Russia: Putin under Pressure at Home and Abroad

Vladimir Putin has sought to preside over a carefully managed political system. A series of recent events, however, suggest increasing incoherence and loss of control within Russia’s political elite. These have included an election won and then lost by Russia’s ruling party, a public feud between a general and Russia’s leading anti-corruption campaigner, the poisoning of a journalist, and the presentational failure involved in the Skripal suspects interview.
United Russia Miraculously Wins (and Loses) an Election: On 9 September elections for governor took place in 21 Russian regions. These elections took place following a period of widespread public dissatisfaction over government attempts to raise the retirement age to 65 for men, and 63 for women. Opinion polls have shown a significant decline in the popularity of the Russian government and, more significantly, for Vladimir Putin himself.

In the Primorye region in Russia’s far-east the main candidates were the incumbent Andrey Tarasenko from United Russia, the pro-Putin governing party, and the challenger Andrey Ishchenko from the Communist Party. On polling day Tarasenko gained 46.6% of the vote to 24.6% for Ishchenko. While Tarasenko had a strong lead he had failed to gain more than 50% of the vote, and the election went through to a second round on 16 September. Days prior to the second round of the election Putin visited Vladivostok, the Primorye region’s main urban centre, to attend a conference at which the Chinese leader, Xi Jinpin, and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abbe, were also present. While he was in Vladivostok Putin met Andrey Tarasenko. Putin told him ‘I know you have a run-off coming up. I think everything will be alright.’

On 16 September, nevertheless, it was Ishchenko who appeared to have secured a clear lead. With 95% of the votes counted Ishchenko had a 6% lead. It should it this point have been impossible for Tarasenko, the United Russia candidate, to win the election. The Central Election Commission (CEC), however, shortly afterwards stopped reporting the incoming election results. When the CEC resumed reporting 99.1% of the votes had been counted, and Tarashnko had pulled ahead. Tarasenko was finally confirmed as the winner with by a margin of 1.46% of the vote.

The CEC accounted for this unlikely victory for Tarasenko by stating that there had been a late surge in votes for the United Russia candidate from results coming in from remote polling districts. The Communists described the result as a case of obvious electoral fraud. They pointed to a number of areas where the results put out by the CEC did not agree with those recorded in the election protocols. Ishchenko called on his supporters to stage daily protest rallies, and announced that he intended to go on hunger strike. He rejected any suggestion that he might be ready to be bought off with an appointment as deputy governor of the region. United Russia responded with allegations that it was the Communists who had committed fraud. They stated that their opponents had engaged in widespread vote-buying. On 19 September the CEC announced that they were reversing their earlier position, and would recommend that the election results should not be validated. This was the first time in sixteen years that the CEC had reversed its confirmed decision on an election result.

Electoral fraud to the benefit of the ruling party is not uncommon in Russia. In the March 2018 Presidential elections independent observers recorded over 3,000 violations of election regulations. The Primorye region election was, however, remarkable for the scale of the fraud, and its barely concealed nature. It has been made even more remarkable by the subsequent decision by the authorities to invalidate the result achieved through that fraud.

The responses of non-Communist opposition groups and activists to the drama being played out in the Primorye region were mixed. Some pointed out that this was essentially a quarrel within the political system between United Russia, the ruling party, and the Communists, who constituted a loyal opposition to the regime. Others saw the result as important for what it indicated about shifting public opinion, and United Russia’s weakening grip on power, and encouraged their members to support the Communists post-election protests.

Zolotov Rages against Navalny: On 11 September Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard launched, an extraordinary on-line attack on Alexei Navalny, the leading opposition figure. Zolotov appeared in military uniform in a You-Tube video in which he ranted at Navalny stating that: ‘Nobody has given you the beating you deserve, so hard that you feel it in your liver…I simply challenge you to a duel. I promise in several minutes to make a nice juicy steak out of you.’

Alexei Navalny rose to prominence as an on-line campaigner against corruption. In recent years this has been paralleled by a strategy of organising street demonstrations across Russia. Navalny has steadily expanded his network of activists from the traditional opposition Moscow/St Petersburg stronghold and into the regions. He was barred from taking part in the March 2018 presidential elections. Navalny has subsequently placed himself at the head of the movement in opposition to the government’s moves to raise the pension age. On 25 August Navalny was detained by the authorities and given a 30 day prison sentence for organising an unauthorised protest in January of this year. This sentence was widely seen as being aimed at preventing Navalny from taking part in street protests which were scheduled to take place on 9 September. The protests, however, went ahead in Navalny’s absence. Demonstrations took place from Novosibirsk in the east to Kaliningrad in the west. The police intervened and other a thousand demonstrators were arrested. This contrasted with the demonstrations which had been organised a week earlier on 2 September by the loyal opposition Communist Party and Just Russia parties, which had been allowed to go ahead without action being taken. Alongside these street protests Navalny and his organisation have continued to publish on-line investigations into corruption amongst the governing elite. It was one such report, targeting him, which aroused Zolotov’s ire and prompted his on-line outburst.

Viktor Zolotov began his career in the KGB in the 1970s. In the 1990s both he and Vladimir Putin worked for Anatoly Sobcak, the Mayor of St Petersburg. Zolotov subsequently acted as Putin’s bodyguard. In April 2016 Zolotov was appointed as head of the newly formed National Guard. The National Guard was ostensibly created to counter anti-government demonstrations and ‘threats to public order’. It was additionally, however, given responsibility for dealing with organised crime and terrorism. This wide remit made it a potential rival to the FSB within the state structures.

Zolotov’s outburst reflects the widespread frustration felt within Russia’s governing class at their, apparent, inability to deal with Navalny’s persistent activities. In making it openly, however, Zolotov broke the important taboo observed within Putin’s regime on public use of Navalny’s name. The last time that this taboo was broken was in July 2018 when half way through the Mexico-Germany World Cup match on Russia’s main TV channel one of the commentators, Kirill Dementyev, used a word, which sounded like Navalny’s name. The second commentator, Leonid Slutsky, responded by asking whether ‘Navalny plays football?’ After a brief silence he added ‘Well that would be interesting to see.’ Slutsky lost his job on the TV channel shortly afterwards.

The official response to Zolotov’s intervention has so been restrained. Dimitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, sought to distance the administration from Zolotov’s remarks, but added that ‘sometimes any possible means are justified in opposing slanders and lies.’ Peshkov denied that there was anything threatening about Zolotov’s statements in the video. Navalny’s wife, Marina, responded to Zolotov’s video informing him that her husband would be unable to take up his challenge to a duel as he was, as Zolotov would be aware, currently in prison. Supporters of Navalny came up with various, humorous, suggestions as to what form the duel with Zolotov could take. One of them stated that he would be ready to engage Zolotov in an apple cake baking contest. Zolotov’s breech of Kremlin discipline had failed to intimidate Navalny and supporters, and had made him the object of ridicule.

The ‘Poisoning’ of Pyotr Verzilov: On 11 September Pyotr Verzilov, the publisher of the Media Zona news website, became unwell. His condition deteriorated rapidly. He lost the ability to see and speak before finally losing consciousness. Four days later, after his condition had stabilised, he was flown to Berlin for further medical treatment. On 18 September the doctors in Berlin told a press conference that they could find no explanation for his condition other than that he had been poisoned.

The Media Zona website that Verzilov manages originally specialised in reporting legal cases involving opposition activists, judicial issues and prison conditions. It subsequently broadened its remit to cover other investigative journalism. Verzilov is also a leading member of the protest group Pussy Riot. He was one of the activists who briefly disrupted the World Cup final in July 2018 when they staged a pitch invasion. Independent media reports have stated that at the time of his apparent poisoning Verzilov’s website was about to publish a story on the three Russian journalists, Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and KirillRadchenko, who had been killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) whilst investigating the activities of the Wagner mercenary company.

Poisoning has been used on a number of occasions over the years, against critics and opponents of the Putin regime. The use of this methodology against Verzilov at a time when Russia is under on-going international scrutiny over the Novichok attack on the Skripal’s in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 provides further support for the impression of declining internal discipline within the structures of the regime.

The Kremlin’s Skripal Narrative Falters in Front of the TV Cameras: The Skripal case has shown that the Kremlin is failing to manage events on the international scene as well as domestically.

On 5 September the UK authorities identified two individuals, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as suspects in the attack on the Skripals. It was stated that these individuals were serving officers in Russian military intelligence, the GRU. The Kremlin initially denied that it had any knowledge of the two suspects who had been named by the UK government.

On 12 September, however, there was a dramatic change in the official Russian line. Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian authorities had located the suspects, and had been able to confirm that they were ‘civilians’ rather than military intelligence officers. He called on them to come forward, and make themselves known. On 13 September an interview with Petrov and Boshirov was broadcast on the government funded RT news channel. The interview, which had apparently been recorded on the previous day, was conducted by Margarita Simonyan, the channel’s Editor-in-Chief.

Vladimir Putin’s motives in bringing Petrov and Borishov would appear to have been three-fold:

• To demonstrate to those who were already convinced of his regime’s responsibility for the Salisbury attack that he and his security services could act with impunity.
• To provide the suspects with an additional alibi for consumption by those, domestically and internationally, who were inclined to believe the Russian narrative and disbelieve the account of events provided by the UK government
• There may also have been an element of punishment with the suspects and the GRU being held responsible by Vladimir Putin, and other security agencies, for the failure of the attack on the Skripals.

The TV appearance by Petrov and Borishov, however, failed at all levels. The version of events provided by Petrov and Borishov lacked any credibility. It was not only condemned by the UK government as ‘risible’ but also become the subject of a wave of international on-line mockery. In the face of this widespread ridicule on-line attempts to defend the Kremlin narrative appeared relatively muted and ineffectual. If the interview was some sort of intra-regime attempt to undermine the GRU then this would again appear to have been a miscalculation as it was the Russian government rather than a single agency which emerged damaged after the interview.

These four events taken together would seem to suggest increasing fragmentation within the regime both internally and in relation to international policy.



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