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Choose and Lose
Russia heads into its most repressive Duma elections yet
Well, summer’s most definitely over — if it ever really happened — and it’s time for TL;DRussia to get back to work, not least because Russians are going to the polls today.
Exactly why Russians are going to the polls is another question. In a video address, Vladimir Putin urged voters to ensure that the Duma is full of “patriots of Russia, ready decisively and consistently to defend our national interests in all spheres.” Everything his machine of state had done up to that point, however, suggested that he didn’t quite trust voters to get the job done.
Two years ago, when Graeme Robertson and I published Putin v. the People, we opened it with a simple, but controversial sentence: “Vladimir Putin is a dictator.”
We caught some flack from readers and reviewers at the time, but now? It kind of seems hard to argue. The level of political control the Kremlin has exercised in the run-up to the Duma elections is both astounding and unprecedented in the post-Soviet era.
Virtually all oppositional candidates have been barred from running or forced to withdraw, under a range of pretexts and often under threat of prosecution.
After being declared “extremist,” with activists and supporters subject to criminal sanctions, Navalny’s campaign organizations — critical to the functioning of the democratic opposition as a whole — have been decimated.
Leading independent media outlets including Dozhd and Meduza have had their incomes cut to virtually zero, while Proekt and VTimes have been hounded out of existence.
Two days before voting began, Russia’s Internet regulator tested a system that could effectively block access to non-Russian servers, having earlier crippled the VPNs that had allowed many Russians to evade such censorship.
The human rights group Memorial counts 77 political prisoners in Russia, including Alexei Navalny, regional pro-Navalny campaigners Andrei Borovikov and Alexei Vorsin, student publishers Alla Gutnikova and Vladimir Metelkin, and many more than I can list here. Dozens if not hundreds of other activists, journalists and lawyers have fled into exile.
As the BBC put it, “Opposition crushed ahead of managed polls.”
Why does Putin hold elections in the first place?
“Winning” elections — even managed elections in which the opposition has been preemptively crushed — provides a reasonably priced solution to two key problems for a man like Putin.
First, election “results” help convince citizens — the majority of whom continue to believe that elections are the only legitimate mechanism through which leaders may acquire, keep and transfer power — that Putin is the choice of the majority. This, in turn, boosts the sense of social inclusion among those who are inclined to support Putin, and the sense of social isolation among those who are inclined to oppose him. Both senses lead, overall, to demobilization.1
Second, election “victories” help reassure the country’s voracious political and economic elite — in whose interests Putin governs — that he has what it takes to hold on to power and to exercise it for their benefit, more or less without having to worry about unrest or a catastrophic shift in the rules of the game (i.e., in a direction that would force them to moderate their appetites). Without that reassurance, the elite may be expected to reject Putin and install a more reliable patron.2
Where does this leave the opposition?
Unable to get candidates on the ballot, Navalny’s allies have fallen back on the Smart Voting strategy they devised in 2018 as a way of mobilizing tactical voting against United Russia. In theory, the idea is simple: Anyone opposed to Putin and United Russia should vote for whichever non-United Russia candidate is most likely to win, thus assuring that opposition votes aren’t split among multiple challengers and that United Russia faces a more consolidated threat. To facilitate this, Navalny’s team developed and maintain a database, where supporters can identify the chosen opposition candidate in their local district.
In practice, of course, things are much, much more complicated. For one thing, the Kremlin has blocked the Smart Voting website — even forcing Yandex to remove it from its search results, and accusing Google and Apple of election interference for refusing to block access to the Smart Voting app. As a result, it is unclear how many opposition voters will even know who they’re supposed to be voting for.
To make matters worse, many opposition voters would — it seems — rather not know. Because the recommendations are based entirely on the numerical likelihood of victory and ignore political stripes and ideologies, many liberal-minded voters are being urged to cast their ballots for candidates of the rather retrograde Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or the spectacularly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Getting liberal voters to hold their nose has been a challenge in the past for proponents of Smart Voting, and the task seems at least as great this time around.
What’s going to happen?
Forecasting the outcome of elections — even largely pre-ordained authoritarian elections — is always a dangerous business, but a few things seem clear enough that I’m willing to risk two predictions:3
Weighed down by public dissatisfaction and economic malaise, United Russia will struggle to get a constitutional majority of two thirds of the seats in the Duma, but they will likely — miraculously! — eke it out. Anything short of that would be interpreted as a failure by the people whose jobs depend on not delivering Putin a failure.
Driven in part by the Smart Voting recommendations, and in part by the increasing pointlessness of the other parliamentary parties, the Communists seem poised to emerge as these elections big winners. To be clear, that doesn’t mean they’re going to win, but that they can expect to increase their fraction in the Duma, at the expense of Just Russia and LDPR (and, just maybe, United Russia itself). Whether they can turn that marginal victory into an actual challenge to the Kremlin is a topic for another post — but the short answer is ‘no’.
So, Putin wins?
For authoritarian elections such as these to serve their purpose, the public must be broadly convinced that they reflect genuine loyalty to and engagement with the regime. That doesn’t mean that ordinary Russian citizens need to be naive or hoodwinked — but they must be convinced that at least a plurality of the votes tallied by United Russia are heartfelt and freely given.
At the same time, in order to prevent these elections from becoming a real opportunity for a shift in power, the Kremlin conducts a separate conversation directly with the opposition. This conversation is clear and one-sided, and its gist is that no real contestation will be brooked. Hence the aforementioned preemptive crushing.
In this process, the Kremlin is banking on an assumption that the general public will be either ignorant or dismissive of the conversation that the regime is having with the opposition. On the face of it, that assumption looks unproblematic. While things can obviously change quickly, there is as yet no indication of the kind of widespread anger that could give rise to a post-election protest.
But in putting so much emphasis on reducing the potential for protest, the Kremlin might be looking in the wrong direction. While most or even many Russians may not be inclined to react with anger to their evisceration of their democratic franchise, that doesn’t mean they don’t see what’s happening. The public belief in elections as the only legitimate path to power is critical to the Kremlin’s ability to control both the elite and the street. What happens when that belief falters?
Want to talk? Join me on 22 September for an online panel hosted by the King’s Russia Institute, dissecting the aftermath of the Duma elections, together with Regina Smyth (professor of political science at Indiana University and author of Elections, Protest and Authoritarian Regime Stability: Russia 2008-2020), Ben Noble (lecturer in Russian Politics at UCL-SSEES and co-author of Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future?), Andrei Semenov (assistant professor of political science at Perm State University) and Margarita Zavadskaya (postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki).