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A Triumph for Mishustin and Volodin

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (April 1−5)

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On 3 April, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin delivered his annual report to members of the State Duma. For the Cabinet of Ministers and its leader, the event was a kind of summing up of their work and a preview of the new season. In May, after his upcoming inauguration, Vladimir Putin will have to dissolve the current government and propose the candidate for prime minister to the State Duma for approval, and the Duma, in turn, will have to approve the deputies and heads of ministries proposed by the prime-minister. The formal powers of the State Duma in the formation of the Cabinet of Ministers were extended by constitutional amendments in 2020. Federal deputies were given the right to approve not only the prime minister’s candidacy but also his or her subordinates. Of course, the composition of the government will be formed in a completely different place and time: Putin’s inner circle will be busy conducting complex negotiations (or rather bargaining) within the political elite for ministerial posts. It is inconceivable that the State Duma, where members of the «United Russia» party has enjoyed their super-constitutional majority, will refuse to appoint any of the personalities proposed by the president or his entourage. But the ritual itself is prescribed by law, and the chairman of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, a seasoned courtier, made ample use of it. Volodin thanked Mishustin and individual members of the government (such as Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and Agriculture Minister Dmitry Patrushev) and asked the deputies to give a round of applause to those officials who had particularly distinguished themselves (such as Patrushev Jr). Volodin singled out Dmitry Grigorenko, head of the prime minister’s office, a man close to Mikhail Mishustin. The head of the government himself praised his subordinates, and Marat Khusnullin, the deputy prime minister for construction, one of Putin’s favourites, received separate commendations from him. Even the Communists, who usually try to show their opposition by attacking the government without daring to attack the Kremlin, sang the Cabinet’s praises.

Mishustin’s annual report and the behaviour of the prime minister, ministers and Duma deputies during its reading can tell us a lot about the expectations of the elite about possible reshuffles in May. Vyacheslav Volodin often tries to play on his superiors’ moods and anticipate their decisions. He spoke highly of Mikhail Mishustin (whose reappointment as prime minister is not widely doubted among the elites), and also praised certain figures in the government: protégés of elite groups or representatives of the entourage of the chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers himself. Thus, the Chairman of the State Duma once again played the role of the «lord of the Parliament» for Mishustin, demonstrating his personal loyalty to him (the prime minister is traditionally considered the most likely presidential successor in terms of status). At the same time, he sent positive signals to Khusnullin, who enjoys the president’s favour, and to two hypothetical successors who represent influential groups: Manturov (Rostec) and Patrushev Jr. Volodin also showed that he has not abandoned one of his main roles: that of spin doctor and political technologist.

The speaker spared no compliments hoping that influential officials would not forsake the «lord of the parliament» and help him stay afloat. And, thanks to Mishustin’s report, we can conclude that the Russian elite expects Mishustin to remain in his post for the time being (indeed, who else but the former head of the Federal Tax Service can deal with the tax increases announced by Putin in his speech?). There is also little doubt that Marat Khusnullin will continue as deputy prime minister, and Rostec will get Denis Manturov to extend his term. It also seems logical that Mishustin will keep the Chief of the Government Staff, Dmitry Grigorenko, on his job. In this sense, the prime minister’s speech and the entire performance around it can be seen as his triumph: his role as the number two man in the country is undisputed, his favour is sought by status figures who do not hesitate to flatter the prime minister. But the government’s report can also be described as a triumph for the chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, who has found the role of moderator-master of ceremonies, which is not yet very common in the power vertical. In times of war, times of «cohesion and unity», when any serious criticism of the regime is practically equated with treason, this role of public flatterer may come in handy more than once.

Moscow City Duma: nothing but quotas and more quotas

Moscow authorities tend to apply political and technological solutions that are then adopted by the Kremlin. The most visible and clear example of such a solution is electronic voting. It was first introduced in Moscow, where the mayor’s office struggled to get its candidates elected to the Moscow City Duma in 2019. At the time, in 20 out of 45 districts, candidates (mostly from the Communist party) supported by Alexei Navalny’s «Smart Voting» project won. Two years earlier, in many municipalities where local elections were held, opposition representatives were able to become deputies, and in some districts the opposition even won the majority of seats. The mayor’s office worked hard to prepare for the 2021 State Duma elections: electronic voting was introduced in the city, and the authorities made sure that the majority of voters they could control (mostly public sector employees: teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, etc.) registered for electronic voting on a semi-voluntary basis — i.e. under pressure. According to the results of voting at polling stations in many of the capital’s single-mandate districts, opposition candidates won again, but electronic voting gave the victory to the «United Russia» party or candidates from other parties backed by the government. Perhaps a sense of control played a role here: people believed that the e-voting system would allow the authorities to check if and how they had voted, so they ticked the required boxes. There may have been direct manipulation and rigging. But the fact remains that, because of the remote e-voting system, Moscow is officially no longer an opposition region. By the time of the presidential elections, the e-voting had already spread to 29 regions, and by the 2026 Duma campaign it will have spread across the entire country. Apparently, the Moscow mayor’s office is about to present another model to the federal government in the Moscow City Duma elections.

The contours of the election campaign of the city authorities’ protégés are already clear: all of them will run for the «United Russia» party (Sergei Sobyanin already ran for the party of power at the Moscow mayoral elections in 2023, although he used to prefer self-nomination). The systemic opposition will get one or a few seats per party if the mayor’s office deems the party worthy: for example, if the party in question enjoys some popular support as shown by the polls conducted by sociological centres close to the authorities. Of course, the political bloc of the city administration will be the one to determine which candidate (agreed-upon in advance) it wants to see in the capital’s parliament. This system of quotas solves the problem of the declining popularity of the systemic parties. Vladimir Putin is used to the current structure of the parliamentary opposition, it is clear and convenient for him. Quotas are a good way of maintaining the kind of order that suits the president. Moreover, it is easier to ensure quotas in Moscow elections than in federal and other regional elections. The Moscow City Duma is made up entirely of single-mandate districts, and it is much easier to ensure that a particular candidate has the best conditions for his or her campaign in a given district. To get a representative of a systemic party into parliament, all that is needed is the absence of a strong candidate from the «United Russia» party and the support of the authorities for one’s campaign. The mayor’s office has already pulled off this trick twice with Leonid Zyuganov, the grandson of CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov. The system of the remote e-voting makes it possible to engineer guaranteed quotas, which ensure purely formal representation. On the one hand, it will not threaten the government’s policies in any way (what can three or four deputies against more than 40 others do, even if they come together?), and on the other, the systemic «oppositionists» themselves will not be offended. It is to be expected that in the event of success in Moscow, the Kremlin will apply the system of quotas to the State Duma elections as well. In this case, however, it will be more a question of percentage quotas for party representation. It is possible, however, that in the event of a further decline in their real popularity, the formation of the parliament will have to be changed to a single-mandate system, which again, would certainly guarantee the application of quotas.

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