Could Regional Legislatures Save Russia by Implementing ‘Instant Federalization’ After Putin?

February 18, 2016
Photo by A. Scherer/DW

Two of Four Parliamentary Parties Turn Down Call to Avoid Ethnic Themes, Barinov Says

Staunton, VA, February 18, 2016 —  United Russia and Just Russia have agreed to Igor Barinov’s call that they sign a formal agreement committing themselves to avoiding any nationalist or xenophobic statements or actions in the upcoming Duma elections, but the KPRF and LDPR so far are refusing to do so, an indication that even the parliamentary parties won’t salute quite as fast as the Kremlin may want.

In an interview published in today’s Izvestiya, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs says that he hopes that they will come around but that even if they don’t, the monitoring of the media his institution is now doing will allow it to refer violations to the Central Election Commission which can block offenders from running.

In the course of a wide-ranging interview, Barinov made the following additional points:
· He called the decision to expel Turkish students from Russian universities “a stupidity” because, if they were allowed to stay, “in the future they could become reliable agents of influence, elements of Russia’s south power on the territory of Turkey.” The Americans do that, he says; “why should we reject such mechanisms?”
· It is “stereotypical” thinking to assume that inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts are most common in the North Caucasus. “Practice shows that the regions of the central and eastern part of the country are not insured against them.” In those places there exist “’long-playing’ but not completely resolved disputes.”
· The Dagestani authorities had the right goals but acted in an unfortunate way by closing mosques without explaining to people why they had to do so. Anytime the government wants to do something like that, Barinov says, it must engage in “major preliminary work” – and that is what his agency is for.
· Kaliningrad is now close to resolving the dispute over the construction of a mosque there. It was wrong to agree to have it in the center of the city but absolutely correct to have a mosque for Muslims on the outskirts.
· The nationality affairs agency’s system for monitoring conflicts is currently working “in a test regime” in “more than half of the subjects of the federation.” Barinov says he hopes to have it up and running across the entire country this year. Such monitoring constitutes early warning of problems and thus will allow officials to prevent them from getting out of hand.
· His agency’s call for the authority to ban websites does not represent a tightening of government control over the Internet but rather will ensure that Moscow can intervene in a timely fashion.
· The nationality affairs agency is committed to working with the Cossacks to ensure the development of that community.

· “The problem of Siberian separatism doesn’t exist.” It only appears to do so because officials talk about it in the hopes of extracting more resources from the center, Barinov says.

A New and Very Different ‘Red Belt’ Emerges in Russia

Staunton, February 18 – According to the Moscow Institute for the Development of the Russian Electoral System, “a new ‘red belt’” is emerging in the country, one not centered as was the one two decades ago in agricultural areas but also “in industrially developed centers of the country.”

That change in the boundaries of “the red belt” may give definite advantages to opposition parties,’s Sergey Popov suggests, “because in major cities, campaigning can be more effective than in small cities and in villages” because “the electorate [in the latter] is less easy to manipulate, more critical of the authorities, and on the whole more interested in politics.”

The institute says that there are some 25 federal subjects in Russia – in which live “more than half of the voters of the country” — that are now part of this new electoral region and that the real level of support for the ruling United Russia Party “does not exceed 25 percent” in any of them.

The top five of these dissenting regions in terms of the potential for protest voting, the institute’s experts say, are Irkutsk, Chelyabinsk, and Sverdlovsk regions in Siberia and the city of Moscow. In the Siberian regions, the level of protest voting could be “about 50 percent.”

One region of the country that is unstable but where protest voting is likely to be quite low, the institute continues, is the North Caucasus. That is because of the massive subsidies these regions receive from the center and the willingness of the leaders of republics there to do whatever it takes to display their loyalty to the Kremlin.

Even regions on the edge of the North Caucasus, like Krasnodar and Stavropol territories, are much less likely to see significant protests voting in the upcoming elections.

Could Regional Legislatures Save Russia by Implementing ‘Instant Federalization’ After Putin?

Staunton, February 18 – Oleg Kashin suggests that in the event that Vladimir Putin’s power vertical begins to weaken, regional legislatures could take the lead in dismantling his system in a bloodless way because they reflect the interests of the population more accurately than do governors and the State Duma which Putin tightly controls.

In a comment for Deutsche Welle, the independent Russian journalist says that the Putin regime has much in common with authoritarian regimes elsewhere such as Salazar’s in Portugal and Marco’s in the Philippines and thus is likely to have much in common with their end and replacement.

But, Kashin argues, there is one “very important aspect” of Putin’s regime which sets it apart. The genuine opposition has been thoroughly marginalized, the church and the army are completely integrated into the power vertical, and there is no effectively organized working class which might challenge the authorities in a serious way.

Consequently, he says, one must search for “a source of a political alternative” by looking outside the ruling class. Some in the opposition like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Dmitry Gudkov have made comments which suggest that they recognize this reality, but they do not go far enough because they generally fail to look beyond the Moscow Ring Road, Kashin says.

To be sure, he continues, “Russia is only formally a federation; in reality, one would have to search for a more centralized state.” The country’s regions are controlled by the Kremlin especially at the level of governors where “the heavyweights” of the 1990s have been replaced by outsiders but not as tightly as the regime controls ministries and corporations in the capital.

Many of the governors now keep their positions only by maintaining the closest ties with the Kremlin, Kashin says; and thus they are unlikely to be a source of change even after Putin is gone. But that doesn’t mean that there is no one in the regions who could play that role and whose possibilities are greater.

Those are the members of the local legislative assemblies, which are made up almost exclusively of “local officials who represent local interests.” Indeed, Kashin says, “as a rule, the regional deputies are the old local elite, the chief doctors of hospitals, the rectors of universities, and the heads and owners of enterprises.”

As long as the power vertical remains strong, they will be “loyal United Russia followers, forced to smile at and swear loyalty to the latest guest governor, but this is only when the vertical is strong.” But when it weakens, these regional legislators will revert to representing the local interests of the population.

As a result, Kashin says, “the most reliable way out of any political crisis in Moscow would be instant federalization: if federal pressure disappears, real power will pass to the regions.” And while that wouldn’t be “as romantic as a popular revolution, it would have a greater chance to take place peacefully.”

Kashin’s argument is important because he points to a group of political actors who are typically ignored by Russian analysts and politicians in Moscow and by students of Russia in the West. But there are three reasons for skepticism about the possibility he outlines.

First, the Putin regime has already focused its attention and that of its representatives in the regions to the risks that opposition figures in the regional legislatures represent, purging some of them like Lev Shlosberg in Pskov or working to ensure that ever more reliable United Russian loyalists are in firm control as in Karelia.

Second, while he is certainly right that members of these local assemblies do represent local interests, Kashin does not deal with the obvious problem that any revolutionary change is almost inevitably led by one or a small group of people. Such assemblies are simply too large to be able to play that role, at least in most cases.

And third, and most seriously, given Russian traditions, any efforts by regional officials to secure more rights and move toward genuine federalism will be presented by Putin’s successors just as they are by Putin himself as the first steps toward secession and disintegration and thus something that must be nipped in the bud.