The expulsion of a sitting Duma deputy from United Russia for breaking party discipline has very few precedents. It may thus foreshadow the ruling party’s approach to legislating in the years leading up to 2024 and possibly also serves as a warning to deputies before an important vote on governors’ status.
On November 2 the governing United Russia party expelled Yevgeny Marchenko, a deputy from St. Petersburg, from the party. Marchenko was the only member of the party’s group that voted against a draft budget that the parliament discussed in the first reading in October. The budget would significantly increase federal financing allocated to law enforcement and security agencies as well as the military, at the expense of health care, education and transfers to regions. But Marchenko’s problem, in his words, was that he could not ask questions of finance minister Anton Siluanov at any point between the presentation of the budget and the Duma vote; deputies were simply expected to vote for it. Andrey Turchak, the secretary of United Russia’s General Council (one of the de facto operative leaders of the party) made it clear that this is exactly what was expected of deputies.
Not that the budget was in danger. United Russia has a supermajority in the Duma, so the vote of one deputy hardly counted. Marchenko has had some questionable legislative proposals before – in 2015 he suggested prohibiting holidays in Turkey, Egypt and Thailand, and last year he had a row with the Russian Orthodox Church over a proposal that they should vet their priests before ordaining them – but he is not a particularly rebellious or recalcitrant deputy. In January this year he drafted a bill to allow the authorities to press charges against protesters under the pretext of “inciting minors to participate in illegal protests”. It is possible that he had enemies who jumped at the opportunity to get him expelled from the party, but such expulsions are so rare that it is likelier that the leaders of United Russia wanted to create a precedent.
United Russia routinely expels regional and municipal deputies for various reasons, sometimes for rather grotesque behaviour. In 2018 when a poorly communicated pension reform created a public backlash, from which the party never recovered, Dmitry Petrovsky, a deputy in the Yaroslavl City Duma was expelled from United Russia after he called for the abolition of old-age pensions and the liquidation of the Russian Pension Fund. In 2016 Anastasia Myakina, a deputy in a district assembly in the Irkutsk Region, was expelled from the party for doing squats in front of gravestones and coffins in an online video (nowadays people receive prison sentences for similar offences). Several regional deputies were expelled for public drunkenness and smaller-scale corruption cases.
The last high-profile expulsion happened in early 2020 when United Russia expelled Mikhail Ignatiev, then the governor of Chuvashia. Shortly before the expulsion Ignatiev publicly humiliated a firefighter. A day after, Vladimir Putin dismissed him for “loss of trust”. (In turn, Ignatiev took the unprecedented step of challenging the decision at court, but died in COVID-19 before the hearings could begin.) Similarly to other high-profile expulsions, Ignatiev was cut loose for embarrassing the party. In 2015, a Medvedev-era minister of agriculture, Yelena Skrynnik was officially expelled for “losing her connection” to the party, but this coincided with charges raised against Skrynnik in Switzerland for money laundering. In 2016 Mikhail Romanov, a Duma deputy, was expelled from United Russia’s General Council – though not from the party – for embarrassingly crude election-related machinations in St. Petersburg.
There are significantly fewer precedents of expulsions similar to Marchenko’s, and none of them is recent.
One similar expulsion happened in 2004, when United Russia was still a relatively new party: Anatoly Yermolin, a sitting Duma deputy was expelled in 2004 for “breaking party discipline”, after he publicly complained about pressure on the party’s deputies from the Presidential Administration. Yermolin had links to the Yukos of the then recently imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and rumours linked the expulsion with the case. Yermolin, a former spetsnaz officer in the KGB’s Vympel unit, then went on to become a member of the Union of Right Forces, a pro-market party that included both the since assassinated Boris Nemtsov and Putin’s current deputy chief of staff, Sergey Kirienko, and later became a columnist for New Times, a liberal media outfit.
Don’t you dare
It remains to be seen whether Marchenko will go a similar way. However, the unprecedented nature of the expulsion makes the story worth following; not so much due to Marchenko’s personal significance, which is admittedly rather minor, but because it is an indication of how important disciplined voting in the Duma is going to be for the authorities in the coming years as Putin’s fourth presidential term is coming to an end.
The federal budget is an important bill, but perhaps not quite as important as the bill on public authority, which the Duma will discuss in the first reading on November 9. The bill, which will allow regional governors to stay in power for more than two consecutive terms, but forbids using the term “president” to refer to the governor of a federal subject, curbs their rights to make personnel appointments, makes it easier for the president to dismiss governors and makes it near-impossible for regional parliaments to substantially discuss federal legislative proposals (among other proposed changes) has elicited criticism from several regions. Tatarstan’s parliament straight out rejected the bill; Yakutia’s legislature approved it, but suggested major amendments, and so did the parliament of the Nenets Autonomous District. The “Zemsky S’ezd”, a forum of municipal deputies, also prepared a list of amendments.
United Russia’s reaction to Marchenko’s voting against the budget could be a warning to ruling party deputies from these regions who may consider vote against the bill or criticize it publicly. It is both a token of the importance of the law and a sign of how the leaders of the ruling party intend to go about lawmaking in the years to come.