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Operation «legitimization»

Andrei Pertsev sums up the week (November 20−24)

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The presidential administration held an orientational meeting for regional officials to prepare for the presidential elections. Participants in the meeting told the media that the Kremlin had asked them to conduct a «modest and legitimate campaign» «without any brouhaha». Such messages were previously uncharacteristic of the political bloc led by Sergei Kiriyenko. «Modest and legitimate» — is a strategy favored by former curator of the political bloc and current Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. He and his subordinates liked to talk about competitive, open and legitimate elections (even inventing the acronym COL-factor for this purpose). At the same time, a municipal filter operated in the gubernatorial elections, keeping strong candidates from elite groups out of the race. Later on, after the Communist Sergei Levchenko won the 2015 gubernatorial elections in Irkutsk Oblast, a party filter was also introduced: «systemic» parties began to deliberately nominate weak candidates for regional governorships. In return for their cooperation with the Kremlin, these parties received a number of agreed governorships and single-mandate constituencies for the Duma elections. Of course, the correction of the election results is still in use. To professional political analysts and observers the falsity of AP’s theses was quite obvious, but Volodin and his subordinates kept on talking about competitiveness and legitimacy.

For a long time, Sergei Kiriyenko’s political bloc operated in a very different style to Volodin’s. It never hid the percentage of votes it wanted to win for one or more government candidates. Its modus operandi, if not publicized, was certainly not concealed: Kiriyenko’s political bloc mobilized support of corporations and public sector employees as its main strategy that yielded desired results. This practice of what formalists would call «laying bare the device» was reminiscent of the architecture of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with its structural elements turned inside out and exposed on the interior. But now Kiriyenko’s subordinates have returned to Volodin’s methods, and the hypocrisy of their statements is even more blatant than in Volodin’s case. Talk of «avoiding any fuss» is taking place against the backdrop of the largest public events in support of the Kremlin candidate in the history of Russian elections. The International Exhibition and Forum «Rossiya» is being held at the VDNKh with great success. A million people across the country are expected to take part in the «Eto u nas semeynoe» contest for intergenerational families. Putin’s campaign will end with a splashy festival for young people and students at the Sirius education center. Talk of legitimacy, accompanied by the mobilization of business to support the campaign, the widespread use of a poorly controlled electronic voting system and the further curtailment of the rights and opportunities of election observers, can only bring a sad smile to one’s face. Kiriyenko’s machinations have robbed Russian elections of their mystery and magic, and perhaps the main client or someone in his inner circle has noticed. The presidential election has turned into a clearly scripted plebiscite, the outcome of which is well known in advance. Putin, who loves displays of popular love, may not appreciate such a surrogate, which is why Kiriyenko’s political bloc is wrapping the election machine, honest in its own way, in the camouflage of false arguments about modesty and legitimacy. Professional political observers understand perfectly well that no camouflage can be applied to this huge mechanism that has already been created and launched, but the main customer of the campaign may well be deceived by this rhetoric.

Showmen in uniform

The head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, has proposed that state ideology be enshrined in the Russian constitution. The proposal by a figure with a formally high status in the power vertical has sparked a public debate. Andrei Klishas, head of the Federation Council’s legislative committee, disagreed with Bastrykin — and this response can be seen as the position of the Kremlin’s political bloc, whose theses Klishas often voices. Popular political Telegram channels controlled by the AP or other influential elite players were also quick to criticize the IC chairman’s suggestion. In the heat of the debate, their authors even voiced arguments that the Kremlin’s political managers prefer not to talk about openly: the state’s one-size-fits-all ideology is detrimental to the political pragmatism of the vertical. Support for the Putin regime is based on the fact that it tries to please all citizens without irritating them with excessive ideological studies and bias. The Kremlin and Putin simultaneously appeal to the Soviet era, orthodox values, the Soviet Gosplan and the free market. The power vertical prefers not to choose a definite side or platform; instead, it glides over the surface of many ideologies without plumbing the depths. Choosing sides — as Bastrykin suggests — undermines the unity of Putin’s electorate, which is why a clear ideology is harmful to Putin’s regime. The Kremlin’s political administrators understand this and are trying to contain the risks by indirectly criticizing the head of the Investigative Committee who has trespassed on their territory.

However, a different aspect of Bastrykin’s case is more important. The head of the Investigative Committee is aware that there are many conservatives in the Kremlin’s security bloc who are nostalgic for the USSR and would not mind reintroducing compulsory ideology into the constitution. Perhaps Putin is one of them, having publicly regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union on more than one occasion. Bastrykin’s remarks, therefore, really have one addressee: the president himself. It is his attention that the head of the KGB is trying to attract. Many Russian politicians and officials have long followed a similar strategy: going public with conservative statements and proposals in the hope that their superiors will notice and show favor. However, such public displays of zeal are usually staged by players who are either unhappy with their current status, or those who have long dreamed of moving up the ranks, but are almost desperate in their career aspirations.

Players who hold truly influential positions, and even more, those wearing uniforms that do not allow for public activity are in no hurry to become showmen and jesters. Why should they do so when they have already achieved a high status that commands the respect of other members of the vertical? Experienced bureaucrats such as former President Dmitry Medvedev, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin or the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc, Sergei Kiriyenko, may at times make fiery, ultra-patriotic speeches in public. But they merely entertain without proposing anything specific. The above-mentioned figures have boosted their public profiles, but they have done so safely. They know that a public proposal, if ignored by the top leadership, will reveal the current status of the participant and his real influence. Alexander Bastrykin has dared to make a proposal, he has taken a risk that will probably not be justified.

Bastrykin, who has broken the unspoken rules of conduct for the siloviki at his level, is likely to believe that these rules have changed. Now they supposedly imply a revision of the duties of powerful players who are supposed to entertain the leader and guess his innermost and secret desires. At least, this is the logic by which the head of the IC operates. However, Bastrykin is wrong: the unrealized proposal will show that its author is far from being the influential figure he wants to appear. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov suffered such a blow to his reputation this week. He is adept at making public appearances without commitment, but during a video call with Putin he couldn’t help to make a proposal. He invited the president to Chechnya, received his vague reply, and then the Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to announce that the president would not be going to the republic in the near future, but would visit the region «one day.» The head of the IC, who had entered the market of ideological proposals, received an asymmetrical response from the Kremlin’s curators of this direction. The politicized segment of the Russian Internet is now busy discussing the futility of Alexander Bastrykin’s efforts to attract the president’s attention and regain his former influence.

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