Eurasia Analyst

August 4, 2016                      @eurasiaanalyst                             Summer Series


Putin’s Electoral Distress

By Susan J. Cavan

Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept himself quite occupied lately with a series of elite shuffles of a scope not seen since the shifting apparat sands of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. From the recent “refresh” of regional governors to the creation of his very own national guard, Putin has been in quite an active, restive phase of late. While some of the personnel moves can be seen as the result of that familiar juxtaposition of retirement age and a subordinate’s ambition; others clearly weren’t personal, but rather business, electoral business.

The most recent changes to regional governments may be seen as a rebuke by the president to his domestic political “ombudsman,” Vyacheslav Volodin, who was tasked with laying the groundwork for this fall’s parliamentary elections. Volodin’s hallmark of reform was the appearance of greater participation, with the intention to avert post-election opposition protests, as those in 2011-2012 (led, in part, by Boris Nemtsov) that marred Putin’s return to the presidency when tens of thousands took to the streets with chants of “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.” (1)

While the measure of Volodin’s efforts with the regional governments won’t come until the actual elections, the strength of Putin’s faith in his work can best be seen in the list of former security and military officers appointed to posts in regions last week. (2) Actually, questions about Volodin’s preparations began at a recent United Russia (UR) meeting, where Russian Prime Minister and United Russia head, Dmitri Medvedev, placed Volodin’s name on the list to stand as a party candidate. Despite some pesky ethical quibbles about his status as a party candidate while a Kremlin employee (Volodin will move his office to United Russia’s party headquarters and drive a UR car for the interim), Volodin will stand in the elections, but likely not serve if elected. (3) It seems he just needs to have some skin in the game.

Political analyst and head of the “Political Expert Group,” Konstantin Kalachev, noted: “Volodin could test the “record of policy reform, which was launched after the previous Duma elections.” (4) Having him stand as a candidate seems a very public way to hold Volodin’s feet to the fire over the results of his political efforts. (It would be interesting to know what outcome Vladislav Surkov is hoping for.)

Putin has an issue with free and fair elections, not to mention precious little experience with them. Although there are reports that Putin was, in fact, in charge of his “patron,” Anatoli Sobchak’s failed 1996 mayoral re-election bid, Putin himself describes his activities at the time as those of a “dilettante.” (5)

Putin’s first run at the presidency was buoyed by the incumbency status bestowed upon him by Boris Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 and some fairly impressive “administrative resources” in the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, in order to be competitive in the elections, Putin very much needed the media, no longer state-owned but oligarch-controlled and committed to the reform process that was synonymous with the Yeltsin administration. Yeltsin did his best to set Putin up for success, but Putin’s electoral victory depended on Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, along with a few others. Winning election tied Putin to the oligarchs (or so they may have hoped) at least until he felt secure enough in power to cut them loose and assert state control over once independent media outlets, chasing their owners from Russia.

Putin clearly is not the sort who likes to be beholden to anyone—well, not for long, anyway. It is possible that the experience of having to rely on Berezovsky and Gusinsky to get through the electoral process left Putin with a serious unease over the uncertainty inherent in the voter participation element of democratic governance. In any event, Berezovsky and Gusinsky were soon gone abroad, a once vibrant (often “colorful”) media environment was harnessed by the state, and subsequent elections became sad, stage-managed shadows of the “free and fair” standard. Ironically, Putin might have won some of these elections without any state interference but he chose a little weight on the roulette wheel and a less tenuous outcome. (6)

If past truly is prologue, then the upcoming parliamentary elections, with theoretical presidential elections to follow in 2018, would suggest preparations must be underway either to entice voters to support the president’s party, assert total state control over balloting, or prepare for the suppression of any possible protest over the vote. What ho? A new unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs formed with the express purpose to break up “illegal” protests” and new security and military personnel dispatched to the regions. Putin has been busy expanding his system of control, not only to negate choice in Russia’s upcoming elections, but to punish those with the temerity to complain about the vote theft publicly.

And no one creates a special unit of Internal Troops in the Ministry of Interior, puts one of his most trusted guards (and judo partner) in charge (with neither police nor military training, but now I’m just being a noodge) and bloats the unit’s remit to include confiscating “documents, information, and other material necessary for making decisions” from citizens and regional or federal authorities and suspending “the use of any communication networks and means of communication” in event of emergency without some serious planning, consideration, and fear. (7)

In case there is any question, these are not the actions of a secure ruler, comfortable with the institutions and processes of governance. Nor does it bring any comfort to find pre-election shake-ups in the military leadership. It is true that concerns about the loyalty of the military are an enduring attribute of the Putin presidencies. Before that first presidential election in 2000, Putin issued a decree ordering FSB agents into military districts and units and “tasked [them] with investigating terrorist activity, espionage, smuggling, sedition and a host of other criminal activity within the Russian military.” (8) It didn’t take (GRU was strong enough to resist).

However, an anxious authoritarian ruler too often looks abroad for quick victories to shore up any perceived cracks in his ruling coalition. In the past, Putin has had a remarkably static group of foreign policy advisers around him on the Security Council, but that membership, too, has undergone personnel change. Gone is former elections guru, Duma Speaker, and Putin loyalist Boris Gryzlov. While new National Guards Chief Zolotov was initially put on the Council as a permanent member, his status was rather abruptly downgraded to “member” (only permanent members attend meetings regularly).

It appears that Putin’s spring and summer clean out of personnel encompasses the military, security services, police, main Kremlin apparat, and regional executive structures. Either the Russian sistema is malfunctioning or Putin is exercising an abundance of caution. Either way, it bears watching.

End Notes:

1) “Analysis of February 4 anti-Putin Protest,” The Mendeleyev Journal—live from Moscow, February 6, 2012, via

2) While there are several good analytical takes on the appointments, credit to the headline writers for: Daria Litvinova, “Putin’s Game of Thrones: The Men in Epaulets Take Over,” The Moscow Times, July 29, 2016, via; see also, for individual decrees on dismissals and appointments.

3) “Medvedev Wants Kadyrov, Volodin, Poslanskaya for Russian State Duma,” The Moscow Times, June 27, 2016, via

4) “Vyacheslav Volodin will head the regional group “an United Russia,” The Newspapers: news from Russia, June 27, 2016, via

5) Timothy Colton and Michael McFaul, Popular Choice and Managed Democracy: The Russian Elections of 1999 and 2000 (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2003), 172.

6) One of my favorite quotes on Putin’s and United Russia’s apparent electoral chicanery from the time appeared in a Reuters report of the farcical vote. An unnamed middle-aged Grozny resident quipped, “Voting for Putin is about as absurd as any vote with a 99 percent outcome.” (Reuters, December 21, 2011,

7) “Russian National Guard to report directly to president—draft decree (Part 2),” Interfax, April 11, 2016, 9:07 MSK, via LexisNexis Academic Information Service.8) Edict No. 318, Rossiiskaya gazeta, 12 Feb 00; FBIS-SOV-2000-0220, via World News Connection as cited by Susan J. Cavan, “Dictatorship of Law,” The NIS Observed, Volume V, Number 4, via

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