Notebook of Geopolitics

Regional elections in Russia: the hard choices of governance

Managing the largest country in the world

The most watched elections of the fall 2018 were mid-term elections in the United States. American politics were always at the center of global attention, and during Trump presidency even more so. However, regional elections in Russia, the largest country in the world, nuclear and military superpower, that under the Presidency of Vladimir Putin strives to reassert its role as a global player, should not be overlooked. Regional elections in a country of such geographical dimensions, ethnic diversity of population (more than 200 ethnic groups) who speak on more than 100 languages, just could not be ignored.

Just think about the size of Russia: 11(!) time zones, 6.6 million square miles, making it bigger than three continents (Europe, Australia and Antarctica) and almost the size of South America. Country that is a continent in itself, and not only for its geography, of course, but because of its long history, culture and ethnic diversity. Russian Federation consists of 85 “federal subjects”, or rather constituent entities, that include 22 autonomous republics, 4 autonomous regions and 1 autonomous district, 46 administrative districts and 9 administrative territories as well as 3 cities of federal significance (Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Sevastopol). Managing such a big country is a challenge for any type of government and bureaucratic apparatus, and the Russian history provides ample examples of attempts to change and reform, again and again, system of management of its territories.


From “parade of sovereignties” to “vertical of power”

Let’s just look at the recent years, since the dissolution of Soviet Union. The first Russian President Boris Yeltsin is credited with this famous expression addressed to leaders of Russia’s regions: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” This declaration allowed Yeltsin to recruit the regional elites on his side in his struggle against the central authority of the Soviet Union, but it also created a strong separatist movement in Chechnya and lead eventually to the first Chechen war (1994-1996). When President Putin came to power in 2000, one of his first ground breaking decisions was to restore order and control of Chechnya. The “parade of sovereignties” of his predecessor’s term was replaced by a new postulate of “vertical of power”, or chain of command. In fact, it was Yeltsin who had already introduced this concept in 1999, by it was President Putin who put it into practice. The outcome of this policy was that the relations of power between Moscow and regional entities tilted towards greater centralization, with authority and budget concentrated in the hands of federal center.

The question of elections of governors and local heads of administrative regions and territories is directly correlated with the principle of governance: During Yeltsin’s rule (1991-2000) direct elections were the norm by which local leaders came to office. But in 2004, President Putin introduced legislation to Duma, which was approved a few month later, cancelling direct elections of governors. According to a new legislation, the president would propose a list of gubernatorial candidates to regional legislative assemblies and they will make the final decision. This system allowed the federal center to de-facto appoint governors and strengthen its control over the regions. During this period 35 governors, in almost half of Russia’s regions, were replaced.  However, this system was reversed once again in 2012 during the presidency of Dimitry Medvedev. Vladimir Putin, then Russian Prime Minister, was also in favor of reforming the system and suggested that the political parties in the regions will recommend a list of candidates to the President who will select those who fit and those candidates will participate in elections. According to the final compromise that was approved in April 2013, direct elections of governors were restored, but the regions had the right to revoke them and appoint their leaders by local legislatures. Six autonomous republics of Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Adygeam Kabardino-Balkariam, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Northern Ossetia), voluntary refused form direct elections of their presidents.

Elections 2018: protest voting in four regions

Since 2012, when the direct elections were restored in most of the Russia’s regions, the representatives of the central government were able to gain support of the voters and get elected. The electoral success of Kremlin’s candidates could be explained by many factors, among them the most important were stabilization of the economic conditions in the country and growing popularity of president Putin. In many situations, the gubernatorial candidates on behalf of the federal center were appointed as acting heads of administration, in order to replace governors who asked to retire a year or so before the election date. During this period, they were able to demonstrate their managerial skills and earn the trust of population, that would lead to their election.

On September 2018, elections of heads of administration were organized in 23 regions. In four of them the Kremlin candidates lost and representatives of two opposition parties – Liberal Democratic party (LDPR) and Communist party (CPRF) – won the elections. In Vladimir region and Khabarovsk territory it was LDPR candidate, in Khakassia – the representative of CPRF. The elections in Primorye territory were cancelled by Federal election commission due to vote rigging: the candidate from CPRF was leading the polls, but his opponent surprisingly saw a ‘surge” of support when there were only 5% of votes to count. Many Russian experts agreed that the opposition representatives have won thanks to a protest voting. Government’s decision in July to raise the pension age was extremely unpopular in Russia and as a result, the approval ratings of the ruling party, “United Russia”, and those of the President Putin significantly declined (https://carnegie.ru/2018/08/15/why-putin-s-approval-ratings-are-declining-sharply-pub-77049). The regional elections in September gave voters a chance to express their discontent through ballot box punishing the candidates “parachuted” by the Kremlin.

“What is to be done?”

One Russian joke tells that the two most popular questions in Russia are “Who is to be blamed?” and “What is to be done?” After rejecting the candidates of the federal center in four regions, the voters answered the first question. Now the government should find the answer to a second question, which poses the same dilemma that Yeltsin, Putin, and all their predecessors were dealing throughout the Russian history: how to manage all these immense territories?

One of the central challenges is economic disparity between the regions. There is a dozen of rich regions, and the differences between them and the poor regions is stunning. For example, an average salary in Moscow is 90690 rubles ($ 1346), while in neighboring Tver’ region it is only 26559 rubles ($ 394). Statistics show that in the last years there is a tendency of diminishing disparity between the regions, mostly due to the rising salaries of the government employees across the country. But how make non-government employees to feel this trend?

The federal government is also trying to create a managerial reserve – (http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57359) a pool of qualified and experience managers who will be able also to engage local elites and voters through dialogue and understanding, not just “the chain of command”. The success of Kremlin’s candidates in the next elections (September 8, 2019) will depend on their ability to advance the government agenda without alienating local population.

On Valdai Forum (October 2018) President Putin was talking about Russia as a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society. The attitude of tolerance towards and between different ethnic and religious group is the “basis of Russia’s existence”, according to him, and “if we want that Russia continue to develop and consolidate as such by its state-forming nation, which is of course the Russian people, then it is the interest of the Russian people to preserve this state”. President’s careful choice of words underscores how challenging it is to keep this balance in such a diverse and large country as Russia.





The US –Russia contest for leadership in the Middle East:
 Towards new confrontation or convergence of interests?

After almost 20 years of “the end of history”,  when American leadership in global affairs became self-evident and looked almost axiomatic, while the animosity between US and Russia seemed like a matter of the past, the return to Russian presidency of Vladimir Putin in 2012 tilted once again the balance of powers between the two countries. The new-old Russian president, who is projected to dominate his country at least until 2024, and, possibly, even beyond, dramatically challenged the assumptions of the post- Cold War world and shattered some of the arrangements and rules of conduct that were established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia’s reemergence as a self-confident and aggressive global player could be dated back to the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, when President Putin was still formally Prime Minister and not a head of state. This new emboldened approach of Russia showed itself almost to its fullest extent during the Crimea takeover and the promptly organized referendum that seceded this Black sea peninsula from Ukraine and made it part of the Russian Federation. And yet, the American administration refused to see in Russia a global power, when President Obama, somewhat disdainfully, even if hastily, referred to it as “a regional power that acts against its neighbors out of weakness, not strength.” The Russian role in preventing US military strike in response to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime made this statement by US President look as lacking in accuracy; in the light of Russian military intervention in Syria that started two years later this statement clearly constituted a severe judgment error.
The military intervention in Syria in an attempt to save the regime of Bashar al Assad and keep intact Russian interests in the east Mediterranean marked a new milestone in Russia’s determination to make a comeback as a super power to the world stage. It demonstrated Russian army’s new and advanced capacities and its willingness to keep its military presence in the Middle East; it demonstrated its ability of shrewd decision making in situation of general uncertainty as well as its aptness at coalition building and diplomatic engagement with former adversaries; last but not least, it signaled to the US and the Western world that Russia is ready to challenge their hegemony in the Middle East. While Crimean takeover, Russian-Georgian war and tensions between Russia and former Soviet republics on its western border take place in the area defined by Russia as “near abroad” and as such destined to serve as a natural buffer zone between Russia and the West, engagement in the Middle East foreshadows new global stance of the Russian Federation, and probably foretells expansion elsewhere. To fully comprehend the significance of this reemergence of Russia in the Middle East it is suffice to put it in a perspective of the recent history – from the beginning of 1990s - when Russia’s retreat from the region looked like a fait accompli.
Against the backdrop of this goal-oriented and determined standing of Russia in the Middle East, the trajectory of the US policies in the Middle East during the same period of time reveals, at least to some experts, the very opposite characteristics and direction. Beyond any doubt, American engagement in the Middle East reached its unprecedented peaks in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century: two Gulf wars, toppling of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, numerous attempts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, dealing with Iranian nuclear program and with terrorist threats coming from the radical Islamist movements that originated from the region - to mention only the most outstanding issues. However, argue these experts, in the last years of Obama administration, as well as into the first year of Trump’s, the signs of at least partial disengagement are all but invisible, even despite the efforts aimed at ultimate deal on the Israel-Palestine conflict and a rejection of the Iranian deal. Withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, adoption of “leading from behind” approach in Libyan crisis, contradictory policies during the first years of Arab spring and diminishing zeal for peace making between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a decision to give others to do the job, including in Syrian cataclysm - all represent this fatigue of the American foreign policy from the region. Pivot to Asia of President Obama was an attempt to redirect the map of American interests in the world and reformulate its priorities. “America first” slogan of President Trump’s campaign, even with the belated correction year after his inauguration - “first but not alone”, reasserts, in fact, the vision of America’s role that is more cautious and less dedicated to the concept of boots on the ground.
I will get back to this at the conclusion, but it’s important to say in this context that the Middle East region stays and surely will stay in the crossroads of global interests between the two powers, the US and Russia, in any foreseeable scenario.  The two countries have invested enormous quantities of energy and resources in the Middle East over the course of the last 70 plus years: diplomatic, political, military and economic. They were involved extensively in the decision making process in the regional affairs, sometimes deploying their troops to defend their allies, sometimes imposing their will against them, and sometimes being betrayed by them. Hardly any other region in the world had captivated so much attention and active engagement, over such a long period of time and – with so much unpredictability, volatility and, eventually, ever-repeating frustration.
My first point, therefore, is that given a tremendous US and Russian involvement in the Middle East and an extensive web of interests, allegiances, alliances, enmities, expectations and promises that they created in the region, the destinies of individual countries in the ME as well as of the region in whole will be shaped by relentless interference from this two countries and the battle for leadership between them. In other words, United States and Russia are doomed to continue their involvement here, trying to get a return on their huge investments and competing for more influence, while being profoundly entangled by the web of these connections at all levels of engagement – from military and political, economic and financial, to value-based and emotional.
My second point is that while the confrontational approach has been characteristic throughout most of the history of their rivalry in the Middle East, American and Russian interests can nevertheless overlap, as they did in the past, and potentially allow solution of at least a few regional problems that could benefit the region. The encounter between US and Russian interests in the Middle East is not inherently antagonistic, and conditions for a positive convergence of interests of the two countries could re-emerge in the future, as it happened in a few important junctures in the past.
The US-Russian direct contemporaneous involvement in the Middle East dates to the late 1940s, when the WWII allies embarked on redesigning of the entire international system. From this time until these very days the two countries’ presence in the region was a given, even though their influence and leverage differed significantly. Three distinct periods could be delineated in this respect. The first one - 1945-1991, was a period of the American-Soviet ideological competition and rivalry that made of the Middle East one of the major battle grounds between the USA and USSR. During this time the two superpowers put enormous efforts to attract the countries of the region within their orbit and committed themselves to unprecedented levels of support to their allies. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 marks the beginning of a second period, when the Russian presence in the region has dwindled and became marginal and sporadic. During these years the US became the only superpower present in the region and tried to impose a Pax Americana without any interference from a former geopolitical rival. This period ended in 2013 when Russia’s initiative in Syria demonstrated to the international community that it is back to the game in the region, big time. Since 2013 the Russian influence in the region kept growing, even if still challenged by local players, as well as by the USA, giving reason to observers and decision makers to see in these developments signs of the new cycle of rivalry between the two countries, Middle East being the first new front outside the Russia’s “near abroad”, where the two countries and their allies directly confront each other not just diplomatically but also militarily.
In the context of periodization of the US-Russia engagement in the Middle East, it is important to underline it doesn’t match the chapters of the Middle Eastern ideological, political and economic evolution over the same time span.  Decolonization process of the 40s and the 50s, the establishment of the state of Israel,  the pan-Arabic projects of the late 60s, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution and a subsequent Iran-Iraq war, as well as the Arab spring, were all results of dramatic and, all too often, contradictory transformations taking place in the region. These and other events demonstrated the limits of the superpowers as well as a large degree of independence and free choice exercised by the regional forces, even to the extent of rejection of the will of their influential allies and causing both US and Russia to adopt to new circumstances and demands. To summarize this point, it would be absolutely wrong to see the regional players as marionettes in the hands of their masters.
And yet, the role of the superpowers should not be underestimated either, particularly in the dramatic events like regional wars (Sinai campaign in 1956, war of Yom Kippur in 1973, first Gulf war in 1991, second Gulf war in in 2003) or in mediating peace agreements (Camp David in 1979, Madrid conference in 1991, Camp David II in 2000). Even though the history of the region has followed a distinct path, from ideological, political and economic points of view, reflecting its long history and a complicated cluster of religions and ethnicities, the US-Russia competition for leadership in the Middle East has undoubtedly had a profound impact on the destinies of the region and shaped its political and economic conditions.
The developments since 2013 are an indication that this relationship persists and will continue in the future, not just because of the incessant and patronizing interference from the two powers, but also as a result of the growing demand from regional players for US and Russian assistance, including, if necessary, physical defense. for that reason, the third point I would like to make is that many countries in the Middle East have developed profound strategic dependency on one of the two powers and have high and rising expectation from them to keep their respective commitments. In case of Saudi Arabia and Golf states, Israel and Jordan this is United States; in case of Syria and Iran – it is Russia; other states, like Egypt, or stateless nations, like Palestinians and Kurds, have tried at different circumstances to play both cards in their search for superpower’s auspices and protection. The balance of powers between the regional players is in constant flux since the beginning of the 20th century, and more so in the last 70 years. This situation compels them to look for external powers that can provide them with missing or inadequate abilities and capacities. As in the past so nowadays and, highly probably, in the future as well, they will be still in need of political clout that only global heavyweights possess, in order to protect their interests and settle accounts with their neighboring rivals. And USA and Russia seem to be all too predisposed to meddle in the regional affairs, far more eagerly than in any other region in the world, and far more eagerly than any other countries outside the Middle East would consider.
 What are the reasons of this predisposition, of this “fatal attraction”? To answer this question we need to look at the wide range of geopolitical and economic interests, but also of cultural and religious influences and intellectual debates in both countries, and trace them beyond the 70 years of their competition for leadership in the Middle East. United States started its first engagements with the region at the end of 19th century, and her special relations with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s and was driven, first and foremost, by economic interests. It was different in case of Russia that is geographically close to the Middle East and throughout its distant history (especially in 15th-17th centuries, but also back to the times of the Kievan Rus’) came into direct contact with some of its middle-eastern neighbors. Also, since Peter the Great’s dramatic “cutting a window into Europe”, Russia has been embroiled into European affairs starting from the 18th century, and as a result entered the inter-European competition over influence in the Balkans and the Middle East already in the second half of the 19th century.
Whereas comparative analysis of the distant historic developments is helpful in understanding the roots of the special attraction to the area, this predisposition to middle-eastern affairs should include analysis of contemporary American and Russian geopolitical calculations, their respective economic interests in the regions, and of course ideological (especially during Cold War) and geopolitical calculations. Middle East is a region of opportunities no less than that of threats    . The region’s economic potential which is yet to be fully exposed and integrated into the global economy; its geographical importance as a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe; its younger demographics that loom large over the aging populations in Russia, Europe and the USA; the insatiable regional appetites for technologies, resources and weapons  – all those factors drive Americans and Russians, as well as Chinese, Europeans, Japanese and others,  to continue their competition for the minds, the hearts and the pockets of the regional players.
Last but not least, the domestic political considerations should not be overlooked in our attempt to understand the reasons of American and Russian predilection towards the Middle East involvement as well as motivations and logic behind their positions, attitudes and policies. For instance, US steady support of Israel should be examined, among other things, in the light of the sentiment shared by large segments of American public, like Christian evangelical and Jewish communities. In case of Russia, even though the instances of public pressure, especially in questions of foreign policy, are rather sporadic, the presence of the large Muslim population in the Russian Federation is a factor that can’t be ignored by the country’s leadership in dealing with region dominated by Moslem countries and torn by violence inspired by religious confrontation.
My final point is this: many of the assumptions and assessments that we uncritically accept today are, at least, not very precise, and, possibly, could be wrong. American withdrawal from the Middle East is a fact? Not exactly, rather US is looking for a better match between American interests and its resources, asking local players to take more responsibility. Russian domination in the region is a reality? Not exactly, but rather a mixture of a smart political maneuvering and limited use of military power, mostly in western part of Syria. The Idlib agreement with Turkey, the latest tension with Israel over the plane accident are only latest examples of how limited, difficult and uncertain Russian engagement in Syria is and why Russia will need others to find a solution there.  Super-powers need to adjust their policies, to match goals with available resources. They want to adjust, not to withdraw. And this need for adjustment is probably the moment of convergence of interests.

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