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Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

A look at Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov began his career

nizhniyPhoto credit to The Moscow Times.

In the aftermath of Boris Nemtsov’s shocking assassination, his friends in Russia and abroad are remembering him primarily for his role as a liberal opposition leader in the Putin era and for his short-lived tenure as first deputy prime minister under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Russia Flag Iconnizhny

Nemstov’s appointment as deputy prime minister lasted just four months, however, when Yeltsin dismissed him and other top government officials in the tempest of the 1998 ruble crisis. It was a sharp fall for someone that even Yeltsin hinted might one day be his successor.

nizhnyPhoto credit to BBC.

Instead, Nemtsov’s more enduring legacy in Russian government involves the six years he spent as the first post-Soviet governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast in the Russian heartland that lies hundreds of miles to the east of Moscow — it lies north of the Caucuses and the Turkish-Iranian border.

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RELATED: Nemtsov’s shocking assassination rocks Moscow

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The oblast is home to Nizhny Novgorod, once Russia’s third city after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Named Gorky (after the writer Maxim Gorky) from 1932 until the fall of the Soviet Union, it plays an important, if shrinking, role as a hub for the Russian industrial heartland. The city, which rests at the point where the Volga river meets the Oka river, dates to the 13th century. During the Soviet era, it was a center of military activity and, accordingly, foreigners were prohibited from visiting the city. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Nizhny opened both to tourists and capitalists alike.

Nemtsov, a bright and charismatic physicist who first engaged public policy in protest over the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, was appointed Nizhny Novgorod’s governor in November 1991. In December 1995, when Russia was still an emerging democracy (and not a failing democracy, or a puppet democracy or an outright autocracy), Nemtsov was reelected at a time when privatization and liberalism had become so unpopular that Yeltsin himself was struggling politically to defeat communist and ultra-nationalists.

As governor, Nemtsov enthusiastically embraced the wave of liberal reforms that Yeltsin and Anatoly Chubais, first deputy prime minister before Nemtsov, were introducing across the country. Unfortunately, however, those policies also caused massive economic dislocation and cultural disorientation. Nevertheless, Nemtsov won praise from free-market advocates like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and from Western bankers keen on the investment opportunities in a newly opened Russia. He was close not only to the young group of market-oriented reformers in government, but also to opposition liberals, most notably the liberal, pro-democratic ‘Yabloko’ bloc, then led by Grigory Yavlinsky, who advised Nemtsov on economic reforms in Nizhny Novgorod and who remains the intellectual godfather of the Russian opposition movement (here’s a recent interview with Novaya Gazeta).

In his book Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, the inimitable David Remnick writes that Nizhny Novgorod was a bright star in the Russia of the 1990s:

Beyond Moscow, the most encouraging region is centered around Nizhny Novgorod, where young and progressive politicians like Boris Nemtsov have made good on their promises to create ‘capitalism in one country.’ One of the biggest problems with the Soviet economy was that it was so heavily militarized; Nizhny Novgorod, the third-largest city in the country, has been one of the most militarized of all. And yet not only has the city managed, through privatization, demonopolization, and bond issues, to create thriving service and production economies, it has also managed to convert 90 percent of its collective farms to private hands.

But today, Nizhny is a case study in just about everything that’s wrong with the country — a confluence of the economic, environmental and demographic tragedies that are afflicting Russia in the 21st century. The oblast’s population has fallen from 3.71 million in 1989 to just 3.31 million in 2010, and the city is shrinking by around 15,000 annually as the death rate far exceeds the birth rate. Nizhny is now the fifth-most populous city, eclipsed by cities like Novosibirsk in Asian Russia.

As the prolific writer Anna Nemtsova (no relation to Nemtsov) has chronicled, her home city of Nizhny is not only one of the fastest shrinking cities in Russia, it’s one of the fastest shrinking cities in the world:

In 2014, [Nizhny] achieved an ­unenviable distinction: in the first six months of the year, 26,350 people died and only 18,700 babies were born – the population of Nizhny shrunk by 7,600 people in six months, its highest ever death rate. No bombs fell on the city during the period, no epidemics hit, no natural disasters struck its population. For the past two years Nizhny had been the fifth fastest shrinking city in the world.

In Siberia, of all places, cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk are growing, even while Nizhny is failing. That’s not all Nemtsov’s fault who, after all, hadn’t been responsible for its government in nearly two decades. Moreover, as grim as Nizhny now appears today, it might have been even worse without the effects of Nemtsov’s shock therapy in the 1990s.

Nemtsova also writes about the city’s current mayor, whose wife spends much of her time in southern France. Valery Shantsev, the oblast governor since 2005 (one year after the Kremlin ruled that governors will be appointed directly and not elected) previously served for a decade as a former deputy mayor of Moscow under the fabulously corrupt Yuri Luzkhov.

Even as the region’s current leaders seem more like neo-feudalist, criminal vassals of Putin’s Kremlin, it’s clear that Nemtsov, in the 1990s, fell short of the economic miracle he was trying to achieve, and it’s important not to omit that failure from his legacy. It will be tempting now to remember Nemtsov for all his qualities as an opposition leader since the rise of Vladimir Putin, to paint him in broad strokes as a pro-democracy, pro-reform dissident and a man of principle. Nemtsov, of course, was all of those things.

But it’s not quite that simple, because he shares responsibility for  the wave of creative destruction unleashed throughout the Russian economy in the 1990s. Even if the Yeltsin-Chubais-Nemtsov reforms were a necessary step in Russia’s transition from a top-down communist state, they engendered economic suffering unknown to Russia for decades, scars that still afflict Russian collective memory today. The failure, in aggregate, of the reformers to establish broad-based economic prosperity, and the even more damning perception that they created a new class of oligarchic robber-barons set the conditions for Russia’s slow march back to autocracy.

Nationalism, the state security apparatus, a culture of corruption. All of these things are to blame for the rise of Putin-era illiberalism. But to understand the genesis of the Putin regime today requires a blunt and unflinching assessment of the failures of the regime that preceded it. After all, it was Yeltsin himself who plucked Putin out of relative obscurity in naming him as his fifth and final prime minister in August 1999.

Putin came to power, not in a vacuum, but into a specific context of economic, political and cultural conditions that Boris Nemtsov helped shape, both for better and for worse.

Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny


In case you missed it (and there’s much more important news coming from Russia this week), Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin has won reelection heartily in what will be the biggest election this year in Russia.MoscowRussia Flag Icon

But don’t get your hopes up — Sobyanin’s reelection has long been certain since announcing what amounts to snap election earlier this summer.

Sobyanin, Moscow’s acting mayor since 2010 and formerly Russian president Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, easily defeated opposition activist Alexei Navalny by a margin of 51.37% to 27.24%, just enough to avoid a runoff between the two candidates.

Sobyanin, who is Siberian (so not a native Muscovite), replaced longtime Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in October 2010.  Sobyanin has demonstrated more energy as Moscow’s new mayor, and many Muscovites compare him to Luzhkov in his first years as mayor in the early 1990s — Sobyanin has worked to install bike lanes, develop parks and reduce traffic congestion within Moscow.

So even while Navalny demands a recount of the vote (and it’s suspicious that Sobyanin won 1.37% more than he needed to avoid a direct runoff with Navalny), there’s a credible basis to the notion that Sobyanin commands the support of a majority of Muscovite voters.  Though there’s not much evidence of fraud in an election that had elements of competitiveness, Sobyanin’s campaign controlled the state media and used other advantages to enhance benefits of incumbency.

That hasn’t stopped Navalny, who is already demanding a runoff on the basis of alternative surveys of Sunday’s vote:

Exit polls conducted by the opposition leader’s campaign office suggest that Navalny has claimed 35.6 per cent of the vote, with Sobyanin receiving 46 percent. The opposition candidate announced that there will be a second round of voting in the mayoral election. He vowed to call on his supporters “to take to the streets” if it does not take place.

What’s most striking is that Navalny did so well — the 37-year-old blogger and anti-corruption crusader started off the race as an asterisk.  When the race began in June, Navalny was polling less than 10% in surveys, but that was before the Russian government harassed Navalny in myriad ways, most notably through a conviction of embezzlement on charges that Navalny stole around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov.  As a popular uproar against Putin surged in protest of what many Russian believe was a politically motivated trial, the government provisionally released Navalny, allowing him to continue his campaign.  But Navalny faces imprisonment if his conviction isn’t overturned, which could sideline him in Russia’s next legislative elections for the State Duma (Госуда́рственная ду́ма) in 2016 or even the next presidential race in early 2018.  Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin holds on for full term as Moscow mayor in race against Navalny

Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election


Though it’s sometimes easy to forget in the post-Cold War era, Moscow is still the most populous city in Europe and one of the five most populous cities in the world — it not only Russia’s capital, but Russia’s central city for power, politics and finance. Russia Flag IconMoscow

That makes the city’s mayor one of the most powerful official in the entire Russian federation and, with snap elections due for Moscow’s mayor in September, it gives some of the most unpredictable voters in Russia the opportunity to make a rare popular statement with five years to go until another presidential election, despite fears that the vote may be titled in favor of the incumbent mayor, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Earlier in June, Moscow’s current mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced his resignation, despite the fact that his term runs through 2014, setting up snap elections for September 8 that seem increasingly likely to be an easy victory for Sobyanin as his most viable rivals have either stepped aside or face an uphill challenge even making it to the ballot.  Critics immediately called Sobyanin’s resignation and the early elections a ruse to avoid real competition, thereby cementing control over Russia’s largest city within Putin’s grasp.

Elections for Moscow’s mayor are themselves a new phenomenon, given that then-president Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Duma only reintroduced direct elections for governors and other positions last year, after president Vladimir Putin suspended gubernatorial elections in 2004 on the somewhat dubious rationale of national security and anti-terror efforts.  Under the new direct elections law, however, new hurdles have been introduced that require candidates to have the support of other lawmakers in the region.  Given that Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) is by far the dominant political party in Russia, that means Putin will continue to have at least some influence on gubernatorial and local elections.

Moreover, earlier this year, Putin pushed through another law allowing regions to avoid direct elections through an alternative process whereby each party in a regional legislature submits three candidates to the Russian president, the Russian president chooses three finalists, and the regional legislature elects a governor from among the three finalists. (You can’t make this up!)

The man who was most widely anticipated to challenge Sobyanin — former presidential candidate and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — opted out of the mayoral race in mid-June when it was clear that he would not be able to meet the legal requirements in time for the snap race.  Prokhorov, who formed Civic Platform (Гражданская Платформа), a liberal political party in June 2012 in the wake of his relatively successful presidential race.  But Prokhorov, who is the owner of the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team in the United States, would have run afoul of requirements that require his assets to be repatriated prior to serving as Moscow’s mayor. Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election