Elections matter

In less than a month, Russia will hold elections to the State Duma. These will be the first legislative elections since the scandalous vote in 2011, and the first elections after Russia’s electoral reforms, with half the seats now filled with candidates elected in single-member constituencies. The vote should be exciting and interesting. Somehow, however, it is not. Most Russian citizens – and even most Russia-watchers – would dismiss the election as unimportant or predictable or both, followed by a (sometimes very verbose) yawn. Indeed, the election, like most things in Russian politics today, is hardly more than a centrally administered redistribution exercise. But this does not mean that it is unimportant. Only, its importance lies in the future.

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Meet the new friends

(This note first appeared on 14 August 2016 on the Atlantic Sentinel)

Sergei Ivanov’s dismissal as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff last week is the most important change in the upper echelon of Russia’s political elite since Putin returned to the presidency four years ago. Ivanov was the longest-serving head of the Presidential Administration in post-Soviet Russia. He has now been appointed to the largely powerless position of presidential representative for ecology and transportation.

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Extremist sports

Competitive sports events, especially football matches, are often said to have taken over the role of wars between states. But seeing English and Russian football hooligans clash in the streets of Marseille, one gets the impression that sometimes this happens the other way around. Russian sport as a whole seems to be in a deep crisis: the reasons for this are a mixture of Soviet nostalgia, whataboutism and political ruthlessness. And the consequences may potentially be more dangerous for Russia’s leaders than many think.

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The lonely hegemon

Last week, Nikolay Petrov, an astute Russia-watcher published an interesting article on the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In  this, he identified five dynamics that shaped Russian politics these days and declared that Putin’s regime had a year at most to live. The article generated a lively debate, including in RFE/RL’s Power Vertical podcast where participants discussed whether the “military mobilisation” that Putin has used to create legitimacy had really wore off. It has. And there is an important legitimacy crisis, too. But the two are not the same. Putin’s most important source of legitimacy lies elsewhere, and it is there where it is in serious trouble. 

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A performance to forget

Every series gets tired after a certain number of seasons. Viewers get tired of the running jokes, the catchphrases, the predictable storylines, the hammy actors, especially if no new characters are introduced. Authors gradually stop caring: plot turns become boring, dialogues get less witty and sometimes embarrassing glitches appear on the show. Some series reach this point after only a couple of seasons, others last longer. At fourteen seasons, Russia’s favourite television show, “Direct line with Vladimir Putin” has done respectably well so far. But the disease of all TV series has finally got to it. It has become predictable, self-repeating, somewhat obsolete, faulty and, most of all, intensely boring. This tells a lot about the weaknesses of the Russian political system too.

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Comrades in arms

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like. This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us”. The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies: “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orban, adding: “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said: “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis. And yes: in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together – that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orban’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU. This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both – was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

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That awkward moment

Many families have an awkward, inconvenient relative: an uncle, an aunt, a wayward son – the kind of person who is increasingly out of touch with the world around them, listens to no one, knows no manners and comes up with crass ideas that the family has to play along with. You cannot tell them to get lost, because you want to be in their will, you trust them to keep family members from fighting each other or sometimes, because they’ve been around for too long to just get rid of them. Vladimir Putin, somewhat surprisingly, somewhat expectedly, seems to be turning into this relative.

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