Regional Elections 2018 Look-ahead: An interview with Ben Noble

With elections set for Sunday, we wanted to give you further insight into what’s happening and what to look out for. Dr. Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and a Senior Researcher at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His research focuses on the law-making process during the legislative stage of policy-making in authoritarian regimes. His empirical work is centred on states of the former Soviet Union. Recent publications include: “Not just a rubber stamp: Parliament and lawmaking” (with Ekaterina Schulmann) in The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia, edited by Daniel Treisman; and “Authoritarian amendments: Legislative institutions as intra-executive constraints in post-Soviet Russia” in Comparative Political Studies.

Interview conducted by BMB Russia columnist Alex Nice.

Gubernatorial, regional legislative assembly and mayoral elections are taking place on September 9. What will you be looking out for in these elections? Is this mainly a story about the technologies to achieve voter mobilisation?

My eyes will be firmly on the election results of the Irkutsk legislative assembly, as well as the gubernatorial races in Khakassia, Vladimir Oblast, and Khabarovsk Krai. In Irkutsk, there is uncertainty regarding how United Russia (UR) will perform in the party-list portion of the election. (For this regional assembly, 22 deputies are elected in single-mandate districts, and 23 are elected via party-list proportional representation.) If UR were to come second to the Community Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in the party-list vote, that would be the first time it experienced such a “loss” since 2007, when UR didn’t win the party-list vote in Stavropol Krai.

This uncertainty is certainly making people in the Kremlin nervous. But it’s the price they have to pay for taking on an unpopular pension reform project in a system of “sovereign” democracy, managed democracy, competitive authoritarianism – or whatever you want to call it. It’s already been reported that the Kremlin is allowing UR to use “United Russia – Party of the President” as a slogan in regions where the party’s ratings are particularly low.

As for technologies to achieve voter mobilisation, there are the usual stories of things like beautifying polling stations, election reminders in odd places (including on the screens of Sberbank ATMs), and Putin visiting Kremlin-backed candidates. On the final point, it’s been reported that both Medvedev and Putin will open the concert hall in Zaryadye with Sergei Sobyanin on 8 September – the “day of quiet”, when campaigning is not permitted. Although the Central Electoral Commission has stated this particular event does not violate a ban on campaigning on the eve of elections, it’s difficult to see how such a high-profile event would not be seen by Russian citizens as an endorsement of Sobyanin’s candidacy for Moscow mayor.

One final point worth noting is the conspicuous absence of the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF) in the run-up to the regional elections. Given the sharp decline in United Russia’s approval ratings, it’s somewhat odd that the organisation apparently founded to step in on such occasions to support – or distract from – the ‘party of power’ has been largely absent from activities, and even discussion. One notable exception is the announcement that the ONF will monitor the implementation of Putin’s softening of the pension reform proposals – whatever that means…

The presidential administration appears to have abandoned its experiment to make regional elections more competitive and seems focused on total control of the process this year. Is this fair? What strategy, if any, have we seen from opposition parties in these elections?

It’s fair to say that the Kremlin is focused on minimising upsets, particularly in light of the difficult climate set by the pension reform. At the same time, it’s not like non-ruling parties are putting up a strong fight. Many parties are not even fielding candidates – not that we can blame them, given the unlevel electoral playing field. Even when parties have tried to field candidates, other parties have, apparently, been using the courts to remove their rivals from contention. For example, PARNAS chose Yaroslavl Oblast as the only region in which it was fielding candidates for the regional legislature. However, both the LDPR and “Patriots of Russia” took the party to court on a technicality, with the court ruling against PARNAS. And such court decisions have knock-on effects: without registration, the party will lose vital budget funding, and will need to collect signatures in order to field candidates for the 2021 State Duma elections. Of course, political rivals use courts as one arena in which to fight political battles in regimes of all stripes. But the higher incidence of such cases this year in Russia is a worrying development.

Has the re-introduction of directly-elected regional executives had a significant influence on centre-region relations?

Not really, especially if we’re interested in change that might make centre-region relations more balanced. Although touted by the Kremlin as an important democratic reform, the reintroduction of direct elections for regional heads was only possible in conjunction with other mechanisms allowing the centre to retain control. One clear example is the “municipal filter”. So effective has this mechanism been in limiting challenges to Kremlin-backed candidates that people like Leonid Polyakov – an HSE political scientist and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council – is preparing amendments to electoral legislation to make passing the filter less difficult. This might be achieved by lowering the number of signatures candidates needed for registration or to allow municipal deputies to endorse multiple candidates. The likelihood of such reforms being adopted will depend in large part on the Kremlin’s assessment of the 9 September election results.

To what extent can regional elites influence and lobby the centre, including through the Federal Assembly?

Regional elites certainly try to influence and lobby the centre. That’s politics as normal in a federation. In Russia, where federalism is more nominal than real, such attempts at influence and lobbying are even more crucial. And it works for everybody. The centre learns about regional concerns, and the regional elites have an opportunity for their voices to be heard, to win a larger portion of the pie, and so on.

As for whether this centre-regional dialogue takes place through the Duma, the answer is mixed. The Duma – and the Federal Assembly, more broadly – certainly plays a far less important role now as a venue for centre-regional relations than it did in the 1990s and the early 2000s. Regional heads are more likely now to focus their lobbying energy and resources on executive officials, whether in the Kremlin or the Government.

At the same time, there is an interesting development with bills introduced into the Duma by regional legislatures. Historically, the success rate of these legislative initiatives has been laughably low. The common reason given for the non-passage of these bills is that they have been poorly prepared from a legal-technical point of view. Of course, it could be that regional legislatures introduce these initiatives, not with a view to getting them signed into law, but with a view to signalling something to the federal centre or in an attempt to help shape the lawmaking agenda. When these bills have become laws in the past, there have certainly been cases when these are initiatives crafted in the federal centre, sometimes with Kremlin backing, but given to a region to introduce into the State Duma in order to create a veneer of “bottom-up” legitimacy.

The State Duma under Volodin has also focussed on helping regional legislatures craft initiatives before legislative introduction through a body called the Council of Legislators. Although initially dismissed as a hollow body, there is preliminary evidence that this body’s activities might be working: the share of successful bills from regional legislatures rose in the 2018 spring Duma session compared to previous sessions.

You specialise in Russia’s lawmaking process and their signification in an authoritarian context in relation to intra-executive relations and in comparative perspective. Many commentators are inclined to dismiss the Duma as simply a ‘rubberstamp.’ Your research shows that is this is not the case – what role does parliament play in an authoritarian political system like Russia’s?

The core features of an ideal-type ‘rubber stamp’ assembly are that its members are perfectly subservient to the executive, and that, therefore, bills introduced by the regime leadership will face no resistance, quickly becoming law without amendment. My research looks at cases in the State Duma that jar against this, specifically executive bill amendment and bill failure. Rather than a sign that Duma deputies are resisting the Government or the Kremlin, I find that cases of failure and amendment often stem from policy-making differences between members of the executive. This happens because not all policy conflicts are resolved before bills are submitted to the Duma. That means that the legislative stage is used by executive actors to continue their policy disputes. If a united executive wants a bill passed into law, it will face no – or very little – resistance. In that sense the State Duma can certainly act like a ‘rubber stamp’ in certain circumstances. However, when executive actors differ in their policy goals, lawmaking during the State Duma stage can be quite interesting, with bill texts sometimes changing beyond recognition, even as most deputies remain largely impotent to influence things autonomously.

How has the Duma’s role in the political system evolved over the last few years, and in particular since Volodin became Speaker?

Volodin certainly has grand plans for the State Duma. Since becoming speaker in October 2016, he’s focussed on a few things, including raising the prestige of the lower chamber; improving the professionalism of deputies (including by clamping down on absenteeism from plenary sessions); trying to carve out a quasi-autonomous role for the Duma, especially in its interactions with the Government; and improving the efficiency of the lawmaking process.

All of these are laudable – and some have even been somewhat successful. For example, Volodin’s very proud of the fact that, since becoming speaker, the Duma has cleared the vast majority of “hangover” bills still under consideration from previous convocations. (There are 55 bills from former convocations still under consideration.) It’s not clear, however, how this will really change anything, beyond sending a signal that he likes order, as well as deputies listening to what he commands.

In general, the problem is that these changes aren’t guided by a desire to improve the representative function of parliament. Rather, Volodin appears set on using the State Duma to improve his political capital. This means that, if and when legislators show surprising resistance to Government initiatives, the source of this resistance is ultimately Volodin, rather than the mandate gained by legislators on the basis of free and fair elections.

Earlier in 2018, it appeared that Valentina Matvienko – chairperson of the Federation Council – was trying to emulate Volodin’s more visible, active style. However, rumours are now circulating that she’s on the way out.

A lot has been written on the at times very public conflict between Volodin, Turchak and Kirienko for control of United Russia and the domestic political agenda. What do you make of this?

As you know, Volodin, Turchak, and Kirienko are key players in central organisations used to support Putin’s rule: the State Duma, United Russia, and the Presidential Administration, respectively. Both the existence of these conflicts and the fact that they sometimes spill out into public view are unsurprising. Uncertainty about what happens after 2024 (when Putin is required by the constitution to step down from the presidency) continues to inject existential nervousness into the ruling elite. All three ambitious men are quite clearly trying to build their respective power structures to help mitigate the negative effects of this uncertainty. More generally, members of the elite who are a generation or so younger than Putin are particularly acute to the need to position themselves sensibly when Putin’s “exit” plan becomes clear.

Previous individuals combined some of the roles now split across elite heavyweights. For example, Boris Gryzlov – Duma speaker, 2003-2011 – was at the same time head of United Russia’s parliamentary group, as well as Duma speaker. Combining the two roles in the same person naturally resulted in less intra-elite public friction.

Regarding the public nature of these intra-elite conflicts, Russian political actors – much like their counterparts in other states – use strategic leaking to media contacts in attempts to discredit their rivals. I wouldn’t be surprised if elite rivals were behind the rumour circulating in 2017 that Volodin was trying to position himself as Putin’s successor. This was, clearly, done to embarrass the Duma speaker.

The biggest story in Russian domestic politics since April has been the pension reform debate. What conclusions have you drawn so far from following this debate? What role has the Duma played in the discussions?

One conclusion that’s difficult not to make is that, with all the talk of the Kremlin’s obsessive polling, it continues to be caught out by the negative societal reaction to significant policy changes. With the 2005 monetisation of social benefits serving as such a clear example of what happens when possibly painful reform is not introduced with the necessary care and attention to citizens’ concerns, the Moscow renovation project and the current pension reform proposals appear to show the Kremlin’s inability to learn from some past mistakes. It could be that some in the Kremlin think foresaw the depth of anger in society, but that’s hard to reconcile with some of the panicky responses to the plunging ratings of figures and institutions in recent months. More broadly, this speaks to the difficulties of decision making in non-democratic regimes.

As for the Duma, it’s a mere venue for discussions, rather than a meaningful decision-making player itself – much to Volodin’s frustration, no doubt.

Turning to the “systemic” opposition, the Communist Party looks to be the main benefactor of the pension reform debate. How do you assess their strategy here? Are they just playing their usual role (they could hardly have supported the reform)?  

On one hand, the KPRF doesn’t need a strategy, as the pension reform plays so well into its hands. On the other hand, the KPRF is in a tricky position. We know that the party is, to an extent, responsive to Kremlin instruction. This may well be in return for certain perks – such as Duma committee chairmanships – but it is, after all, a member of the so-called “systemic” opposition. That means that, when it finds itself in a situation calling for real opposition activity, it can face a difficult risk calculus. How far should it go in opposing the Kremlin’s line? It’s already been reported that there are disagreements within the party regarding whether Putin is entirely off limits when it comes to criticism. Whereas Zyuganov appears steadfast in not allowing this, others are less willing to retain the “Crimean consensus” approach to opposition politics with such a clear opportunity to capitalise on citizen anger at the Kremlin.

The KPRF is also, of course, dealing with the technical intricacies and clear political machinations involved with trying to set up a referendum on the pension reform plans.

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