Out of Sight: What’s happening in Russia? – Part II

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“Russia is not corrupt. Corruption is what happens in all countries when businessmen offer officials large bribes for favors. Today’s Russia is unique. The businessmen, the politicians, and the bureaucrats are the same people. They have privatized the country’s wealth and taken control of its financial flows.”

(Andrei Pionkovsky, Another Look Into Putin’s Soul)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin after delivering the annual address to the Federal Assembly of the RF

Welcome Back my friends,

Last week we talked about the internal situation of the Russian Federation, and about some of the problems that are putting the upper echelons in serious difficulty, first of all, the way in which the Central Government is dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic in the country, delegating all responsibility to the governors of the Oblasts, without however increasing the resources at their disposal, nor by granting them again the freedom of action that in recent years have been progressively reduced. The worst thing is that this maneuver was devised intentionally, with the intention of “unloading” the discontent from the shoulders of Vladimir Putin’s administration, but, as we will see, not everything is going as planned.

In addition to this, the economic crisis turned out to be much more serious than expected. From the earliest years in power, Vladimir Putin and his entourage have tried to use the proceeds from Russia’s massive oil resources to fix the serious economic problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent catastrophic “reforms” of the Yeltsin Administration. The success that this strategy initially achieved proved counterproductive in the long run: the idea of transforming Russia into a Petro-state modeled on some Arab countries has exposed the country to continuous crises, creating a much more fragile economic system than what does not appear from the outside. With the arrival of the pandemic and the slowdown in global industrial activity, the demand for energy supplies and raw materials has also decreased, leaving, as we have seen in the previous article, many Russian Oblasts with empty coffers to face an emergency situation.

Although the situation is at least problematic, even relying on official data provided by the Ministry of Health, the President and the Council of State did not miss the opportunity to do what they do best: Propaganda and further Centralization of Power.

As laboratories and pharmaceutical companies around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine or more effective cures against Covid, August 11 of this year, instead of announcing the usual “Doomsday Machine” or other sorts of military progresses, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was in possession and has registered the first vaccine against Coronavirus, baptized, to remember the “old days”, with the evocative name of Sputnik V. How could the Russian government miss such an opportunity, in its long string of desperate attempts to appear “on par” with Western countries? Kirill Dmitriev, the head of of Russia’s Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for financing vaccine research, called this a Sputnik Moment, in he’s own words: “Americans were surprised when they heard Sputnik’s beeping. It’s the same with this vaccine. Russia will have got there first. “

Despite the effectiveness of the alleged vaccine had yet to be proven (and to this day little is known, except that on November 23 the daily infections in Russia broke all previous records, certainly not a good sign), Dmitriev has also stated that twenty countries were ready to buy a billion doses of Sputnik V: a great way not only get a substantial financial windfall from an (eventually) successful cure, but it would also gain international respect as a scientific center and frustrate the US and the European countries, in a sort of re-edition of the space race, designed to feed the memory of a past that in Russia over the years it has taken the form of a “factor of national cohesion”, obviously in its revised and corrected version (but this is a separate story).

The so-called “second wave” turned out to be even more exemplary regarding the dysfunctionality of a system that tries to make every event a foothold for propaganda: as mentioned in the previous article, the (intentional) lack of room for maneuver for the Oblasts has transformed the response to the emergency into a cacophony of discordant measures, mutual accusations and generalized discontent. The regional administrations were completely taken aback, lacking, in addition to the aforementioned fiscal autonomy, of “transparent” numbers on which to base the response to the emergency. As some analyzes show, the number of deaths from the first wave is likely underestimated by five times.

Vladimir Putin has clearly stated that he does not want to implement restrictive measures or stronger lockdowns, precisely to avoid problems of “too visible” reactions within the population, and the governors have basically obeyed him, and, in this regard, one would wonder if the numbers sent to the Central Government are true and how they are treated by it.

Moving on to the centralization of power, just before the August announcement, a Constitutional Referendum was held in the Russian Federation, already scheduled for the beginning of the year, to submit to the population the approval of some amendments to the Constitution. As in the case of the health emergency, the constitutional reform project is little more than a “painting” of a facade of a building that does not substantially change inside, or worsens further. A typical expedient of the so-called “Illiberal Democracies”: the people are given what they want but in the manner decided a priori by the government. Given the recent protests of recent years, which demanded greater participation, what better way to be open and democratic than a National Referendum (In Russian “всенародное голосование”, that can be translated as “nationwide voting”)? Obviously by putting everything in such a way that the vote can be easily directed towards the desired result (for example by including rules on the minimum wage or on the indexation of pensions among the amendments).

The results of the Russian constitutional vote in 2020. In Green, the Oblast in which the Constitutional Emendaments were approved by the majority (the majority of “No” in red, was in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and tied to territorial issues, more than opposition to reforms)

Legally, the Referendum was not even necessary for this type of constitutional amendment. The approval for the Constitutional Reforms reached around 75%, but as previously mentioned, it was not difficult to imagine, since in essence everything was little more than a giant pantomime from the beginning.

The things that most interested the enstablishment of the Russian Federation were to definitively overrule the rule that imposes a limited number of Presidential mandates (the rule that last time was circumvented by the Putin-Medvedev Tandem in the years 2012-2020), the regularization of Council of State, a body that should officially assist the President but which in fact over the years has become the only true center of power of the Federation, although not legally regulated in this sense, and finally introduce the prohibition of “alienation of Russian territories” (criminal liability for call against “territorial integrity” was introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014) and “unified system of power” from municipal leaders to the president.

To better explain how this is not just my opinion, I propose the thought of two experts on the subject:

Elena Lykyanova, lawyer, professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Higher School of Economics said in an interview with the Meduza website: “It’s a real  threat to the constitutional order. There is no expansion of the real powers of the Duma and the Council of Federation… as all of this is a word game: confirmation, appointment, etc. The president can dismiss any judge or prosecutor, so none of these [amendments] work. There will be no truly responsible government. [It] can appoint someone, but the next day the president can remove them, claiming lack of confidence. The same applies to the prime minister. The Duma approves [him], but it’s the president who appoints. Again, it’s a word game. The parliament is not gaining more control, nor is the government getting more responsibilities. All of this is a strengthening of the ‘vertical of power.’ It is the construction of a unified, non-democratic, non-federative vertical—without separation of powers and an independent judiciary, but with impairment of citizens’ rights“.

Or Victor Sheinis, co-author of the current Constitution, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (Russian Academy of Sciences), deputy of Russia’s First and Second State Duma, member of the Yabloko party’s political committee, that, in his interview whit the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, states that: “The majority of amendments to the Constitution have to do with the procedure for forming Russia’s government bodies and their powers—primarily those of the president. The 1993 Constitution is often called “superpresidential.” As I have repeatedly pointed out before, it suffers due to the excessive powers vested in the president (which can be explained by the political situation in the early 1990s). <…> The current draft law is said to envision a redistribution of powers between the president and the prime minister. It is not so. At best, only the procedures and the way they are spelled out have changed. <…> The government, which in one part is directly managed by the president and in another part [indirectly by him] through the prime minister, remains as it was—the president’s cabinet. Also unchanged is the procedure [of its formation]: the government resigns after the elections, and reports to the president, not to the Federal Assembly. And the president can dismiss the government at his own discretion. The terms of dissolving the Duma also remain the same”.

July 12, 2020: Thousands protest in support of the arrested governor Sergey Furgal in Khabarovsk. Photo: Youtube.

The question of the management of the Pandemic and that of the Centralization of Power were then combined in September, the month in which, on the 13th, the governorial elections were held in 18 regions and those for the Legislative Assemblies in another 11. Despite the “routinary” character that this type of voting has (as mentioned, in fact the regional bodies have little or no autonomy) this time the mood was different precisely because of the aforementioned reasons.

In past years, the strategy adopted by the Kremlin in these cases was a combination of factors given by the demotivation of the electorate, the abuse of electoral laws, the co-optation of the notorious “system opposition” and finally administrative barriers that created an insurmountable bureaucratic obstruction to independent candidates or candidates not linked to “United Russia”, the only party that has the means and facilities available to overcome this “wall”.

This time the victory, usually simpler, saw an unprecedented fact, at least as regards the Putin Era: a clearer confrontation, with widespread spontaneous protests, regarding the problems of centralization of power, especially by the regions of the Far East, which consider themselves increasingly neglected and, in this juncture, literally abandoned by Moscow: Alexey Navalny was shooting a series of documentaries on regional governments in the Siberian area, prior to his poisoning by the nerve agent known as Novičok, which forced him to repair in Germany, the only episode that had any media coverage in the West.

In all this, the same figure of President Vladimir Putin, until a few years ago practically merged with the image of Russia itself, the bogey of the West, is increasingly secluded, despite maintaining substantially the same power, is probably committed to holding up in balance the different groups of power that in situations like this begin to bite each other to maintain their influence within an increasingly restricted circle of individuals.

But this will be the subject of the last part of this excursus on events of the last year, overshadowed by the global problems in which we are all involved, or simply by issues that take priority in the newspapers, such as the American Elections. I hope that now some of my statements on topics discussed previously will be clearer, such as the Crisis in Belarus or the Nagorno-Karabakh War, when I stated that the Russian Federation had other problems, more pressing than those of Minsk or of the Artsakh and that he would have avoided direct involvement in the events as much as possible, as in fact it was.

I hope you have found the topic clearer, as well as interesting. Thanks for reading these lines and see you next week.

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