During the fifteen years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russians have come to think of their political system as a stage where the Kremlin puts on the requisite performances. It would also appear that the Kremlin’s skill as a director has not dulled over the years: the script is precise and well thought-out; the scenes are planned weeks, months, and years in advance; and the actors (politicians, parties, political experts, and loyal media outlets) are obedient and occasionally even inspired in their roles. People occasionally recall the great three-, four-, and five-act plays of the past—such as the race to find a successor in 2008 and the transfer of power in 2012—which reinforce the audience’s faith in the director’s art.

But time has no mercy on talent or skill. The Kremlin is losing its good taste and its sense of style, its technique is getting rusty without sufficient practice, and the actors are increasingly just going through the motions and forgetting their lines. Public politics (not infighting among the pro-Putin clans, but party and parliamentary activity) has long been in a rut, but since the annexation of Crimea it has devolved into provincial, third-rate theater.

The Kremlin no longer thinks in terms of scenarios that require political action. It is operating with tactical battalion groups, state companies, oil pipelines and liquidity flows. But the hyperactive political system, long neglected by the Kremlin, wants and simply demands an immediate reset, and it is springing ever more surprises on the Kremlin. This is exactly what happened with the rescheduling of Russia’s next elections for the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

A Controlled Leak

The possibility of moving elections forward emerged, as many of the Kremlin’s political scenarios do, after an information leak: on May 19, the Russian news portal RBC published an article titled “Duma Deputies Informed that Elections Will Be Rescheduled.” There is no reason to suspect RBC’s sources or the journalists themselves of lying, but they were unwittingly doing the Kremlin’s bidding nonetheless. The next day, journalists from other media outlets began questioning Russian newsmakers such as Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, Central Election Commission (CEC) officials, and prominent members of the United Russia party about the date change. This was just what the Kremlin needed. The idea seemed to have come out of nowhere—nobody had officially announced it, but now it was on the agenda. It therefore became a legitimate topic of discussion, and not as a question of “what we’ve decided,” but more as a “why not?” An anonymous source from the CEC told RIA Novosti news agency on May 20 that the commission was ready to hold early Duma elections. Naryshkin backed the idea on May 21.

Around the same time, various explanations for why it was necessary to push the elections forward began to appear in the media. Naryshkin focused on political responsibility, saying that it would be wrong for the old Duma to pass the 2017 budget if it was possible to form a new Duma that could do so. Other opinion leaders said that rescheduling would save money for the treasury, since both regional and parliamentary elections—originally slated for September and December, respectively—could be held at once. Both of these arguments are still at play.

CEC Chairman Vladimir Churov almost dropped the ball entirely when he blurted out on May 21 that his commission had no intention of holding two elections because both the regional and federal elections would take place in December 2016. Later, trying to make up for failing to toe the Kremlin line, Churov explained that he was out of the loop and hadn't been informed as to the course of action.

Sloth and Avarice

Independent political analysts soon spelled out the real reason for pushing elections forward. If the elections were held in the fall, the Kremlin would have to conduct a real campaign, which it does not want to bother with. It hopes to get away with a lazy, sleepy, summer affair—sweaty candidates debating sluggishly as they shoo away flies, while voters take well-deserved vacations, getting out into the fresh air and cooking up a barbecue. One former Kremlin official emphasized that this won’t affect the actual result: the pro-Kremlin parties United Russia and the All-Russia People’s Front will win in September just as they would in December. The difference is in the energy expended, as nobody, from the deputies to the governors to the Kremlin itself, wants the nuisance of a genuine campaign.

Another source, currently an employee (but not an official) in the Kremlin’s domestic policy department, cites an additional reason: money is tight. Several political strategists working for the Kremlin or for the systemic opposition say that they are currently being paid late, or sometimes not at all. They are afraid that because of a lack of funds, the results of the 2015 fall elections may disappoint their bosses. The coffers of United Russia and the All-Russia People’s Front are filled by pro-Kremlin oligarchs and state companies, which are currently experiencing extreme financial hardship, so during the election campaign the parties will have to count every penny. Nobody likes the idea of these kinds of elections, least of all the mastermind behind the rescheduling, Vyacheslav Volodin, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration who oversees domestic policy.
    
There is also a third parameter to the idea of the shift.  More details can be found below, but to put it briefly: the political system is not only hyperactive and neglected, but is also stuck in a position that is awkward for most of its players. Many deputies, officials, and even big-name politicians like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin, and Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov, want to get out of the uncomfortable situation they're in, where they’re constantly in each other’s way. Elections and campaigns mean motion, action, and progress, and motion is life—political life, too. Elections and campaigns mean alliances, money, distribution of seats, etc. A freeze on domestic politics prevents all of this.

The Red Menace

The deputies supporting this supposedly anonymous idea said from the outset that it was a technical move, and therefore one that would be supported by all four fractions in the Duma. They said this because they knew full well that rescheduling elections is a violation of the constitution, which plainly says that the term of the Duma is five years—not four years, nine months and a few days. In order to sidestep the constitution, the Kremlin had to get all four factions on board. This would protect the Kremlin from the possibility that deputies slighted by the curtailing of their terms in office would submit a case to the Constitutional Court. For any fraction to balk and take their case to court would be a disgrace for the Kremlin.

The communists did balk. One Duma deputy pointed out that neither the Kremlin nor United Russia offered the communists anything in exchange for their consent to move elections up to September. He explained that the issue became a matter of principle and a matter of survival for the Communist Party. The communists supported the annexation of Crimea, they help Ukraine’s pro-Russian Donbas region, they are among the most vocal critics of the Ukrainian government and in general they are absolutely loyal to the Kremlin, their criticism of the government notwithstanding. The Communist Party gladly became part of the post-Crimea political system, but that doesn’t mean it wants to now be tossed aside, the deputy noted. He added that while the Communist Party earned almost 20 percent of the vote in 2011, it might fall short of even 10 percent in September 2016.

Volodin did not offer any concessions to the communists because that’s not his style, asserted a former colleague of Volodin’s from United Russia. According to the source, Volodin pushes his adversary into a corner and then keeps pushing until there is no adversary left. Volodin’s predecessor in the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, was willing to negotiate because he did not see it as a sign of weakness.  Volodin, however, believes that negotiating is a weakness and weakness is the biggest threat to power.  Total mutiny by the communists was deemed an unlikely risk, said a political expert close to the Kremlin—Plan A was that the communists would agree and there was no Plan B.

In late May, when the communists refused to support the rescheduling of the elections, the topic was temporarily put aside. The Kremlin decided to bide its time, prepare the necessary documentation, and consult its lawyers. It was most likely at this point that the idea emerged of asking the Constitutional Court whether it would be permissible to reduce the Duma term by three months—not at the very start, but only after the objections of the communists. A simple scenario of four fractions amicably agreeing to change the law now had to be replaced with a more complicated one, in which three fractions changed the law while asking the Constitutional Court whether they were allowed to or not. The plan had to be adjusted along the way: at first the Duma itself was expected to file the inquiry, but later the Kremlin decided that in order to remain legally in the clear, the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russian parliament) should do so instead.

Snowball Effect

This is when an unanticipated snowball effect began that turned the question of pushing forward elections into a major political crisis, the second of the year after the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the ensuing fight between Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and the federal siloviki, or representatives of the law enforcement structures. Changing its plan as the situation developed, the Kremlin started getting more high-profile players involved in the issue. First, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko supported the rescheduling, then Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov. Characteristically, Ivanov did not seem to really understand the entire scheme: he cited one reason as the cost and complexity of organizing two elections rather than one, unaware that the CEC never intended to have two campaigns in the first place but had rather planned to hold just one, in December.

The Cabinet of Ministers also added fuel to the fire. At the end of May, Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov, who is believed to be close to Prime Minister Medvedev, declared that the election should not be rescheduled prior to a public discussion about it. However, on June 11 the Cabinet fast-tracked the draft law on changing the election date, approving it without the interim steps required by standard procedures. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko signed off on the bill despite the fact that the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Ministry of Finance must review any legislation envisaging additional budget expenditures before the government makes an official ruling.  The draft law was delivered to the Cabinet on the evening of June 11, right before a three-day weekend.  On the morning of Monday, June 14, it was returned to the Duma with a positive assessment.  This was something out of the ordinary: the cabinet blatantly violated procedure in order to push the Kremlin’s bill through.

Showdown

So every top official in the country is on the bandwagon but the president is still keeping mum, without saying yes or no? The cabinet signed off on the bill despite gross violations of its own procedures? Everyone is pushing the bill through as if it’s on fire? That must mean that something is going on behind the scenes and that the Kremlin is planning something big. During a press conference held at Interfax news agency on June 15, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov berated the authors of the bill, accusing “certain forces in the Kremlin” of plotting a revolt by speeding up elections. Communist Party Secretary Sergei Obukhov went a step further, saying that the government wants to crack down on tax policy in order to amend the 2017 budget, and that’s why it’s moving the elections.

Or perhaps what’s really at stake is something bigger—perhaps setting a precedent for moving up the presidential elections, like Kazakhstan did recently? This idea was floated on June 16 in a column by economist and former official Yevgeny Gontmakher in the Vedomosti newspaper. Thanks to the snowball effect, by June 18 the issue had reached the St. Petersburg Economic Forum: former finance minister Alexei Kudrin said in no uncertain terms that the presidential elections not only can be, but must be moved forward. That was a challenge to Gontmakher, who is Kudrin’s colleague at the Committee for Civil Initiatives.

Kudrin proposed casting a more positive light over what Gontmakher had called a desecration of the constitution in his column. The constitution is what it is, Kudrin said, but if presidential elections were held early it would mean a new mandate, and a new mandate means reforms that the economy desperately needs.

Then things got downright crazy. Forum participants and guests launched into an impassioned discussion of Kudrin’s passing the ball to the Kremlin, while United Russia and A Just Russia (another pro-Kremlin party) started accusing Kudrin of all sorts of mortal sins, distancing themselves from the idea of moving presidential elections forward and asserting that there were absolutely no grounds for such a move. If it were not for the seizure of Russian state property in Belgium and France, the rescheduling of the elections would have become not just the main but the only topic on the agenda at the first day of the forum. President Vladimir Putin chaired four events on the first day, but nobody discussed the events themselves: everyone discussed his term and the doubtless sensitive question of what will happen to the presidency in 2018.

Even if you don't get involved in politics, politics will get involved with you—that is the moral of the story when it comes to rescheduling the 2016 parliamentary elections from December to September. The Kremlin initiative, once let loose, set a fire under the political elite and proved a distraction at the biggest economic event on the Kremlin’s calendar. Instead of deliberating over investments and Russia’s economic prospects, forum guests and participants mulled over various configurations of early, extraordinary, and even emergency parliamentary, presidential, and all other kinds of elections. The Kremlin, having started this brouhaha, now has no idea how to extricate itself from the mess.

A tiny bit of underhanded maneuvering to avoid a big political campaign in 2016 fueled a big political row that came out of nowhere in 2015. The rescheduling idea, first compromised by the Kremlin's negligence and the communists’ insubordination and then hijacked by Kudrin, morphed from a technical adjustment into an enormous snafu, landing the problem right at the feet of the one person who truly wanted nothing to do with it—the Russian president himself.

Konstantin Gaaze – journalist, political commentator

By:
  • Konstantin Gaaze