The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, will leave his post before the 2016 parliamentary elections. What does it mean for the country’s political future and electoral system?

Vladimir Churov, the former head of Russia’s Central Election Commission. Photo: RIA Novosti 

Last week brought the news that the chairman of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, would leave his post before the parliamentary elections in Fall 2016. It's a significant event in Russian political life.

His resignation looks like the end of an entire era in the electoral history of post-Soviet Russia – an era of complete cynicism and an era when many violations took place during elections, as democratic activists and observers have been quick to point out.

Understanding the political environment that created Churov

In general, what’s typical for that political era is the tendency for the Kremlin to regularly use politicians from other parties to voice the most dubious ideas and initiatives.

One can recall United Russia deputy Irina Yarovaya, an ex-Yabloko liberal party member, who became famous as one of the authors of particularly unpopular bills. Among them is the bill forcing non-commercial organizations to register as foreign agents if they’re receiving financing from abroad.

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There’s another example – Elena Mizulina, a member of the Federation Council of Russia, who is known for such legislative initiatives as the law against gay propaganda, as well as the law prohibiting foreign families from adopting Russian orphans.

In the context of populist legislative initiatives, representatives of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) occupy a special place. One of their bills is an attempt to ban usage and possession of the U.S. dollar in Russia. Of course, such initiatives are rarely taken seriously, so there’s an opinion among Russian political scientists that the members of that party have neither their own beliefs nor their own opinions.

What they do have is a questionable reputation. The Duma fraction of the LDPR includes plenty of entrepreneurs – businessmen who, perhaps, bought their deputy mandate, or "political entrepreneurs" who’re trying to make a living with the help of such a mandate. Journalist and history amateur Vladimir Churov, no doubt, belongs to the second group.

Who is Mr. Churov?

It's difficult to say why LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky included Churov in his party list during the Duma elections in 2003. Perhaps Zhirinovsky was asked to do so by the presidential administration. In 1991-1996 Churov worked under current President Vladimir Putin in the external relations committee of the St. Petersburg administration. However, after former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak's loss in the gubernatorial elections of 1996, Churov didn't leave together with his boss but instead, stayed at his post until 2003.

His belonging to the LDPR, a party which can't offer anything but unbridled populism, according to the majority of Russian politicians and political scientists, wasn't an obstacle for Churov to become the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission in March 2007. On the contrary, it helped in some way.

It's true that the Central Election Commission could never boast being independent from higher authority – another thing is that in 1991-1993 the election commission followed the lead of the Congress of the popular deputies of Russia, and since October 1993 willingly bent to the will of the president.

But until 2007 it was headed by people who could be described as professional civil servants. Despite all bureaucracy, they still valued their professional reputation. During their rule, the Central Election Commission, even though it looked up to the Kremlin, still reviewed all incoming complaints, and tried to observe general electoral rules and "niceties" when making decisions.

Assigning this position to Churov meant that the era of "niceties" had ended. Many political scientists, who personally faced him and the Central Election Commission's work, came to a conclusion that under his rule reviewing of complaints and violations of electoral law turned into a formality. It's obvious that Churov had been assigned to the Central Election Commission not to upkeep an image of impartiality, but to defend the Kremlin's interests. That's what he basically did.

Churov the magician

After the Duma elections of 2011, at a meeting with then-president Dmitry Medvedev, Churov boasted that his forecast of the election results turned out to be the most accurate. In turn the president called the Central Election Commission chairman a “magician.” Many election observers and voters thought that the elections came and went with a huge number of violations and falsifications.

The protest wave of 2011-2012 was the reaction to Churov's “magic.” The authorities had to give way, lowering the requirements for political party registration and cancelling the signature collection for non-parliamentary parties for a while. But nobody touched Churov: He kept his position until March 2016.

Only before that, it turned out that Putin hadn't included Churov in the president’s list of five candidates to head the Central Election Commission. But human rights deputy Ella Pamfilova was included in the list, and many consider her the most likely candidate for the Commission chairwoman.

Who is Ms. Pamfilova?

How to explain such a turn of events? It seems that the Kremlin realized the following: The time when election violations go unpunished and complaint reviews are a bureaucratic formality is at an end. The deepening of the economic crisis can't help but reflect on the results of upcoming Duma elections. Most likely, the main blow will be taken by United Russia, the current party of power. It's unavoidable: If the party doesn't pay for the hardship, Putin will in the future. And that means that it's necessary to change the tactics and act more discreetly.

If United Russia is doomed to lose, the Kremlin most likely will try to push its people to the federal lists of prospective parties, and would bet on single-mandate areas. But all those efforts would be in vain if the elections would look illegitimate in the eyes of the Russian and international public. Churov can't provide such legitimacy. Thus, other people are needed. And from that point of view, Pamfilova seems a much better choice.

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She fits rather well into the construction of Putin's regime as a human rights deputy. Moreover, she managed to save her political and personal reputation. In particular, she criticized Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov when the latter called opposition members enemies of the people. Not a single other government representative, including chairman of the president's council for human rights, Mikhail Fedotov, risked doing anything of the kind.

If Pamfilova really replaces Churov, it would mean that the Central Election Commission's activity would return to pre-Churov times – basic political "niceties" would again be followed, and complaints on violation of electoral law would again be reviewed for real. But have no illusions. The aim of the Election Commission would still be not following the law, but providing the results necessary for the Kremlin.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.