Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Ben-Noble_Percentage-share-of-bills-introduced-in-the-Russian-State-Duma-2012-2015
Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

 

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.

This text was originally posted on the Presidential Power blog on 8 May 2017. 

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[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

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Volodin’s Duma

volodin
This post was originally published on Intersection on 13 December 2016.

Vyacheslav Volodin has big plans for the State Duma. Since his October 5 election, the new chairman of the Federal Assembly’s lower chamber has directed a raft of changes aimed, it seems, at improving the Duma’s political stature. These reforms touch on all the core functions of legislatures: representation and linkage; executive oversight and control; and policy-making. The past proliferation of derogatory monikers like “rubber stamp,” “rabid printer,” and legal “conveyor” belt reflect the popular perception that the contemporary Russian federal legislature is an ineffectual institution – a body stuffed with inactive deputies, whose task is simply to distract citizens from real decision-making processes. In August 2016 – the month before parliamentary elections – only 37 percent of respondents to a Levada survey approved of the Duma’s activities.

One simple reading of these changes is that it’s purely a public relations stunt – an effort to stamp the new chair’s identity on a much-maligned body. This is Volodin’s Duma – not Naryshkin’s, not Gryzlov’s, not Seleznev’s, not Rybkin’s. And not the Presidential Administration’s. As a former first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration (PA), Volodin is well aware of the PA’s capacity – and desire – to micro-manage Duma politics. The Administration’s drafting of, and support for, legislative initiatives formally sponsored by deputies was one such way in which the Kremlin directed legislative politics from a distance. Do Volodin’s reforms go much beyond symbolic PR?

Many of the changes seem to be an attempt to balance professionalism and prestige. Thus, on the one hand, Volodin has cancelled the Duma’s traditional New Year’s party; the summer vacation might be shortened; United Russia has formalized measures to filter legislative initiatives, partly with a view to limiting the emergence of odd, PR-motivated bills; opportunities for deputies to miss plenary sessions and vote by proxy have been significantly reduced, with the penalty of pay deductions for absenteeism; and deputies are now required to deal personally with appeals from citizens. However, on the other hand, deputies have been returned the right to use VIP lounges in airports; the number of cars with migalki – blue flashing lights with sirens, that give priority through traffic – has gone up; more money will be available for law-making expertise; the number of parliamentary advisors and aides will also rise; and Government ministers and their deputies might be required to present and discuss their legislative initiatives in Duma committees.  Before making the Duma a “place for discussion,” therefore, Volodin appears set on making the Duma appear to be a place for serious work – or, at least, more serious than recent prior convocations.

Deputies have begun to grumble, however. This is, in part, tied to the difficulties associated with working in regional constituencies, now that the number of weeks for such work in the monthly parliamentary cycle has been reduced from two to one – a particular challenge for deputies representing citizens in federal subjects far from Moscow. More generally, some deputies have balked at the increased discipline instigated during the first legislative session of the seventh convocation. Possibly as a result, the number of sick days taken by deputies has increased markedly since fines were introduced for missing plenary Duma sessions without a valid excuse. (For those legislators that have shown up, the high attendance numbers have caused problems in the Duma lifts and dining room.) One United Russia deputy – Aleksandr Skorobogatko – has even given up his mandate, ostensibly in response to the inflexibility of Volodin’s new regime.

This reaction speaks to the nature of the changes. The Volodin reforms are top-down, bureaucratic-administrative reforms, which appear to be motivated more by efforts to consolidate the speaker’s power vertikal, rather than to foster parliamentarians as champions of constituents’ concerns and influential political actors in their own right.  If there is any desire on the Kremlin’s part to make the Duma a “place for discussion,” then this renewed debate will be tightly controlled. Discussion, according to Putin, should be aimed at solving important tasks, rather than being an end in itself. And there is a sense that deputies will have more room for discussion on economic issues important to the regions, whereas they will present a united front on security and foreign policy. In effect, this is an example of something Princeton political scientist Rory Truex calls “representation within bounds” – when deputies are encouraged to act as genuine citizen representatives, but only regarding areas outside the core concerns of the regime, including political reform. Indeed, in an example suggesting that the rhetoric of change might have outpaced the reality of reform, a presidential bill regarding criminal responsibility for improperly launching criminal cases was recently adopted by the Duma without amendment, in spite of calls for significant changes voiced by the lead committee and the Duma’s Legal Department.

A similarly ambiguous change involves the mooted ban on covert bill initiation by Government departments. In order to circumvent the oftentimes arduous process of intra-Government sign-off, ministries and other executive bodies have reverted to introducing their policy initiatives through deputy proxies. Both core executive actors and Duma leadership have complained about this backdoor route which diminishes core executive control over policy-making and can lead to the displacement of intra-executive disagreements into the legislature. There are three clear problems with attempting to stop this practice, however. Firstly, executive actors could simply learn to do a better job of covering their tracks when introducing bills through deputies. Secondly, a united executive sometimes introduces initiatives – often unpopular measures – through other formal bill sponsors. If the executive itself takes advantage of this covert practice, then it is unlikely to be an effective champion of effective reform. And thirdly, it is not clear whether this clampdown will also involve amendments made to bills during second reading, which sometimes modify bills beyond recognition. If it does not, then the proposed reform regarding bills will have little effect, since executive actors will be able to achieve the same goal by other means. Aleksandr Shokhin – President of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs – has often voiced criticism of such practices in audiences with Putin. In spite of promises for reform, however, little has changed – and it is far from certain that significant results will be achieved in the near future.

In November 2016, approval of the Duma’s activities saw an increase to 44 percent. It is not clear, however, whether this increase can be attributed to Volodin’s reforms: a similar rise in approval for the activities of President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev, the Government, and regional governors suggests a broader shift in support for political institutions and individuals, rather than a localized response to the appearance of increased parliamentary professionalism.

Information and Power in Lawmaking: Russia and the US (very briefly) compared

capitol

In his book Legislating in the Dark: Information and Power in the House of Representativesthe political scientist James Curry argues that US Congressional leadership withhold information on bills in order to control the behaviour of members of Congress.

The logic is simple: given the scarcity of time, resources, and expertise, legislators are pressured to rely on information and cues from Congressional leaders, who can increase this pressure by withholding information on legislative initiatives.

For example, the leadership can delay releasing the details of a bill until just before it is scheduled to be debated, thereby reducing the opportunities for independent legislator scrutiny; instead, they defer to instructions.

This is a trick familiar to observers of Russian politics. For example, potentially controversial policy changes are introduced into bills just before second reading during review in the State Duma, meaning that deputies don’t have time to review them before voting.

But this practice isn’t restricted to the executive-legislative relations in Russia: the Ministry of Finance has also used this information-withholding technique to limit pre-parliamentary, inter-ministerial discussion of the budget draft.

As this Vedomosti article states, the Ministry of Finance has begun to circulate budget materials during meetings, rather than before, as is required by procedure. As a result, budget discussions are carried out within the corridors of the Ministry of Finance, largely excluding other actors. This, in turn, makes intra-executive negotiation and compromise even trickier at later stages.

 

 

 

Russians will be voting on Sunday [18 September]. Here’s what you need to know.

Russian voters will elect 450 deputies to Russia’s State Duma on Sunday, in the seventh election for the lower chamber of Russia’s bicameral Federal Assembly since the legislature’s founding in 1993.

Large-scale protests followed the last federal parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, 2011, after widespread reports of electoral fraud and rigged elections. Within days, an estimated 50,000 protesters across from the Kremlin were chanting “Russia without Putin.”

This year, 14 political parties are taking part in elections that were moved forward from December to September. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor the elections, which will return to a mixed electoral system last used in Russia’s 2003 federal elections. Half of the 450 seats will be decided by competitions in regional constituencies, technically known as single-mandate districts, using a “first-past-the-post” system like that used in U.S. elections.

Russian voters will fill the other 225 seats by voting in a nationwide, proportional competition. Here, voters pick a party, rather than a particular candidate. These votes are then pooled, with seats assigned in relation to a party’s share of the total vote. Deputies are then selected in descending order from lists of candidates put together by each party and published before the elections. To gain a share of these 225 seats, parties must win at least 5 percent of the vote.

Here are seven things to know about the coming elections:

1) United Russia, the pro-Putin “party of power,” is likely to retain a majority of seats…

The new Duma will look a lot like the old one, according to a recent survey of 50 Russian political commentators. Four parties are likely to clear the 5 percent hurdle to gain a portion of the 225 party-list seats: United Russia, the centrist “party of power,” which currently holds 238 seats in the Duma; the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), a leftist opposition party (92 seats); the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a nationalist party dominated by its firebrand leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky (56 seats); and A Just Russia (JR), a leftist party engineered by the Kremlin to capture votes from the KPRF — but which also included a small number of liberal legislators in the 2011-2016 Duma (64 seats).

These four parties will also likely take the lion’s share of single-mandate district seats, where voters pick a particular candidate. However, these races might also provide an opportunity for other parties to enter the Duma — including Yabloko, Rodina, and the Party of Growth — as well as independents.

2) … but nothing is certain.

If United Russia were able to secure just under 50 percent of the popular vote in the party-list competition, along with the lower estimate of seats in the singe-mandate district races, it would end up with over 270 seats, more than it now holds.

But polling data from VTsIOM — a regime-friendly polling organization — shows that support for United Russia has been falling since July 2015. Blame the poor state of the Russian economy — and falling revenues and depleted central funds will necessitate measures like cuts to military spending, which will dampen Vladimir Putin’s promise for a resurgent Russia.

At the moment, Putin’s popularity ratings stand around 82 percent. United Russia is counting on slogans such as “Vote for the party of the president. Vote for United Russia!” to help strengthen support for the party in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.

United Russia is likely to use other techniques to boost its results. For example, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev heads United Russia’s party list, and the party is using his name to attract votes. Once the elections are over, Medvedev will simply withdraw from the party list, freeing up the seat for another United Russia candidate.

3) The results will have little impact on the executive’s control of parliament…

Even if United Russia were to lose its majority, the Kremlin would not lose control of the Duma. The three other parliamentary parties are only nominally opposition parties — all three work closely with the government and the presidential administration. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, commentators have referred to this coordination between the four Duma parties and the executive as the “Crimean consensus” — a broadly unified front on both domestic and foreign policy.

My own research has highlighted how inter-party or executive-legislative disagreements do not drive legislative politics in contemporary Russia. The Duma serves, rather, as a venue for conflict resolution between factions in the executive and the bureaucracy. Russian ministries have their internal struggles, and sometimes officials use the Duma stage of decision-making to settle policy conflicts. This practice is unlikely to change following this September’s elections.

4) … but we might see more vocal opposition from deputies.

If past experience is any guide, single-mandate district parliamentarians might display more independence from the party line compared to their party-list colleagues.

Given growing frustration in society over economic hardship and the lack of reform, deputies in the 2016-2021 Duma might respond to these growing grievances with louder criticisms of government policy.

5) Russian voters seem uninterested in these elections.

In the run-up to the December 2011 Duma elections, 60 percent of respondents reported being interested in the upcoming elections in the preceding month. This year, that figure stands at 46 percent.

Is Russian society passive? No – but frustrated citizens don’t see the Duma elections as an important way to help change current conditions.

The timing is part of the issue — Duma elections usually take place in December, but shifted this year to September. The official government line was that this would allow the new legislators to take part in discussions for the 2017 budget. The likely real reason was to shift the campaign cycle to Russia’s summer vacation period, maybe to reduce the ability of opposition parties to get their message to the electorate.

But this disengagement also likely reflects the population’s acknowledgment that their legislators play a peripheral role in Russia’s policy-making.

6) A re-run of the 2011-2012 demonstrations? Not likely.

Wide-scale demonstrations are unlikely, given voters’ relative lack of interest this time. In addition, the protests after the last Duma elections reflected widespread anger relating to the September 2011 announcement that Putin would run for president in 2012. Putin has been careful to deflect questions about whether he will stand for the presidency again in 2018.

The regime has also been careful to pay some attention to the claims of electoral fraud in 2011. In March 2016, Ella Pamfilova, a former human rights commissioner as well as a former Duma deputy and presidential candidate, replaced the deeply unpopular head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov.

Stuffing ballots is a costly way to manufacture legislative majorities, and is just one element in what Andreas Schedler has called the “menu of manipulation” — techniques authoritarian elites use to tilt the electoral playing field. More consequential methods include regime control of television news and pressure on employees to vote for United Russia. Pamfilova has already warned about the use of “administrative resources” — advantages associated with the incumbency of the “party of power.”

The authorities have applied pressure in other ways. An independent polling company, Levada Center, has been labelled a “foreign agent” — a term applied to foreign-funded NGOs taking part in vaguely defined “political activity.” One view is that this is in response to the Center’s reporting of United Russia’s fall in support.

7) Does Russia need to hold elections? Yes and no.

Authoritarian regimes hold elections for a variety of reasons. Elections provide a veneer of democratic legitimacy, help collect information on popular sentiment, and ensure credible power-sharing between members of the elite.

In Russia, the election results will likely figure in future personnel decision-making, both at the regional level and at the very top. As the chairman of United Russia, Medvedev may find his political future at stake. Regional elites will also likely be rewarded or punished for their perceived ability to get out the vote for United Russia.

This mixture of control and a degree of uncertainty is characteristic of “competitive authoritarianism.” In Russia, this has been called “sovereign” democracy. In non-specialist terms, this means these regimes might have the trappings of democracy, but electoral conditions are skewed to help keep the leadership in power.

[This blog post first appeared on The Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage.]