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Conversations Before the Execution

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (March 25−29)

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Following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, several influential Russian politicians — among them the chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council, former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and leaders of various Duma factions — openly suggested that the government should consider reinstating death penalty. It is not easy to abolish the moratorium on the death penalty — the procedure involves another revision of the Constitution, a session of the Constitutional Assembly or a referendum. Medvedev and Volodin said nothing about any of these complications while the latter suggested that the death penalty should be reinstated by a decision of the Constitutional Court. At some point, leading Russian propagandists, for instance, the RT chief Margarita Simonyan, began to muse about the possibility of bringing back the death penalty. The voices of public enthusiasts for the return of the death penalty were so loud that one could get the impression that the decision had already been made and that it was only a matter of time before it was reinstated and applied.

However, the composition of the support group indicated from the outset that the death penalty had little chance of being reinscribed in Russian law. Perhaps, these politicians are the mouthpiece of the most radical section of Russia’s hawkish siloviki; or perhaps, the speaker of the State Duma and the deputy chairman of the Security Council are independently positioning themselves as the main radicals in the political establishment. But more often than not, their words and threats remain just that: empty words and threats. Putin is probably pleased that there are certain players in the power vertical who are prepared to go far beyond the party and government line and propose radical measures, but so far Putin has been in no hurry to act on these proposals. The proposal to reinstate the death penalty in Russia as soon as possible is likely to go unanswered.

In the first days following the terrorist attack, public hawks tested the response of the top leadership, and for a while there was nothing to counter their unanimous voices. But in the end, a dissenting opinion was voiced by several political heavyweights. Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the Duma’s Legislation Committee, for one, urged that the prospects of reintroducing the death penalty be considered «with a cold head», i.e. the idea should be thought through over a period of time but failed to specify the exact length of this period. Andrei Klishas, head of the Federation Council’s Committee on Legislation, was even more explicit, describing the complicated procedure for the possible reintroduction of the death penalty. Margarita Simonyan also changed the tune and began to muse about the impracticality of the death penalty. All the above-mentioned figures are closely connected to the presidential administration (Krasheninnikov and Klishas are tied to the political bloc of the presidential administration, and Simonyan is linked to the information bloc) and all of them are constantly in touch with PA. The signals they have been sending can be taken to reflect the standpoint of the «civilian» (as opposed to the siloviki or hawks) wing of the Kremlin: it will simply not be possible to reinstate the death penalty right now. Judging by the dying out discussion of the death penalty, for now the hawks have lost this battle to the civilian bureaucrats.

Talk of capital punishment has done its job. The radical-minded part of society that read the fiery appeals voiced by Volodin and Medvedev, has blown off some steam. The public hawks are not at a loss either: both the State Duma chairman and the deputy chairman of the Security Council can always say that they each perform their roles according to the designated typecast or line of character, and this game works to the advantage of the power vertical itself, distracting and attracting the radically-minded Russians. «Civilian» bureaucrats from the Kremlin can report up the power vertical that the public conflict over a sensitive issue has been extinguished. The very issue of the death penalty remains one of the main populist traps of Russian politics. Politicians seeking to mobilize radical conservative audiences are always ready to raise it, and Kremlin handlers do not prevent them from doing so because discussing the return of capital punishment distracts society from its grievances against the authorities (and the death penalty always reappears as a conversation maker whenever citizens have such grievances).

It cannot be ruled out that the system will return to this discussion when the time is right. Discussing the issue will allow the regime to start the process of adopting a new constitution. Formally, Russia continues to use the constitution adopted during Yeltsin’s time in office, although it has been thoroughly amended under Putin. The president, who is doing his best to write himself into Russian and world history textbooks, may try to leave his own «Putin’s Constitution» as part of his political legacy. The death penalty is unlikely to appear in Putin’s constitution either, but discussion of it could justify the process of adopting a new constitution.

Systemic purges

A few days after the terrorist attack on Crocus City Hall, the Russian media began to publish news of criminal investigations initiated against high-ranking officials and «law enforcement» officers. The deputy head of the customs service, Colonel-General Elena Yagodkina, was arrested for abuse of power. Igor Khranovsky, head of a department in the Federal Ministry of Economic Development, is currently facing the same charges. Officials from Rosaviatsia and regional administrations have been detained and their homes searched. There are two main reasons for the wave of such cases and arrests. During Putin’s election campaign, «law enforcement» agencies continued to harass high-ranking officials, and this is what makes the 2024 presidential election different from previous campaigns, when «law enforcement» agencies tried not to make local executives nervous by bringing cases against their colleagues. But apparently the Federal Security Serivce and the Interior Ministry were literally sitting on their hands throughout this campaign. Now the delayed cases have come into play, and most likely the arrests and house searches of those involved in the power system will continue. Secondly, against the background of the terrorist attack, news of new criminal cases against officials became another popular trap for Russians. The siloviki have shown that they are hard at work, that they are punishing the entitled bureaucrats who drain millions and billions of rubles from the Russian budget. A certain section of the public likes such «exposés», especially when they are accompanied by pictures of the luxurious villas, apartments and cars amassed by the persecuted officials.

For the most influential participants of the «civil» part of the vertical of power, the persecution of their colleagues is bad news, a disturbing red flag. The officials who keep the system running are still second-class citizens in the eyes of its core players. They may receive material benefits, but they have no insurance, no immunity and no protection from the security agencies. The longer the vertical system operates, the more defenceless its servants feel. As a result, the Russian power system, which offers no guarantees to its participants, may face a shortage of personnel and a problem of their low quality. At some point, this may become a critical factor for the regime, unless, of course, it suffers other serious blows earlier, be it economic or political ones.

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