Russian media roundup: The results of the Russian parliamentary elections, the ongoing political reshuffle in the government, and a potential reform of the nation’s law enforcement agencies all made headlines last week.

United Russia Party Chairman, Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Russia's President Vladimir Putin visit the United Russia Party campaign headquarters after the 2016 Russian parliamentary election, Sept. 18. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

In the week after Russia’s parliamentary elections on Sept. 18, the media began to analyze what the results might mean for the nation, especially with the 2018 presidential elections now looming on the horizon. Overall, the ruling party (United Russia) appears to have consolidated its power within the parliament.

On the foreign policy front, the end of the Syrian ceasefire was the focus of attention by journalists and experts. The growing consensus within the media appears to be that Russia and the United States simply have irreconcilable differences over the future of Syria.

The results of the parliamentary elections

As a result of the parliamentary elections, six political parties made it into the Russian State Duma: United Russia (343 seats), Communist Party (42), Liberal Democratic Party (39), A Just Russia (23), Homeland (1) and Civic Platform (1). At the same time, United Russia achieved a constitutional majority, meaning that the other parties, even voting as a single bloc, cannot block any of its decisions.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote that the constitutional majority of United Russia represents a turning point. The parliament is becoming a one-party controlled state, where “all formal hierarchy, even including the post of the speaker, not to mention the chairmen of committees, are purely decorative positions.”

The government authorities are preparing for a new phase – budgetary resources are currently limited, so there is an urgent need to take unpopular measures, including making cuts in social spending and raising taxes. For such measures, the country’s leadership will need unity in the ranks of the Duma, and that is what it has achieved in these elections.

Moskovsky Komsomolets analyzed the reasons for the total failure of the opposition parties in these elections. The opposition parties failed to overcome the 3 percent barrier needed to preserve their state financing, with candidates in single-mandate constituencies showing very modest results. One of the main reasons for the defeat was the opposition’s inability to unite their efforts, which resulted in competition between opposition candidates, with each party taking votes from each other, rather than from their ideological opponents.

Also read: "Russia may not be so united behind United Russia"

Another factor working against the opposition was the extremely low voter turnout – the supporters of Russia’s opposition simply did not believe that the elections could change anything, and saw no reason to participate in them.

The Internet site of the Echo of Moscow radio station published an article by opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who recounted the numerous violations during the elections. The newly appointed head of the Central Electoral Commission – Ella Pamfilova – was supposed to make the elections more transparent and fair. However, according to Navalny, the Sept. 18 elections have shown that nothing like that had happened. Navalny expressed particular outrage about the situation in the Saratov Oblast, from which Vyacheslav Volodin was elected, and who is now the Duma Speaker.

In dozens of polling stations, the United Russia party received the exact same percentage of votes: 62.2 percent. The opposition leader is calling for an investigation and the resignation of the head of the Central Election Commission, which permitted the occurrence of such fraudulent activity.  

Personnel changes

Last week, the State Duma Speaker, Sergey Naryshkin, was appointed as the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Taking his place was Vyacheslav Volodin, who previously oversaw the domestic policies of the Presidential Administration.

Both appointments are of great interest to the media. Whereas Naryshkin was actually returning “home” to the security services, it is unclear what to expect from the chief ideologist of the Kremlin in the post of Duma speaker.

The online publication notes that Volodin is a significantly brighter political figure than the outgoing Naryshkin. Moreover, Volodin’s entire career is directly related to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, making him deeply loyal to the president. In this sense, personnel decisions connected with the appointment to key positions of people “personally indebted” to Putin continue.

The publication suggests that the personal influence of Volodin and his connections will make the Duma a more significant institution, and strengthen the parliamentary system in Russia. At the same time, Naryshkin’s move to the Foreign Intelligence Service appears to be a demotion - a step towards an “honorable retirement” of the elderly politician.

The analytical portal Aktualniye Kommentarii says that Volodin’s appointment was expected. The publication calls him a Russian political heavyweight, who has the ability to seriously change the parliament’s style of work. He is an experienced manager and an experienced member of parliament, which certainly is an advantage. At the same time, his work may be constrained by certain limitations: in particular, Volodin lacks an effective team and appropriate resources. The portal also notes that the career of the new speaker was solely due to the patronage of the president.

The independent media outlet Slon wonders whether Volodin will be able to raise the Duma to a new level, or whether this position will instead bury a promising politician. This is far from an idle question. Formally, this was a promotion for Volodin, but being handed the position to manage the lower house of parliament could be considered a form of exile. Anyway, a figure of the scale of Volodin has every chance to rein in the “mad printer,” which is how the Duma has been characterized of late.

Syrian deadlock: The failure of the Russian-American ceasefire

Syria, once a potential space for constructive cooperation between Russia and the United States, is gradually becoming a new point of growing controversy. The talks that took place on Sept. 23 between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov came to nothing – after the recent collapse of the ceasefire agreement reached between the parties to the conflict in Syria, Russia and the United States cannot come up with a formula for further joint actions in the conflict zone.

The online edition, quoting a Russian expert, says that the negotiations have reached an impasse. Not everything in the settlement depends on diplomats, so even the mutual desire of Kerry and Lavrov for a settlement cannot override the interests of other parties, in particular the interest of the military-industrial complex of the two countries.

Most likely, in the short term, we should not expect to see any changes in the Syrian direction. Based on the breakdown in peace talks, the differences between Russia and the United States, especially on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, appear to be irreconcilable.

The business newspaper Kommersant writes that the Syrian conflict has become an insurmountable challenge for Russian-American relations. The West is seeking to lay the blame for the escalation of the conflict in Syria on Russia, while at the same time pulling the country into a spiral of tension and leaving no room for diplomacy. In such circumstances, both in Russia and the United States, the voices of the “hawks” are becoming louder and louder, as they call for the most aggressive forms of participation of the two countries in the Syrian conflict. This, unfortunately, makes peace in Syria an even more distant prospect.

Also read: "The new US-Russia ceasefire in Syria is unofficially over"

The reform of Russia’s law enforcement agencies

In Russia, rumors continue to circulate about a possible future restructuring of the security forces. This supposedly concerns creating a “super agency” on the basis of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The format for the new institution would resemble that of the Soviet-era Ministry of State Security (MGB) and include the Federal Protective Service, the Foreign Intelligence Service and (in part) the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

The business newspaper Kommersant, which became the source of the rumors about the “super agency,” wrote about the possible formats and goals of the new structure. According to the publication, the planned reform is really of a grand scale, as this change is not limited to the simple combining of services “under one roof.” The reforms could include the redistribution of powers and the strengthening of individual areas, which should increase efficiency and reduce costs.

Simultaneously, Kommersant noted that, although the reform is scheduled for completion before the presidential elections in 2018, such an aggressive timetable might be difficult to attain, since there may not be sufficient financial resources to achieve it.

The liberal website Meduza asked experts to explain the new reforms. They suggested three possible explanations. First of all, this is an attempt to optimize financial resources. Secondly, it is a covert struggle between various departments. Thirdly, it is an attempt to adapt the system to Putin’s needs ahead of the 2018 presidential campaign.

The interviewed experts also pointed out that the planned new agency would become a “monster power” in the hands of those in charge, who would have the power to institute “crackdowns” in the country and invade the privacy of just about anyone.

Moskovsky Komsomolets, quoting a source in the security services, explained that the talk about a major reform has been ongoing for a long time. Although all this sounds ominous, in reality, there is nothing special about its creation or the effect that the new “state security ministry” would have on ordinary citizen. It is, in fact, just a matter of optimization and efficiency. Even if the agency should receive some additional powers, these are unlikely to affect the general population.

Expert commentary

Vadim Samodurov, director of the Agency for Strategic Communications

On the results of the parliamentary elections:

The key outcome of the State Duma elections was the crushing defeat of the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition. The representatives of the opposition have shown their evident weakness, not only with regard to their political programs and understanding of the needs and wants of the electorate, but also in their ability to manage their activities and be prepared to compete with the ruling party.

In this sense, United Russia’s victory was logical even though it is not fully legitimized given the low voter turnout and the public’s decreasing hope in the future changes in the country. As a result of the election, almost 50 percent of the parliamentarians have left their seats to new members, which is a positive factor for Russian domestic politics.

On the changes in the government:

The question of whether or not the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, would leave his post was one of the topics of internal political intrigues over the last six months. There are two ways to view Volodin’s appointment as State Duma speaker.

On the one hand, this might be regarded as a downturn in Volodin’s career as the Russian parliament is becoming a more technical and symbolic institution. On the other hand, the rotation in the government apparatus creates conditions for the strengthening of competition among the key political players, which is especially important in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in 2018.

For Putin, this appointment represents a strategically important step given Volodin’s loyalty to the Russian leader himself and the renewal in the ranks of the State Duma.

Volodin’s vast experience in parliamentary work, his awareness of internal intrigues and outstanding managerial talent make him an ideal candidate for this position. He, as no one else, is able to ensure the adoption of necessary laws and maintain the balance between different factions and parliamentarians.