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Coronavirus derails Russia’s constitutional reform vote – what this means for Vladimir Putin

tjmsrol27 March 2020

Our Lecturer in Russian Politics, Dr Ben Noble looks at how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting the constitutional reform process in Russia.

This article was first published on The Conversation

Russia’s nationwide vote on controversial constitutional reforms has been postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. No new date has been set for the vote, which had been scheduled for April 22.

The vote is the last hurdle before this set of reforms – including a change allowing Vladimir Putin to stay in the presidency beyond 2024 – can come into force.

The Russian press had already reported that the Kremlin had decided to postpone the vote. Putin confirmed this on March 25 and said the vote would be arranged for a later date.

A reluctant delay

The Kremlin had been unwilling to publicly acknowledge that the global coronavirus pandemic could affect the vote. As of March 24 in Russia, there were 438 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease associated with the new coronavirus, and one death from it.

Shortly after setting April 22 as the polling day in a decree signed on March 17, Putin mentioned possible adaptations that would allow the vote to go ahead as planned, despite the coronavirus pandemic. These included increasing the distance between voting booths and increasing the number of mobile ballot boxes, which could be taken directly to people’s homes.

Buses are being disinfected a couple of times a day in Moscow. Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Putin also noted that there was nothing legally stopping the authorities from setting a new date for the vote.

Behind the scenes, however, it’s clear that the Kremlin had been planning for the possibility of postponement for a while. A direct reference to April 22 was removed from Putin’s reform bill during its passage through the State Duma, the lower chamber of the national legislature. Russia’s Central Electoral Commission also asked regional commissions to stop publishing information on the vote.

Putin’s constitution

This vote is crucial for Putin. He first announced his constitutional reform project on January 15, taking politicians and commentators by surprise.

After seizing the initiative, Putin continued to dictate the agenda and pace of change, including with the shock removal of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government on the same day.

The Kremlin’s initial insistence to push ahead with the vote was a reflection of this same determination to set, and stick by, the timetable of change.

During his January speech, Putin promised a transfer of power away from the presidency. But, once his legislative bill proposing changes was introduced into the State Duma, it seemed that presidential powers would, if anything, increase. And this further concentration of power in the presidency was confirmed with changes made to the bill during its passage through parliament.

This cluster of reforms – including giving the president the power to appoint lifetime members of the legislature and fire top-tier judges – provides the basis for a “mega-presidency” in Russia. These changes are not welcomed by everybody.

Holding the vote during the pandemic would have been an advantage to the Kremlin in some ways. Planned protests in Moscow and St Petersburg have already been called off as a result of measures taken by the authorities to deal with COVID-19. Now that the vote has been pushed back, it may be harder for the authorities to clamp down on opposition mobilisation against the reforms.

Police arrest a man protesting against Putin’s constitutional reforms in mid-March. Anatoly Maltsev/EPA

The Kremlin’s initial reluctance to delay the vote showed how much it hopes to gain by securing nationwide support for the proposed changes. Although Putin initially pitched the constitutional reform package as a response to changes in Russian society, nearly half of Russians recognised its core aim was to sort out how Putin would remain in power after 2024, the year his current presidential term ends. This became even clearer when Putin endorsed an amendment to his own reform bill allowing him to run for the presidency again in 2024 and stay in office until 2036.

This all makes the vote a plebiscite on support for Putin, not on the details of the reform package. The ballot paper will only include one question: “Do you approve of the changes to the Constitution of the Russian Federation?” But in practice, many Russians will interpret this as “do you approve of Vladimir Putin?”

For those who don’t approve of the president, the political leadership hopes apparently generous promises of social support will persuade them to vote “yes”.

The Kremlin is keen for a public endorsement afforded by the nationwide vote in light of the fall in approval ratings for the regime following unpopular pension reforms made in 2018.

The regime leadership is also mindful of the need to signal Putin’s popularity to members of the elite, who might be tempted to start planning for a post-Putin future. As research on the wider politics of authoritarian rule shows, palace coups are more worrying than popular uprisings to leaders in non-democracies like Russia.

Turnout and legitimacy

The vote is not technically required to make Putin’s proposed changes to the constitution. Since the reforms do not make changes to chapters 1, 2, or 9 of Russia’s basic law, article 136 of the Russian constitution says that such amendments come into force following their approval by two thirds of legislative assemblies in Russian regions. That already happened on March 12.

But Putin proposed the nationwide vote in an attempt to boost the legitimacy of the changes. That meant it was key to ensure a strong turnout – of at least 60%, according to the latest instructions from the Kremlin to deputy regional governors who are responsible for internal politics. Putin will now have to wait.

The worry for the Kremlin is that, with falling oil prices and a significant drop in the value of the rouble, it might be even harder to mobilise Russians to vote for Putin’s changes when a later date is selected.

Follow Dr Noble on Twitter for updates at @Ben_H_Noble.

When and why parliaments are closed by political leaders

Lisa J Walters6 September 2019

The White House (Moscow, Russian Federation) following President Yeltsin’s 4 October 1993 attack. © AP / Shutterstock

Dr Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL SSEES. He was awarded a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award in 2019 for his project Parliaments Under Fire. He is on Twitter @Ben_H_Noble; the project’s account is @parlsunderfire.

This blog was first posted on 2 September on the British Academy website

In August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to prorogue Parliament caused an uproar. It’s not difficult to understand why. Insofar as the aim is to frustrate the ability of the legislature to debate and scrutinise the executive, then this appears to be an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament – the core of the United Kingdom’s constitutional system.

But Boris is not Charles I. Nor is he Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who violated the Russian constitution in September 1993 by dissolving the country’s legislature (the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies). Parliamentarians in Russia responded by, among other things, barricading themselves in the parliament building – something that MPs in Westminster have threatened in response to prorogation. Frustrated by this legislative intransigence, Yeltsin eventually ordered tanks to fire on the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament in the heart of Moscow. In this battle between the executive and the legislature, the president won. This allowed Yeltsin to beef up the powers of the executive in the new Russian constitution – adopted in a referendum in December of the same year – leading many to label it ‘super-presidential’ and Yeltsin a dictator. 

This wasn’t the first time a legislature was closed by the executive in Russian history. Tsar Nicholas II dissolved the first Imperial State Duma merely months after it opened in 1906, annoyed by the vocal way in which legislators pressured for sweeping social and political reform. Rather than barricade themselves in the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg, the seat of the imperial legislature, a number of Duma representatives assembled in Vyborg to write a declaration calling on the Russian people to stand up to authoritarian overreach. This didn’t work: most of the signatories to the declaration were imprisoned. But Boris Johnson is also not Tsar Nicholas II.

Authoritarian leaders and parliaments

These particular historical examples vary in how well they are known. Although we have lots of general and expert knowledge about the most prominent cases of attacks on legislative powers – especially when these bodies have been dissolved in defiance of the constitution – we know much less than we should about the full range of cases. This is particularly surprising given the resurgence of interest in political science in non-democratic politics – a trend sustained by the use of this work to help make sense of developments in recent US politics.

We have developed sophisticated theories that explain why authoritarian leaders set up and maintain legislative bodies. These theories suggest that parliaments in non-democracies are used to appease members of the political opposition; to share power between the ruler and other members of the elite; and to gather information on citizens’ concerns. We have, therefore, multiple insights into why these bodies are created. We know much less, however, about why they are dissolved.

Legislative closure might be puzzling to consider when starting from the conventional wisdom that legislatures in non-democracies are unimportant, entirely subservient bodies, filled with regime loyalists who simply ‘rubber stamp’ policy initiatives from the regime leadership without critical debate. Recent work – including my own – has challenged this ‘rubber stamp’ model of authoritarian legislative politics. But we still need to know much more.

Studying parliamentary closures and near misses

That’s where my new project, Parliaments Under Fire, comes in. The goal is to collect detailed information on moments of parliamentary closure. This is no mean feat. To make it possible, the project involves creating a network of political science scholars with country- and region-specific expertise. By drawing on, and pooling, this case-specific knowledge, the project combines the depth of area knowledge with the comparative political science tools that all members of the network share.

Currently, cross-national datasets only include information on whether a legislature existed in a particular year for a particular regime. That’s very basic, and some of this information is of questionable quality. My project will improve the detail we have publicly available of when legislatures have operated, while also improving our knowledge of the pathways leading to, and the actors involved in, parliamentary closures.

The project will also focus on ‘near misses’ – episodes when political leaders have attempted to close down legislatures but were prevented from doing so. PressOne example is from Ukraine in 1994, when President Leonid Kravchuk wanted to close down the Verkhovna Rada, but was prevented from doing so by the military. The executive intent was there, but the capacity was not. Beyond near misses, the project will also analyse moments of closure in the context of other, less extreme ways in which the powers of legislatures are weakened.

The project outputs should help provide a richer set of historical cases with which we can help navigate contemporary moments when legislatures come under pressure from executives. It should also help enrich existing theories of non-democratic parliaments, as moments of shutdown throw into sharp relief relations between actors that are usually shrouded in secrecy.

Boris Johnson is not a dictator. But his steps to hamper the constraining function of Parliament put him in awkward company. My project will allow us to understand in much greater depth why authoritarian leaders sometimes shutter their assemblies.

Softly, Softly Belarus

Lisa J Walters11 June 2018

Andrew Wilson, Professor in Ukrainian Studies

This speech was delivered at the European Parliament, ‘Belarus: The Voice of Civil Society’, 5 June 2018

Belarus is changing. It is changing in ways that help European engagement. But, just to be clear, the one area where change is minimal is probably where we want to see it the most, in the political sphere. The label ‘Last Dictatorship in Europe’ may be out-of-date, but Belarus is not about to become a democracy any time soon.

No, what is driving change is sovereignty. First is the logic of sovereignty, which has been operative for some time; but often belated or delayed by political factors, namely Belarus’s formerly close relationship with Russia. Second is the threat to sovereignty since the Ukraine crisis in 2014; though partly this can be traced back to the war in Georgia in 2008.

President Lukashenka’s primary motives are regime survival and personal survival. He is pushing changes for instrumental reasons. Nevertheless, these changes are significant across four main areas: cultural policy, foreign policy, security policy and economic policy. Change, as I said at the top, has been least noticeable in domestic politics. However, in order to achieve Belarus’s goals in the other areas, there is some change even there.

All of this is done slowly. But the cumulative change is great. And arguably, this may take Belarus just as far away from Russia as Ukraine in the long-run.

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Russia’s Global Legal Trajectories: International Law in Eurasia’s Past and Present

Lisa J Walters29 May 2018

Review by Julia Klimova, PhD candidate at UCL SSEES.

On 16 and 17 of February 2018, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at UCL hosted an international workshop on “Russia’s Global Legal Trajectories: International Law in Eurasia’s Past and Present”. Organized by Dr. Philippa Hetherington with generous support of the British Academy for Arts and Sciences and Pushkin House, the workshop was dedicated to the history of legal issues in Russia from the Russian Empire, Soviet Union and Russian Federation. The workshop lasted for two days and consisted of 6 panels and the total of 14 speakers. It united historians with legal scholars, which provided a rich basis for discussions of issues of legality at various points in Russian history.

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Into the void: Rethinking Dostoevsky’s Radicalism

Lisa J Walters29 November 2017

Dr Sarah J. Young, Senior Lecturer in Russian

Over two blustery October days as Storm Brian loomed to the west, scholars, students and intrepid members of the public gathered at UCL to look east and discuss the latest developments in Dostoevsky studies. The conference, titled ‘Revolutionary Dostoevsky: Rethinking Radicalism’ to tie into this year’s events marking the centenary of the Russian Revolutions, recalls Dostoevsky’s legendary status as a prophet of revolution and totalitarianism, as well as his own revolutionizing poetics.

The theme for the conference places in the foreground the contradictions and tensions that continue to make Dostoevsky’s works such a rich source of debate and discussion, not least the paradox of this supposedly conservative writer – at least in his mature years – whose characters, as Carol Apollonio noted in her entertaining keynote address, are never satisfied with the status quo. The idea that Dostoevsky might have as much to tell us about the so-called ‘alt-right’, Islamic fundamentalism or the perpetrators of ‘lone wolf’ massacres, as he did about the revolutionary Populists and anarchists of his own era, or indeed the murderous repression of Stalinism, indicates that his subject was fundamentally a deeper one. Beyond the vicissitudes of ideological fashions, and the provocateurs and opportunists who use them to justify violence (and who appeared in more than one presentation), the state – and fate – of the human soul is always at stake in Dostoevsky’s novels.

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Revolutionary Dostoevsky

Lisa J Walters16 October 2017

Dr Sarah Young, Senior Lecturer in Russian

This post was first published on sarahjyoung.com

Photograph of Dostoevsky published with permission of the Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg

Photograph of Dostoevsky published with permission of the Dostoevsky Museum, St Petersburg

How might we think of Dostoevsky as a radical writer? In his later years he certainly seemed anything but. From his searing critique of nihilist ideas in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and his scathing portrayal of revolutionaries in Demons, to his increasingly virulent Orthodox nationalism and support for the authoritarian Tsarist regime expressed in his Diary of a Writer, his reactionary views appear to be in no doubt. Yet he understood the depths of human misery and the need for utopian visions and the transformation of society. He always maintained an interest in social justice that seems contrary to his political position, and his death was mourned by thousands of radical students. In his youth he did move in revolutionary circles, and much later acknowledged that even if he might not have found been a leader of such a movement, he was, and remained, capable of being a follower. His novels – typically of their focus on the extremes of human behaviour – show that fanatical atheism and fervent religious faith are two sides of the same coin, something he saw as a particularly Russian trait. Was this then just a reflection of the tensions in his own character and the ideological transition he experienced, or perhaps sought, within himself?

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Is Russia Practicing a Dry Run for an Invasion of Belarus?

Lisa J Walters25 September 2017

Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

This piece was originally posted on foreignpolicy.com on 18 September 2017. Podcasts are available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/22/staring-down-the-barrel-of-russias-big-guns/ and on iTunes

With tensions worsening between the two countries, Russia’s massive military exercise is firing a couple thousand warning shots at a reluctant ally.

Russia does military exercises regularly, but this year’s version, underway right now, deserves especially close attention. It’s called Zapad (“West”) and involves thousands of troops doing maneuvers on the borders of the Baltic states and Poland. The motivating scenario is to defend against an imagined invasion of Belarus by foreign-backed extremists. One of the fictional enemy states, “Vesbaria,” seems to be a thinly disguised Lithuania; the other, “Lubenia,” looks a bit like Poland. There will no doubt be the usual low-level provocations, with Russian planes buzzing borders, that will make the whole passive-aggressive show of strength look more like an invasion of the West than the other way around.

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Pot Calls the Kettle Black: Russian Report Describes the Spread of ‘Modern Technological Populism’

Lisa J Walters16 June 2017

Prof Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies

When it comes to political dirty tricks, you can rely on the Russians to know how to call things by their right name.  Russians also have the habit of using terminology to describe the wider world that is reflexively useful for conceptualising Russia itself. A recent Report by a new Russian think-tank on ‘Modern Technological Populism’ has therefore caused quite a stir; both because Russia has been accused of not-so-covert support for populists like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, and because the Report is the first product of an institution directly linked to the Kremlin.

The think-tank in question is the ‘Expert Institute of Social Research’ (which in Russian has the acronym EISI), founded in the autumn of 2016 and launched in March 2017. The EISI is attached to the Presidential Administration and is presumed to reflect the thinking of the new Kremlin propaganda chief, former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his ‘Strategy 2030’.

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