How President Putin won his National Vote (and gave himself 12 more years in office)

Russian voters have approved President Putin’s plans to change the constitution (and coincidentally allow him to serve two further six-year terms in office) by a margin of more than three to one in a national vote held over the past week.

The fact, and even the margin, of victory should surprise no one since there was no opposition campaign allowed and the regime pulled out all the stops to both boost turnout and secure a yes vote. There were also no effective election observers on the ground to highlight foul play.

The constitutional changes were announced in January, supposedly as a means of rebalancing power towards Parliament and away from the President. But at the last minute, in a carefully choreographed intervention, President Putin’s supporters in the Duma suggested that the term limits slate should be wiped clean, effectively allowing the incumbent a further twelve years in office after his current term ends in 2024.

Originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus, the decision has been made over the course of the week of voting following the massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary the end of World War 2.

Putin’s efforts to boost turnout are not unique to this poll. For his re-election in 2018 he received more than 70% support on a turnout around 65% and he asked for the same again this time. And once again there are a massive range of measures, both official and not, in place to help him get his wish. So many measures, in fact, that even the loyalist chair of the Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has warned that turnout fraud could discredit the entire process.

The most legitimate (and a move that other countries could do well to learn from) allows electors to change their polling location via an app to make sure they don’t miss out because of work or travel commitments. Train stations, ice breakers and even the polar research base all had their own polling stations for this purpose and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space.

But, less officially, many tricks have been used to tempt people to vote. There were lots of beautification contests giving electors a choice over municipal spending to clear up local eyesores. Many polling stations hosted childrens concerts or offered cheap food and drink to encourage people along. Others held raffles with each voter given a ticket just for turning up. Sadly these might not have been quite the draw if the example of one Omsk polling station is anything to go by as the polling station chairperson conducting the draw happened to pick his own name in the contest to win an apartment.

Because of Covid-19, there was a fear that many electors will be dissuaded from voting through health concerns. A new law passed earlier this month extended the limited right to vote from home and allowed electors to vote in courtyards outside polling stations where it is thought the virus cannot be transmitted so easily. And in Moscow region a new internet voting system has been developed with more than 93% of those who registered to use the system turning out to vote, although there are allegations that people have been able to vote both over the internet and in person.

These changes would make life a lot more difficult for independent poll watchers if such existed. Longstanding domestic groups such as Golos no longer have the right to attend polling stations. If they want to observe they must join state-run Civic Chambers whose leaders – themselves state employees – will decide the wording of any observation statement. And because it is not a formal referendum, the law ‘does not envisage’ the presence of missions from the OSCE or any other credible international group. A group of far-right and other Kremlin-loyal politicians from Germany’s AfD and Italy’s League parties have been flown in to give approval to the poll, however.

There are reports of an effort to develop tracking software so that businesses can see whether their staff have voted. Such concern is usually unwarranted. Most companies rely to a greater or lesser extent on state contracts and, with the result of any poll or election a foregone conclusion, most employees recognise that their jobs are at risk if their firm does not record a high turnout. The odd vote against is accepted so long as participation is high. With the popularity of the regime so low, however, extra precautions have been taken. Notwithstanding that, there are some sections of society where high participation can be guaranteed and more than 90% of the military have voted.

In the past, apartment blocks in areas with historic records of low turnout, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, would find themselves ‘accidentally’ left off the voter list. Residents who turn up to vote receive an apology and are added to a special supplemental list. But anyone who fails to turn up was never on the list in the first place and so does not impact on turnout levels. Without observers on the ground, it is impossible to tell if that tactic is in use again, but it is reasonable to assume so as the President seeks the strongest mandate possible for his reforms. There are also the usual allegations that polling station officials have cast votes on behalf of those who do not turn up, even if they are dead. Anything to ensure that the area they are responsible for doesn’t draw attention to itself with a significantly low turnout.

Perhaps the only constraint on President Putin is that he could not afford to stretch credibility too far. Those who voted against the proposals or who boycotted the event altogether needed to see their decision reflected in the locally declared result. Whilst a WCIOM poll found that just 42% of Russians believe that the results will relate to the actual choices made by voters, the 70/70 formula was devised to be just about credible whilst giving a comprehensive thumbs up to the idea of President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.

 

 

 

Parsing Putin – what the Russian President’s article says about World War 2 and modern history

President Putin’s article in National Interest on the Great Patriotic War is very well worth reading to understand how is is seeking to portray the history of that period, particularly in light of the proposed changes to the constitution which would make it a criminal act to deny the official version of history. That is the message for domestic consumption at least.

But it’s message to an international audience is contained in its last paragraphs. It calls for a new conference of the modern great powers – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – a plea for Russia to be readmitted to polite diplomatic society. Given the context of an article about the destructive power of world war, this is a none too subtle hint at the alternative.

The structure of the article is a selective tour through the history of the 20th century. First and foremost, Putin states that it was the Soviet Union – all component parts of it – that was primarily responsible for defeating Hitler and Nazism.

As for the causes of the Second World War (and he does give the conflict that name on one occasion), he says that it was inevitable following the Treaty of Versailles and the feeling of injustice that this provoked in Germany. That’s a cause that is referred to also in western history teaching – or at least it was when I was at school. In addition, he says that Western firms helped Germany by investing in factories there that would be used to produce arms and that the borders drawn by the First World War victors (the Soviet Union being concerned in its own on-going revolution by this point) meant continued resentment in many parts of the continent.

But it is the ‘Munich Betrayal’ to which President Putin returns on a number of occasions as his pre-eminent reason for the Second World War. He says that France and the UK regarded Hitler

“as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals”.

He points out that Stalin did not meet with Hitler and that it was the division of Czechoslovakia, in which Poland was also complicit, that was the final straw.

And it was as a result of the Munich agreement and the decision by the Western Powers to allow Japan a free rein in China that the Soviet Union was forced to sign a non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement)

“to buy precious time to strengthen the country’s defences”.

Putin accepts that the secret protocols to Molotov-Ribbentrop (those that agreed the division of Eastern Europe between Germany and Russia) were worthy of condemnation but notes that the Soviet Parliament did just that in 1989 whilst the West continues to deny the impact that their joint agreements with Hitler had.

Once the war started, Putin claims that the decision by the French and British not to fight hard in the West allowed the German to concentrate their resources in the East. He suggests that this was a deliberate ploy to break the Soviet Union and that Soviet forces only invaded Poland as a last resort.

Putin identifies Churchill as being in favour of working closely with the Soviets (despite his hatred of Communism) to defeat Germany and acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices of UK, US, Chinese and French nations in the fight against Hitler but is clear that these were a mere supporting act to the leading role played by the Soviet army.

Finally, Putin turns to the United Nations and says that having countries with veto power is necessary to keeping the peace as it forces the big powers to negotiate and to find compromise, just as they did at Yalta, Tehran and other wartime conferences.

Reading List – 12th June 2020

Twitter has disclosed more than 32,000 accounts which have been part of three state backed schemes to promote disinformation and acting in an inauthentic manner. These accounts are said to be part of state sponsored operations and existed in China, Russia and Turkey.

The 1,152 Russian accounts were said to be promoting the ruling United Russia party and denigrating rivals. The Turkish accounts were engaged in similar activity related to the AK Parti.

Twitter’s opening line of their press release is particularly interesting. They state:

“Today we are disclosing 32,242 accounts to our archive of state-linked information operations — the only one of its kind in the industry.”

That Twitter should have such an archive is welcome. But it seems a shame that other platforms do not and that there is not an industry-wide archive. A similar case can (and has) been made for a multi-platform library of political adverts. Combatting improper and illegal behaviour on social media cannot be undertaken on a platform by platform basis.

 

 

RFE/RL reports apparent confirmation that Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been hiding out in Moldova.

Plahotniuc was the power behind the Democratic Party and fled in June 2019 after a joint action by Russia, Europe and the USA to try to end the corruption that was endemic under his regime. It has been claimed that he stole more than $1bn, the equivalent to roughly one eighth of the Moldovan economy. 

Plahotniuc apparently made his way to the USA where his request for asylum was rejected and he was ordered to be deported. That deportartion has not happened yet however and it is claimed that he has multiple passports and identities.

 

The Carnegie Moscow Center seems to be going all in on President Putin at the moment. Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Covid-19 and the fall in the oil price have exposed the holes in the Russian regime, whilst Alexander Baunov says that Putin has gone missing during the crisis.

 

Another Carnegie piece, this time looking at the electoral challenges faced by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus.

Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.

What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.

There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes: 

“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”

To take the changes one by one:

Internet Voting

Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.

As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.

The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.

Postal Voting

Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.

Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.

Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.

In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.

Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?

Early Voting

Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.

Home Voting

Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.

Precinct Voting

The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.

Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion. 

I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.

Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.

On the other hand…

I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.

That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.

Russia proposes postal and internet voting for ‘national vote’

(UPDATE: See additional notes below)

Russia is proposing to allow voting by mail or online in the ballot due to take place to approve the changes to the constitution proposed by Vladimir Putin back in January. The vote was due to take place in April but was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. No new date has yet been set.

President Putin is widely felt to want the vote to take place sooner rather than later but there is understandable concern that voters may not want to go to the polls if it is held while people are still catching and dying from coronavirus. Hence the move to allow people to vote from home.

Russia has previously made big efforts to ensure everyone can vote in elections. During the 2018 Presidential elections I witnessed the promotion of the ‘place of stay’ voting system which enabled any registered voter to move their polling station, reflecting where they actually lived or would be on election day, rather than their official address. This could be done on paper, but most people did so using the “Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services” – an app which is genuinely easy to use and which covers most state and local services. Russia also created a range of special polling stations in hospitals, railway stations and even icebreakers to ensure that those who would be away from their registered address could still have their say.

The country also allows people to register to vote at home. This is used mainly by the very old and people with disabilities. It is a relatively common system in the former Soviet states, but it is cumbersome as it requires members of the polling station team – as well as observers – to enter the voter’s home on Election Day. Until now, Russia has not had a system of postal voting, nor, of course, of internet voting.

Setting up such systems is complex. There is no simple ‘off the shelf’ model. As we have seen in the USA and in Poland (although the latter election was abandoned with four days to do), you cannot simply state that everyone can vote by mail and expect it to happen without a flaw. The postal service needs to have the capacity and knowledge and there needs to be some sort of mechanism to make sure that the vote reaches and is completed by the right person. Having signatures or other personal identifiers on file – and a computer system able to accurately verify them – is needed. Plus, as soon as you take the ballot outside the polling station, the risks of coercion increase.

In the case of internet voting, the good news for Russia is the state services portal. This could provide a gateway for an online balloting procedure. But there is still a long way between having that portal and being able to use it for a ballot that voters can trust to remain secret and secure. The only country in the world that uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia, which has invested a very large amount in security hardware to make sure the right person is voting.

For all these reasons, ODIHR recommended in the case of Poland that significant changes should not take place less than 6 months before the election is due. That recommendation would surely apply for Russia as well.

To date all we have is a law passed by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. It must still go to the upper house, the Electoral Commission and the President, but it seems unlikely to change much. The details of how it might work are still to be made public and it might be that this remains an aspiration rather than a reality. But it will be a development that will be closely monitored by elections analysts both in Russia and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Kommersant reports that, contrary to what was initially reported, remote voting will not be allowed for the national vote on the constitutional changes. Given the conflicting reports, I am looking to get clarity. However, if Kommersant is right then there is still the likelihood that Russia is looking to move to online and postal voting for future elections – possibly as soon as this autumn’s regional or next year’s Duma polls. That still presents a big logistical challenge for the state.

The Seagal. An everyday tale of Russian political life

A while back I wrote that new political parties were being formed in order to contest the Duma elections in Russia next year. The idea being that a few of them might camapaign in the genuine expectation of winning some seats and forming Kremlin-loyalist factions just as United Russia is declining in popularity. Others have no hope of winning seats, but they will draw attention and a few votes away from opposition forces or help to boost turnout.

The plan has now moved on to the next stage as the new parties are rolling out lists of celebrity endorsements and even a few who say they will be putting their name on the ballot paper for their chosen parties. Most of these names don’t mean much outside Russia but one jumps out – Hollywood stuntman turned actor Steven Seagal.

Seagal has appeared in support of Vladimir Putin in the past, having described him as ‘one of the greatest living world leaders’ and was granted Russian citizenship in 2016.

Now he is backing the ‘For Truth’ political party of Zakhar Prilepin. He is on the political council of the party and has apparently expressed a desire to stand for the Duma next year. Whether this latest move turns out to be great drama, or a comedy, may depend on the interpretation given to his role by the Hollywood actor/producer.

For Truth, just like all the other new parties, needs to set up 43 regional branches and win a seat in the regional elections to avoid the requirement to collect 200,000 signatures from across the country – a task which is habitually used in Russia to deny a place on the ballot to genuine opposition parties such as that of Alexei Navalny.

Reading List – 15th March 2020

If you have never heard of the Open Skies Treaty (or fully understood what it means), the possibility that the USA might withdraw is a good excuse to read this short article which explains the treaty and sets out why it would be a mistake for President Trump to undermine it.

 

 

Elections will (coronavirus permitting) shortly take place in North Macedonia and Serbia and are also scheduled for Montenegro in the autumn. Just a month before the first of these, Facebook has extended its political adverts policy to the region.

 

Rather than indicating a definite course of action, amendments to the proposed new Russian Constitution suggest that President Putin is keeping his options open – and keeping oligarchs and the siloviki on their toes.

 

Abysmally low turnout, a six month counting process, rival candidates refusing to accept the result and each declaring themselves the winner. This is the reality of the Afghan presidential election where the US has intervened in each previous contest to declare a winner.

 

New parties set to take Russian stage

Over-shadowed by President Putin’s speech about changes to the constitution, there are moves afoot which give a clue as to how the future Duma might look and how the elections next year might be managed to the advantage of the current President. These include a few new parties intended to shake up the parliament and many more tasked with grabbing a small sector of the electorate, including one led by a key figure behind the World of Tanks computer game.

Russia has long been seen as a managed democracy. There is a lead government party – United Russia (ER) – which currently has a majority in the Duma, and a number of opposition parties which operate within the system, notably the LDPR party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the liberal-ish Yabloko party led by Grigoriy Yavlinski. Non-systemic opposition parties and movements are typically excluded and figures such as Alexey Navalny have routinely been arrested and had their offices raided by police and tax authorities.

But there have also been a range of other parties and political figures which rise and fall with each election. Back in 2003, the Duma elections were the first under the new President Putin and there was a genuine contest in prospect. Shadow parties designed to take votes from both left (KPRF) and right (LDPR) appeared on the ballot paper and gained a few seats and United Russia won through.

Even with electoral victory all but assured in subsequent contests, the process has still been closely managed by the Kremlin. As Putin said at the end of 2017 when asked about a potential fourth term:

“I haven’t yet decided whether I will run or who I will run against”

Matters now have changed slightly as the future of United Russia is uncertain. It has borne the brunt of public unpopularity on decisions ranging from local refuse collections to pension reform. Such was the level of hatred that the majority of Kremlin loyalists running in last year’s municipal and regional elections did so as independents. So could United Russia be abandoned completely as a Kremlin vehicle or might it be revived? There is no doubt that the state machine is still strong enough that if a decision was taken to press on with ER it would be likely to be victorious.

But the indication is that the Kremlin is considering a different direction, at least in part. Up to 10 new parties are being formed in advance of the 2021 Duma elections, and these include a mixture of serious parties which may be permitted to enter the Duma, and niche parties aiming to grab support of sectoral groups that might otherwise go to the serious opposition.

The project is starting now because of the signature hurdle that needs to be cleared for parties wishing to stand for the Duma elections. In order to register candidates, parties need 200,000 signatures from across the country. That’s a significant barrier and has been used in the past to deny non-systemic opposition candidates. But it can be side-stepped if the party has at least one member elected to a regional council, and there is a set of regional elections this autumn. So the new Kremlin-approved parties are, allegedly, receiving help from regional officials to set up and then to win one or two seats in the autumn contests. Such a plan might result in some almost comical outcomes in local elections as unknown candidates from parties which have done no campaigning and don’t have any infrastructure are nevertheless elected with a significant majority in a single seat.

These niche parties, referred to in Russia as TV Show parties, are much more varied and extensive than in previous elections. One regularly cited is proposed to be called ‘For Direct Democracy’ and would be led by Vyacheslav Makarov, a product manager for the World of Tanks computer game. Another would be led by prominent novelist Zakhar Prilepin. Given (unofficial) state assistance, such ventures would be relatively cheap and would maintain the idea of a healthy contest with lots of names on the ballot, even as non-systemic figures are excluded. 

The TV Show parties will not be in any danger of winning seats in the Duma in 2021, but there are moves to create two or three new parties which will be allowed to, echoing the old shadow parties strategy and broadening the ideological basis of the parliament as a strategy to weaken all parties at a time when President Putin is moving to his new role. But the idea of new parties entering the Duma is not universally popular. Figures in United Russia, including its leader and (until recently Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev, have argued for their party to be able to maintain its dominance.

Putin makes his move

President Vladimir Putin has begun to make changes to the structure of the Russian government. Some sort of move had been expected as he is currently term limited and must leave office at the end of his term in 2024.

The changes are described as being a shift in power from the Presidency to Parliament and the current government, headed by Dmitry Medvedev, has resigned. President Putin will take over the powers of the Prime Minister in the interim.

It is being proposed that the changes will be put to a national referendum – a suggestion which is not strictly necessary according to the current rules but which would entrench the new system.

With Putin set to relinquish the Presidency in 2024, the most common parlour game in Russia in recent times has to predict the mechanism by which he would seek to hang on to power. A constitutional change – either to allow him to run for a third consecutive term or to change the power structure – was the favourite option. Other proposals talked about were a new federation with a former Soviet state such as Belarus or for Putin to follow the lead of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and take a behind the scenes role while maintaining real power. Proposals for closer ties with Belarus were recently discussed but put on the back burner.

Whether Medvedev’s resignation is a clue that he is unhappy with the changes or that Putin was unhappy with him is unclear. Political analysts in Russia have made both suggestions. Mr Medvedev will become deputy head of the National Security Council, a body chaired by the President.

If the constitutional changes are approved by the public then it is likely that Putin will choose to take on a Parliamentary role, either as Speaker of the Duma or as Prime Minister – although the latter will be appointed by the Duma, a subordination that the current president may feel is not appropriate for his image. In either case, attention will now turn to parliamentary elections due next year. United Russia, the dominant political forced for more than 17 years, has effectively been abandoned by President Putin and has taken the blame as his popularity has waned. The most recent regional and local elections has seen a focus on loyalist candidates running as independents. Whether this strategy can work for a national vote remains to be seen. The alternative is the promotion of an alternative party or group of loyalist parties that will support Mr Putin in whatever role he chooses.

In his speech to lawmakers today, President Putin also proposed to tighten the rules for future presidential candidates to limit them to two terms in total (he has served four having swapped jobs with Medvedev between 2008 and 2012) and tightening residency requirements.

However the full proposed changes to the constitution have yet to be detailed and no date for a referendum has been given. It is possible that when further proposals are revealed another option for Russia’s leading man will become apparent.

 

UPDATE: Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center has tweeted the following thoughts:

Putin made it clear in his state of the nation address today that this is the official start of the transition of power, in preparation for him stepping down when his current terms ends in 2024. He suggests amending the constitution via a referendum to approve those changes. That way, it will be harder for the opposition and foreign powers to argue with the move to change the constitution.

The rule against 2 consecutive presidential terms will be changed to just 2 presidential terms. There can be no second Putin. Putin’s four terms were needed to help the country recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union. From now on, the maximum reign will be 12 years. This means that if Medvedev returns to the presidency, he can only serve one term, having already kept the seat warm for Putin from 2008-2012.

The powers that Putin has amassed will not be passed on intact either. Instead, they will be shared out. Parliament will confirm the prime minister and other ministers, and the president cannot reject parliament’s choices—though he or she can dismiss them. The president will be weaker, and it’s beyond doubt now (despite earlier speculation that he would somehow stay on) that that president will no longer be Putin.

The State Council, on the other hand, will have increased powers, with Putin calling for “the status and role of the State Council to be enshrined in the constitution.” This could well be where Putin goes in 2024.

Putin also said the role of regional governors should be strengthened. Firstly, they are members of the state council. Secondly, a successor to Putin may have to be selected from among them.

Future presidents will have to have lived in Russia for 25 years without a break and have never had a foreign passport or residency permit. If this includes temporary permits such as for students, this would exclude Alexei Navalny (who has studied at Yale) from running.

The Russian constitution will be above any international legal obligations, so farewell to the European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe. There’ll be no more help from abroad. Overall, people will likely vote for these changes with great enthusiasm.

Reading List – 26th October 2019

Tatiana Stanovaya argues that, for Putin, the risk of impeachment is that it creates too much chaos in the White House, risks undermining the gains that Russia has made with the US under Donald Trump and might result in the release of embarrassing details of conversations the two have had.

 

Duncan Allan and Leo Litra suggest that Ukrainian President Zelensky’s attempt to move forward with a solution to the Donbas conflict has angered many people at home. Having apparently hit a brick wall, Zelensky may choose instead to freeze matters for the time being.

 

Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky say that whilst US allies among small nations will be nervous having seen President Trump abandon the Kurds, that does not mean that he will automatically be less likely to support other allies in future.