The Russian law governing the country’s polity is undergoing changes this very moment. The purpose of these changes is not political reform but consolidation of the existing political system. It is like being on a treadmill: running to stay in the same place.
The changes include two laws introduced into the Russian parliament by Senator Andrey Klishas and State Duma deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov (each in his respective chamber is responsible for getting the Kremlin’s political ideas through the legislature). The 300-page law ‘On the General Principles of the Organisation of Public Authority in the Constituent Entities of the Russian Federation’ came into effect on December 21, 2021. The law directly associated with it, namely the law ‘On the General Principles of the Organisation of Local Self-Government under the Unified System of Public Authority’ was introduced on December 16 and is still in its first reading.
Both laws build on the constitutional amendment regarding a unified system of public authority, which now includes all bodies of state power at the federal, regional and local levels (i.e. providing legal grounds for the de facto elimination of independent local self-government authorities). The essence of the ‘unified system of public authority’ is most succinctly formulated in the former law (Article 2): ‘The President of the Russian Federation shall ensure the coordinated functioning and interaction of the bodies that make up the unified system of public authority’.
This amendment could be deemed ‘protective’ because it seeks to further enshrine the so-called ‘power vertical’ that the Kremlin has been constructing since the early 2000s.
The new laws ensure the federal centre almost limitless scope to interfere in the affairs of the regions, and for regional authorities to interfere in the affairs of municipalities. For example, it is stipulated that federal authorities can influence regional staffing decisions in the areas of education, healthcare, finance, construction, real estate, and state regulation of tariffs, while the president can override any decision of the governor. At the same time, regional authorities can take away the most important powers from municipalities.
Each of these laws deserves its own series of articles analysing their possible implications. This piece will focus only on how they will affect the electoral sphere. On December 16, United Russia’s deputies Dmitry Vyatkin and Dmitry Lameikin submitted to the State Duma a draft law on remote electronic voting, which also affects the electoral sphere and thus, indirectly, Russia’s polity. We will therefore include it in this review as well.
A blow to the party system
The Russian party system has gone through two major phases of development over the past twenty years.
In the 2000s, the Kremlin set itself the goal of maximally unifying the country — building a ‘power vertical’ – and began to engage combatively with independent regional and local politicians. The result was not only the doing away with direct gubernatorial elections in 2005 and the expulsion of governors and heads of regional parliaments from the Federation Council, but also the introduction of pure proportional representation in the Russian State Duma — single-member constituencies ceased to exist at the federal level. All this was acclaimed by pro-government commentators, who emphasised the need to strengthen political parties. It seems that some of them were quite frank in expressing the belief that the parties that should constitute the backbone of any modern political system in Russia were those born of the 1990s as clubs of diverse politicians who were not united by common views. The nature of the parties has not changed.
After the 2011 election, the Russian authorities faced a new reality — a decline in the ratings of the ‘party of power’. In order to keep its dominant position, a U-turn was made — in the State Duma elections, single-member constituencies were re-introduced (it is through them that United Russia gets a constitutional majority in the parliament, despite the party’s much more modest level of support). In the regional and local legislatures, the proportion of seats allocated by party lists gradually decreased and the proportion of candidates in single-seat constituencies increased.
A new law passed in December 2021 sees regional elections depart from proportional representation in favour of a first-past-the-post majoritarian system. This will have several consequences.
First, the majoritarian system significantly distorts representation. The leading party has a chance of winning 100% of the seats, even if its level of support is 30−35%. However, given United Russia’s moderate popularity ratings, the party risks losing more than it can gain. One of the most telling examples is that of the 2019 Khabarovsk Krai Duma elections, when, following Sergei Furgal’s victory in the gubernatorial race, United Russia (which had a majority in the Krai Duma at the time) cut the proportional part of the legislative assembly but still ended up losing all single-member constituencies and winning only two seats from the candidate list.
Second — and more importantly — it will become much more difficult for parties to obtain the so-called parliamentary privilege, i.e. the right to nominate candidates without collecting signatures. When it was almost impossible for candidates to register by collecting signatures, it was this privilege that attracted many of them to the parties. Now the importance of parties will be reduced at all levels — federal, regional and local. For example, in order to enjoy this privilege and nominate candidates to the Duma, a party must have won more than three percent of the vote in the previous election, or get mandates on a list in at least one regional parliament. In the 2021 elections, 14 parties had the advantage (in the end, only they made it to the ballot). Of these, four parties were represented in the federal parliament and the rest received the privilege through regional elections.
At present, only 11 parties are eligible to compete in the next Duma election: five parliamentary parties (United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation [CPRF], Liberal Democratic Party of Russia [LDPR], A Just Russia — For Truth, and ‘New People’) and six parties which formed their factions in regional assemblies this September (Party of Pensioners, Communists of Russia, Yabloko, Rodina, the Greens, and the Party of the Direct Democracy). Of those parties that ran in the 2021 elections, the privilege has not yet been extended to the Party of Growth, Green Alternative, Civic Platform or the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice — they need to get at least five percent of the list in one region, but this may become impossible if there are no more lists. As a result, politicians will have fewer opportunities to run for office without collecting signatures — there will be fewer ways in to this market.
This will affect regional and local elections even more, as there are fewer parties enjoying privileges at this level: these are the five federal parliamentary parties plus the parties that won more than three percent in the regional elections. According to the results of the September 17−19 elections, in 32 out of 39 regions where regional parliamentary elections were held, between six and eight parties are entitled to nominate candidates without having to collect signatures in local and regional elections. And in most regions this number has increased significantly compared to the previous parliamentary cycle. But where list-based elections are eliminated, no one will have any privileges a few years from now — many opposition politicians will simply find it impossible to register for elections.
It is noteworthy that the elimination of the mandatory proportional component in regional elections looks like a direct reaction by the authorities to the failed regional elections of September 2021, as this provision appeared only in the second version of the law, in November to December: it did not feature in the original bill.
In this way, the Kremlin is trying to protect elections from potentially problematic candidates. ‘Undesirable’ candidates who do slip through the registration filter face another challenge that has been emerging in recent years and is now being legislated, namely remote electronic voting (REV). Tests of the system have already caused scandals, as test results at digital polling stations differ significantly from those at regular polling stations. Russian election organisers have persisted in introducing REV without fully guaranteeing voting rights. Observers and experts believe that pushing REV forward in this way may indicate preparations for mass fraud and other electoral manipulation. The new legal provisions regulating online voting are worded in a way that provoke the fear that only the FSB, which actually controls online voting, will have the key to the real election results. Members of the civic working group on REV point out that the draft law does not provide guarantees of oversight over online voting, even by members of relevant election commissions, and many provisions are ambiguously worded.
Lack of staff and resources
Another problem faced by the power elite and highlighted by the pending legislative initiatives is the obvious lack of managerial staff and resources to administer such a vast country like Russia.
First, the newly adopted law removes the two-term limit for governors. In other words, the infrequent but regular rotation of regional heads (once every ten years) is perceived by the Kremlin to be excessive, either because of staff shortages or because much depends on informalized, private arrangements and decisions. In any case, this situation only creates the illusion of sustainability and stability, although in reality it is more of a threat to them.
Second, according to the bill on local government being considered, the lower level of self-government (i.e. that of rural settlements and city districts) will, with the exception of Moscow and St Petersburg, be completely eliminated. This level accounts for over 90% of all elections and elected positions in the country. To all appearances, representatives of district administrations in large villages (most likely, not more than one seat per larger village and neighbouring small villages) and, perhaps, headmen in small settlements will replace heads of settlements and deputies of village councils. Given the similar number of district police officers (one person per several settlements), this means that there will be almost no official authority left at the level of rural settlements. It is likely that this gap will be filled by an unofficial power elite, ranging from the heads of businesses operating in the area to criminals.
Given the lack of financial and human resources to govern the country under the new complex conditions, the state is gradually withdrawing from the vast territory of the country. Initially, there were cuts in the number of schools and medical institutions, and now in local government. Huge territories lacking management are emerging in Russia that are disadvantaged and invisible to the state, lying apart from the ‘power vertical’. These areas include settlements outside cities and large villages (in fact, outside cities and district centres).
According to the 2010 All-Russian Census, there are 17 million people living in settlements with a population of fewer than 1,000 residents. Only in the regions of the Caucasus, Tyva and the Nenets Autonomous District does the average number of residents of rural settlements exceed 1,000 people; in the rest of Russia, the average is lower. It can confidently be assumed that the majority of residents of these territories are pensioners or people approaching retirement age. In addition, the average voting results for representatives of the authorities are generally higher here — this population is both the most conservative and the most state-dependent in the country.
But there is almost no money in rural areas, so people living there have turned out to be of no use to the authorities. The ‘power vertical’ will control only those units where there are financial flows. At the same time, the most financially burdensome areas will be taken over by higher tiers: the region takes over some of the local powers, and the federal level takes over regional ones. This is the ‘bad governance‘ siphoning off rent that Vladimir Gelman writes about in his similarly titled monograph.
It is also an indicator of the diminishing resources available to the authorities: despite the seeming further consolidation of the regime, the picture of a shrinking power space is emerging in Russia — if one understands power as the ability to govern and manoeuvre, that is, to coerce, control and choose from the options at hand. Foreign policy is increasingly drawing the power elite into confrontation without allies, while domestic policy is plagued by a lack of resources and social support. This is leading to the attempt to plug all the holes that might let fresh air into the political system.