The political year of 2007: winners and losers

The Duma elections, as a prelude to the presidential election, should have been the main event of 2007. But the suspense of 2008 was dispelled by the end of 2007, since the Year 2008 Problem has been resolved early.

The chief source of suspense for the past four years – who will be Russia’s next president, and what will Vladimir Putin do after his second term – has been dispelled ahead of schedule. The Year 2008 Problem has been resolved in December 2007, following United Russia’s confident victory in the Duma elections, the party’s nomination of Senior Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev as its presidential candidate, and Medvedev’s proposal that Putin should become prime minister from May 2008. The last remaining doubts about Putin’s future were dispelled by Putin himself; at United Russia’s congress on December 17, he consented to “continue our common efforts in the capacity of prime minister,” if “the citizens of Russia express their confidence in Dmitri Anatolievich Medvedev and elect him as the new president of the Russian Federation.”

Thus, contrary to forecasts made by certain experts in spy psychology, Vladimir Putin has honestly followed through on the prime minister plan which he stated openly at United Russia’s congress on October 2. And the “cover operation” wasn’t the gradual promotion of Medvedev, but the reshuffling of other potential successors – such as Sergei Ivanov, promoted to senior deputy prime minister in February, and Viktor Zubkov, who replaced Mikhail Fradkov as prime minister in September.

Analysts now have no choice but to believe another of Putin’s promises: he is prepared to serve as prime minister “with no redistribution of powers between the institution of the presidency and the government itself.” Even so, the maneuver that shifts the outgoing president to the office of prime minister may be regarded as a classic example of adapting democracy: that is, adapting Western standards to Russia’s realities without amending the Constitution. After all, the Kremlin has come up with an arrangement that would allow the president and prime minister to swap places ad infinitum, thus bypassing the two-term limit. And the only way to put a stop to this practice would be to amend the Constitution, specifying that the same two individuals can’t hold the same two offices for more than two consecutive terms.

Putin’s successor, in a de facto tandem with Putin himself, is certain to win the presidential election in the first round on March 2. This is indicated by the latest opinion polls, and by the outcome of the Duma elections – where regional authorities showed that they’re prepared to provide whatever results the Kremlin requires, even if they have to announce practically Soviet-style figures like 99% turnout and 99% of the vote for the winner. Thus, the procedure of electing the president will be very similar to the new system established for regional leaders. Just as regional legislatures endorse the president’s nomination of regional leaders, Russian voters will endorse Putin’s nomination of the new president.

For all the obvious differences between Putin-era elections and the traditions of the Yeltsin era (there was far more competition when Successor Putin was elected in 2000 than there will be for Successor Medvedev in 2008), the past year has revealed some similarities between Yeltsin and Putin in terms of their relationships with prime ministers. In other words, Russia’s system of government has become so firmly established that even very different individuals behave similarly when they hold high office.

In their first terms, both Yeltsin and Putin essentially had only one prime minister: Viktor Chernomyrdin (who became prime minister in Yeltsin’s second year as president) and Mikhail Kasyanov (dismissed three weeks before the presidential election of 2004). After that, in both cases, the Kremlin started having doubts about the loyalty of prime ministers. Rumor had it that Chernomyrdin wanted to be president; and Kasyanov disagreed with Putin over the YUKOS affair. In both cases, the prime ministers were dismissed and replaced with political unknowns: the youthful Sergei Kiriyenko was promoted in 1998 and envoy Mikhail Fradkov was recalled from Brussels in 2004.

Yeltsin and Putin also made similar choices with their third prime ministers – people with strong links to the Soviet era. Kiriyenko was replaced by Yevgeny Primakov (former Soviet Politburo candidate, former head of one chamber of the Supreme Soviet); Fradkov was replaced by Viktor Zubkov – a classic Soviet apparatchik who climbed the Party ladder from farm director to first deputy chairman of a regional party committee.

There were only two differences between these almost-parallel appointment sequences. Firstly, Yeltsin appointed Sergei Stepashin as prime minister for a brief interval after Primakov; but Zubkov seems likely to remain prime minister right up until President Medvedev’s inauguration. Secondly, Putin was named as Yeltsin’s successor on his appointment as prime minister; Medvedev gained his successor status while his rank remained unchanged. But these differences are merely formalities. After all, Medvedev was being described as the shadow prime minister even when Fradkov was in office.

The early resolution of the Year 2008 Problem has eclipsed the Duma elections to some extent. These elections were supposed to be the event of the year. Nevertheless, the Duma campaign may be described as unprecedented, in a number of aspects.

Firstly, the Kremlin carried out the biggest “cover operation” of the Putin era – replacing the Duma elections with a referendum on confidence in the president. The formalities remained unchanged: party lists of candidates, party campaign advertising, and the names of parties on ballot-papers. Yet most citizens came to perceive these elections as “voting for Putin.” For example, according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 65% of respondents said that the Duma elections were a referendum, while only 19% described them as ordinary parliamentary elections. And 46% of respondents who voted for United Russia said they did so because they wanted to support Putin, while only 32% voted as they did because they liked the party itself.

Secondly, this reformatting of the campaign, plus the fact that voting was confined to party lists, led to an unprecedented division of parties into favorites and outsiders; in effect, the outsiders were expelled from real politics. In the past, parties that failed to make it into the Duma could at least convey their message to voters via lawmakers elected in single-mandate districts; but now that single-mandate districts have been abolished, failing to make it into the Duma means that a party is deprived of any voice at the federal level. On the other hand, raising the representation threshold from 5% to 7% of the vote didn’t make any difference, since none of the unsuccessful parties managed to get so much as 3% of the vote; one reason for this was that “votes for Putin” went to United Russia, as mentioned above.

Thirdly, these elections showed that Russian citizens are growing more and more accustomed to the realities of managed democracy, and seeing fewer differences between real democracy and sovereign democracy. Back in the 1990s, and even the early years of this decade, most voters would condemn overt use of administrative resources, refusing to view the election outcome as fair; but now it seems like such irregularities are no longer viewed as severe departures from democratic standards.

In a recent poll done by the Levada Center, a total of 17% of respondents said they had experienced pressure during the Duma campaign – from the authorities, bosses, or co-workers – aimed at making them vote for a particular party. Only 9% of respondents said this after the 2003 elections. There was a significant rise in the proportion of respondents who reported pressure from their superiors at work: from 1% to 7%. Moreover, 13% of respondents said that portable ballot-boxes had been brought to their doors on December 2, although they had not requested to vote from their homes. However, even after recognizing that such incidents happened – severe violations of electoral laws – only 3% of respondents concluded that this “altered the election outcome substantially.” The proportion of respondents who said that the election outcome was rigged also declined in comparison to 2003 (from 18% to 9%); while the proportion of respondents who denied that it was rigged rose from 57% to 69% – despite the glaring evidence of United Russia’s almost-100% results in some regions.

Against this backdrop, the results of another Levada Center poll might seem paradoxical. When asked whether Russia needs democracy, 67% of respondents said yes (compared to 56% in 2006); support for Western-style democracy rose from 18% to 22%, while support for Soviet-style democracy fell from 13% to 10%. Yet this paradox is easily explained: Russian citizens simply regard what is happening around them as real democracy – just as most Soviet citizens considered it normal for stores to sell only two varieties of sausage and for the Communist Party to get 99.9% of the vote.

Aside from the overall outcome of the Duma elections, it’s also worth mentioning the fate of two party projects that seemed quite promising in early 2007: Just Russia, established to be the second Kremlin party, and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), then considered quite likely to make it into the new Duma.

Just Russia was founded in October 2006; its first attempt at participating in parliamentary elections proved quite successful. However, without the help of the Kremlin and regional elites, Just Russia barely managed to scramble over the 7% threshold. Thus, rather than being “the Kremlin’s second leg,” Just Russia has ended up as the fifth (fourth) wheel on the Duma cart.

The SPS was another casualty of Operation Successor. In the March 2007 round of regional elections, the SPS changed its priorities and went after part of the left-wing electorate – ending up with over 7% of the vote, on average. The Kremlin didn’t seem to have anything against this party; even Vladislav Surkov described its March results as “quite convincing.” And if United Russia had continued to need only a simple majority in the Duma, the SPS might have been allowed to get its 8% of the vote on December 2. But the configuration changed; United Russia’s new target was a two-thirds majority, leaving no room for a fifth party in the Duma. At the height of the campaign, the SPS made a desperate attempt to switch to tough anti-Putin rhetoric. This only led to widespread confiscations of SPS campaign leaflets and newspapers; then the national television networks attacked the SPS. Even Putin himself described the liberals who ruled Russia in the “cursed 1990s” as one of Russia’s two enemies, alongside the communists.

So these two parties, the SPS and Just Russia, have ended up as the losers of 2007. The SPS can only hope for a miracle – and perhaps the long-awaited unification of pro-democracy forces. Just Russia can hope that once the smoke has cleared after the presidential battles, the Kremlin might come back to the idea of a two-party system.

There were some noticeable changes in the Kremlin’s regional policy in 2007 – largely related to the federal election campaigns. It was a two-way process: top-down and bottom-up.

On the one hand, many regional leaders – concerned about their prospects under the next president – decided to take the precaution of seeking reappointment according to the new procedures, before the successor’s election. Thus, regional leaders who had initially been elected by citizens were reconfirmed in office when nominated by President Putin and endorsed by regional parliaments; this process started in 2005, slowed down in 2006, and picked up again in 2007. Twenty-three regional leaders were confirmed in office during the first ten months of 2007; 12 of them chose to undergo this procedure ahead of schedule, by requesting President Putin for a confirmation of confidence. In this election year, Moscow’s attitude to the regions grew noticeably tougher – as indicated by the statistics on regional leader replacements. In 2005, 12 of the appointed regional leaders were newcomers (27%); in 2006, three were newcomers (33%); in 2007, this proportion reached 44% (11 out of 25). Contrary to previous practice, when replacements tended to happen as an incumbent’s term expired, in 2007 there were seven regional leaders (28% of total departures) who left office when President Putin declined their confirmation of confidence requests, or resigned “voluntarily” (with observers inevitably describing these resignations as voluntary-compulsory).

Another feature of 2007 was the departure of several regional leaders who had been in power for over 15 years.

Then again, it looks like a few of the heavyweights have turned out to be too tough for Putin after all. Despite all Moscow’s efforts to undermine President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan and President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan, they retain a firm hold on power; they have even grown stronger in the wake of the Duma elections (delivering 81.1% and 83.1% of the vote for United Russia, respectively). Although Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzkhov produced one of United Russia’s five lowest results (54.15%), he need have no concerns about his fate – at least, not until after the presidential election, in which the Kremlin will be chasing the votes of Muscovites again; while Muscovites don’t particularly like the federal authorities, they are prepared to support their beloved mayor. So the Kremlin won’t punish Luzhkov, although it has punished others for the same sins: many experts say that the dismissals of Yaroslav Governor Anatoly Lisitsyn and Smolensk Governor Viktor Maslov were due to United Russia’s poor election results in their regions (53.2% and 53.9%, respectively).

On the other hand, the process of selecting new regional leaders showed some clear signs of trouble in 2007: with a shortage of good candidates, the Kremlin was forced to choose the best of a bad bunch. In the past, regional leaders tended to be drawn from speakers of regional parliaments, chief executives of regional enterprises, or at least mayors of regional capitals. In 2007, selections have included complete outsiders – such as Nikolai Kolesov, director of an obscure industrial plant in Kazan (now governor of the Amur region); Sergei Mitin, deputy minister for agriculture (Novgorod region); Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, deputy governor of the Tomsk region (Buryatia). And if the next president continues getting rid of Yeltsin’s legacy, it seems that regional leader posts in 2008-09 will be offered to directors of enterprises and organizations at the medium regional level.