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.
In 2011, legislative elections mattered mostly due to the “castling” of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, that is, the announcement of Putin’s return as a presidential candidate in 2012 and Medvedev’s demotion to prime minister. The castling was announced on 24 September and the parliamentary election was held on 4 December. With a little more than two months between the two events, the brazenly rigged legislative election was the first opportunity for those feeling cheated by Putin’s move to vent their anger. And the vented it primarily at an unpopular, rotten party that represented all the negative features of Putin’s politics, without the glamour personified by the president. For Putin, this was definitely better than announcing the castling later and bearing the brunt of the backlash himself.
The parliament, elected in 2011, did not do much to enhance its reputation: in fact, it turned out to be what The Moscow Times called “Russia’s most notorious parliament”. Indeed, the past five years saw the Duma do little more than passing bills that restricted civic rights and waged war on vulnerable groups in the society. It also adopted a bill to give legal ground to the annexation of Crimea – unanimously, save for the one Ilya Ponomaryov who was later stripped of his mandate and forced to flee the country. And to be fair, after the annexation, with the tightly controlled foreign policy agenda taking over the role of domestic policies, it did not have many opportunities to discuss policies, even if it wanted to. The Duma turned into a “mad printer”, without the slightest attempt to control the executive.
It is not much of a surprise, therefore, that, for the want of domestic policies and a meaningful political discourse, there is also not much to talk about in the electoral campaign. The issues – economic stagnation, rampant corruption, regions on the verge of bankruptcy, social discontent – exist, but are hardly even mentioned in the campaign. Instead, there is ample mention of Putin: United Russia’s election slogan – “it’s important to make the right choice” – spells out Putin’s initials (VVP) in Russian. The party uses quotes from the president on its billboards. It has little other choice: according to a poll in June, 38.6 percent of Russian voters don’t know who leads the party. Mind you, according to the same poll, only 14 percent think that the election will be fair. So why bother with it, to begin with?
But the State Duma is not a weak institution per se. It is weak today, with its present members and in the present political situation – but these might change while the Duma’s constitutional position remains the same. The Duma elected in September will be the one in place during the 2018 presidential election, overseeing the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s fourth term – or his retirement. As a matter of fact, the composition of the Duma and how it behaves vis-a-vis the president may as well influence Putin’s eventual decision. The main conflicts and stakes of the September election, therefore, lie in the future, not the present.
The plight of United Russia?
To some, the future looks less bright than to others: the popularity of United Russia, while it did take a boost after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is back to pre-annexation, post-2011 levels: VTsIOM measured the party at 44 percent in mid-August. It is telling that United Russia had to hold a state-sponsored training for its candidates on how to communicate with voters. Maybe they did not need to go that far. Many observed that Dmitry Medvedev’s famous communication meltdown in Crimea when he told local pensioners that there was “no money” to raise pensions but that they should “hold on” and quickly left, may just be the perfect slogan for the ruling party.
The party’s primaries, touted throughout the pro-government media as a commitment to democracy, mobilised 9.5 percent of voters country-wide, but participation varied greatly between regions, from a meagre 1-2 percent to 16 percent, reflecting a process that started before 2011, in which United Russia started dangerously to slide back in certain regions. Primaries usually also serve as rehearsals for the actual elections. And United Russia’s primaries did resemble an actual election – the one in 2011: vote-buying, forced voting, merry-go-round voting, the transportation of voters and the undemocratic appointment of candidates by local leaders tarnished the vote.
At the same time, there are important differences too. More than a hundred United Russia deputies who won a mandate in 2011 will not be running – including, for instance, the firebrand journalist Alexander Khinshtein. Perhaps even more importantly, representatives of the All-Russia People’s Front, a pro-Putin organisation created in 2011 by the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin to build support around the president, fared well in the primaries and will be candidates in the single-member districts of several regions, i.e. Perm, Penza or the Komi Republic. The Popular Front was already active in 2011 and sent 82 deputies into the State Duma on the list of United Russia, but at that time, with the Popular Front as an organisation still relatively young, membership in it was a label rather than a political identity or a variable to consider in power calculations. This time, according to RBC, it may be different: the Popular Front will expand its influence in the Duma, possibly co-opting deputies from parties of the “official” opposition, which support Putin, as well as nominally independent deputies elected in certain single-mandate districts. For a comfortable constitutional majority, it will certainly have to.
Will the Popular Front take over United Russia and melt the party into itself? Several arguments support this scenario: Vyacheslav Volodin, the practical leader of the People’s Front is running for office on United Russia’s list, and he has been rumoured to become Speaker of the Duma after the election. Moreover, United Russia in its present state has been a turf of the siloviki rather than of anyone else. Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s former chief of staff, dismissed last week, was known as the keeper of the governing party’s Duma group. It might seem that the ruling party is ready to be cut up, melted down and cast into a form that suits Vladimir Putin’s needs better. And this might be the big story of the 2016 election.
A circle of redistribution
There is a caveat, however. Vladimir Putin may feel forced to reshuffle the political elite, the ruling party, governors and the presidential administration alike. Perhaps he is right. United Russia can be given a facelift by turning it definitively into the All-Russia People’s Front, which will adopt supporting Putin’s political visions as its party programme. The revamped party can be led by people whom the president trusts and its popularity may rise. But this will still only be a reshuffle, a rebalance, a redistribution of political power. It will not create new political capital. Sounds familiar?
In fact, it is the nature of Putin’s regime why today’s Russia is stuck in such circles. The essence of Putin’s regime, almost from the very beginning, was redistribution. The redistribution of large industries by reining in on business oligarchs and confiscating their assets. The redistribution of the income from energy exports. The redistribution of political power between elite groups in conflict. This went well until the economy and the state’s incomes were expanding, but for years, resources have become scarcer, while the number those demanding a slice of the pie increased.
And prospects are not looking good. It is widely expected that even if oil prices rise, the Russian economy will be able to achieve no more than a lacklustre growth in the following years. This means more redistribution without value creation. Cracks are showing already. The finance ministry wants to reduce federal transfers to regional budgets by 15 percent next year, including transfers for Vladimir Putin’s so-called May decrees, social spending promised before the 2012 presidential election, the bulk of which have to be paid out by regions. And regions are already on the brink: at the beginning of this year, 76 of the 83 regions were in deficit, many on the verge of bankruptcy. Their aggregate debt stood at 2.35 trillion roubles on 1 April, more than 10 percent up from 2015. All this while Russia’s budget code forbids them from taking debts surpassing their own income.
Regions have been on the losing side of the redistribution for years. And so have been citizens. Even though oil prices have gone up considerably since the beginning of the year, the only sector that benefited from the extra income was the military. Meanwhile, more than 13 percent of Russians now live below the poverty threshold, a 20 percent increase from 2015. And again, when citizens turn desperate, they are most likely to turn at the regional political elite – which is why it is needed to be kept on a short leash. No governors like Nikita Belykh, trying out their own approach, not even mayors like Yevgeny Urlashov, leaving and then defeating United Russia, will be tolerated. Loyalty is of paramount importance. And for the want of goodies, the only way to ensure that if positions get redistributed.
Recently, a considerable part of the elite has also found itself on the losing side of redistribution. Rosneft, the state oil giant that has been working spectacularly inefficiently in the past years, was told that it cannot participate in the sale of Bashneft, a lucrative, recently nationalised company that it has had its eyes on. The sale was later postponed, perhaps due to the conflict that Putin feared it might cause. The head of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin was sent to retirement, supposedly over his lavish lifestyle and his mismanagement of the company. The situation of VEB, the state’s main investment bank for politically sensitive projects, is dire, to say the least, and the Russian budget does not appear to have enough money to bail it out – especially with the Reserve Fund expected to be wiped out by the end of next year. With one of the two rival plans to kick-start Russia’s economy is based on state stimulus – a form of redistribution – one is left wondering when Sberbank, led by German Gref, an ally of the recently dismissed Sergei Ivanov, will be required to cash in.
In times of scarce resources, one must have priorities. Vladimir Putin has definitely chosen a priority. It is his vision of a greater Russia, a powerful global power, a beacon of “orthodox” (actually, reactionary) values in the world. See his choice for Russia’s next minister of education to replace Dmitry Livanov if you need further proof.
Putin chose this vision over the energy industry, the Russian economy, the regional political elite, the kleptocratic elite and Russian citizens. They will all have to do with constant redistribution of the same shrinking resources, political positions, conspiracy theories and the propaganda about a national glory, which is not supported by growing wealth or even growing power. In post-factual politics, this might work for a while. Especially Putin’s main argument – “we may be poor and unjust, but others are not better either” – stands or seems to stand.
But post-factual politics and the policy of endless redistribution have their limits. The postponement of the Bashneft sale is one example, but almost surely, the next State Duma will see a series of more serious and visible manifestations of discontent, in Russia’s regions. When that happens, whoever will lead those regions or sit in the State Duma will matter to Vladimir Putin.
Let us return briefly to the biggest question mark that is 2018. In the world of shrinking resources and constant redistribution, does Putin have a retirement plan? Mark Galeotti once wrote that in today’s Russia, political power was more important than wealth: political power meant (possible) ownership; the loss of political power meant likely dispropriation. Does this mean that Putin will risk losing everything once he retires? Letting former associates whom he no longer needs – Ivanov or Yakunin – retire in peace might change this. But only if he also ensures that those whom he leaves behind – including, very importantly, in the State Duma – have only one way to talk about him: in the language of admiration.