In this week’s roundup, the runoff election in the Primorye region ended in an unprecedented rigging of the vote in favor of the Kremlin candidate and later in a no less unprecedented cancelling of the election results. Another story that played out was the follow-up of RT’s controversial interview with two Russians accused of the Salisbury attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Finally, the downing of another Russian plane in Syria created tensions between Moscow and Tel-Aviv.

 

September 9, 2018: United Russia candidate Andrei Tarasenko casts a vote at Primorye gubernatorial elections. Photo: TASS..

 

  1. Primorye Debacle

The story: Last Sunday, the Primorye region held runoff gubernatorial elections, which resulted in an unprecedented chain of events.

The breakdown

  • By 6pm, exit polls showed the Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko in the lead, putting the headquarters of Andrey Tarasenko, the United Russia candidate, in panic mode.
  • After processing 95 percent of the votes, Ishchenko led with 51.6 percent of the vote (Tarasenko received 45.8 percent). But after counting 99 percent of the votes, Tarasenko suddenly led with 49.02 percent, putting Ischenko in second place with 48.5 percent of the vote. [RBC]
  • Communist Party Chairman Gennady Zyuganov called a press conference, and asked Putin to intervene. The party also appealed to the Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Central Election Commission, which justified the last-minute switch as the result of counting votes from remote regions last.
  • The Central Election Commission has since deemed the election invalid, recommending a second vote to take place in three months. Ishchenko spoke out against the vote’s invalidation—Tarasenko announced he will not participate in the new elections if they are held. [Vedomosti]

Was the election rigged?

  • While political scientists mostly agree that the runoff was falsified for a Kremlin victory, additional reporting showed that United Russia operatives in the region may have purposefully orchestrated the rigging to make sure the election was cancelled.
  • Andrei Kynev, political scientist: Ballot stuffing wouldn’t have been possible without Moscow’s go-ahead. Such scenario is possible, but only rational if the strategists behind it understand that Tarasenko has now forfeited his chance of the governorship. [Bell]
  • Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the Golos movement: Theoretically, the final 4 percent of ballots could have swung the outcome, but only if 100 percent of the voters at the last polling stations counted had voted for Tarasenko. [RBC]

What’s next?

  • Oleg Ignatov, deputy director of the Center for Political Conjuncture: A lot depends on whether the authorities can reach an understanding with the central leadership of the Communist Party—it will not be possible to turn a blind eye to the scandal. [RBC]
  • Nikolai Mironov, director of the Center for Economic and Political Reforms: The scandal undermines the credibility of the government and the electoral institution itself. If the federal center doesn’t interfere, it will spur protest votes in the other regions awaiting second rounds (Khabarovsk, Khakassia and Vladimir). Primorye shows that even in run-of-the-mill gubernatorial elections, citizens can go against the authorities, and that the authorities can lose. [RBC]
  • Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research: Ishchenko was a weak candidate and his victory came from a protest vote: citizens vocalized their negative attitude not so much to specific candidates, but to the authorities as a whole, a feeling exacerbated by the pension reform. The question now is whether the presidential administration will intuit that the electoral and party systems need to be reconstructed. [RBC]
  • Dmitry Oreshkin, political scientist: Primorye has excited the public for perhaps the first time since the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011. But after the protests in Moscow that year, elections did not become fairer. Plus, Primorye is not Moscow—the federal authorities will make a series of predictable decisions to preserve the face of the electoral system and its leadership. [New Times]

 

  1. Tragicomic “Spygate”

The story: In early September, the British police accused two GRU officers, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, of attempting to assassinate ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichok in March.

  • Reacting to the accusations, Vladimir Putin claimed that the two men had nothing criminal to hide, and days later, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, interviewed the duo, who declared innocence, adding that they were sports nutritionists visiting Salisbury on vacation. [Novaya Gazeta

What it means:

  • Andrei Kolesnikov: Coupled with General Zolotov’s video message to Navalny last week, the adventures of Petrov and Borishov create a political tragicomedy. The laughter emanating from their interview and the subsequent crop of memes discredits the beastly seriousness of the power vertical. [Gazeta.ru]
  • Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Carnegie Center: When it comes to PR and the image of the Russian state, there is no political expediency in the murder of Skripal, but this is because international relations are prioritized over national security. The most important task now for the Russian state is to stand its ground, both financially and technologically in the global sphere, presupposing the inevitable consequences of violations of international agreements by all.
  • The West sees Russia’s behavior as a global threat, while Russia sees its actions as an active recruitment strategy, similar to that of the Cold War. This means that Russia’s special services will choose to do everything it can to not lose this “recruitment” war at the expense of tarnishing its own image abroad. [Carnegie.ru]

 

  1. The Syrian “Misfire”

The story: On September 18, a Russian Il-20 airplane was shot down in Syria by a Syrian missile. 15 Russian military servicemen died in the crash.

  • Damascus blamed the incident on the Israeli Air Force, which had hit a number of sites in Syria right before the Syrian missile shot down the Russian plane by mistake. Tel-Aviv delivered a sharp rebuke, accusing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah of producing lethal weapons to target Israel (which is why these sites were attacked by the Israeli Air Force).
  • The Russian Defense Ministry issued a tough statement condemning Israel for failing to warn the Russian military about the attack and called its actions “hostile.” Tensions were later defused by Vladimir Putin who, having spoken to Benjamin Netanyahu, ruled the incident as a “chain of tragic accidents.” [Kommersant]
  • While the Russian Defense Ministry hasn’t yet published the names of the deceased, family members started sharing this information on social media. [Novaya Gazeta]
  • Who else is to blame?
  • Valery Shiryaev, military expert: The problem is neither with Israel, nor with Syria, it’s with those Russian officers who were responsible for coordination with the Syrian missile defense system. [Novaya Gazeta

What now?

  • According to Kommersant sources, Russia used to turn a blind eye to Israel’s regular bombing of Syrian targets, which always raise concerns with the Arab states. While the Kremlin is still unlikely to confront Israel over this mistake, it may be interested in showing more political toughness. [Kommersant]
  • Ksenia Svetlova, Arabist: Despite the toxic rhetoric of Russian officials, this incident will not turn into a diplomatic scandal because neither side wants escalation. Putin is more interested in playing the role of mediator between Israel and Iran than causing another round of military conflicts in Syria and thus undermining everything he has achieved so far.
  • However, Israel is worried that Russia can limit its air presence in Syria or sell Assad its S-300 missile defense systems. [Carnegie.ru

Dig deeper: According to international relations expert Vladimir Frolov, the Idlib deal that Putin negotiated with Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan on September 17 was a rare showcase of rational thinking on behalf of the Russian president. By rejecting the Idlib offense, Putin managed to find a “graceful exit” from a dangerous situation that could have resulted in further deterioration with the West and potentially new sanctions against Russia. [Republic]

 

Other stories that mattered this week (in Russian)

  • Game of Holy Thrones”: columnist Fyodor Krasheninnikov discusses the latest feud between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople over granting independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyiv Patriarchate. [New Times]
  • Thirty-three Misfortunes: Conspiracy Theories as a Weapon of the [Russian] Authorities”: columnist Maxim Trudolyubov writes that a number of political mistakes made by the Kremlin have surfaced simultaneously across half of the world—from Primorye to Salisbury. In similar situations in the past, Putin would usually find an “asymmetrical solution” that would change the political field. It would be great if this logic had exhausted itself, suggests the author. [Republic]
  • Poisoning of Peter Verzilov. Why It Matters”: Journalist Oleg Kashin details the recent mysterious illness of Pussy Riot punk band mastermind Peter Verzilov, which this week was confirmed by German doctors as poisoning. According to Kashin, Verzilov’s public activities, including, for example, his interest in the investigation of Russia’s presence in the Central African Republic and the controversial protest during the WC-2018 final, look like sufficient motive for the state security services to target him. [Republic]

 

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