Vyacheslav Volodin to head CSTO Parliamentary Assembly. Some thoughts on popular roots of political support
Miller Endowed Chair for Industrial and International Security, Professor of Political Science, Director – The International Security and Intelligence Studies Program, Bellevue University, USA
Vyacheslav Volodin was elected as head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Parliamentary Assembly during the 9th Plenary Session of the CSTO’s PA in St. Petersburg on November 24th. Thus concludes a relatively fast and interesting transition personally for the influential Volodin, who in just three months has gone from the first deputy chief of President Putin’s staff in the Kremlin to being elected to the Russian Duma from his native Saratov to quickly becoming that body’s Speaker, officially putting him fourth in line in terms of Russian political power, behind the President, Prime Minister, and speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the national parliament.
This is, of course, only a technical accounting of how power formally flows within the Russian system. In his former position within the Presidential staff, Volodin basically oversaw everything from home elections to debates in parliament, NGOS, and political institutions. He was the chief strategist for Putin’s presidential campaign in 2012 (which was a very important position indeed, being on the heels of the Bolotnaya protests of 2011) and was in charge of the 2016 parliamentary election, which saw the ruling United Russia party win 343 of 450 Duma seats, constituting a super-majority.
Volodin’s move was so smooth a transition that it clearly comes with the affirmation of the Kremlin. Indeed, the CSTO PA vote for his election today was unanimous. The CSTO, honestly an organization that is not new but is still little known in the West, is a military alliance comprised of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It was first formed back in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the aim to facilitate cooperation and strengthen regional security at a time when those two issues in specific were under great doubt and concern. The CSTO Parliamentary Assembly includes 79 lawmakers from the member states and has three permanent committees that consider broad-based dilemmas that cover political, legal, economic, and social problems innate to the Post-Soviet space and beyond. It also in part addresses issues of international cooperation and security.
Volodin himself has said it is very important for politicians to keep in touch with ‘ordinary citizens’ of the state. Some consider this yet another extension of the neo-populism that seems to be advancing in many other countries around the globe. Many Russians see the recent election of Donald Trump in America as the most vivid and surprising example of this trend. But in all honesty, it is not entirely incorrect to say that President Putin himself spear-headed this trend as far back as 2011, within Russia at least, when he created the All-Russia People’s Front as Prime Minister. At the time labeled officially by Kremlin spokespersons as a ‘supra-party’ not beholden to or accountable to any party bureaucracy, it was roundly criticized by Western analysts as something akin to a naked power grab by the soon-to-be-once-more-President. Given the tensions between Russia and the West (that were already in evidence back in 2011) it is easy to see why such an interpretation would be promulgated. But it was something of a mischaracterization that now seems to be only more powerfully borne out by these international trends happening across so many elections. Nowadays reaching out directly to the people, preferably without any intermediaries, looks like a smart, acute and correct strategy used by strong politicians in different countries.
This explains Putin’s continued physical commitment to the organization and why he makes so many personal appearances when the People’s Front meets, which just happened again recently when Putin himself fielded questions from a large audience of roughly 600 people. It seems that many in his administration staff and ministers felt uncomfortable at that moment, unable to predict questions to come, with all their preparations for the meeting becoming almost useless.
It is of course ironic that Putin found it necessary to create and then support an organization that is, ostensibly, somewhat nullifying the political relevance of his own parliamentary party. But it was also a very astute strategy that read the populist tea leaves, as it were: he effectively succeeded in separating himself in the eyes of the public from the parliamentary party in power that had come to be seen as at least partially inept and corrupt.
All of this took place with Volodin not just in the Kremlin as the right hand of Putin, but likely with Volodin himself having a significant role in the development of this strategy. His move now to the Duma Speakership and head of the CSTO PA should be seen as an attempt to engineer a much more difficult task: to reinvigorate the party of power so as to stem the tide of popular cynicism and the feeling of bureaucratic rot. That will be no easy task. As President-elect Donald Trump just learned when he had to formally ‘disavow’ a meeting of so-called ‘Alt Right’ voters that had met in Washington and proceeded to ‘salute’ Trump in absentia with Sieg Heil-type calls of glory uncomfortably reminiscent of Nazism, appealing to populist sentiment is easy. Staying ahead of it and not allowing it to run amok out of your control is far more challenging.