Friday, October 24, 2014

The Power Vertical

The Vote That Counts


With the constitutional amendments to extend the terms of office of the president and Duma deputies in hand, President Dmitry Medvedev has moved quickly to the next phase of political-system reform that he announced on November 5 (full text here). Now he has turned his attention to the country's regional executive-branch heads and how they are selected. Today "Kommersant" reported that Medvedev has submitted his reform proposal to the Duma.


You will recall that until 2005, governors were directly elected, in odious elections that were grossly abused by incumbents in order to secure their control over virtual fiefdoms. This, however, gave them power bases that were independent of the Kremlin's control. They forged their own ties with oligarchs whose business interests reached into their regions. They controlled local media and often foisted blame for local problems off on Moscow. And sometimes they raised their heads on the national stage in ways that didn't quite fit into Vladimir Putin's scenario of managed democracy.


After a spate of horrific terrorist incidents in Russia in late 2004 -- culminating most vividly with the Beslan school hostage taking -- Putin decided that one of the measures needed to fight terrorism was the elimination of direct gubernatorial elections. He thought the country would be safer if he decided who would control the regions. So he instituted a system under which his envoys to the regions would supposedly submit a couple of candidates to Putin; Putin would pick one and send his or her name to the regional legislature; and local lawmakers would confirm or reject the selection. If the lawmakers rejected it, Putin could simply disband the legislature and install his candidate on his own. Not surprisingly, things never reached that point.


Governors -- even those whose terms were nowhere near expiring -- rushed to get Putin's seal of approval. The lines of political loyalty became direct and clear -- from the governor's office, through the envoys, to Putin.


But now, for some reason, that system doesn't seem to work? Is it because the line of loyalty now, theoretically, extends from the governors not to Putin, but to Medvedev? Or is that this system is opaque, undemocratic, and not worthy of a modern open society? Luckily, we don't need to sort out these questions, because Medvedev hit on a solution that solves both these problems!


On November 5, he told the country: "I consider it possible that only those parties that received the greatest number of votes in regional elections should be able to submit candidates for future executive-branch heads of the subjects of the federation to the president. No one else. Thus, the exclusive right for nominating candidates will be secured to public, open political structures representing the majority of the population."


Under the bill that Medvedev submitted yesterday, the party holding a majority of seats in the regional legislature in question must submit three candidates to the president at least 90 days before the expiration of the current governor's mandate. If the president rejects that list, the party must submit another three candidates. If that list is unsatisfactory, the president will begin talks with all the parties represented in the regional legislature, as a result of which another three candidates will be selected. After that the process remains the same -- the president submits his or her anointed one for confirmation by local lawmakers.


But there are few particulars that attract attention. For one thing, there is the important detail that it is not the actual lawmakers in the region who will be making the selection, but the "permanent management organs" of the majority party -- that is, the party leaders in Moscow.


In Russia, at present, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party -- no doubt as a result of its outstanding program -- holds majorities in 79 of the country's 83 regional legislatures. The chairman of the Unified Russia party is, of course, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "Kommersant" quoted A Just Russia Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov as saying Medvedev's bill would be more honest if it just said: "governors are appointed by the Unified Russia politburo." Right Cause co-leader Boris Nadezhdin predicted that "President Medvedev will only be able to appoint governors that have been named by the leader of Unified Russia, Putin."

To be fair, it was actually Putin who first hit on this solution. He floated the exact same idea in October 2005. Only then, perhaps, Russian democracy wasn't ready for it. After all, back then Putin wasn't the formal head of the party, it didn't have a constitutional majority in the Duma, it controlled majorities in only 47 regional legislatures, and the Moscow headquarters hadn't fully established its control over the party's own regional branches. Putin was a few years ahead of his time, it seems.


The bill clearly represents a major strengthening of Putin's control of the political system through the mechanism of Unified Russia. These crucial cadre decisions -- and the lavish opportunities for bribes and corruption and crooked "business" dealings that attend them -- will clearly and openly be in Putin's hands. When Russia elected a president in March, Putin's vote was the only one that really counted. Now he's done it again.


And as is so often the case in Russia these days, only the Communists can be heard ironically calling for free, fair, direct elections by secret ballot.


-- Robert Coalson

Tags: governors,amendments,Russia,elections

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From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)







From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or