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Russia: the pro-succession party enters stage at the top

Russia: the pro-succession party enters stage at the top
The candidates below:  Sergey Sobyanin On 5 June 2013, Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow and the former head of the Russian presidential administration (in which capacity he headed Dmitry Medvedev’s campaign bandwagon in 2008), asked President Vladimir Putin to approve his early resignation from the mayoral office. Sobyanin, whose candidacy, just three years ago, was proposed by the then president Dmitry Medvedev to the Moscow City Duma under the heavily controlled gubernatorial ‘election’ procedure introduced by the Kremlin in 2004, still had two years before the end of his term. Direct gubernatorial elections were reinstated by Medvedev in early 2012, weeks before the handover of the presidential powers to Putin. Many commentators saw this decision as an attempt to please the protesters who flooded Moscow’s squares and boulevards after the December 2011 rigged State Duma elections. Later in 2012, after Putin had taken over, the State Duma introduced a new rule that all regional and municipal elections scheduled in any given year be held on a single date, just after the end of the summer break (which in Russia traditionally occurs in August). This was regarded as an attempt to complicate opposition candidates’ communication with voters who would not be reachable during their dacha or beach holidays. This year, the single nationwide election date is 8 September. Sobyanin’s decision seemed somewhat puzzling. It appeared to contradict the idea of stability which had been the watchword of Kremlin hardliners since Putin’s campaign. Was it meant to be another imitation of democracy? Would it not, in a way, cast doubt over the mayor’s legitimacy in the capital where opposition to the Kremlin is stronger than elsewhere in the country – and in the country where the mayor of the capital is, de facto, one of the top five politicians? Sobyanin, who has gentrified Moscow’s numerous but previously abandoned parks, slowed down his predecessor Yuri Luzhkov’s bacchanalia of new construction in the city centre (and destruction of historical buildings), and resumed investments in Moscow’s metro and other public transport (neglected under Luzhkov). He also introduced the city’s first-ever bicycle lanes and regularly patronises museums, theatres and modern art festivals. So why would he sacrifice this hard-built reputation of an appointed but enlightened technocrat? What would the Kremlin gain? Then Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire and former presidential candidate with the reputation of a moderate liberal, who has nevertheless always stopped short of directly challenging the Kremlin and who was expected by the commentators to challenge Sobyanin in Moscow, announced his decision not to run. In hindsight, Prokhorov’s decision seems hard to explain, given his Civil Platform party’s aggressive campaign against the pro-Kremlin United Russia in the Yaroslavl Oblast legislative election (and the support he threw behind Evgeny Urlashov, the Yaroslavl mayor and the local United Russia’s main enemy who was arrested on seemingly trumped up corruption charges on 3 July). Prokhorov has always stood behind Evgeny Roizman, a popular Yekaterinburg vigilante activist, who campaigns against drug-trafficking, mainly ethnic, mafias. The Kremlin has always insisted that Roizman, with his aggressive rejection of the political establishment, has no place in politics – yet now Roizman is running for Yekaterinburg mayor. Has Prokhorov decided to focus on those regions where he stands a better chance of succeeding? Or is he not enough of an antagonist to Sobyanin? Alexey Navalny Alexey Navalny, most commonly described by the Western media as a shareholder activist and anti-corruption blogger, was proposed as a mayoral candidate by RPR-PARNAS, a right-of-the-centre liberal opposition party, on 14 June – just nine days after the snap election was called. Navalny is an aspiring, 37-year-old, self-made politician who had been soul-searching for a political identity for several years. Finally, in 2010, he was hand-picked by four Russian liberals with close contacts inside the US political establishment – Garry Kasparov, Evgenia Albats, Sergey Guriyev and Aleh Tsyvinski – as a Yale World Fellow. In November 2010, Navalny was one of the main presenters on Russian corruption during the US Congressional hearings and, upon returning to Moscow in December 2010, he founded the Russian web’s most successful anticorruption project – RosPil. His internet popularity shot up on the eve of the 2011 Duma elections when he coined a sobriquet for United Russia – ‘the Party of Crooks and Thieves’. Instead of calling for a boycott of the elections he, unlike the majority of the more established opposition leaders, called to vote for any other party except ‘the Crooks and the Thieves’. During winter 2011-2012 Navalny, having spent 15 days under arrest for leading a non-sanctioned rally, became the most popular leader of the election fraud protests. With his corruption exposés, Navalny had managed to infuriate several influential hardliners among Putin’s long-term personal friends. Among others, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigations Committee, Nikolay Tokarev, the CEO of Transneft (the oil pipeline monopoly), and Vladimir Yakunin, the CEO of Russian Railways all seem to have personal vendettas against him. On 31 July 2012, Navalny was charged with theft of wood, worth $500,000, from Kirovles, a state-owned timber company in the city of Kirov where he was once an advisor to a former liberal politician who became the local governor. Since that day, Navalny has been under ordersnot to leave Moscow, his city of residence. In order to become registered as a mayoral election candidate, Navalny – like all other candidates – was required to obtain at least 110 approvals from Moscow municipal councillors – in 110 municipal districts. This requirement is known as ‘the municipal filter’. Municipal councils in Moscow are formally controlled by United Russia but they financially depend on the mayor’s office. Navalny was short of 46 approvals – however, these were issued to him by United Russia councillors on Sobyanin’s instruction and, on 14 July, Navalny was registered – ironically, with the help of the ‘Party of Crooks and Thieves’. On 18 July, Navalny was convicted to five years in jail, handcuffed and taken to prison. Several hours later, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office, in an unprecedented move, demanded his release pending appeal and, the following morning, the same court which ordered his immediate incarceration the day before, released him – under the same undertaking not to leave the city of Moscow. The pretext for the Prosecutors’ protest against Navalny’s imprisonment was his constitutional right to run for mayor, however, Petr Ofitserov, Navalny’s co-defendant, was also released. The Prosecutors’ protest was preceded by two statements by Navalny’s chief campaign strategist, Leonid Volkov – first, Volkov said that Navalny, if he remained in prison, would withdraw his candidacy from the race. Later, Volkov added that, if released from jail, Navalny would continue to run. The full text of Navalny’s sentence is not yet available but his indictment, which, according to reports by all journalists who were present in the courtroom, became its foundation, reads like its authors have never been to law school or read the Russian Civil Code. Sergey Blinov, the judge who heard the case, was promoted from a district judge in a remote village to deputy head of the regional court in the regional capital two months before Navalny’s hearings began – and Navalny’s case was the first one in Blinov’s new role. Rumour has it that none of the regional court judges had agreed to take this case. It was clear from the beginning that Navalny has powerful enemies who want to see him jailed for a long time and who will manipulate the law to put him in prison. So, what was it then that made the Russian judiciary system, which had taken no pity on Yukos billionaire owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky and numerous businessmen and activists before Navalny, do a U-turn in just a few hours? Was it a demonstration of prosecutorial independence? If it was, it must have been the first time that Russian prosecutors showed independence since Yuri Skuratov, who was prosecutor general in the late 1990s, was shown on national television having sex with prostitutes in 1999. It could not be a response to the protesting crowds on the night of Navalny’s sentencing because the crowds began gathering after the prosecutors demanded his release (although this news was made public when the crowds had already gathered). Sobyanin said on a number of occasions that he wants to win in a fair election and that he sees Navalny as his main opponent – but Sobyanin himself has no formal or informal authority over prosecutors. Before 18 June, all opinion polls showed that Sobyanin would enjoy a convincing victory, with Navalny coming in a distant second place. But, who would want Sobyanin to become the first legitimately elected official in a generation in the top echelons of the Russian political elite – and who would have sufficient informal powers to revoke Navalny’s incarceration? And why would they want Sobyanin to enjoy the legitimacy that no one else, including Putin himself, can enjoy? A replacement for Putin? Our hypothesis is that, on 18 July, a new ‘party’ claimed at least a temporary victory in that ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ that is Russia and it could be labelled ‘the pro-Succession party’. This party is extremely influential and benefits from ‘membership’ by very senior officials (including in the presidential administration) and very wealthy businessmen. But why would they need a potential successor to Putin? On 12 July, just six days before Navalny’s sentencing, Levada Centre, an independent public opinion research organisation, published the results of its most recent poll of voting preferences showing that only 29% across Russia and just 21% in Moscow would vote for Putin if the election took place now. It is true that none of the other politicians named in the poll – all of the 2012 presidential candidates plus Medvedev and Navalny – even came close but it is also true that Putin’s ratings continue to fall rapidly. Sobyanin was not included in this hypothetical candidate list but the same poll, which had a second question for Moscow residents only concerning their attitude to various politicians, showed that in the Russian capital Sobyanin enjoys a more positive attitude even than Putin (33% vs 31%). But are falling ratings the only reason for a change of leader? Is the looming economic crisis also responsible? In June, Russia had zero GDP growth and unemployment jumped to 5.4% (of all officially registered unemployed, 40% are below the age of 35). Putin, since his inauguration in May 2012, has only paid lip service to the economy and it is a consensus among economists that the institutional reforms required to improve the investment climate have slowed down during his present term. Perhaps it is the growing discontent among Russia’s regions, whose revenues are being taken away from them by the federal centre and redistributed as Moscow sees fit, that is leading this call for change. Anecdotally, separatist feelings are growing in Siberia where most of Russia’s mineral wealth is – people in Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk question why they should share their incomes with Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Federal subsidies disappear there but fail to produce tangible results. Under Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, who boasts of a private zoo, a pure solid gold pistol and a collection of Bentleys and Rolls Royces, the Sharia laws are being enforced in the republic in place of the Russian ones. Just over the past couple of weeks, a Chechen teenager stabbed a former air trooper in the back in a conflict over a girl in a local bar in the small southern town of Pugachev. This led to a local revolt, during which local Russians, Tatars, Armenians and Azeris together demanded that Chechens be expelled from the area. Around the same time, a State Duma member was beaten to the point of concussion by a mixed Dagestani-Chechen gang in a road rage incident in Moscow. The idea of the separation of North Caucasus is becoming increasingly popular among Russians but responding to it would be hard for Putin who claims victory over separatists in the region as one of his main achievements. Replaced by his own supporters Russia has effectively lost over a year since Putin’s inauguration in May 2012 and this is becoming increasingly clear to the elites. Putin’s own personal friend and former finance minister Alexey Kudrin is not shy to openly speak about it. At the same time, Putin seems to be more interested in extreme adventures than his presidential duties – on the same day that Moscow mourned the deaths of 18 passengers killed by a migrant construction site truck driver (who speaks little Russian, has no driver’s licence of the type that would allow him to drive a truck and has had six driving violations registered in the past six months), Putin dove in a bathyscaphe in the Bay of Finland to inspect a ship that sank in the 19th century. Is it surprising that the elites may now be questioning whether Putin is capable of successfully dealing with the pressing challenges and that not everyone in the top echelons would want to stand by him? He has some faithful friends among the siloviki clan, but can it not be imagined that other powerful men and women may be thinking of what will come after him and how to avoid an unmanaged succession? And if Sobyanin can win in Moscow without a rigging of the vote, would he not become Russia’s most respectable and promising politician? Sobyanin does need an ideal opponent to beat – someone who is sufficiently popular to come in a distant second place with a respectable result of around 20%, and the only person in the opposition who is deemed to be able to mobilise this level of support is Navalny. As far as Navalny is concerned, his career is reminiscent of other protest leaders who came to preside over political transformation in their countries. It is noteworthy that neither Boris Yeltsin, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela (on whose 95th birthday Navalny was sentenced and put in prison) were originally leaders of the majority in their countries. What kind of future awaits him? He will almost certainly not become the mayor – and he does not seem to have a genuine interest in it. He has not yet presented any detailed programme of what he intends to do with the city and his aspirations do not seem to stop at the mayoral level (he said he wants to be president one day). His political persona deserves separate analysis and it will be appropriate to return to this subject after the 8 September election. By Oleg Babinov Director, Business Intelligence – Head of Moscow Office

Image:PA
Published: 24th July 2013