After five years of steering Russia’s domestic politics, Vyacheslav Volodin, erstwhile first deputy chief of staff, is moving to parliament to be speaker of the new State Duma. The move is, in a sense, unsurprising, as Volodin—on the heels of nominally successful Duma elections last September—remains widely supported by all factions throughout the Russian government and has received repeated praise from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Indeed, the recent Duma vote—which returned United Russia’s majority, and which saw few challenges or protests—has been largely attributed to Volodin, who had pledged to improve the “competitiveness, openness, and legitimacy” of the country’s political system. 

Volodin’s efforts began following the massive protests swirling around the 2011 Duma elections, which presented the foremost challenge to date to Putin’s regime. Volodin’s predecessor Vladislav Surkov shouldered the guilt for failing to prevent these protests, while Volodin was tasked with recalibrating a malfunctioning system. The results of the reforms were made clear by the results of the recent election: United Russia received a supermajority in the Duma and the remaining Duma parties were placed under full control of the Kremlin. As such, Volodin’s new position as Duma speaker is, effectively, a reward for his work.

But in reality, Volodin merely helped ossify a top-down system—one that has all but paralyzed Russia’s domestic politics. The facade of Volodin’s victory masks broken structures, and his five years at the helm brought a combination of rampant deception and rising disappointment. Along the way, Volodin’s reforms increased the distance between Duma parties—the Communists, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)—and their respective electorates. Now, instead of becoming intermediaries for dissatisfied voters in case of a crisis, the parties and the Duma have both become rubber-stamp organizations more interested in pleasing the Kremlin than in their shrinking electorates. 

Meanwhile, local and independent politicians—those who could have carried new networks of supporters—have become disillusioned, as the Kremlin never allowed the real competition that it consistently promised. High-profile projects such as the All-Russia People’s Front (ARPF) and United Russia’s promised primaries, were never realized. As such, even though Volodin assured relatively high returns for United Russia in September, the country’s domestic politics has lurched into a near-comatose stasis. 

The majority of Russians ignored the recent elections, and their real views and convictions remain unknown. Due to Volodin’s reforms, the state lost touch with the Russian public. Any responsiveness—any nimbleness—has effectively disappeared as the political system’s nerve endings connecting it to the body politic have withered amid the Kremlin’s rising clampdown.

Following in Surkov’s Footsteps

Volodin was appointed as the first deputy chief of staff to the Presidential Executive Office at the end of 2011, following in the footsteps of a predecessor, Surkov, who was widely known for his political experimentation. Over the decade preceding Volodin’s appointment, continued economic growth had largely placated the Kremlin’s base, even though the 2008 recession caused an uptick in domestic tensions. Oil prices were rising and incomes were broadly growing, alongside the approval ratings of Putin, whose main goal appeared to be steering Russia toward the club of developed nations.

Buoyed by a rising economy, Surkov had space to construct a facade of domestic democracy. Citizens were offered a spectrum of parties to choose from, including liberals, communists, right-wingers, and social democrats. However, the system’s superficial nature was never hidden especially well: rules for registering parties were inordinately complicated; Duma elections were held only through party lists; gubernatorial elections were abolished. Moreover, election results could be overwritten, if need be, by election commissions. As such, and despite the attendant mythologizing of his methods, Surkov’s system—his “sovereign democracy,” as he termed it—ended up as opaque as it was limited. 

Still, even when unexpected events came to pass, the fallout remained manageable. Rare instances in which opposition members proved victorious ended with the candidates either subsumed into the ranks of United Russia or arrested outright.

But by 2011, Surkov’s approach had begun sparking dissatisfaction. Assorted parties and high-ranking politicos pushed for more freedom and more influence. Likewise, Russia’s citizenry took a renewed interest in the country’s domestic politics, and United Russia’s rating fell as a result. An opposition campaign soon began in earnest, joining together around an anti-United Russia contract. Surkov, all the while, failed to notice the tectonic shifts suddenly pushing against the Kremlin. And then, with electoral rigging during the 2011 Duma elections leading to protests, Putin finally experienced what he had always feared: tens of thousands of Russians protesting, marching through Moscow, demanding their political due.

Streamlining the System

Following the 2011 protests and with Putin’s return to the presidency slated for 2012, Volodin was appointed to clean up Surkov’s mistakes. At the time, Volodin was considered something of a realist and, having made his career in regional politics, was broadly familiar with the opposition. 

His initial reforms were swift. After the 2011 protests, single-mandate districts for selecting deputies and gubernatorial elections were restored, and the registration process for parties was largely simplified. More broadly, however, Volodin—and the Kremlin—chose to interpret the protests as a result of the political system’s closed-off nature rather than as a sign of general fatigue with the regime. As such, Volodin was faced with a difficult task. He would be forced to create the illusion of fair elections, all while maintaining the regime’s vertical hierarchy and guaranteeing the passage of the required candidates.

Following his appointment, it quickly became clear that Volodin preferred to work via different methods than his predecessor. Surkov enjoyed obfuscation, and when he was in charge, information for the media about developments within the Kremlin often came from confidential sources. Volodin, however, opted to meet with the press and with experts, preferring a new openness to replace Surkov’s secrecy.

This transparency extended to the electoral framework as well. Polling centers for the presidential elections, Volodin announced, would be outfitted with webcams. The Kremlin publicly selected a new favorite letter—“O for Openness”—later augmenting its alphabetic sloganeering with “C for Competitiveness.” The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov even registered as a presidential candidate, joining a raft of familiar faces, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Gennady Zyuganov, and Sergei Mironov. Behind the scenes, of course, each of the participants agreed to behave according to prescribed roles, without stepping beyond the confines of what that role demanded—but, publicly, they posed as serious candidates with serious platforms.  

The administration followed Volodin’s new rules with ease. Putin’s ratings remained high, with competitors failing to develop any nationwide followings. The 2012 presidential campaign went well, with few publicly questioning the results, and with resultant protests quickly faltering. As Putin reascended to the presidency, a third letter rang out from the Kremlin’s alphabet: “L for Legitimacy.”

Frictions Set In 

But a solo election does not necessarily beget a pattern, and a single point of data is not necessarily a trend. In reality, as the Kremlin failed to notice, Putin’s high returns arose from a simple fact: the majority of voters simply didn’t see an alternative to Putin. This oversight stemmed in part from the fact that Putin’s inner circle believed citizens simply wanted an absence of outright voting manipulation rather than an end to the consolidation of power within the Kremlin. 

While these frustrations hung, largely unnoticed, in the background, Volodin continued crafting a system for filtering out preferred candidates. Any attempts at actual competition were effectively eliminated and replaced by fixed contests with weak opponents. In practice, the pledges of competitiveness, openness, and legitimacy were buried under expanding restrictions, smothered by electoral promises that nobody was going to fulfill.

Outside Moscow, and even though Surkov had preferred to stay away from regional politics, Volodin was more meticulous, extending his methods to the regions. Volodin also brought an outsized preference for trusted confidants for important assignments. Numerous key positions in the presidential administration, in United Russia, and in the Duma were taken by Volodin’s colleagues, including natives of Saratov or prior members of United Russia’s youth movement, the Young Guard, which Volodin had patronized. 

But such obvious preference for personal allegiance eventually began grating senior figures in the Kremlin and United Russia. Volodin’s system, despite its electoral successes, soon began encountering elite pushback—and the beginnings of frustrations that have only expanded since.

Distance From the Electorate

Before detailing how Volodin’s system worked—or didn’t—during the recent Duma elections, it’s worth circling back to the immediate fallout from Putin’s 2012 victory. After Putin’s return, the Kremlin set about restructuring parliamentary parties. Despite temporary walkouts from members of the Communist and A Just Russia parties in early 2012, all Duma parties quickly coalesced around the president, even prior to the 2014 Crimea annexation. To wit, by 2012 both the Communist and A Just Russia parties supported the law labeling certain NGOs as “foreign agents,” as well as the “Dima Yakovlev Law” restricting international adoptions of Russian children. Along the way, politically active opposition members were deprived of mandates, while high-profile bills—drafted by the Kremlin—were soon pushed with increasing unanimity in the Duma. 

This unanimity stemmed in large part from Volodin’s methods, which included offering gubernatorial posts and increased publicity for Duma loyalists. In exchange, the Duma morphed even further into a rubber-stamp body, not only with regard to legislative questions but also with regard to nominating formal candidates for assorted posts. In one example, Volodin’s wrangling helped convince A Just Russia to drop Rail Sarbaev, the ex-prime minister of Bashkortostan, as a candidate to head up that republic. As such, Sarbaev was forced to run as a member of the little-known Civilian Power Party—and even they ended up withdrawing their support.

By the time the 2016 Duma came around, the parliamentary parties had effectively turned into bureaucratized structures, proving their fealty to the Kremlin time and again, and failing to push back against everything from Kremlin corruption to budget problems. Members of these Duma parties offered increasingly effusive praise for Putin’s leadership. As a reward, the parties saw further successes after the introduction of elections in single-mandate districts. 

But underneath these perceived Duma victories, the regions had become increasingly demoralized. As Duma parties raced to support Kremlin leadership, they simultaneously distanced themselves from their electorates. As such, their transformations into rubber-stamp organs effectively neutered one of the regime’s primary connections to the public. All the while, the regime continued pushing aside independent and ambitious politicians who were loyal to the Kremlin, and who could have provided that much further responsiveness to the electorate. 

Similar processes affected elections in regional parliaments and local assemblies. Strong candidates for deputy seats were rejected for artificial reasons—via, for instance, election commissions persistently searching for oversights in the candidates’ paperwork. Such methods always took place in localities where the parties or their candidates could have realistically taken a serious percentage of the votes, such as the recent city council race in Petrozavodsk. Local opposition members were often weeded out for various reasons, such that only one notable candidate over the past few years—Irkutsk communist Sergei Levchenko—won in spite of Volodin’s efforts, effectively becoming an exception that confirmed the rule. In places where there was no risk of success, candidates were restored to the ballot, nominally reinforcing the transparency and legitimacy pledged under Volodin. 

To be sure, even though the head of the central election commission, Vladimir Churov, was replaced by the well-regarded Ella Pamfilova, few were under the illusion that the Kremlin would allow purely free and fair elections to go forward in the regions. Predictions of a “Volodin Spring” proved illusory. While Volodin introduced federal elections in single-mandate districts, which were emphasized as being highly competitive, the United Russia primaries were won by people whom the Kremlin (or the governors) preferred. In addition, Moscow barred several candidates outright from Duma parties, meaning that out of 225 total districts, there was a real contest in only a few places.

Volodin also oversaw limited municipal reform, leading to direct mayoral elections in a dozen large cities. In other cities, however, the right to determine the structure of power was taken away from municipal assemblies and transferred to regional parliaments, which abolished the direct election of leaders—effectively negating the oppositional successes of the “Volodin Spring.” Glaciation, it seemed, turned out to be more preferential than thaw.

Along the way, the Kremlin neutralized any moves toward liberalization within the legislature. Duma candidates could be put forth by all registered parties without signature collections, and party registration remained relatively uncomplicated, although it’s worth noting that Alexei Navalny’s Party of Progress was never registered. But rules were nonetheless tightened: only parties that received over 3 percent in Duma campaigns, or those that entered their list into at least one regional parliament, were allowed to participate in federal elections without collecting signatures.

Volodin’s Oversights

As 2016 draws to a close, it’s increasingly clear that few traces of the government’s putative, promised openness remain. And the citizenry has noticed this. As an example of domestic frustrations, look at the primary hallmarks of the recent Duma elections: low turnout and a broad lack of interest in voting. Of course, this factor, in conjunction with limited competitiveness, delivered the Kremlin’s desired result. But while United Russia received its constitutional majority, it did so with notably fewer voters—a fact that left Putin, who was heavily involved in the United Russia campaign, nonplussed. Meanwhile, social networks are full of videos that show ballot box stuffing and carousel voting, just as in 2011.

Nonetheless, Volodin’s formal task was fulfilled: voting took place relatively smoothly, and streets remained calm and quiet. But it’s an ominous and misleading quiet. All of the parties lost votes compared to 2011, including United Russia, even though it proportionally improved over its prior returns. And while opposition members aren’t going out to protest, they haven’t necessarily recognized the election, either. 

As Russia moves on from the recent Duma elections, it is increasingly clear that Volodin tried to convince the electorate that competitiveness boils down to a simple list of candidates—to quantity at the expense of quality. However, as the elections displayed, it’s obvious that the Russian electorate has increasingly lost interest in domestic elections. Volodin clearly erred: he attempted to deceive those he couldn’t, all while those loyal to the government and the neutral majority fell into an expanding state of apathy.

It’s also increasingly plain that Volodin, regardless of the reforms he promoted, couldn’t shake a pattern of failing to follow through on initial ideas—a factor that may well have helped assure the apathy surrounding the recent elections. For instance, Volodin planned for the ARPF, which he first formulated back in 2011, to serve as a front for public organizing. The ARPF’s activities, however, ended up being superficially attuned to the media cycle rather than serving as any kind of rallying point for the public. Nor did the ARPF turn into a potential recruitment platform, as myriad posts were taken by ex-government officials close to the ruling circles. If anything, the ARPF turned into an instrument for negotiation with the governors.

Looking back, it’s clear that the group’s power didn’t come from the bottom up—that is, Russians signaling to the president—but from the top down. Instead of a platform to keep the Kremlin in tune with public needs, the ARPF ended up perceived as a simple window into Moscow’s desires.

Another example of Volodin’s lack of foresight stemmed from United Russia’s primaries for Duma elections. In 2015, following the announcement of the primaries, the excitement was palpable. However, closer to the start of the voting, official discourse on the primaries stalled, just like discussions about the ARPF in 2011. United Russia failed to recruit masses of people to vote, and the primaries never turned into a procedure for selecting the strongest candidate. These shortcomings were accompanied by a wealth of excuses, and whenever the administration was accused of lies or inconsistencies it came up with facile explanations. 

Where Volodin Leaves Russia

Broadly speaking, Volodin’s system eventually resembled Surkov’s system, with foreign policy support replacing economic growth as the driver of legitimacy. Buoyed by the takeover of Crimea, Putin’s rating saw a significant spike in 2014. The post-Crimea euphoria permitted the system to be more flexible; indeed, it could have found stronger candidates, experimented with parties, and given them more freedom. But such experiments weren’t carried out—and the regime’s window for experimentation has effectively closed, with support for the president continuing to degrade. 

Volodin may have sincerely wished to change domestic politicking: he may have wanted to allow for competition among the strong, or to eventually build a complicated system of checks and balances, albeit with the regime continuing to oversee any major changes. But he faced a choice between implementing a complicated strategy and relying on simple, short-term tactics. As we now know, Volodin preferred the latter. His construction was based on momentary tweaks—and new excuses have been made up for tomorrow.

The political system Volodin leaves behind—that is, a system without any real politics—allows the regime the illusion of control. But the system’s domain has been all but reduced to the tiny world of politicians who agree to the Kremlin’s rules. Activists, ambitious players, and most importantly Russian citizens find themselves outside the bounds of politics. 

And now Volodin is slated to lead the institution at the heart of his new system: the Duma. Some experts believe that the role of parliament is going to grow, but there is, as of now, little basis for such belief. If anything, the Duma appears discernibly weakened. In many districts, mid-level bureaucrats won the recent elections, while many unpopular deputies got on the ballot.

An assembly like this one has no need for a strong leader. It was specially selected by Volodin to be easily manageable by the Kremlin, with the parliament reimagined as a gathering of civic elders who are supposed to collect grievances rather than formulate legislature. But as we’ve seen, the regime’s proximity to the populace has been effectively cauterized, and gathering grievances is now even more difficult.  

Sergei Kiriyenko, Volodin’s successor, will almost certainly encounter many of the same difficulties Volodin found after Surkov’s departure. Russia’s political system, after five years of Volodin’s stewardship, still bypasses public wishes. And with the 2018 presidential campaign fast approaching, budget problems are mounting and anxiety in the Kremlin about the degree of public loyalty is growing as well. 

As Kiriyenko begins, his options remain limited. It’s clear that reanimating the decayed ARPF is a non-starter, and charismatic figures of the provinces are disappointed and, in the best-case scenario, only willing to go through the motions of support. All the while, the remaining parties have grown completely docile. New promises are going to be perceived with caution and mistrust. And the system isn’t prepared for the impending social storms.

All told, Volodin was lucky: he moved on from his post before having to deal with the fallout from his strategic choices. His successor, however, will inherit a structure whose dynamism is exhausted—and whose long-term prospects are decreasing by the day. 

  • Andrey Pertsev