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On the eve of the federal election campaign scheduled for September, the Kremlin has resolved to renew the Central Electoral Commission substantially. Its present head Vladimir Churov is not in the new commission; he will be replaced by Ella Pamfilova, human rights plenipotentiary under the president.
The media have been writing about plans to renew the Central Electoral Commission throughout the first months of 2016. First the State Duma and the Federation Council prepared their lists of five. Under the law, each State Duma faction proposes a candidate for a seat as a member of the Central Electoral Commission and another candidate may be put forward by a group of deputies. United Russia proposed the candidacy of incumbent Central Electoral Commission member Valeriy Kryukov. The CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation] has also kept its representative, Yevgeniy Kolyushin. The LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia], instead of Oleg Lavrov, has sent Sergey Sirotkin; Just Russia, instead of Sergey Danilenko, sent State Duma vice speaker Nikolay Levichev. From the group of deputies, a United Russia member has been nominated: Valeriy Galchenko, former deputy chief of the party’s Central Executive Committee. In addition, opposition Deputy Dmitriy Gudkov proposed that Grigoriy Melkonyants, cochairman of the Golos movement, be nominated as a member of the Central Electoral Commission. In the end the State Duma, predictably, confirmed all of them except Melkonyants.
Of these five, the most interesting is the nomination of Nikolay Levichev, who has even been tipped for the post of Central Electoral Commission head. According to Vedomosti’s source Levichev is a classmate of incumbent Central Electoral Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, with whom he studied at the Leningrad State University Physics Faculty. A source in the Just Russia faction assured the publication at the time that in the Central Electoral Commission Levichev will seek a high post — chairman or deputy chairman. On the other hand sources pointed to the existence of a conflict between Levichev and Sergey Mironov (after his defeat in the Moscow mayoral election Levichev’s influence declined sharply): So in this way the party was in a certain sense also solving its own internal problems.
At the beginning of February the Federation Council also confirmed its group of five. It comprises incumbent Central Electoral Commission members Mayya Grishina, Siyabshakh Shapiyev, and Anton Lopatin, as well as Federation Council member Nikolay Bulayev and political expert Aleksandr Klyukin. Klyukin is chief of a department at the Center for Political Projects and Communications NGO and was elected as a State Duma deputy three times: on the last two occasions (in 2003 and 2007) from United Russia, and in 1999 as an independent nominee for a single-seat district; later, in transit via the LDPR, he joined the Fatherland-All Russia bloc. There he became acquainted with the current overseer of domestic politics, Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of the Presidential Staff, according to Vedomosti’s source close to the Kremlin. Ex-State Duma Deputy Bulayev was also elected to his first Duma term in 1999 on the Fatherland-All Russia list. For his part Lopatin (a Central Electoral Commission member since February 2011) headed a department in the public organization Fatherland and later led Volodin’s secretariat when Volodin was vice speaker of the State Duma, according to Lopatin’s official biography on the United Russia website.
Finally on 2 March Vladimir Putin signed his edict on the president’s five. Four of the five are newcomers: Aleksandr Kinev, deputy chief of the FAS [Federal Antimonopoly Service] (a member of the Yabloko party since 2001); Vasiliy Likhachev, State Duma deputy from the CPRF; Ella Pamfilova, plenipotentiary for human rights in Russia; and Yevgeniy Shevchenko, representative of Patriots of Russia on the Central Electoral Commission with a consultative voice. Out of the former Central Electoral Commission members the president has retained only Boris Ebzeyev, a former constitutional judge and head of Karachayevo-Cherkesiya. So some key Central Electoral Commission figures have been dropped from the president’s five — Vladimir Churov, who has been its head since 2007, and Leonid Ivlev, whose name is linked to Vladislav Surkov, former overseer of the Presidential Staff Domestic Policy Administration.
Kommersant’s sources reported that the Kremlin discussed two concepts for forming the Central Electoral Commission. The Central Electoral Commission could have become a technical body with an unremarkable lawyer and functionary at its head. This idea arose after Vladimir Churov, in a public speech at a seminar in Crimea, declared the need to allocate funds for second rounds in single-seat districts in State Duma elections. It should be recalled that in these districts the winners are determined in the first round under the relative majority system and there is no provision for a second round. The appointment of a lawyer could have strengthened the technical nature of the commission and to a certain extent depoliticized its work, while also making it more professional. It should be noted that before Churov the Central Electoral Commission was headed by Aleksandr Veshnyakov, under whom the commission was noted for the extremely high professional standard of its lawyers.
However, the second concept prevailed, whereby the role of the Central Electoral Commission was supposed to be not technical but, rather, political. It has to shape the image of the upcoming elections on the principle of «openness, legitimacy, and publicity,» as proclaimed by the Presidential Staff political section. That is why the Central Electoral Commission has not only been renewed but strengthened by the addition of Ella Pamfilova, who will most likely become head of the commission. Nonetheless, hopes of an improvement in the qualifications of Central Electoral Commission lawyers persist: A team of lawyers will now be selected who will be able to prepare the arguments for rescinding unlawful or dubious decisions by regional commissions.
So a certain picture is emerging of the way in which the Kremlin envisages conducting the federal election campaign. First, there is the closest possible coordination between the authorities and the system opposition. What was previously the «Kremlin’s» Central Electoral Commission now acquires multiparty features. It has even been dubbed a «mini-parliament» where debates will be permitted: This will help to let off steam in the event of dissatisfaction with vote-rigging. In a certain sense this is an attempt by the Presidential Staff to share the responsibility for the campaign with all forces within the system. It is also an attempt to record the rules of the game: If forces within the system go along with shared priorities (for instance stability, nonsensationalism, patriotism, refusal to «rock the boat»), then their interests will be taken into account. And what is meant by forces within the system is not only parliamentary but also nonparliamentary parties such as Patriots of Russia and Yabloko.
However, the fact that their representatives are now on the Central Electoral Commission can in reality be seen only very hypothetically as a real indication of party polycentricness. Kinev has been working at the FAS for a long time and is more an official than a representative of the opposition. Grigoriy Yavlinskiy told Kommersant that he has known Kinev «for a very long time, he has been a member of the Saint Petersburg Yabloko since 1996.» «The Central Electoral Commission is a very special kind of state body and it has millstones that can grind anyone you like,» he says. «Thus far the Central Electoral Commission has not made any autonomous decisions, it has done everything that the Presidential Staff has dictated.»
As for Patriots of Russia, for many years this party played the role of spoiler for the CPRF. However, it is now becoming more actively involved in the administrative mechanisms of managing elections. In May of last year an expert team from the Golos movement presented in the forum of Aleksey Kudrin’s Civil Initiatives Committee a report devoted to an analysis of the activities of electoral commissions in the Russian Federation components. On that occasion the authors of the report asserted that the people who get on to the electoral commissions are most often people who are loyal to the local authorities, and they are increasingly frequently coming through nonparliamentary parties. «The Patriots of Russia party is particularly notable in this respect. Of the 37 people nominated to the components’ electoral commissions by the party’s regional branches, six are staffers of the administration or government of the regions, five are staffers or members of the electoral commission on a permanent basis, and another six are in leadership posts in state and municipal enterprises and institutions.» In addition, a number of electoral commission members from Patriots of Russia are «active members of the ONF [All-Russia People’s Front],» the report said.
Vasiliy Likhachev of the CPRF also has great experience of work in the power structures. In the 1990s he was vice president of Tatarstan and head of the State Council. In 1998-2003 he represented Russia in the EU, and then until 2010 he was senator on the Federation Council from Ingushetiya. It was only in 2010 that he got into the State Duma on the CPRF list, heading Tatarstan’s regional list. In general he is regarded as a figure who is closer to the Republic’s elite than to the CPRF leadership.
Second, there is the reliance on increasing the legitimacy of elections and of the actual election campaign. This is Volodin’s style and has been noticeable since the moment he arrived in the Kremlin. In the context of this approach the Kremlin, for instance, allowed Aleksey Navalnyy into the Moscow mayoral election in 2013 (admittedly at the time few people had expected him to achieve such a high result as 27 percent) and PARNAS [People’s Freedom Party] into the regional elections in the fall of last year. In the context of these tactics a somewhat reduced prediction regarding results for the party of power, United Russia, is also accepted. The Kremlin seems to be indicating that it is no longer setting the task of throwing all resources, including administrative resources, into dragging the United Russians up. However, a slight reduction in the number of their seats in the future Duma could be compensated for by the admittance of single-seat deputies loyal to the authorities.
Democratic rhetoric is becoming a kind of «verbal intervention» by the authorities, but in practice this is not backed up by liberalization, rather the reverse. It is only a question of a change in the tactics for maintaining the authorities’ control over the elected organs of power. The Kremlin is turning from a dominant party toward the ideas of a managed party system. The Kremlin is inviting all «constructive» forces to cooperate, making it clear, for instance, that if in the United Russia primaries the numbers two and three come from the system opposition it will not be a tragedy. However, to this end, the system opposition must become even more moderate.
Third, the Central Electoral Commission has gained a whole string of figures who are close to Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy chief of the Presidential Staff. The former commission was shaped under Surkov, and although it undoubtedly remained loyal to the Presidential Staff, nowadays it is not a question of loyalty to the institution but of loyalty to the president’s aide personally. Volodin, who organizes relations with United Russia, the ONF, and the parliamentary and nonparliamentary parties, is binding key figures to himself.
It must be said that the choice in favor of Pamfilova as future head of the Central Electoral Commission is in this sense highly symbolic. In 2010 she left the post of head of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights after a heated conflict with Surkov: At that time, in the context of Medvedev’s liberalization, the human rights activists were greatly outraged by Nashi’s persecution and hounding of the dissident Aleksandr Podrabinek. Pamfilova publicly criticized Surkov, who was responsible for the activities of the pro-Kremlin youth. However, at the time her opposition was largely superimposed on personal hostility to the overseer of the domestic policy administration. In 2014 she returned to the Kremlin where she established an effective relationship with Volodin. Incidentally, on 1 March Ella Pamfilova, along with Volodin and representatives of the prosecutor’s office, the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs], and the Central Electoral Commission, was briefing regional plenipotentiaries on how to work to defend citizens’ electoral rights during elections.
Meanwhile critically minded experts and human rights activists were really surprised at such a radical renewal of the Central Electoral Commission. «If you compare the new composition of the Central Electoral Commission with the previous one, the number of representatives of opposition parties is a record, while the CPRF has two people, one of whom could lay claim to a leadership place. Formally this is the most pluralist commission in the past 15 years,» Kommersant was told by political expert Aleksandr Kynev, a specialist in elections. Golos Cochairman Grigoriy Melkonyants also acknowledged that the new Central Electoral Commission is receiving a high level of confidence from critically minded people «for whom Pamfilova is an indication that at the initial stage we are in favor of competition,» he agrees, but «her inclusion on the commission is an attempt to lessen the aggression against the Central Electoral Commission: «The authorities want fewer scandals.» Although there is also a lot of skepticism. Andrey Buzin, cochairman of the Golos movement, told Vedomosti that the final list is «the result of insistent wishes» from the Kremlin. «The fact that the Federation Council list includes three personal associates of Volodin indicates that we have returned completely to the system of nomenklatura appointments and that the Central Electoral Commission is the [Presidential] Staff’s nomenklatura,» he stated.
To a certain extent one can say that the Kremlin has met one of the key demands of Bolotnaya [demonstrations] in late 2011 — the resignation of Vladimir Churov. The renewal of the Central Electoral Commission exceeds all expectations. At the same time the nonsystem opposition is deprived of one of the most striking anti-Kremlin slogans, while the new Central Electoral Commission receives the benefit of confidence in advance. However, we should hardly count on a change in electoral practice: Recent years have shown that competition in elections remains highly theoretical, while the use of [administrative] resources prevails. The Central Electoral Commission has become more pluralist as a federal institution, but the majority of manifestations of administrative resources take place at local level — and here it is important that the new Central Electoral Commission should react to them effectively. The inclusion of system parties in the mechanisms for organizing elections is accompanied by the strengthening of their «pro-system» nature and their constructive attitude toward the authorities themselves. Finally, under the present political regime the role of the Central Electoral Commission in the election campaign remains mainly technical. And Pamfilova, acceptable as she is to the third sector, will promote the legitimization of the existing system, making elections more transparent and reducing the heat of the inevitable criticism if Churov were to keep his post. But at the same time Pamfilova is difficult to replace in the post of ombudsman, where she has shown a principled approach — it is not easy to find another such candidate.