as the country’s foreign minister has suggested that an invitation to Council of Europe observers could be withdrawn.

The Council of Europe is a body created to promote democracy and human rights and with 47 members from across the continent. Russia withdrew three years ago following condemnation of the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Its membership was subsequently suspended. At its summer meeting this week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (known as PACE) voted on a proposal which would see Russia readmitted. That vote was passed despite strong opposition from Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and the UK delegations.

Proponents of readmission argue that the Council of Europe oversees the work of the European Court of Human Rights and that continued exclusion of Russia would threaten the rights of Russian citizens who regularly win judgements in that court. Those opposed to the measure say it will be seen as a relaxation of sanctions against Russia and a loss of determination over Russian actions against Ukraine and incidents such as the Salisbury poisoning.

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned the vote and suggested that many countries’ words of support have not been matched by their actions. Ukraine’s delegation to PACE has temporarily withdrawn in protest and it’s ambassador recalled. 

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House told TRT World:

“The Council of Europe has had a long and dishonourable record of conceding to Russian diplomacy, through a mixture of corruption, coercion and bribery. Even without these methods, there is also an innate desire in the PACE structures and many of its member states to allow Russia in.”

In a move that will surprise no one, Russia has proposed four people on the international sanctions list as members of their new PACE delegation and have even suggested that they will nominate someone from Crimea.

Now the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, has suggested that the invitation issued to PACE to observe the Parliamentary elections on July 21st may be withdrawn. PACE delegations traditionally work alongside the OSCE/ODIHR mission which is the largest and most respected* of the international election observation missions in Ukraine.

There is no question that Ukraine is genuinely angry about the PACE decision. Although not a foreign policy-oriented President, Zelensky had made significant efforts in his relations with France and Germany and the wider EU with his first foreign visits being made to Brussels and then Berlin and Paris. He will feel that his efforts have not been rewarded as German and French delegates were at the forefront of the Council of Europe’s Russia decision. Zelensky’s next foreign trip is to Canada where more than a million citizens describe themselves as ‘Ukrainian-Canadian’. The diaspora there have traditionally been very nationalist and anti-Russian in their outlook.

A recent Chatham House paper argues that:

“Kyiv may find that unconditional European support for Ukraine can no longer be taken for granted, it will have to be won.”

The certainly seems to be the case at the moment. The question will be whether the new President and Parliament are prepared to carry on trying to woo Europe or whether they will revert to more traditional supporters.

 

*Declaration of interest – I work frequently for OSCE/ODIHR and was a long term observer for the mission to observe the Presidential elections in the Spring.

Russia’s next President? What happens in 2024 (UPDATED 24/6/19)

UPDATE: Chatham House held a round table today (24/6/19) with Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, who discussed these precise scenarios. The suggestions and conclusions below remain my own, but I have updated them to take account of some of the things that Kirill said.

 

Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of the Russian Federation last year by a healthy margin. Not quite the 70/70 margin that he was aiming for, but a significant first round majority in an election characterised by a lack of competition. But that was, at least officially, his last election. In 2024 his second term will expire. Russia, and the wider world, wants to know what will come next.

In essence, there are five options for Putin to consider and very few Russia watchers are brave enough to put much money on any particular one. The signs that he is going down a particular path might be well hidden, but they are nonetheless there. The trouble is that the same sign might lead to more than one outcome. Therefore, in no particular order:


  1. A second ‘Dos-si-Dos’ with Medvedev

It worked once, so why not again? Taking a term off from the role of President to be Prime Minister is hardly a real change as no one would be under illusions about who is the real boss. Medvedev would undertake a bit more ceremonial stuff, but Putin would still pull the strings.

Except – Medvedev is not nearly as credible as he once was. In fact he is seen as a Dan Quayle-type by some in Russia, and there is currently no one else with sufficient profile to be slotted in as a reliable figurehead. What happens if the voters of Russia choose not to endorse Medvedev (or another nominee) in an election? And will Putin be seen as being too old to return. After all, the presidential term has been lengthened from four to six years and he will be 78 before he is allowed to resume the top job. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov pointed out that even ‘facade’ Presidents such as Medvedev can build up a coterie of followers who have either been excluded by the main regime or who see this as a means of advancement. This can be a problem for the main player when they return to the top job.

How we might see this coming – If Putin starts to emphasise the inviolability of the constitution; If Medvedev is replaced as Prime Minister or a credible, but not threatening, successor is groomed.

 


  1. Stepping Away from it all

If the constitution says that Putin cannot stand again as President, then he could simply follow the constitution. It is the simplest and most elegant option and would bring praise from former opponents and enemies around the world. He could step back and enioy his retirement years in fitting luxury.

Except – Everyone knows that this is not how this story plays out. Russia as a top down autocracy might have lost some of its direction in recent decades, but even if every directive is no longer controlled by the party or the president, a lot of what happens is done because officials believe that this is what the boss would want to happen. Stepping away from such power and control is highly unlikely. Putin has undoubtedly amassed great private wealth but gives no sign of wanting to retire to enjoy it. And, once he is no longer in charge, he cannot protect himself, his friends or his family as he can now. Retribution is not going to come straight away, but in a decade or so life could get pretty tough for an ex-authoritarian.

How we might see this coming – More emphasis on the constitution and its importance; Strengthening ties with a friendly country where Putin might acquire a ‘holiday home’; Promotion of a successor who is stronger than Medvedev but nonetheless completely unthreatening to Putin; Interest in taking on an international role (ideally one that comes with some form of immunity).

 


  1. The Nazarbayev

A number of long standing leaders of former Soviet states are deciding that the time is right to step aside. Their concern, as Putin’s, is to safeguard their legacy. Or, more accurately, to ensure they aren’t likely to face the inside of a courtroom or the loss of all their pilfered gains.

So Putin might look to the example set by Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Nazabayev stepped aside earlier this year in favour of his longstanding (and largely anonymous) sidekick Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. But Nazarbayev didn’t quit politics completely. He retained the position of head of the Nur Otan Party (Kazakhstan is effectively a one party state) as well as President of the Security Council. In addition, every second thing in Kazakhstan is named after Nazarbayev – who is referred to as ‘First President and Leader of the Nation’. From airports to universities to the capital city itself, it is difficult to imagine him being denounced, let alone put under any real hardship.

Except – For all the deficiencies of the Russian Federation, it is a more open and pluralist state than Kazakhstan. Putin might well get a defence college named after him, but I suspect Moscow and St Petersburg will be inked into atlases for a few years yet to come. The United Russia Party was created to do Putin’s will but it has also been the shock absorber for discontent within the country and looks set to be abandoned in favour of a new grouping if needed. Putin could well keep hold of the country’s security aparatus and that could protect him for a few years, but it is not the long term solution that he might wish.

How we might see this coming – Almost certainly, we won’t. The secret to making this option a success is that it must come by surprise. Perhaps the absence of other options will be the clue. But if it is to happen then it is unlikely to be at the last minute.

 


  1. A new union

The constitution forbids a third consecutive term as President of the Russian Federation. But what if there were another top job created? What if another, currently independent, state decided to throw in its lot with Russia to create a new Union. Well if that were to happen then that union would need to have a supreme leader, wouldn’t it? An elected President. And who better to guide this new creation than Putin? This option actually feeds into Russia’s adoption of the Brezhnev Doctrine and spheres of influence, especially if some countries cannot be trusted to be loyal of their own volition.

Except – The downside here, of course, is what state is going to give up its sovereignty to become a vassal of Russia? Belarus is the obvious choice, as many in Russia regard it as the only true ally but it seems unlikely. Kazakhstan is another option, but that ship might well have sailed with the accession of Tokayev to the seat of power in Nur-Sultan.

The other concern would be the consternation sparked in the remaining former Soviet states. Who would believe that Putin’s ambitions are limited to a union of two or three? 

How we might see this coming – If it looks like Belarus is wobbling away from adherence to Russia or if any of the central asian states start to become too close to China.

 


  1. A new constitution

That this is Putin’s final term is due to the limits imposed by the constitution. If such a document imposes limits that you don’t like then you can simply amend it, right? 

Except – A new constitution would require a public vote and, whilst these have been easy enough to win in the past, the same might not be the case in the future. Putin is less popular than he was before and the crest that he rode after annexing Crimea has definitely fallen away. Presidential elections are easier to manipulate because a vote against Putin required ballots to be cast in favour of one of a range of pretty unappealling alternatives. Voting against a constitutional amendment is much easier to do as it means simply rejecting Putin’s power grab. UPDATE: Kirill Rogov points out that abolishing term limits might not require a referendum and could be undertaken by a simple Parliamentary Bill. He suggests that a move like this can either be undertaken on the back of a wave of popularity or in response to a national crisis. And whilst Putin has successfully ridden foreign policy interventions before, these are having less effect. He might need to ensure there is a crisis in which the Russian population perceives Russia to be the victim.

And whilst it is easy enough to rig an election – and he has had lots of practice – massaging a constitutional poll would be more blatant than anything Putin has yet managed. Expect mass footage of ballot box stuffing and rejection of the results by honest international observer groups.

How we might see this coming – If there is talk about the need for a new or updated constitution. Putin was very good at boosting turnout in the last presidential election by running ‘neighbourhood improvement ballots’ alongside. Give the public something they really care about to vote for and you can get away with slipping in a less popular change at the same time.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.