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Steve Gutterman’s Week In Russia


Week In Russia
If you’re interested in Russia, you’ll love Steve Gutterman’s Week In Russia. RFE/RL’s news editor dissects some of the key developments over the previous week and offers some of the takeaways going forward. Every Friday, direct to your in-box. Click here to subscribe
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The Week In Russia: A Shockingly Normal Election, Novichok News, And More Jail For Navalny 
28.09.2018
The Week In Russia: A Shockingly Normal Election, Novichok News, And More Jail For Navalny 

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The Kremlin scrambled to shore up its power nationwide after a handful of electoral defeats, while evidence that the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter was a GRU operation mounted as cybersleuths dug deeper and Russia dug in, repeating its denials. Aleksei Navalny walked out of jail after 30 days – and walked back in hours later, handed another 20 days behind bars over the protests he has mounted against President Vladimir Putin and pension reform.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

Election SNAFU

When the governor of Russia’s Sakhalin region described the “situation connected with the election” in neighboring Primorye as “not very good,” President Vladimir Putin immediately took issue: ”Why not good?” he shot back. “It’s a normal situation.”

The governor hastily agreed, but “normal” is not a word many would use to describe the gubernatorial election in Primorye: The result of a September 16 runoff was thrown out at the recommendation of Central Election Commission (CEC) chief Ella Pamfilova, who cited “serious violations” and said electoral officials were “shocked” by the scale of the fraud.

The annulment of the vote in the most populous region in the Russian Far East came after the Communist Party claimed that a sudden, suspicious surge that propelled the Kremlin favorite ahead of its candidate was fueled by widespread cheating in the final stages of the ballot count.

Primorye is one of four places where runoffs were scheduled after no candidate won a majority of votes in first-round balloting in 21 of Russia’ 85 regions on September 9.

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

All four have gone badly for United Russia, the dominant party Putin uses as his main instrument of political control across the sprawling country: Candidates from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won on September 23 in Vladimir and Khabarovsk, next to Primorye, and the runoff in Khakasia was postponed when the Kremlin-backed incumbent pulled out at the last minute . He cited the need to avert a “schism,” but the move was widely seen as motivated by the realization that he would lose.

Putin’s meeting with now-former Sakhalin Governor Oleg Kozhemyako was part of a concerted Kremlin effort to control the damage, not just in the four regions but elsewhere as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets on September 26 with Oleg Kozhemyako, who has just been appointed acting governor of the Primorye region.

​​Face-to-face with Putin across a Kremlin desk that has been a prop for countless clearly scripted meetings of its kind — this one ostensibly called to review the situation in Sakhalin — Kozhemyako explained that, as a native son of Primorye, he would like to discuss “the possibility of participating in the election for governor…in order to fulfill the expectations of residents and really make it so that the dynamic of development corresponds to those tasks that stand today before the Far East.”

After an elaborate exchange that hammered home Kozhemyako’s bona fides as a local boy, Primorye born and bred — “I maintain relations with my classmates, those I studied with, did sports with, worked with” — Putin appointed him acting governor and wished him luck.

He may need it in the new election, now scheduled for December — but he seems sure to have the support of on extensive, thorough, and careful Kremlin effort to ensure his victory and avoid embarrassment the second time around.

‘Disgrace’

Part of that effort are suggestions by the authorities that both sides are equally guilty of fraud in the runoff, even though the main thrust of the fraud allegations was the accusation that the last-minute surge that erased Communist candidate Andrei Ishchenko’s substantial lead was the result of ballot-stuffing and other machinations meant to pump up the vote count for the United Russia candidate, Andrei Tarasenko.

CEC chief Pamfilova said on September 21 that neither Ishchenko nor Tarasenko should run in the new election, charging that both had “discredited themselves in the eyes of the voters.”

Russian Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova

​​That criticism could potentially backfire, however: Ishchenko reacted by suggesting that Pamfilova step down and “not disgrace the procedure of democratic elections.”

So far, it appears he will run in December. The outcome is hard to predict, but one thing seems clear: Steven Seagal will not be the next governor of Primorye, despite his reported willingnessto take the job.

In the space of an hour before his meeting with Kozhemyako, a long-time Far East fixture who has also headed the Amur Oblast, Putin named new acting governors in two other regions – in both cases turning to people with close ties to his ruling elite.

Familiar Names

In Astrakhan, Putin appointed Sergei Morozov, a former aide to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and officer of the Federal Guard Service, the bodyguard agency that protects government officials. He also has the same name, first and last, as the governor of the Ulyanovsk region.

In the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, Putin named Kazbek Kokov – whose father, Valery Kokov, headed the region from 1992 to 2005. Oh, and the new appointee also shares a last name with his predecessor, Yury Kokov, who held the post for four years.

Kazbek Kokov, the new acting head of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria

​​As a rule, the people Putin appoints as acting governors go on to win the post in elections — one of the safety features he has built into a system that he calls democratic but that critics say falls far short of that description.

The problems in Primorye and the other regions where United Russia stumbled this month should ring alarm bells in Moscow, and the Kremlin’s response suggests that they have.

But a series of votes in the State Duma this week helped show why, when the system fails, it is a headache for Putin — but not necessarily a nightmare.

Keep On Working 

While United Russia is a big part of the wiring of his ruling apparatus, Putin has for years used the other parties in parliament — the Communists, the LDPR, and A Just Russia — as cogs in the machine.

If Putin wants to maintain power in a less formal role after his six-year term ends in 2024 — when he is barred by the Constitution from seeking reelection — he will want to be able to rely on a support base that is broader than United Russia.

This week, dozens of Communist lawmakers managed to support Putin’s proposed alteration in the highly unpopular pension-reform bill — raising the retirement age for women by five years instead of eight — while voting against the legislation itself.

An electronic screen shows the results of the voting on a pension reform bill in the State Duma on September 26.

​​In the end, of course, it didn’t matter — United Russia has more than 300 seats in the Duma, which passed the bill by a vote of 333 to 62 on September 27.

In retrospect, the plan to raise the female retirement age by eight years seems to have been set up only to be knocked down by Putin, who proposed the reduction in a televised speech in which he cited what he called a “special, caring attitude toward women” in Russia.

If Communists in the Duma fell for it, most other Russians did not.

A poll conducted by the independent pollster Levada-Center found that 40 percent of Russians thought Putin’s proposal made no difference, while 25 percent said they made the legislation worse and only 29 percent said they improved it, the daily Vedomosti reported on September 27.

The same poll found that 34 percent of Russians who were aware of Putin’s address had a more negative view of the president as a result, while 7 percent had a more positive view.

Jail Time

But the poll had some good news for Putin as well: While 53 percent of Russians were prepared to protest against the pension-reform plan in August, that number dropped to 35 percent in September, Levada said. And Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the polling agency, said the survey also showed that popular support for the plan rose slightly.

Putin’s popularity has clearly been dented by the push to raise the retirement age.

But after holding off on the move for years, Putin may now be hoping that he is making it early enough after his March reelection to avoid long-lasting effects on his popularity during his six-year fourth term.

Aleksei Navalny will do his best to ensure that’s not the case: He appears determined to continue staging protests over the pension reform. But if Putin’s police and courts keep up their current pace, the Kremlin foe may spend a large chunk of the president’s current term behind bars.

Russian police officers detain opposition leader Aleksei Navalny upon his release from a Moscow detention center on September 24.

​​Navalny has avoided long-term imprisonment, having been handed suspended sentences for two financial-crimes convictions in cases he and supporters contend were fabricated to punish him for his opposition to Putin.

But Navalny has repeatedly been arrested and jailed for what courts have ruled were administrative offenses, mainly alleged violations of what government critics say are unconstitutional restrictions on public assembly.

When Navalny was released before dawn on September 24, after a month in jail, his spokesman Kira Yarmysh said that he had spent 172 days behind bars since 2011 — and 120 days since the start of his thwarted attempt to challenge Putin for the presidency in March.

‘Invented Crap’

Those figures are already outdated, though: Navalny was rearrested immediately upon release and was jailed again by a Moscow judge, this time for 20 days , after an hours-long hearing in which he spoke at length, denying the charge that he organized a protest that caused damage to health or property, mocking the police and courts, and calling documents presented as evidence against him “invented crap.”

That is roughly what Russian lawmaker Vitaly Bogdanov said about British-based investigative group Bellingcat’s newest report on the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March.

In the latest in a flurry of findings , Bellingcat concluded that one of the suspects Britain blames for the poisoning, a man who traveled to London under the name Ruslan Boshirov, is in fact a decorated Russian military officer named Anatoly Chepiga.

Bogdanov dismissed the claim as “complete nonsense.”

His comments and other remarks by officials and lawmakers indicate that as the evidence of pointing to Moscow mounts, Russia’s response – to deny involvement  and assert that there is no such evidence — remains unchanged.

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