Russia held a painstakingly engineered election to the State Duma in September. The results revealed a lot about the looming legitimacy crisis of Russia’s governing structures, while the aftermath of the election gave a hint about the planned strategy of Russia’s rulers to solve it. The following months will require only a little less than a magic trick – or else, structural reforms. The question is which path seems to be easier to the Kremlin.
By all measures, the 2016 Duma election turned out to be rather unimpressive. The constitutional majority that United Russia was able to achieve, and which would be considered a landslide in any democracy, is only spectacular as long as one does not look at what went into it.
First, the electoral reform, which mimicked the 2012 revamp of the Ukrainian electoral system, and which allowed a governing party with a falling popularity but a well-established network and a divided opposition not only to maintain its share of seats in the parliament but to increase it significantly. In 2013, I tried to estimate how United Russia would fare in the new system, based on the figures of the 2011 Duma election (which was arguably the party’s worst). I found that even with a nation-wide popularity as low as United Russia’s in 2011, with creative gerrymandering and/or electoral engineering, the party had the potential to win 300 seats – a constitutional majority – in the Duma. This was before the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and the intervention in Syria. This was before the unscrupulous state propaganda and the brutal narrowing down of the public space.
With all the above, the Duma election should have been a victory lap for United Russia – but it was not. The party’s popularity moved together with Vladimir Putin’s for a while following the annexation of Crimea, but fell back to its dismal 2011-12 level very quickly. There was extensive gerrymandering and electoral engineering in the new electoral legislation, but United Russia needed extensive, if not pervasive, rigging to score a convincing victory amidst an embarrassingly low turnout.
As many have pointed out following the election, turnout matters in Russia, since all four parties represented in the State Duma are part of the same system. After a period of relative independence in the Medvedev years, the annexation of Crimea created a new consensus, of which only one deputy, Ilya Ponomaryov was not part. He was later deprived of his mandate and now the Duma has no opposition deputies in the practical sense of the word. And all the four pro-government parties received significantly less votes in real terms than in 2011. United Russia got 3.8 million less, the Communist Party 5.5 million less, the Liberal Democratic Party 0.7 million less and A Just Russia 5.6 million less votes than five years ago: a total loss of more than 15 million votes for the system engineered by the Kremlin. Go back to 2007, the height of Putin’s power, and the number climbs to 19 million only. Protests in 2011 may have made it seem as if the system had imploded, but actually, it lost almost four times as many people between 2011 and 2016 as it did between 2007 and 2011. This now is the real implosion.
Compared with 2011, turnout dropped by 15 percentage points or more in 18 regions of Russia and only in five (plus the two new federal subjects, the annexed Crimea and Sevastopol) was it higher than in 2011. More telling is where the system experienced the biggest losses. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia’s two capitals, only about one-third of voters turned out to vote, and in both cities, the vote share of the four parliamentary parties dropped by more than 15 percentage points – quite remarkable in an election without a serious alternative. The system suffered its biggest relative defeat in the Komi Republic however, where turnout dropped from 70 to 40 percent and United Russia’s vote share from 58 to 37 percent. This is the region where the governor, Vyacheslav Gaizer was arrested in 2015 for corruption and replaced with Sergey Gaplikov, the head of the Olimpstroy company in charge of building the facilities for the Sochi Winter Games. Another region with a dismal score was the Tula oblast: turnout fell from 72 to 45 percent between 2011 and 2016, while United Russia lost more than 8 percentage points. This region is led by Alexei Dyumin, Putin’s former body guard who assumed office in February and stood for election in September. Quite like Gaplikov, he did not put in a stellar performance.
Vladimir Putin fears protests the most – but his political technologists must know that a loss of this proportion is just as alarming as the nascent protest movement was in 2011. Whether or not opposition movements take to the streets depends on whether the expected returns of the strategy are reasonable. In 2011, many voted, witnessed the votes being falsified and protested against it – an understandable thing to do after the somewhat freer politics of the Medvedev years. This time, voters chose a different form of protest: apathy.
Perhaps it seems appropriate to ask why, if there are no real opposition parties in the parliament, the Kremlin is so intent on propping up United Russia. Before the election, diluting the governing party in the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF), an umbrella organisation organised around Vladimir Putin to co-opt civil initiatives and local organisations seemed to be a possible way to go. After all, Vyacheslav Volodin, the creator of the ONF was running for office and was widely expected to serve as the chairman of the State Duma after the election. ONF’s candidates successfully participated in United Russia’s primaries in several regions, often opposing the candidates put forward or supported by local political elites.
Instead, Volodin who did get the chairmanship of the State Duma seems to have been removed from the helm of ONF. He will not even participate in ONF’s annual gathering where Putin and Sergei Kirienko, the man who succeeded Volodin as the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, will be present.
Based on a recent Gazeta.ru report the changes are not just a coincidence. Volodin is not going to suffer the fate of his predecessor in the Duma, Sergei Naryshkin who left the Presidential Administration only to take the path to political insignificance as the head of the legislature. This would not be unprecedented. Positions in Russia’s political system are flexible: just as the prime minister’s position was upgraded when Vladimir Putin headed the government, Volodin may well be an influential head of the State Duma.
Volodin will take his former portfolio – or part of it – with himself to the parliament and will try to create “an actual party” out of United Russia. This is a herculean task, but it is necessary. United Russia, in its present state, cannot withstand either the structural reforms or the lack thereof that in the next four years and especially before Russia’s next presidential election will put pressure on the legislature and on vertical power structures. As the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Volodin created an ideological construction, the ONF. Now he needs to create one based on discipline.
One of Russia’s next major internal conflicts will be the antagonism between the regions and Moscow. Since 2012, regions have borne the brunt of Vladimir Putin’s so-called May decrees, which implemented Putin’s lavish campaign promises. Aid from the federal budget to regions has dropped due to the shortage of money, the untouchable defence reform and the integration of Crimea. In terms of budgetary resources, regions are able to keep a smaller slice of a shrinking pie. In 2015, a report by the Moscow Higher School of Economics estimated that 20 of Russia’s 83 regions might be already technically in default. And it is regional political elites that will be in the frontline if protests over unpaid wages or a dismal social situation, the number of which multiplied over the past year, turn violent.
The Kremlin and Volodin seem to be trying to prevent a split between the regions and the centre with an old weapon: conflicting structures. This tactic, which Vladimir Putin has extensively used, aims to create insecurity within the political elite by creating rival agencies with overlapping rights and scopes as well as diagonally opposed leaders.
And now these conflicting structures may be created in United Russia. According to plans to revamp the party, regional executive committees of the party will be decoupled from the heads of regions. This will mean a stronger subordination of regional party organisations to the Moscow centre, that is, to Volodin. It would not come as a surprise if deputies elected in single-mandate districts in September got a more significant role in these local structures. After all, many of them were selected in spite of the desires of local elites in the primaries.
The future of the ONF is less clear. Sergei Kirienko, Volodin’s successor in the Presidential Administration is known both for his loyalty to Putin and his dislike of domestic politics. This is hardly surprising, given his experience as the hapless prime minister appointed shortly before Russia’s financial crisis in 1998. As the head of Russia’s nuclear corporation, Rosatom, however, Kirienko is said to have taken a liking to foreign policy and its background schemes – which is exactly what Russia has had instead of domestic policies in the past two years. And the ONF might just be transformed into the church of this new Putinism.
Kirienko fits into the series of relatively young, loyal cadres appointed to important positions in the past months. Some also read his appointment as a hand extended to the liberal technocrats, due to his closeness to Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Centre for Strategic Research. Some say he might be Putin’s anointed successor. At this point, however, he is a riddle. As is the path that the Kremlin has chosen to taken in the incredibly fragile situation following the Duma election.
In the following months, we will get the answers to three important questions. First, whether Russia’s security services and anti-corruption agencies will actually be put under a centralised oversight, the Ministry of State Security, an institution with a name recycled from Stalin’s era. Second, whether Russia’s 2017 budget will herald structural reforms by, for instance, reducing the budget of the defence reform. Third, whether the next presidential election, due in 2018, will be brought forward to 2017, which will require a constitutional amendment.
Most probably, Russia will see more reshuffles in the following months, a thorough revamp of the structures of the government and the governing party, the further concentration of the security services under the oversight of the president, as well as more geopolitical sabre-rattling to keep the media occupied. The State Duma, elected in September, is ill-equipped, both in terms of legitimacy and political capital, to do much else. This pseudo-politics will aim to eliminate slightest dissent in a country led by an increasingly paranoid regime. A regime increasingly inhabited by new cadres, perhaps, but ones who are, like Volodin, Gaplikov and Dyumin, stuck with the old tools and are without the ingenuity to solve, or even to fully apprehend a legitimacy crisis looming over the country.
But that’s just my two cents.
Perhaps, Vladimir Putin will seek a return to economic normalcy, instead. Perhaps the liberals do climb back into the government on Kirienko’s back and Volodin’s State Duma rubber-stamps their structural reforms. Perhaps presidential elections will be brought forward to 2017, and Putin’s anointed successor – Kirienko, Kudrin, or, if he has a sense of humour, Dmitry Medvedev – will be put forward as a candidate to entice the EU to suspend its sanctions.
And in this case, Vladimir Putin can still become the minister of state security.