Shoigu’s Game

One of the underreported stories of the past years in the Western media was how Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu became one of the most visible, most popular and strongest figures in Russian politics. This is perhaps because Shoigu has been present in the upper echelons of Russian politics since the early 1990s, therefore he is hardly an exciting new face like Maxim Oreshkin, the minister for economic development. However, as the Russian political elite – and Vladimir Putin himself – start to ask questions of themselves about 2024 and Putin’s succession, this old fixture of Russian politics may become very important. Here is why. 

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The next big Surkov piece

Following the roaring success of the latest article by everyone’s favourite obscure Russian political advisor, the intelligence team at No Yardstick managed to take hold of a draft of Vladislav Surkov’s next treatise on the pathways of Russia, Putin and the West. Below we are publishing an unabridged version translated into English.*

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The rise of the regions

The main story of the year 2018 in Russia was the rise, in indignation, of Russia’s regions. While there has been growing tension between Russia’s federal subjects and the federal government for years, 2018 changed the calculation for the Kremlin as local voters organized protests and delivered shocking electoral upsets. This has marked the failure of previous models of dealing with public discontent. The Kremlin is and will be experimenting with new forms of managing the regions, but anything short of stronger self-governance is unlikely to do the trick. Below is a discussion of why the crisis of political responsibility plaguing Russia led to protests and protest votes in the regions and what to expect in 2019.

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Looking farther in the near-abroad

One of the most amazing stories coming out of Russia this year was, in fact, coming out of somewhere else: Armenia. In April, Serzh Sargsyan, president in 2008-18, attempted to continue ruling the country from the newly empowered position of the prime minister. This was going to be a first in a former Soviet state. In 2008, as Sargsyan was ascending to power, Vladimir Putin did swap places with Dmitry Medvedev, but continued to rule through the deep state rather than by allotting more power to his new position. In 2012, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili did change his country’s constitution in an apparent bid to carry on as a strong prime minister post-2013, but his plans were thwarted by a sudden electoral upset in 2012. Sargsyan did not have the kind of unrivalled influence in Armenia that Putin does in Russia; on the other hand, he also did not have to worry too much about electoral upsets in an Armenia that is less democratic than Georgia. Everything seemed to work out smoothly.

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Problem solvers

The FIFA World Cup has ended, and with it, so did a month-long distraction of the Russian public from public affairs. At the same time, the summer political recess or “cucumber time” began. The hope in the Kremlin was that Russians would enjoy their time off rather than showing their indignation with the government’s pension reform – and yet, on Saturday, tens of thousands of people rallied against plans to raise the retirement age. The rest of the summer may still turn out to be eventless; but the pension reform will definitely be one of the issues shaping the Russian political agenda in the autumn. If one forgets the speculations about power dynamics that the debate around the reform unleashed, for a moment, the way that the reform has been handled tells two important stories about politics in Russia.

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Putin’s endgame? Part 2: the problem of institutions

In the second part of No Yardstick’s series on the issues shaping Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term, we now look at the composition of the new Russian government, formed in May, and through it, the problem of institutions. The new government is headed by Dmitry Medvedev who is now Russia’s longest-serving prime minister in the post-Soviet period. Yet, this comes with little political clout. In fact, Medvedev’s government is a strange collection of proxies, promises and personages, but real power lies elsewhere. Most importantly, it is a government of shortages.

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Putin’s endgame? Part 1: the problem of power

In the first part of No Yardstick’s series on the issues shaping Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term, we will first look at the core psychological question of the term: the projection of power in a period most think will be transitory. Vladimir Putin’s trust rating, according to VTsIOM, a state pollster has fallen by ten points between January and March. Turnout at the presidential election that confirmed, with a sweeping majority, his fourth term, did not live up to his advisors’ expectations, even according to official figures. Most importantly, Putin has faced challenges in two fields very important for his political persona, which seemingly caught him off-guard.

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