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Category: Russia

The Return of Local Democracy to Russia?

Today’s news (10th September 2013) has reported promising developments in Russia, where an opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, won 27% of the vote in Moscow mayoral elections.  An anti-drugs activist, also without Kremlin approval, won 33% of the vote in Ekaterinburg to become the new mayor.  The Kremlin’s tentative steps towards restoring elements of local ‘democracy’ are not going entirely to plan.

Although some news outlets, including the FT, have hailed the ‘return of real politics in Russia’, no-one underestimates the scale of the task ahead.   Through the combined use of patronage and coercion, the Kremlin’s ‘power vertical’ remains very much in-tact.  It does not hesitate to use repression, making it very difficult for genuine oppositionists to organise.  Obstacles stand in the way of coordinating public gatherings, registering political parties and nominating opposition candidates. Without access to the mass media, opposition parties must win 7% of the vote across Russia in order to gain representation in the Duma.  That would be a formidable task even if the votes were counted fairly, which they often are not.

Therefore, while Putin’s grip on power looks shakier than it has done in the past, it is still a force to be reckoned with.    The Kremlin has tended to respond to challenges to their power by increasing repression.  In the worst case scenario, the minor breakthroughs of these local elections may point to even more challenging times ahead for Russian democrats.


Russia: Gubernatorial Elections to be Re-Introduced, Party Registration Requirements Lowered

Following the safe re-election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency on March 4th, the Russian government looks set to complete yet another round of institutional tinkering.

Gubernatorial elections, abolished in 2004 following the Beslan Crisis, are set to be re-introduced.   Governors will be elected for five year terms, serving a maximum of two terms.  A second reading of the Bill will take place in the near future, and the final shape of the legislation is still uncertain.  There is disagreement between the political parties in the Duma about how the ‘presidential filter’ (consultations between political parties and the President over who can be a candidate) will work.

Meanwhile, the Federation Council has passed legislation aimed at making it easier for political parties to register.  It will now be possible for parties to register with 500 members, instead of 40,000 as previously required.  Eighty-two parties are awaiting registration.

Although these measures have taken some of the heat out of the anti-Putin opposition, they are unlikely to lead to dramatic changes in the Russian political system.  Parties must still receive 7% of the national vote in order to win representation in the Duma, and small parties will not be permitted to form blocs.  Meanwhile, the ‘presidential filter’ will ensure that only candidates friendly to the Kremlin can secure nominations to stand in gubernatorial elections.

End of the Line for Russia’s ‘Locomotives’

Russia’s out-going president, Dmitry Medvedev, has submitted a bill to the State Duma proposing that parties should be banned from fielding ‘fake’ candidates at the top of regional lists for Duma elections. These candidates, usually well-known or popular figures, are referred to in Russian as parovozy (locomotives), and have no intention of taking up seats in the Duma. They appear on the ballot paper solely to attract voters. Following the election, they cede their seats to lesser-known candidates further down the list.

Medvedev’s proposals are part of a wider programme of electoral reform, including the re-introduction of gubernatorial elections, which were abolished in 2005. Directly appointed governors had become a liability to the Kremlin in recent years: as an unintended consequence of its refusal to devolve authority, the Kremlin was blamed for all manner of regional problems. Furthermore, many governors disappointed in their role as ‘locomotives’ during the December 2011 election, failing to meet their United Russia vote quotas while being indiscreet in their attempts at electoral manipulation.

United Russia’s insistence on fielding ‘locomotive’ candidates was a testament to farcical nature of Russia’s ‘virtual politics‘. Unsurprisingly, the practice has long attracted criticism from the OSCE. Medvedev’s proposals for reform are welcome, but they will not necessarily improve the quality of Russia’s democracy. Until the Kremlin ceases using its ‘administrative resource’ to control which candidates can stand for election, it will be impossible for genuine opposition to gain a foothold.

Yavlinksy Denied Chance to Run in Russian Elections

Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran of liberal politics in Russia, will be denied the opportunity to run in Russia’s March presidential election.  In order to take part in the elections, Yavlinksy is required by law to collect two million signatures.  However, Russia’s Central Election Commission has declared that 25.66 percent of Yavlinsky’s signatures are invalid.

Denying registration to candidates on the grounds of faulty signatures has been a commonly-used method of suppressing the Russian opposition during the Putin era.  The exclusion of Yavlinksy from the ballot suggests that Putin will be giving no ground to pro-democracy protestors as the March 4th election approaches.  Proposals to re-introduce gubernatorial elections, made by out-going president Dmitri Medvedev in the wake of mass protests, are also being kicked into the long grass.


The tsar, the oligarch and the blogger: who’s who in the new Russian politics

The fallout from Russia’s ‘stolen’ parliamentary election ten days ago has barely subsided, but both the Kremlin and the opposition have their sights set on March’s presidential race.  For the first time since 1999, there are new faces on the scene.    Here’s your latest guide to who’s who in Russian politics:

The Tsar: Despite demonstrations contesting United Russia’s victory in the parliamentary election, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader for the last twelve years, remains the man to beat.    Many Russians have tired of his authoritarian style and action man image, but independent pollsters still put his popularity ratings in the high forties.  Between now and next March, he is sure to announce new state initiatives to attract voters – perhaps an increase in pensions or a lowering of fuel duty.  If all else fails, Putin controls Russia’s ‘administrative resource’, which can arrange everything from bribery to ballot box stuffing.  Although March’s elections will be intensely scrutinised, Putin can still count on 99% support in regions like Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The Oligarch: Russia’s increasingly surreal political scene wouldn’t be complete without a 6’ 8” nickel magnate who owns the New York Jets.  Mikhail Prokhorov made a brief foray into politics in the summer of 2011, joining the pro-business political party, Right Cause. He picked up considerable support but resigned in September 2011, disillusioned by Right Cause’s  role as a ‘Kremlin puppet party’.   However, the dynamics of Russian politics have changed since last summer.  Although Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy is unlikely to be directly adversarial to Putin, he will be permitted a much longer leash this time.  Presidential elections are winner-takes-all affairs, so anything that splits the vote of liberal-leaning voters will be to Putin’s benefit.

The Blogger:  A lawyer and social activist, Alexey Navalny, has been thrust into a leadership role after his blog inspired protestors to dub United Russia ‘The Party of Swindlers and Thieves’.     Using his twitter feed (135,750 followers) and his blog (61,184 followers), he called on ‘nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians and Martians’ to protest the against electoral irregularities, unifying Russia’s disparate opposition in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1993. Navalny is currently serving fifteen days in prison for his role in the post-election protests, further enhancing his anti-regime credentials. However, if street protests give way to regular political debate, Navalny’s views are likely to prove divisive in liberal middle class circles; he was kicked out of the Yabloko party for his strong Russian nationalist opinions, including hostility to people from central Asia and the Caucuses.

Height Matters?  Mikhail Prokhorov is 6’ 8”.  Alexey Navalny is universally described as being ‘very tall’.  Vladimir Putin is only 5’ 7”, and is famously touchy about his height.  Somebody get the poor man a box to stand on!

Russian election: Medvedev hints at partial re-run as 30,000 prepare to protest

The Russian President,Dmitry Medvedev, has raised the possibility that some voting stations in Russia may hold re-runs where electoral violations are proved.  His comments came as the Moscow government authorised a rally of up to 30,000 protestors to take place on Saturday.

The Kremlin is likely to resist any large scale re-running of elections.  However, Russia’s leaders may, if protests continue, make a very public show of repeating the vote in some specific areas where electoral violations have achieved notoriety through youtube.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, in keeping with his usual good cop/bad cop division of labour with Medvedev, remained defiant, visiting the Central Election Commission today to lodge the paperwork for his presidential bid.  He accused the USA of fomenting dissent in Russia, arguing that, “they want to shake us up so we don’t forget who is boss on this planet.”

Putin Ponders How to Win Back His People’s Affections.

As Russians take to the streets of Moscow for the second night in a row to protest the conduct of Sunday’s election, Putin ponders how to get his triumphant return to the presidency back on track.  Here are his top three cunning plans:

  1. Blame it on Medvedev: Putin is a fair-weather friend to the political party that he created, which is apparently now the brainchild of his hapless number two.  As Putin’s spokesman said today, “Dmitry Medvedev always associated himself with United Russia, and so he agreed to head its list in the elections.”
  2. Fire the cabinet:  According to Reuters,  Putin told members of United Russia (a party which, after all, he has little to do with) today that ‘there will be a significant renewal of personnel in the government.’
  3. Build a new liberal party: Vladislav Surkov, a senior Kremlin official, thinks that Russia needs a ‘popular new liberal party’.  Just as long as it’s not independent of the Kremlin.

Russian, Slovenian, Croatian elections: Final Results

Russia: The ruling party, United Russia, finishes with 238 seats in the 450 seat Duma.  Shares of the vote: United Russia, 49.54%; Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 19.6%;  A Just Russia, 13.22%, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 10.66%.  Although United Russia narrowly maintains its majority in the Duma, significant election violations were reported and the party’s real level of support is likely to be much lower.  Russia’s presidential elections in March 2012, when Vladimir Putin looked set for a coronation, may yet turn out to be interesting.

Slovenia: A brand new political party, Positive Slovenia, run by Ljubljana’s millionaire mayor, Zoran Jankovic, won Slovenia’s election with 28.53% of the vote.  The centre- right Slovenian Democratic Party, which was expected to win the election, received 26.26%.  The governing Social Democrats won just 10.5% of the vote, crashing from 30.5% in the 2008%. Another new party created by former government minister, Gregor Virant, came fourth with 8.4%, while several smaller parties crossed the 4% threshold.  The electoral arithmetic means that forming a coalition is likely to be difficult: Positive Slovenia has promised to improve the welfare state, while the Slovenian Democratic Party pledged to balance the books and there is also a history of personal animosity between the party’s leaders.  Early elections cannot be ruled out.

Croatia: The opposition coalition won 83 of the 151 seats in the Hrvatski sabor, while the outgoing government, HDZ, won only 40 seats.  Seats also went to a number of small parties.

Election Update: Dramatic Upset in Slovenia, Victory for Opposition in Croatia, Result as Expected in Russia

Slovenia: Exit polls suggest that today’s Slovenian election will be won by a new centre left party led by the Mayor of Ljubljana, Positive Slovenia.  This is a major upset because the centre-right opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party, had expected to be the biggest party following the election.  The Slovenian economy has faced major austerity measures in recent years, but Positive Slovenia has promised to create a safe and successful welfare state, an election promise that will be hard to fulfil should Positive Slovenia form a government.

Croatia: As expected, the centre-left opposition Kukuriku party has won an overall majority, winning 83 seats in Croatia’s 151-seat parliament.  HDZ, which has ruled Croatia for 16 of its 20 years of independence, won only 40 seats.

Russia: Exit polls suggest that United Russia has won 45% of the vote in the Duma elections.  This has been reported in some sections of the UK media as an upset but, in fact, the result is precisely as predicted by Russia’s Public Opinion Research Centre, VTsIOM, which produced a ‘forecast’ indicating that United Russia would win 45% of the initial vote but 59% after votes were ‘redistributed’ to account for the 7% threshold.  Some of the less democratic vagaries of Russia’s electoral system were discussed in this blog earlier this week.

Getting the Vote Out for United Russia

Today is polling day in Russia, and United Russia has no intention of leaving the result to chance.  But how best to fix an election without attracting the attention of international election monitors?   Here are United Russia’s top five failsafe methods of getting their vote out:

  1. Bribery: Students in Chelyabinsk were offered concert tickets if they photographed their ballot papers to prove they had voted for United Russia.
  2. Intimidation: Students who resisted bribery were threatened with ‘consequences’.
  3. Threats: An entrepreneur employing 40 people was threatened with a visit from tax inspectors if he refused to help in the elections.  Since this would mean either paying a bribe or stopping work, he complied.
  4. Inducements: A paediatrician at a Moscow clinic was asked to vote for United Russia to secure funding for her clinic.
  5. Group Pressure: A civil servant working at Moscow City Hall was told to bring a list of at least 10 friends or acquaintances who had promised to vote for United Russia.

According to the Moscow Times, an election official said, “Everyone is under such stress.  I really hope that these elections finish as soon as possible and the way they [the authorities] want.”  If all else fails, there’s always good old-fashioned fraud.  The official added, “We have been trained how to do it.  Foreign observers, who do not speak Russian or understand cyrillic very well, will not notice anything.”