In this week’s roundup: a series of local, regional and other elections scheduled to take place on September 9 in Russia is expected to have a low turnout and a decreased rating for the “party of power.” Another story is Vladimir Putin’s decision to soften the controversial pension reform, which was announced in a national televised presidential address. Finally, the assassination of Alexander Zakharchencko, leader of the DNR, triggered a new wave of discussions about the future of the Donbass conflict.

 

August 30, 2018: The incumbent Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, opens a new underground station, Rasskazovka, in south-west suburbs of Moscow. With vast "administration resources" at his disposal and the lack of genuine opposition candidates in the race, he is projected to receive about 70 percent of the vote in the September 9 election. Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko | TASS.

 

  1. September 9 Elections

The outlook: On the eve of the September 9 elections in Russia, the outlook seems grim for United Russia.

  • According to a poll of eight regions by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), United Russia ratingsaveraged a low 31.1 percent—another poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VCIOM) found the lowest rating in Yaroslavl at only 28.6 percent.
  • A record number of parties have also withdrawn from the regional elections, set to take place this Sunday in 22 regions, raising questions about non-competitiveness and risking low turnout. [Vedomosti

The breakdown:

  • Sixteenof the participating regions are voting on temporary acting governors, appointed by Vladimir Putin starting last fall. Other regions will vote on local parliamentslegislative assemblies, city dumas, and/or mayors. [Vedomosti]
  • FOM isn’t ruling out the possibility of a second round of gubernatorial elections in three regions (Khakassia, Vladimir, and Khabarovsk) where the sitting governors are running for another term.
  • When it comes to the mayoral vote in Moscow, a poll by VCIOM forecasts that the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin will win with 69.4 percent of the vote—his opponent from the Communist Party Vadim Kumin is predicted to receive 13.2 percent.
  • VCIOM expects a low 31.8 percent turnout in Moscow—a concern that extends beyond the capital given the dearth of liberal candidates and the growth in protest potential since the announcement of the pension reform.
  • The “dacha factor”: Valery Fyodorov, General Director of VCIOM, points out that good weather may keep Russians away from the polls this Sunday in favor of spending time in nature. To provide further incentive to vote, the Moscow City Duma has amended the election code to keep polling stations open later (until 10pm) and open voting locations nearby dachas outside of Moscow. [RBC

Dig deeper:

  • Boris Makarenko, the Center for Political Technologies: Compared to the March 2018 presidential elections, United Russia has lost a third of its rating, pointing to the end of the “honeymoon period” for Putin’s fourth term. But the remaining parties have only seen their ratings improve 9 percent, indicating the opposition’s inability to take advantage of the government’s difficult situation. [Vedomosti]   
  • 2.2 percent of all candidates—about 1,200 people—in the upcoming elections have a criminal record, but Vyacheslav Polovinko of Novaya Gazeta argues that the number isn’t substantial. Across the country, about 1 percent of the able-bodied Russian population (600,000 people) are incarcerated.
  • Plus, given the low degree of trust in Russian courts, candidates with a criminal record may actually evoke sympathy from voters. Instead of grounds to automatically reject a candidate, political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin argues that it’s rather an occasion to reflect on the consequences of the election—whether they are competitive and fair. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • Dmitry Drize, Deputy Chief Editor of Kommersant: Sobyanin’s forecasted win stems from the weakness of his competition. There was a promising candidate in Andrei Klychkov of the Communist Party, as someone aware of life and issues in the capital, but he turned to the governorship in Orel instead. Knowing their position, political parties aren’t even trying to create a semblance of political struggle. [Kommersant]

 

  1. Pension Reform: Will the Protests Last?

The story: On August 28, Vladimir Putin softened the pension reform that caused nationwide stir and brought down his approval ratings to the pre-Crimea level.

  • According to the new plan, women will be able to retire at 60 years old (instead of the previously proposed 63), and the government will establish a number of benefits for both mothers with many children and citizens ahead of retirement age.
  • Almost 10 percent of Russians tuned in to watch Putin’s 30-minute televised address on the subject the next day, the second most-viewed TV program this year after the Russia-Croatia game in the World Cup quarter-finals. [RBC]

Context:

  • Protests continue but not en masse, though a Moscow rally on September 2 allegedly gathered somewhere between 6,000 to 8,900 people. A Levada Center poll in August found that 53 percent of Russians are prepared to protest against the raising of the retirement age—though conducted before Putin’s mitigation, the August numbers are much higher than those of July, when 53 percent of respondents said they would not participate in protest if a mass action against the reform took place in their city.
  • A poll on a potential referendum on the pension reform also found that 77 percent of respondents would vote in favor of preserving the current retirement age.
  • The pension reform has only strengthened the steady decline of the Kremlin’s approval ratings, beginning in 2014 after Putin’s post-Crimea annexation ratings peaked at 86 percent. [Carnegie.ru

What it means:

  • Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center: Putin’s recent announcement is unlikely to spark any fundamental changes in people’s opinion on the matter, though it will probably help them accept the terms. Even if a large number of Russians are prepared to go out on the streets, a lack of leadership hinders the opposition. [RBC]
  • Putin has spoken of choosing a “reliable and responsible” successor in 2024, but already, his possible withdrawal from the presidential seat does not evoke horror or any other strong emotions in the majority of Russians. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Vladimir Ruvinsky, journalist:Even though the proportion of the population ready to go against Putin has never been as high as it is now—especially among those who are pre-retirement age or Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Communist Party supporters—the moment of truth will come when it becomes clear how many of these people are prepared to take their word to the streets. [Vedomosti]  
  • Boris Grozovsky, economic and political commentator:Putin’s drop in ratings could be resolved by Crimea 2.0, but that is simply not an option, especially given the ongoing Western sanctions. If Putin’s pension “gift” is accepted, the protest mood will gradually decline—already, the authorities are doing everything in their power to obstruct protest, including jailing Alexei Navalny for organizing rallies.
  • But more importantly, there is no urgent need to raise the retirement age based on the state of the Russian economy: The federal budgetary surplus for 2018 is 2.5 percent, or 1.4 trillion rubles, which exceeds the goal of 1 trillion rubles meant to be collected by 2024 thanks to the pension reform. In any case, it would make more sense to cut expenditure on defense and security, which account for 30 percent of the federal budget, rather than focusing on retirees. [New Times]

 

  1. Zakharchenko’s Assassination

What happened:

  • On August 31, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) was killed in a cafe bombing in the center of Donetsk.
  • It was not immediately clear who was behind the hit as all sides involved in the Donbass conflict started blaming each other. [Bell]

The reaction:

  • Vladimir Putin issued a statement condemning the unnamed forces who “chose the path of terror and violence” and “bet on a dangerous destabilization” in order to “bring the people of Donbass to their knees.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova directly accused the “Kiev regime” of this assassination. [Kommersant]
  • Kiev claimed innocence, pointing to the “internal criminal conflict among the militia” or a Russian intelligence hit against a “notorious figure.” [112.ua]
  • Still, assassinations of field commanders in Donbass are not uncommon. Local sources point out that Zakharchenko had many enemies and was an obstacle for the money interests of others. [Kommersant

What comes next:

  • Konstantin Skorkin, journalist: It is likely that the next leader of the DNR will be Alexander Khodakovsky, former career officer at Ukraine’s Security Service. This transition will highlight the end of the so-called “heroic-revolutionary period” of the DNR’s history and the beginning of the potential reintegration of the rebellious region into Ukraine under the auspices of its Moscow handlers. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Oleg Kashin, journalist: With Zakharchenko’s death, discussions that the Minsk Accords can no longer be implemented have resumed. However, non-implementation of this agreement is paradoxically part of the stability of the DNR. What has lasted for four years can last for forty, because ultimately the rebellion has been reduced to satisfying the basic needs of the population. [Republic]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian)

  • Gardens of Survival”: Political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky discusses the current specifics of the Putin regime and its surprising sustainability in the context of the pension reform. [Carnegie.ru]
  • Classified Trillions: How 4.7 percent of GDP became a secret”: New system of running national accounts introduced by Russia’s statistics agency, Rosstat, has made data on military spending and spending on intellectual property unavailable for the public. This data amounts to 4.7 percent of the country’s GDP. Experts warn: this may decrease the quality of economic analysis in Russia. [RBC]
  • Grand Maneuver or Grand Showing-off?” Military correspondent Alexander Golts comments on Russia’s large-scale military exercises Vostok-2018 that will take place later this September in Russia’s Asian regions. Given the announced numbers, they might be the largest in post-Soviet history. However, Golts casts doubt on both the claimed goals and the scale of the drills. [New Times]

 

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