The top news stories of the year included parliamentary elections in September, a series of high-level political shakeups and several prominent corruption scandals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in the meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council (SEEC) in St.Petersburg, Monday, Dec. 26. Photo: AP
Russia’s State Duma elections, which many saw as a precursor to the 2018 presidential elections, were the year’s biggest event. However, the balance of forces remained intact, leading many to question the chances of the liberal opposition over the next year.
The Russian political scene also experienced quite a few shake-ups this year. New people appeared in important positions and other top officials were charged with serious crimes, leading to their exit from the political scene. Here’s a more in-depth look at the stories that made headlines throughout 2016.
Parliamentary elections were the year’s top political development. A wide-ranging election campaign included primaries for the first time ever in Russia, as well as the appearance of many new faces.
But while the U.S. presidential elections mobilized voters and pushed them to the polling stations, there was a different situation in Russia. Voters de facto ignored the candidates’ efforts. The turnout was low, with no more than 50 percent of voters casting their ballots. That was seen as exceptionally low, even for Russia, especially after all that was invested in the campaign.
The same parties are now sitting in the State Duma as before: the ruling United Russia, the Communist Party, the misnamed Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the center-left Just Russia. Several candidates representing other parties, which did not surpass the 5 percent threshold, managed to be elected in the single mandate districts – a relative novelty of Russian electoral law.
Curiously, LDPR finished with essentially the same results as the Communist Party. In the past, the latter was always a solid second and others were far behind. According to experts, younger voters prefer the LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, while pensioners prefer Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
An important result is that not a single party that had not previously been in parliament passed the 3 percent threshold, which would have given it state funding. It means that either the political system will experience minimal change or all opposition forces will be driven out of the scene once and for all.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seriously changed the lineup of regional and federal leaders. The ousted leaders included the head of the Federal Customs Service, three presidential envoys in the federal districts and several governors. Those moves were a signal to the elites that it’s time to improve fiscal discipline. The strategy in regard to Crimea also changed. The Crimean Federal District was downgraded to an ordinary region within the Southern Federal District.
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Several governors were also replaced. Pundits argue that in the regions, where civilians cannot control the situation, the old governors were replaced by political figures with a military or law enforcement background. In two typical Russian regions – Kaliningrad and Yaroslavl – the nation now has Governor-Generals, or military governors, as was the case in some other regions of Russia.
It has long been known that the president is trying to find some way to rejuvenate those in power. The only thing that brings the new appointees together is their personal loyalty to the President. And when it comes to the need for such loyalty, it may speak of a systemic crisis.
Last but not least, the nation witnessed the resignation of Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov. This was due more to diplomatic reasons than political reasons. If there is no Ukrainian ambassador in Russia, as is the case now, then there shouldn’t be a Russian ambassador in Kiev either.
Anton Vaino: The Kremlin's New Chief of Staff
To use a term once favored by Putin, a new “effective manager” has emerged in the Presidential Administration, which is now headed by Anton Vaino. Until recently he worked as the deputy head of the Presidential Administration. Previously he ran the staff of the cabinet. Before that, he worked in the protocol department and in the presidential press service.
Experts are convinced that Vaino is an effective manager, but a technical one without real political aspirations. He belongs to the new generation – able, without showing his emotions. At the same time, he has no political personality of his own and, thus, is not a political leader. The appointment of Vaino leads some experts to the conclusion that the political importance of the Presidential Administration will decrease in 2017.
Alexei Navalny's presidential bid
The opposition figure Alexei Navalny announced that he would run for the presidency. This became possible when the Presidium of the Supreme Court canceled the verdict regarding Navalny, who had previously been accused of corruption in the Kirovles case. The case was sent for retrial. Such a decision was made after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a retrial was necessary.
Previously, Navalny had taken part in the Moscow mayoral elections, but did not win, despite a relatively strong showing. Some experts doubt not just Navalny’s prospects of winning, but also his chances of becoming a registered candidate.
However, other pundits believe in the need for an interesting campaign and debates with those who otherwise don’t like to be challenged. However, nobody realistically believes Navalny is going to make it to the Kremlin in 2018.
Russia established a new state institution in 2016: the Federal Service of National Guard Troops or just the Russian National Guard. It is headed by Putin’s former chief border guard, General Viktor Zolotov, and is essentially a merger of several troops. A number of law enforcement and armed bodies, including the Interior Ministry troops and special units dealing with dangerous suspects, terrorists and riots are now part of the same unified structure reporting personally to the President.
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Its rights are similar to those of the police. But the functions will be greater - from anti-terrorism to policing. It will also have a lot of equipment: armored personnel carriers, helicopters and all types of firearms – in addition to a strategic research center. It will also supervise the entire circulation of arms among individuals and private guards.
Experts have been speculating why all these bodies were unified and even suggested it could be for dispersing demonstrations. But all these suggestions remained unanswered by the authorities, which kept saying the only reason was to improve effectiveness. However, cutting costs was never really accepted as a possible answer.
Belykh is suspected of receiving a large bribe in exchange for privileges to some businessmen in the region he governed. He was arrested last summer with a suitcase full of money in a luxury Moscow restaurant. Belykh pleads not guilty but remains under arrest in a pretrial detention prison. The investigation continues.
Ulyukaev was arrested in a Rosneft office allegedly receiving a $2 million bribe for a positive review of the Bashneft oil company privatization deal. He was dismissed from his ministerial post and remains under house arrest.
Yet the most spectacular corruption case of the year involved police Colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko. A search of his apartment produced 8.5 billion rubles, or about $1.4 billion worth of various currencies - an unprecedented amount of cash to be confiscated in Russia.
Changing political priorities
For the first time in several years, Putin has shifted his approach to the West. His state of the nation address was seen as offering an olive branch rather than continuing the anti-Western rhetoric. He did not speak about the global agenda, and did not discuss Syria or Ukraine. At the same time, the government adopted a new Foreign Policy Concept with somewhat different priorities. Expectations are ripe for an improvement of relations with the West.
“Great Terror” catalogue
The prominent NGO Memorial published a database of almost 40,000 NKVD secret police servicemen from the period of the “Great Terror” in the late 1930s [The NKVD was the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, formed in 1934 as a secret police intelligence agency – Editor’s note]. The publication has already been nicknamed the “Executioners’ Wiki.” The topic is so inflammatory that the publication has caused broad public debates.
All NKVD officers were involved in the 1935-1939 large-scale state repressions undertaken by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Andrei Zhukov, who had worked on the database for 15 years, researched NKVD archives and victims’ documents. It was first published on CD in May 2016.
Such work can cast light on what was really happening in the country during that time period, despite efforts by each generation to reevaluate that history. Yet, far from everybody was happy with the publication, in part because the country’s security system still considers itself to be the successor to the Soviet-era NKVD.