Over the past year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has completed a radical re-centralization of the Russian political system. Skeptics who doubted that he had the acumen and political support to conceive and implement such an agenda have been proved wrong. But now the question is: Will the reforms have their intended effects?
This was one of the topics discussed by the 200-plus specialists who gathered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC last Friday (February 4) for the annual conference of the Project on New Approaches to Russian Security (PONARS). The discussions were off the record, although the papers are available on the Internet (csis.org/ruseura/ponars/policymemos/pm_index.cfm)
One session was devoted to the impact of Putin’s recent political reforms. In his paper Grigorii Golosov, from the European University in St. Petersburg, argued that the key to Putin’s strategy over the past few years has been building up United Russia as a ruling party able to control politics at the regional level in accordance with instructions sent by Moscow.
At first Putin tried to follow the path of “managed democracy,” picking favored candidates for gubernatorial races and trying to get them elected. However, this strategy did not work, since most governors continued to win election by running as independents. Since October 2003 only 50 of 285 candidates in gubernatorial elections were nominated by political parties, and only six of them were successful. Of course after the governors were elected they could then be recruited into United Russia (UR). But this meant that they were coming in as autonomous actors, not beholden to UR functionaries.
The European University’s Vladimir Gelman argued that once the Kremlin realized its strategy of “positive selection” was failing, it switched to “negative selection”: using political pressure and, if necessary, the court system, to remove unwelcome governors. This method proved cumbersome and unreliable, so Putin solved the problem last September by announcing the abolition of elected governors altogether. In the future, Putin will nominate governors, subject to approval by the regional legislature.
The problem is that the would-be ruling party has also had a poor record in penetrating regional legislatures. United Russia won a majority in only nine of the past 25 regional legislative elections. Seven of the nine UR victories came in ethnic republics, where elections tend to be uncompetitive and tightly controlled by the republic president. Typically, governors have been able to use patronage to establish a loyal majority in the local parliament.
It is widely assumed that regional parliaments will meekly accept Putin’s nominees since, if they reject the proposed executive twice, the parliament may be dismissed. However, what one participant called the current “tidal wave of protests in the regions” over benefits reform has dented Putin’s approval rating and re-energized the opposition. So it is not impossible to imagine legislatures defying Putin if an objectionable candidate is proposed. In the regional parliament of the Koryak autonomous region, the Communist Party won a majority in the election last December and is already resisting Moscow’s nominee to represent that body in the Federation Council. In Voronezh, even the local branch of United Russia is itself organizing protests against the governor for his handling of the benefits reform.
Meanwhile, the elimination of the single-seat races, which formerly filled half the seats in the State Duma, in favor of party lists removes another important element of political pluralism at the national level. Gelman spoke of “the extinction of political opposition in Russia,” since Putin has systematically removed all the principal sources for the emergence of opposition leaders: the oligarchs, governors, and political parties. The three main political parties responded to this consolidation of power in different ways. The Communist Party voiced opposition, the Union of Right Forces professed loyalty, and Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko stood on the sidelines. But all three groups suffered the same fate: political marginalization. Ivan Kurilla, a scholar from Volgograd, argued that the strange coexistence of free elections and a weak civil society in Russia during the 1990s has effectively been resolved by the abolition of elections.
Among the conference participants there was consensus on the substance of the reforms, but disagreement over their long-term impact. Putin’s defenders argue that the reforms are part of a long-term strategy to rebuild the Russian state, creating the political space to tackle corruption and unfinished tasks of market reform. But some of the PONARS scholars argued that Putin’s moves are mainly driven by crisis-avoidance: tactical concerns about maintaining control rather than strategic planning and institution building. Hence in his memorandum, Nikolai Petrov wrote, “It would be a mistake to assume that the president’s plan is long-term. The proposed amendments to Russia’s electoral laws have less to do with the 2007 elections and more to do with the loyalties of State Duma deputies and governors between now and then.” This is connected to the prevalence of a legalistic mentality, where it is assumed that passing good laws is sufficient, overlooking the challenges of policy implementation at the regional level.
There is a good chance, then, that the project of building a new ruling party may collapse. It seems unlikely that United Russia will be able to dislodge entrenched regional governors. And who can say whether they will score another sweeping victory in the 2007 State Duma elections, much less come up with a winning candidate for the 2008 presidential election? One U.S. participant noted that political systems that rely solely on party lists to fill the national legislature tend to be highly unstable. They produce surprise results in response to mood swings among the electorate. Think Weimar Germany, the French Fifth Republic, or the 1993 victory of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The emasculation of the electoral choices and the disappearance of a “loyal opposition” may cause citizens to turn to violent means of expressing their discontent. This is turn would give the Kremlin the excuse to further tighten controls. As Petrov concluded: “One should not underestimate the threat of ongoing changes in the future. Although Putin’s regime is a soft and ineffective authoritarianism, it can easily pave the road to a much harsher one.”
These uncertainties mean that the United States cannot afford to ignore the domestic situation in Russia: it should prepare for unexpected developments.