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Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Approval Ratings

- April 24, 2014

President Vladimir Putin answers journalists’ questions on March 4, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
The following is a guest post by political scientist Catherine Schulmann. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have soared in recent weeks to 80 percent following the annexation of Crimea. Such great approval heights have seldom been reached for Putin, with the other peaks coming after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (December 2003, 86 percent) and the military campaign against Georgia (August 2008, 88 percent) – although Dmitry Medvedev was the president and commander-in-chief then.
Would it be a prudent move to capitalize on this wave of popularity before the inevitable socio-economic consequences of this Anschluss start dragging on approval ratings?
The Crimean takeover and subsequent public euphoria have given new potency to the idea of early parliamentary elections. Rumors have been rife in social media and among the political commentariat. As recently voiced publicly by Sergey Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party: “It is possible that elections in the State Duma will be held early: not in 2016, but in 2015,” noting that Russia now has two new constituent territories in need of representation: the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol.
Technically, the dissolution of the Duma is possible. While the constitutional procedure of thrice rejecting the president’s candidate for prime minister may disrupt the picture of harmony between the branches of power, there’s little doubt that the deputies will dutifully cede their mandates if the presidential administration asks them nicely.
Currently four parties are represented in the State Duma: the ruling United Russia, the Communist party, the vaguely left-leaning Just Russia (a sort of small brother to United Russia) and LDPR. The last is a one-man-orchestra, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes statist, whatever the mood calls for, talking extravagantly but always voting with the Kremlin (just like all the other parties). Together they represent 81.75 percent of the total votes cast on December 2011 elections.
If parliamentary effectiveness is measured by passing as many bills as possible, as quickly as possible and with as few amendments as possible — with the preferential treatment of the president’s and government’s initiatives — then the current Duma has been enormously productive. It is unheard of for a governmental bill to be voted down by the parliament. The proportion of governmental and presidential bills has reached as high as two-thirds in recent years. In 2012, 55 percent of the 334 new laws passed were governmental initiatives, and 13 percent originated in the presidential administration. In 2013, 56 percent of the 448 new laws came from the government and 6 percent from the presidential administration. The time between the introduction of a bill and its adoption has fallen steadily over the last 20 years: from an average of 661 days in the early 1990s to 182 days in 2012 and 132 days in 2013. Truly landmark projects like the bill to reform the Russian Academy of Sciences took just three months from introduction to being signed into law.
The bill legalizing the Crimean annexation was supported by 445 votes (out of total 450 Duma members); just one vote was cast against the bill. It seems like overblown perfectionism to want to arrange early elections to wipe out this one dissenting voice. How do you make such a rubber stamp parliament any better than already it is?
It would seem that the presidential administration thinks that the best is the enemy of the good. The next State Duma elections, whether early or regular, will be held according to the recently adopted new parliamentary election law. Slightly more liberal than the previous version (according to which the 2011 elections were conducted), it returns such provisions as single-member constituencies and a lower electoral barrier to attain parliamentary representation (5 percent instead of 7 percent for the parties). However, the bill was tailored to suit the needs of existing parliamentary parties – they’ll be exempt from the need to collect voters’ signatures to register their candidates and enjoy numerous other prerogatives in line with the core value of the Putin system: “let things stay exactly as they are.” No matter what is the state of public opinion at the given moment, the election and party laws give preferences to political actors already in the system and exclude newcomers.
But what is the rationale for such measures in a political system seemingly so unified under such a popular leader? Two new legislative initiatives were introduced after the reunification with Crimea. The first is a municipal reform project, de facto abolishing mayoral elections in the cities, already passing its first reading in the Duma. Evidently the objective is to prevent events like the recent victory of the Communist Party’s candidate in the mayoral elections in Novosibirsk (even though the victor in question, Anatoly Lokot, is the a prominent and loyal State Duma deputy and therefore a member of what is called in Russian the “system opposition” – a good kind of opposition, as contrasted with the bad kind, the “non-system opposition”).
The second is a cluster of amendments to the laws on public gatherings and meetings. The bill increases the fines for violating rules on holding public assemblies and, most significantly, criminalizes a repeated offense (previously punished by administrative, not penal, sanctions) – up to five years of imprisonment. The idea is to frighten the activists who constantly participate in anti-government marches and pickets: you come once, you get fined, and the second time you go to prison.
If we were to judge of the popular mood by the current legislative trends, we would have to assume that it’s only fear of imprisonment that prevents Russians from indulging in some Maidan-esque orgy of violent insubordination. At least, the legislators evidently think so, and maybe they have a reason to.
Consider the following fact: Russians are very prone to impromptu gathering for celebrations or riot-like fun (for example, after-parties for soccer matches, loud weddings or the Biryulevo riots). Eighty-eight percent of the population approves of the Crimean reunion. And yet the pro-union meetings have to be organized by authorities, rounding up employees of state companies and municipal utilities under the fear of dismissal or by promises of a day off, and sometimes just ordinary money. In contrast, the opposition march in Moscow gathered about 50,000 people, who were very well aware that by attending they would be labelled as traitors, with all the traditional Russian consequences associated with this epithet.
Why is that? Do people really not like having Crimea back? Do they systematically lie to the pollsters, harboring deep hate of the regime? No. They do like the idea of getting Crimea from the Ukrainians – for most of Russian-speakers, it’s like getting their own childhood back again. But they don’t like going out in bad weather to wave flags and demonstrate their patriotism, and would never do it on their own. Their approval of any given decision of the authorities is passive – it’s not the support of an active citizen or voter that can be counted on as political capital for conducting structural reforms or implementing major policy changes.
In the current Russian system of an autocracy that “dares not speak its name,” election results are not intended to be an expression of the people’s will but rather a demonstration of the administrative machine’s effective operation. The people should have as little as possible to do with it – not because they are secretly opposed to the authorities but because they are seen as inherently untrustworthy.
In an autocratic system of the post-modernist type that we see in Russia, there’s no real point in being popular. In the absence of the competitive political system you can’t convert your popularity into something tangible. No matter how “really popular” you are, the “reality” in question is separated from the political system by a wall of bulletproof glass.
To the contrary, you must fear losing control of the wave of popular sentiments set off by your own actions, because it can bring out some uncontrollable elements – not your sleepy old ruling party but the brave young nationalist who may be able to play the “Russians are a divided nation” tune better than you can. Any tangible Russian nationalistic uprising would benefit exactly the sort of political activists who are now labeled as extremists and barred from the legal political participation.
So it appears there’s really nothing to be gained by early elections, notwithstanding the sky-high presidential ratings. Understandably, the State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin has recently denied the possibility of dissolution of parliament, stating that the Duma will work out its full term.
Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here.  Recent posts include:
Joshua Tucker: What would make Southeast Ukrainians take up arms?
Tomila Lankina and Kinga Niemczyk: What Putin gets about soft power
Maria Popova: What is lustration and is it a good idea for Ukraine to adopt it?
Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff: The less Americans know about Ukraine’s location, the more they want U.S. to intervene
M. Steven Fish: The end of the Putin mystique
Kimberly Marten: Crimea: Putin’s Olympic diversion