by Gordon M. Hahn
The results in last month’s Russian gubernatorial elections point to both a possible challenge and extrication solution for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his system. They revealed: (1) new decline in the popularity ruling pro-Putin party Yedinaya Rossiya (YeR) or United Russia, (2) the limited though not insignificant capacity of Putin’s soft authoritarian system to control events such as elections, (3) the contradictory position and potential of the so-called ‘systemic’ or pro-system quasi-opposition parties, and (4) the opportunity they and other forces may afford the Putin regime at the regional level for fashioning a Mexican-like transition from single-party rule to a softer, even democratic regime should the present system deteriorate and begin to lose control in the face of rising opposition.
In September, Russia’s ruling YeR for the first time in its history was forced into second round runoffs in not one but four gubernatorial elections by candidates from two of the three so-called ‘puppet’ or systemic opposition parties: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and the notorious Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). In Primore Krai, the results of the election indicated the need for a runoff round as neither the incumbent governor, the YeR’s Andrei Tarasenko (49.5 percent), nor the second place finisher, KPRF candidate Andrei Ishchenko (48.1 percent) won more than 50 percent of the vote. However, the Central Election Commission cancelled the elections results and the runoff, citing extensive reports of cheating and fraud on both sides. In Khabarovsk Krai (Territory) runoff, LDPR candidate Sergei Furgal defeated the YeR incumbent by a whopping 70 percent to 28 percent margin. In Vladimir Oblast’ (Region) runoff, the LDPR’s candidate, Vladimir Sipyagin defeated the YeR incumbent 57 percent to 37 percent. In the Republic of Khakassia, the incumbent from the YeR dropped out of the race before the runoff round in expectation he could not win, and the second round has therefore been delayed. In the first round, the YeR incumbent finished second to KPRF candidate Valentin Konovalov, 32 percent to 45 percent, respectively. This is a set of unprecedented defeats in gubernatorial races on a single election day for the YeR.
These electoral setbacks, along with the YeR’s continuously declining approval ratings and post-election declines in its approval rating and those of Putin himself, Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev, the government and the Duma suggest a significant but as yet far from catastrophic weakening of the system’s legitimacy (www.ng.ru/politics/2018-10-07/1_7326_reiting.html). The cause of this decline — the ill-timed proposal to raise the pension age, new restrictions on Internet use that included criminalization of ‘likes’ and reposts of material, and other factors — are not central here, except to say that Putin has been forced to step in and soften these and other ill-conceived measures. The fall in Putin’s approval ratings demonstrates that despite his intervention, he has paid a price in his own legitimacy for these mistakes however much he sought to separate himself from them.
Besides the weakening of core regime personages and institutions, the elections demonstrated two points I have made previously. First, all parties cheat, not just YeR cheat. This was proven in the Primore gubernatorial election, where not just the YeR incumbent but the LDPR candidate engaged in electoral fraud. Second, there are limits to, and a clear reduction in the use of outright electoral fraud by the regime. The Kremlin has been careful to avoid excessive cheating in the past, limiting it to the scale necessary to achieve certain electoral goals: victory, a constitutional majority, and a legitimizing 70 percent vote. Since 2011, moreover, the Kremlin has relied almost exclusively on the uneven playing field created by its access to ‘administrative resources’ (the use of state positions to give the YeR certain advantages in the media, campaigning, etc. and blocking the most dangerous competitors from participation in elections), rather than ballot stuffing, multiple voting and the like. This hardly marks a shift to democracy, but it does suggest a felt need in the Kremlin to be more cautious for fear of sparking another outbreak of mass demonstrations as occurred in response to the December 2011 Duma voting.
There is an advantage to YeR’s ceding (willingly or not) more electoral posts to other parties, including the pro-system parliamentary parties such as the KPRF and LDPR. It increases their stake in the survival of the present soft authoritarian system, broadening its base and thus strengthening it. In addition, by presenting the KPRF and LDPR as the likely alternatives to a YeR-, Putin-dominated system, these ‘scarecrows’ chase some in the West away from the idea of orchestrating democratization or color revolution. With the communists and Zhirinovskii lurking, Putin seems like the better of three evils.
But Putin’s problem is not the West so much as it is the Russian people. His recently declining popularity is likely the ‘first starling’ of continuing decline driven by his own waning energy, complications built up by some two decades of continued rule, and ‘popularity fatigue’ or the natural tendency for voters and the ruled to get tired with the same face(s) among candidates and rulers. By 2024, when Putin’s constitutionally-permissible second consecutive term ends he will be hard-pressed to repeat the 2008 ‘castling move’ and have the equally familiar, tired, and even less popular Medvedev stand in again for another interim term. The populace will be tired of this innovation and no less tired of a decade of low growth rates, and segments inside the elite and state, some of whom are already showing signs of acting autonomously against Putin’s policies and interests, will begin seeking their own options, including to defecting to nationalist or democratic opposition elements. In short, Putin should be including among his 2024 options, those that envision a gradual transition to democracy and his own extrication (leaving power without negative repercussions for himself and his closest allies) from power.
Coincidentally, the recent gubernatorial defeats cryptically suggest a way out. Mexico’s ‘imposed transition’ (managed from above by the regime without a negotiated ‘transition pact’) from single-party dominant rule would be a good model. In the 1990s, the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) began to lose — that is, allow itself to lose, given its own systemic electoral fraud and administrative resource-usage — elections at the regional level in Mexico’s states to one of the system’s legal but marginalized parties, PAN (National Action Party). The PAN’s decline in popularity was fueled by exposures of mass corruption and stagnating economic growth, despite the country’s vast oil profits. Through the 1990s, the PRI gradually lost the governorships of a majority of states, usually to PAN candidates, and by 2000 it lost the presidency to the PAN’s Vincente` Fox. In the process or losing power, many PRI members defected to, and became leaders of the PAN, and the PAN split into two parties. The loss of power, it must be underscored, did not occur by violent or peaceful overthrow of the PAN single-party dominant regime, nor by negotiations between the PAN and other parties or fronts. The process was gradual, occurred with the standing but sometimes reformed institutions, and ultimately under the PRI’s control. The PRI gave up power without being coerced.
The four ‘lost’ governorships could be made the beginning of this process. To begin the transition process, the Kremlin would need to allow extraordinary majorities in the regional legislatures enjoyed by the YeR to become simple majorities through ‘managed’ electoral competition. Then management can be gradually released, allowing YeR majorities devolve into minorities wherever the opposition would be able to take advantage of the liberalized electoral regime, perhaps taking the leash off first in less important regions and gradually doing so in more important ones. The same can be done with governors’ elections, and the four lost governorships offer opportunities for YeR majorities in the four respective regions’ legislatures to begin cooperating with opposition elements, albeit managed or puppet ones, like the KPRF and LDPR. The process of pluralization in the regional legislatures could be accompanied by an expansion of these legislatures’ competences. This might include agreeing with legislative majorities one or more nominees to regional ministers’ posts. Even before opposition forces have entered the regional legislatures in significant numbers, the YeR factions in them should begin to cooperate with them in drafting legislation. Once or before that process has produced a balance of power in the regions, then the same process should be introduced in relation to the State Duma.
Opportunities and indeed turning points could be next year’s Moscow City Duma (MosGorDuma) elections and St. Petersburg gubernatorial/mayoral election, which will take place in the two cities where democrats can garner as much as a third of the votes, assuming honest elections and even playing fields. Regarding the MosGorDuma, the opposition stands to gain a good number of seats, given that the recently instituted ‘municipal filter’ for regional and municipal elections does not exist for the MosGorDuma. The municipal filter has been a mechanism by which the Kremlin and its ruling YeR party can effectively block inconvenient candidacies in such elections, since the ‘filter’ requires that to run for a mayoral post or municipal legislature, for example, a prospective candidate must gather a certain number of signatures of municipal deputies. Since the YeR had majorities in almost all municipal legislatures when the filter was passed into law, the YeR can largely select the field of candidates. However, the catch has been that the regions and cities can decide whether to adopt the filter and what percentage of municipal deputies’ signatures need to be collected to pass the filtering process. Moscow chose not to introduce the filter for MosGorDuma elections, though it did adopt it for Moscow mayoral elections. This and the liberal opposition’s relative popularity in Moscow opens the possibility of a non-standard result that could energize democratic parties countrywide and force Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to submit to a more pluralistic re-election campaign in 2022, which in turn could shape Putin’s 2024 calculus and presidential election. In order to prepare for a democratic transition, the Kremlin would do well to –however unlikely — facilitate a free and fair MosGorDuma nominating and voting process, allowing a large democratic opposition minority to take seats in the city council.
In St. Petersburg, Putin recently shifted the calculus for the September 2019 St. Petersburg gubernatorial election by removing Governor Georgii Poltavchenko from the office that he had held since 2011. He was replaced as acting governor by long-time Petersburg politician Aleksandr Beglov, who will likely be tapped or at least backed by the YeR and Putin as the Kremlin’s candidate in the 2019 election. However, there is an interesting wrinkle in St. Petersburg that Putin could use to position pieces he made need parlay in the event of instability arising as 2024 approaches. Kseniya Sobchak has expressed interest in running in the election. Sobchak, as is well-known, is the daughter of St. Petersburg’s first post-Soviet and democratic mayor, Anatolii Sobchak, who was also Putin’s mentor in the early 1990s when he served as Sobchak first deputy mayor until his defeat in the 1996 St. Petersburg gubernatorial election. Although Ms. Sobchak has been a staunch advocate for democracy and against corruption and a harsh critic of Putin’s politics, she and her mother, Mayor Sobchak’s widow, retain some sympathy and good relationships with the president. Thus, Sobchak could be someone to help rise in standing in Russian politics, perhaps as governor of St. Petersburg, and who might be willing to function as a gateway for Putin’s safe extrication from power should a revolution threaten to overthrow his sistema or a pacted or an imposed transition become necessary. These two regional pieces — the crucial capitol of Moscow and the pivotal second capitol St. Petersburg — could become part of larger latent regionally-driven transition puzzle similar to the 1990s Mexican model that Putin could put in place in case he needs an exit option.
To be clear, I am not predicting such a regionally-driven-from-below transition process but rather recommending it. Regional democratization is one way out of the inevitable impasse to which Putin’s soft authoritarian system will eventually lead, given its highly personalist nature and therefore ultimately metastable if not weak nature, hinging solely on an aging personality and old political face. To put it simply: sooner or later Putin has to go and it is becoming sooner everyday. It is hard to imagine that Putin wants and or could manage to survive politically so as to become another gerontocratic Brezhnev, Chernenko, or Andropov–voting for himself in makeshift polling stations in hospital and eventually dying, taking the office with him, so to speak. Matters would likely become destabilized before that. The system’s weak institutionalization–now with increasingly non-authoritative institutions, excluding the military and the Russian Orthodox Church–must be address before the system becomes unstable. Otherwise, an unorderly, perhaps revolutionary regime transformation rather than an orderly imposed or negotiated one will occur, with all the risks to Russian state security and territorial integrity and to international security that might entail. To avoid such risks, Putin would do well to consider (and even may be considering) already ways to extricate himself and his country from the dead end to which they are on course. One way is to begin a transition process sooner rather than later; one that he can perhaps still control or guide from above. The place to begin may very well be in the regions.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn’s most recent book is Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. He has authored three previous, well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.