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Duma Election Saturday Update
The Kremlin's not taking any chances.
Just over 24 hours into Russia's three-day electoral bonanza, and it's going more or less as you might have expected: The Kremlin's not taking any risks. A few observations follow, with the caveat that information is thus far limited, and there are still almost two days to go.
There are widespread reports of what can best be described as shenanigans. These don't have the feel of a massive, centrally coordinated falsification campaign, but they do feel like a massive uncoordinated falsification wave. Pick your poison.
In this context - and before proceeding - it's worth re-re-upping a point re-upped by Ben Noble in the Moscow Times: Russian authoritarianism often operates through decentralized proactive compliance, rather than centralized control and coercion.
Given these shenanigans, it's hard to take the official turnout figures (~17% in person, 60% on line) at face value. In recent cycles, turnout manipulation has emerged as they key tool of election management in Russia. Expect this round to be no different.
If the Kremlin does have a central focus in this election, it's making sure the Navalny/Volkov Smart Voting project fails. And, for the most part, the Kremlin is getting its way.
Everyone, of course, has seen the news that Google and Apple pulled the Smart Voting app from their systems (in Russia), under threat of criminal prosecution of their local staff. Team Navalny had been relying on Telegram as a backup for getting supporters the info they need to coordinate their votes, until Pavel Durov announced last night that he was blocking the automated channels that Volkov et al were using.
The underlying data for the system has now made its way to various servers - including Wikipedia - but centralized, easy to find and read distribution of Smart Voting guidance has effectively been disrupted.
We don't seem - yet - to be seeing what many observers most feared: a massive, Belarus-style Internet blackout. Of course, a lot of the censorship was done well before the elections kicked off. But there could have been more. In particular, observers had predicted the large-scale blockage of Google and Cloudflare DNS servers, after Roskomnadzor tested its ability to do so just a couple days prior to the elections.
There had also been at least some expectation that access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTuble would be severely limited or blocked altogether. Thus far (and there's 2 days to go), none of that has happened.
The Kremlin thus seems satisfied that its combination of centralized anti-Navalny disruption and de-centralized "proactive compliance" by local election managers will do the trick. The question is, what's the trick?
As usual, getting a constitutional majority (or something very close to it) is at the top of the Kremlin's wish list, and it should (just) be achievable. As Tatyana Stanovaya writes, too many careers are riding on it for this to fail.
But everything we've seen thus far points to an equally important priority for Team Putin: Making sure Team Navalny fails. Losing even a single "safe" seat to a Smart Voting candidate would feel unthinkable. The Kremlin needs SmartVoting to be an abject failure.
Presumably, election managers on the ground know that, but they're not magicians. The chances of at least one district handling the opposition a moral victory are not negligible. And a moral victory is all the opposition is after.
See you on the other side.