The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law considers how the political system functions in Russia, focusing especially on the differences between formal rules and informal practices. The issue starts with a discussion of the personalities involved in running the Russian political system. In “Formats of Russian State Power,” Ol_’ga Kryshtanovskaia, one of the leading experts on Russian political elites, compares the power resources at the disposal of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. She shows that the two leaders divided responsibilities between themselves in a way that does not match the constitutional division of power between the president and the prime minister. Instead, “the siloviki, the economy, parliament, the regions, and the party have been left to Putin, while Medvedev is responsible for the formal performance of constitutional obligations, the courts, the fight against corruption, and the training of a personnel reserve.”

The comparison of resources available to the two leaders reveals that after two years in power, Medvedev had largely failed to develop his own political team and remained dependent on Putin. By examining the resources available to both members of the ruling tandem in late 2009, Kryshtanovskaia correctly forecast Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. However, she does not think that the Medvedev presidency will pass without consequences for Russia’s political system. In her conclusion, she discusses the possibility that the creation of the Putin–Medvedev tandem has changed the Russian political game, setting the stage for ongoing shifts between the president and the prime minister in future election cycles.

Grigorii Golosov’s article, “Problems of the Russian Electoral System,” moves the discussion to the sphere of institutional rules of the game. The author analyzes how the Russian electoral system has evolved since 1993, showing how electoral institutions that are commonly used by democratic states around the world have been distorted to eliminate their democratic potential. He enumerates a list of problems withRussia’s electoral system, beginning with the single national electoral district—a feature that can work in small homogenous countries such as Israel and the Netherlands but makes no sense in a country as large and diverse as Russia. An excessively high threshold for party entry into parliament further distorts the proportional representation system, allowing the ruling party to easily dominate parliament. Finally, he criticizes the “locomotive” system that allows candidates who have no intention of sitting in the Duma to run at the head of their party’s list, only to be replaced by unknown deputies after the election.

Having discussed the problems that characterize Russia’s electoral system, Golosov then considers what kind of system should be adopted in the event of democratization. He shows that a majoritarian system based on single-mandate electoral districts would not work well in Russia because of its tendency to create highly disproportional outcomes and to entrench local bureaucratic clans in power. He recommends instead a modification of the current system of proportional representation, with lower thresholds and with relatively small electoral districts.

The bureaucracy plays a critical role in the functioning of the Russian political system. In “The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy,” Sergei Sytin describes the bureaucracy as a social stratum or corporation with its own subculture and political and economic interests. While traditionally state bureaucrats have been tasked with implementing decisions made by their political superiors, they are no longer willing to limit themselves to such a neutral role. Instead, Sytin argues, they are increasingly seeking to implement their own agenda, a tendency that has led to their partial politicization. He believes that the bureaucracy is gradually usurping power over state policymaking, although its dominance has only limited potential.

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power, propaganda has come to play an increasingly important role in the Russian political system. Aleksandr Belousov’s article, “Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia,” analyzes the forms and content of propaganda under the Putin–Medvedev regime, with a focus on the ideological concepts of the “power vertical” and “sovereign democracy.” He notes that the regime’s propaganda efforts were most successful in influencing the population during the first two Putin terms, when the regime established a circle of intermediaries who publicized its positions without necessarily having an official position in the government.

As far as the content of the propaganda, the concept of the power vertical was the basis for all subsequent propaganda constructs. It helped that the population was ready for an increase in centralization and control after the relative chaos of the Yeltsin years. The concept of sovereign democracy came later, with the goal of distinguishing the Russian political system from both the democratic ideals of the early postcommunist period and from Western democracies. The concept of sovereign democracy allowed the Putin regime to justify the changes it had made in the Russian political system without explicitly rejecting the democratic revolution of the late 1980s or the partial rapprochement with Western democracies.

The last two articles in this issue focus on efforts to change the rules under which Russian politics takes place. Mikhail Il_’chenko’s “Inertia in Russian Politics” discusses the extent to which reform of the Russian political system is hampered by institutional inertia. He argues that in the 1990s Russian reformers failed to import the institutional innovations that would have been necessary to turn Russia into a functioning democratic state. Neither the party system nor federalism worked as intended, creating instead what Ilchenko calls a decentralized version of the old Soviet nomenklatura. Despite extensive changes in the formal rules of the game, the mechanisms through which power is produced and through which leaders relate to society remain essentially unchanged. What many analysts consider to be traditional Russian values, such as paternalism, strict hierarchy, and clientelism, are in fact merely the representations of Russian political institutions. Putin’s reforms have ensconced these mechanisms more firmly in Russian politics, closing off alternative paths of development and foreclosing the possibility of gradual reform from within.

Ivan Bolshakov’s article on “The Nonsystemic Opposition” addresses the functioning of political opponents of Russia’s current political leadership. Bolshakov argues that the terms “extrasystemic opposition,” “antisystemic opposition,” and “nonsystemic opposition” all fall short as descriptions of what separates opposition parties from those in power, calling instead for a new vocabulary that would more accurately describe the role of such parties in the Russian political system. Bolshakov argues that none of the opposition parties existing in Russia today have a positive evaluation of the Russian political system. Their goals vary between seeking to change the existing system and wanting to destroy it entirely and start over.

The six articles in this issue show that the rules of the political game in Russia depend very little on the formal institutions of the political system. Instead, informal practices, interpersonal relations, and inertia determine power relations. This makes reform both highly necessary and very difficult to implement. The recent protests against fraudulent elections petered out largely because the majority of people who supported them quickly realized that they were not going to be able to affect the system, which would survive this brief scare. The comfortable reelection of Vladimir Putin showed that the system of power had weathered the storm and could endure with minimal modifications until the next crisis. As a result, the chances for real political reform declined further; the system appears likely to survive essentially unchanged until it is brought down completely by a future crisis that it cannot handle.

 

Russian Politics and Law, May 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 3 / May-June 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This issue contains:

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Formats of Russian State Power  p. 7
Ol’ga V. Kryshtanovskaia
Problems of the Russian Electoral System  p. 18
Grigorii V. Golosov
The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy  p. 40
Sergei Sytin
Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia  p. 56
Aleksandr Belousov
Inertia in Russian Politics  p. 70
Mikhail Il’chenko
The Nonsystemic Opposition  p. 82
Ivan Bol’shakov

Medvedev’s year-end assessment and Rogozin’s arrival

Yesterday, President Medvedev gave his annual state of the country address to the Federation Council. He spoke for a fair bit about the military, although there was little new information in what he said. Mostly, he just talked about how everything was getting better all the time and according to the government’s plan. But along the way, little facts crept in that paint a somewhat different picture.

First of all, Medvedev mentions that next year, there will be 220,000 officers and 180,000 contract soldiers (including professional sergeants) serving in the military. That’s the same number of contract soldiers as were mentioned as serving at the beginning of this year. What happened to the plan to recruit 50,000 new contract soldiers every year? Furthermore, a bit of simple arithmetic will show that the supposed 1 million man Russian army is a fiction. The total number of conscripts serving right now is approximately 350,000. That means the total strength of the military is 750,000, not 1 million. Or am I missing something? And given that the fall call-up was only 136,000 (compared to 218,000 last spring), if the spring call-up is about the same, by next summer we’ll be looking at a military where over 30 percent of all posts are actually vacant. Unless an extra 100,000 contract soldiers materialize between now and then because of the coming salary increase. Somehow I don’t see this as very likely.

Medvedev’s second point had to do with progress in the modernization of military equipment and weapons. I covered this in my last post, so I don’t think there any more to say on the problems facing that direction of reform.

Next came two areas where some progress has actually been made — making the military more mobile and compact and increasing salaries and social protection for people serving in the military. While there is still much left to be desired in both areas, at least there is movement in the right direction on both counts. The military’s reorganization over the last couple of years has increased mobility and (at least theoretically) improved combat readiness. Changes in training and exercises are also positive, especially in terms of the scenarios being exercised, though more can be done on that score. Salaries and pensions are increasing substantially, starting in January.

Medvedev concluded his discussion of the military by addressing problems with housing. He mentioned progress in building apartments for those on waiting lists, though not the problems that have surrounded the actual construction of the apartments. Furthermore, and not at all surprisingly, the deadlines have continued to slip, this time to 2014. The complete resolution of the housing problems always seems to be about 3-4 years in the future, ever since Sergei Ivanov’s claim in 2006 that everyone on the waiting list will have an apartment by 2010. Of course the mass forced retirements significantly added to the queue, but nevertheless, and especially given the problems with some of the construction, I would wager that 2016 is a more realistic estimate.

Finally, in addition to Medvedev’s statement, there were also some important personnel changes announced today. In conjunction with the game of musical chairs being carried out in the aftermath of the post-election protests that began earlier this month, Sergei Ivanov was appointed to be Chief of Staff in the Presidential Administration. This freed up his previous position – deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry and military procurement, a position that has now been given to Dmitry Rogozin, who was previously Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

This appointment serves two purposes. First of all, it will (if only temporarily) quell the rumors that Rogozin was about to replace Defense Minister Serdiukov. Second, it will give Rogozin an opportunity to show his managerial qualities (if he has any). Ivanov was about as bad at the military procurement position as he was at being defense minister, so it may be that Rogozin’s penchant for strong language comes in useful in pushing for defense industrial reform. Though it’s far more likely that Rogozin will continue his tendency to make big controversial statements that generate a lot of publicity, without actually doing much of anything.

 

 

Quick reaction to Putin’s announcement

Josh Tucker over at the Monkey Cage asked me to comment on yesterday’s announcement that Putin will run for President next year. My comments can be found at his blog, together with those by several other PONARS members. I focused on the potential impact of the decision on foreign policy, and particularly U.S.-Russian bilateral relations. Here’s my comment.

There has already been some loose talk about the potential negative impact of Putin’s return on U.S.-Russian relations. On the contrary, I think this move in and of itself will have very little impact on bilateral relations or on overall Russian foreign policy, for that matter. Russia was not ruled by Medvedev over the last 3.5 years, and it will not be ruled exclusively by Putin over the next six. The Russian leadership is in some sense a collectivity, with Putin acting (in the words of Olga Kryshtanovskaia) as primus inter pares among a group of 4-6 top leaders who together make the decisions. In this environment, the current foreign policy course has to have been supported by the leadership, and by Putin in particular. There’s no reason to think he will want to change it as president. Russia will continue to seek to cooperate with the United States on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation activities and will provide an increasingly important transit route to Afghanistan. At the same time, Russian leaders will continue their sporadic efforts to find a way to integrate their country into Western security institutions, though most likely with no more success than they’ve achieved to date.

To be sure, the atmospherics may be somewhat different. Several Russians I’ve spoken to about Putin’s decision argue that the main difference between him and Medvedev is in their style, rather than their substance. I have no doubt that Putin’s rhetoric will at times cause a great deal of consternation in the West and in the United States in particular. In these circumstances, it will be especially important to focus on Russian actions, rather than their rhetoric, in order to avoid an over-reaction that would derail aspects of the relationship that provide concrete and significant benefits to the United States.

Again, please make sure to go over to The Monkey Cage and read the comments there, especially if you’re interested in the potential impact on Russian domestic politics.

Russia’s Conflicts on Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian Government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan Government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitry Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO air strikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

This article was originally posted at Atlantic Sentinel, where I blog occasionally about Russian politics.

North Caucasus Federal District

Yesterday,  President Medvedev split the Southern Federal District into two parts, creating the North Caucasus Federal District. The new district includes Stavropol krai and the ethnic republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. The district will be headed by Alexander Khloponin, who was previously the governor of Krasnoyarsk krai in Siberia. He will be both the presidential representative to the district and a vice-premier in charge of the region.  The capital of the new district will be in Piatigorsk, a fairly small resort town (~150,000) in Stavropol.

What does this mean for Russian politics and the region?

First of all, there’s the question of why the region was divided in the first place. One hypothesis is that it was done to separate the troublesome ethnic republics of the North Caucasus from Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics. I find this vaguely plausible but not very likely. Nobody outside Russia (other than a few scholars) really cares about the federal districts. And renaming and reorganizing things doesn’t change the essential geography. No matter what district they’re in, Sochi is still not that far away from places with a bad international reputation, such as Chechnya and Beslan.

It seems more likely that this was done  to increase Moscow’s control of the region, both by making it more geographically focused (and thus hopefully improving governability/control) and by bringing in the right person to take charge.

This brings me to the second question: why Khloponin? While there are some rumors circulating that Dmitry Kozak was offered the position but turned it down, Khloponin nevertheless seems to be ideally suited for the job. He is an outsider who is not beholden to any of the clans that run political and economic life in the district’s republics. This is an absolutely critical factor, as he will have the task of reducing the influence of these elites, who until now have largely traded on the threat of more instability in the region to receive continued financial subventions from the center.

Khloponin is also an excellent manager, with a proven track record both in business (as chief of Norilsk Nickel) and in politics (as governor first of Taimyr okrug and then of Krasnoyarsk — one of Russia’s largest and most economically significant provinces). He has received high marks in both positions and was instrumental in effectively carrying out one of the first regional mergers — by folding Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts into Krasnoyarsk. He is also not considered a member of either Putin or Medvedev’s teams, thus allowing him to have access to both leaders.

One thing he is not is a general (or a silovik of any kind). Russian papers are speculating that this is a sign that Russian leaders have decided it is time to shift from a policing/counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus to one of hoping that economic development leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in stability. Military and quasi-military operations will still be necessary from time to time, but these will be handled either by provincial leaders (such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya) or by existing quasi-military structures (such as the local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Khloponin, on the other hand, will be responsible for overall coordination and particularly for the district’s economic development.

To this end, the unique combination of giving Khloponin the positions of both presidential representative and vice-premier is particularly significant. This allows him access to both President Medvedev and Prime-Minister Putin and puts him in charge of not just the power ministries. As Vice-premier, he will have the authority to give orders to representatives of all federal ministries in the region. The unique nature of the position is also meant to serve as a signal to regional leaders that he is someone with direct access to the top leaders in the Kremlin; in other words, he is someone to be respected and obeyed.

Finally, there is the question of why Piatigorsk was made the capital of the region. This seems fairly straightforward — it is close to all of the regional capitals without actually being one of them. If the capital of the new district was placed in one of the republics, it would give that republic an advantage over the others, something that would not go over well in the region. Placing the capital in the city of Stavropol was possible, but it is farther removed from the republics. Piatigorsk is only an hour or so drive from any of the other capitals in the district. It hosts the Liudmila market, which is a central meeting point for traders from the entire region. And last but not least, it is a resort town, which will make it an attractive place to live for the federal bureaucrats who will now be based there (and also an attractive place to visit for officials from Moscow…).

Overall, this seems to be a very successful decision on the part of Medvedev and Putin, allowing them to reap the benefits of Khloponin’s potential success in the region, while giving them the necessary distance from their new viceroy to lay the blame squarely at his doorstep should things go badly awry.