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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
September 12, 2016

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Election to Have ‘Predictable Results but Unpredictable Consequences,’ Schulmann Says
Staunton, VA, September 12, 2016 - Like those in other authoritarian regimes, the Duma elections in Russia have “predictable results but unpredictable consequences,” Ekaterina Schulmann says, suggesting that the Duma to be elected next Sunday will be more significant than its predecessor regardless of the precise division in the number of seats among the parliamentary parties.

In a commentary in Vedomosti September 12, the political analyst at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service argues that observers are paying too much attention to the programs the various parties are offering in the campaigns and too little to the calendar in which the new Duma will operate. 

A major reason for that conclusion, Schulmann suggests, is that “the executive power defines the work of the parliament, and its agenda in turn is connected with a number of external and internal factors which the government machine does not control or controls only in part,” such as the price of oil, the outcome of the American elections, and intra-elite struggles. 

Moreover, she continues, those the powers-that-be allow to run are people who have shown them loyal to the regime rather than to any party program. They have implicitly or explicitly agreed to follow whatever the Kremlin wants even if it directly contradicts what their party programs specify.

Another reason for this conclusion, Schulmann says, is the reappearance of Duma deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. Even if these people are nominally members of one or another party, they are “to a greater degree” than those elected by party list tied to local elites and even less inclined to follow any particular party program. 

For them, membership in a party is a way to gain entrance to the Duma rather than a set of ideas that such new deputies are committed to advance. How they will act in the new Duma is thus far more an open question than is that of deputies elected as in the recent past only according to party lists. 

Schulmann argues that it is already possible to “see what will define the agenda of the new Duma,” and she suggests there are three main areas in which it will have to operate and which give it the opportunity to play a far more significant role in Russian politics than its predecessor has. 

First of all, she says, because half of its deputies will be from single-member districts, the old divisions among the parties will be different in the amount of influence they have. “The single mandate members will be much more firmly connected with regional elites and group interests than with the party leadership and the political management in Moscow.” 

Both the Presidential Administration and the Duma leadership will “propose to the potential regional fronde surrogates in the form of ‘inter-fraction unions’ and other informal interest clubs.” But these are unlikely to work as effectively in controlling what those elected from single mandate districts will do as the authorities may hope. 

Second, the Duma will have the opportunity to play a greater role in budgetary matters, not only because the government has shifted from a three-year-budget to an annual one and because the regime faces enormous difficulties in squaring income and spending because of the crisis.

Both in public and behind the scenes, Duma members and perhaps especially those from single mandate districts will get involved in the struggles among the bureaucracies and the regions for what money there is. Indeed, Schulmann suggests, recent finance ministry statements about military spending and pensions suggest that is extremely likely.

And third, the new Duma will be in office in the run-up to presidential elections in 2018, thus putting it in a position to affect outcomes at least at the margins. And to the extent that the new Duma will be elected with fewer violations, it will have “firmer legitimacy” than did the one it replaces. 

These changes, she continues, may be able to work for the interests of Russian citizens because competition within the legislature, triggered by events and by the rise of the single mandate deputies, is likely to lead to the involvement of experts and the media in discussions about new laws. That has the potential to make them more responsible. 

"Therefore,” Schulmann says, “the civic interest lies in the growth of parliamentary diversity,” something promoted by the influx of those from single mandate constituencies who “will represent their territories and not the Moscow television.” 

She concludes by observing that “the well-known principle of political success – ‘anticipate the inevitable and help it arrive’ – only seems a kind of pure opportunism. In fact, it is necessary to make the inevitable possible,” lest it arrive too late and with disastrous consequences. Schulmann ends by pointing to two such tasks: Industrialization is inevitable but if it comes to late it will involve “the mass dying off of the peasantry,” and federalization is inevitable but if it comes too slowly, it will be “realized in the form of armed separatism” with all the consequences that would entail. 

Thus, the political analyst says, “the new Duma is fated to be at one and the same time less united and more significant than its immediate predecessors. But if its composition is again defined by administrative force without the participation of the voters, it will be more difficult for it to play its objectively driven role.”

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 48

 Staunton, September 9 -- The flood of news stories from a country as large, diverse and strange as the Russian Federation often appears to be is far too large for anyone to keep up with. But there needs to be a way to mark those which can’t be discussed in detail but which are too indicative of broader developments to ignore.

Consequently, Windows on Eurasia presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 48th such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could have put out such a listing every day -- but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest. 

1. How Bad are Things in Russia Today? One Woman Handcuffs Herself at Putin’s Office; Others Strip Along Highway for Food Money.  Russian government statistics show that the country is rapidly depleting its reserves and that the middle class is suffering as the number of Russians in poverty increase.  But the real horror is reflected not in these statistics but in the behavior of individuals. This past week, one woman handcuffed herself to the entrance of Putin’s office to protest her situation, and other women stood along a highway offering to strip for passersby in order to earn money.  There is one bright spot in the Russian economy, however. Russia’s prisons are hiring more jailors, and schools in Volgograd are now training pupils to become prison guards. 

2. Matvienko Goes Marx One Better – ‘He Who Doesn’t Eat Won’t Get Medical Care.’ The speaker of the Federation Council has proposed that those who don’t have a job should not get government-paid-for medical care.  But even those with jobs may have a hard time: the number who are employed but not being paid has increased by 50 percent over the last month and experts say that an average Russian would need to work 113 years in order to get an adequate pension. 

3. Were Putin’s Military Maneuvers Simply about Getting More Money for Arms Industry?  Russians and not only they routinely suggest that military activity by Western governments is intended to gin up popular support for more weapons spending. Now a Russian commentator has suggested that a major reason behind Vladimir Putin’s recent sabre rattling may be exactly the same. Meanwhile, in other military related developments, officials say that units of Putin’s “national guard” will be established throughout Russia.

4. Will Novaya Zemlya Again Be Known as Nicholas II Land? Some Russian nationalists are pushing to restore the original name of the territories now known as Novaya Zemlya. That name was Nicholas II Land, a name given after the appearance of neighboring Franz Joseph Land.  Meanwhile, another Russian nationalist has listed all the places now abroad that should again be under Russian rule. They include not only all the former Soviet republics but also Poland, Norway, part of China, part of Japan, Alaska, and many others. 

5. Buryats Welcome Medvedev with His Own Slogan – and Get Arrested. A group of Buryats met visiting Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with signs carrying his statement that “there is no money but have a nice day.” For their troubles, they were arrested. Meanwhile, other Russian officials seem committed to dethroning the premier as the Russian champion of Marie Antoinette-type remarks. A collection of their remarks is offered here. 

6. Russia River Runs Red and Black Sea Dies.  Pollution from a Norilsk nickel plant has caused a river in the Russian north to run blood red, and experts also report that pollution from Russian plants is transforming the Black Sea into a dead one.  

7. ‘Vote the Right Way or You Won’t Get Help,’ Mordvinia Head Says. Although surveys suggest that most Russians aren’t taking the upcoming Duma elections too seriously given that their outcome seems predetermined, the head of Mordvinia has told his people that unless they bring in big majorities for United Russia, the people in their districts will not get any government help.  

8. FSB, Having Attacked Protestants, Goes After Alternative Orthodox Churches. The FSB began its enforcement of the Yarovaya laws by going after Protestants and especially Protestant missionaries from abroad. Now it is harassing Russia’s Orthodox churches that are not subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate. 

9. TASS Gets It Right: Counter-Sanctions are Anti-Russian. The Russian government’s new agency, which is often marked by duplicity and outright lies, unintentionally got something right this week: It described the counter-sanctions imposed by the Kremlin as “anti-Russian actions”. 

10. Orthodox Parishioners Pray for Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal. Parishioners in Orthodox churches subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate have been praying for the success of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Patriarchate has launched a plan to build even more churches even though it hasn’t paid for all those that have gone up in recent years. The hierarchy says the new churches will be financed by Russian businesses.  

11. Moscow Always has Money for Regional Spectacles but Not for Regional Needs.The central Russian government seems able to find money for spectacles held in the country’s regions but it doesn’t have funds for the needs of the people there.  As a result, not only does the country not have decent roads and other infrastructure, but reporters noted that even in Moscow, many new buildings do not feature such “luxuries” as plumbing.  

12. Russia’s Muslims Fail to Fill New, Lower Haj Quota. When the Saudis reduced Russia’s haj quota two years ago from 20,500 to 16,000, Moscow officials pledged to negotiate a higher figure given pent-up demand, but this year, Muslim leaders say, the economic crisis and higher prices for travel to Meccas have meant that Russian Muslims have filled only 95 percent of the lower quota which remains in place. 

3. Health Disaster in Russian North Much Worse Because Moscow Ended Vaccinations in 2007. The recent outbreaks of disease in Russia’s far north that have been triggered by the melting of permafrost have been much worse than they otherwise would have been, officials now concede, because Moscow ended a vaccination program there in 2007 and many who would otherwise have been immune have fallen ill.  And the illnesses have spread more widely for another reason: officials lack the resources to fight mosquitos which have carried the infection as far as 250 kilometers from its point of origin.

And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. Useful Idiots in Ukraine Greater Threat than Moscow Media. Russia has won over to its side so many useful idiots that they now constitute a far greater danger to Ukraine than do explicitly identified Moscow outlets, according to Delovaya Stolitsa.

2. Disagreements among Baltic Countries Said Threatening Rail Baltic Project. Disagreements among the three countries cast doubt on whether the Rail Baltic project (which must not be confused with the Rail Baltica program) will be completed on time or even completed at all, some observers say.

3. Muslims from Repressive Post-Soviet States Now Fleeing to Freedom in Ukraine. Muslims from former Soviet republics where repression against Muslims is on the increase are choosing to move to Ukraine where they are able to practice their religion freely. 

4. Former Tajik Colonel Becomes ISIS Commander. A former senior officer from Tajikistan who deserted his country earlier has now assumed the role of senior commander for the Islamic State.

5. Protests Begin in Uzbekistan’s Regions. In the wake of the death of Islam Karimov, some in Uzbekistan’s regions have taken to the streets in protest, apparently out of fear that their regions will suffer as power is redivided under Karimov’s successors. 

6. Tensions Along Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border Intensify. The border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been tense for a long time because the two countries have not been able to agree on its demarcation. In the wake of the death of Islam Karimov, those tensions have intensified, despite apparent efforts on both sides to calm the situation.