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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
10 September 2022: Russia 'votes', plus texts and tunes
My daughter called me when the news broke, more bewildered than distraught: “This can’t be happening,” she said. “The Queen’s immortal.” I’m not a monarchist by any stretch, but even I — an American-born Brit, of a sort — felt a little tug when she passed.
What I never knew about Queen Elizabeth II — or, if I once knew it, what I had long forgotten — was that she was the first British monarch ever to travel to Russia, making a state visit in 1994. My guess is she’ll be the last for quite some time. But perhaps King Charles III should be the first to visit Ukraine?
What I’m thinking about
You could be forgiven for not knowing that Russia is holding elections tomorrow — or, in some regions, yesterday, today and tomorrow. But it is, and I’m increasingly inclined to think that they matter.
Calling them “elections”, of course, is a bit of a challenge. By the time Russia held its most recent parliamentary polls — in September 2021 — it had thoroughly throttled the opposition, ensuring that there would be no independent campaigning, monitoring or reporting. The Kremlin’s grip has only tightened since then, with the organized opposition and most of the independent press in prison or in exile, and draconian laws in place to punish anyone skeptical of the war (like the five St. Petersburg city council members who called Putin’s war “treasonous” and are now facing prosecution).
Given the context, it’s tempting to write the elections off as a sham, indicative of nothing and unworthy of attention. After all, we don’t spend much time talking about elections in North Korea or Turkmenistan. Why should we care about one more exercise in competitive ballot-stuffing?
We should care because, while these elections are very highly unlikely to have any impact on who holds power in Russia, they will tell us something about the hold that Putin has on Russians.
As the results come in from the voting — which will, nominally at least, determine the governors of 14 regions, the control of legislatures in six regions, and city councils across 12 regions — I’ll be paying particular attention to two things.
First, oddly enough, is the vote count itself, together with the turnout. While there are a smattering of opposition candidates, the reality is that the Kremlin is running unopposed. The ruling United Russia party, however, is not: voters will be able to cast their votes for a slate of other Kremlin-approved (and controlled) parties. While those parties don’t pose a political threat to Putin, they result will nonetheless be a referendum of sorts — a simple up or down vote on whether people are happy with the state of their lives and their country, uncomplicated by whatever positive or negative thoughts voters might have about the country’s democratic opposition. Anything below the 49.9% that United Russia got in 2021, and turnout below 51.7%, will indicate (to me, anyway) that enthusiasm for the war and its hardships is waning. Anything significantly above those figures will suggest that Putin’s “rally ‘round the flag” is holding strong.
The second thing I’ll be paying attention to is the scale and efficacy of fraud. The reality of authoritarian elections is that — in Russia at least — the dictator’s desired results aren’t delivered by fiddling the numbers at the top. Russian election-fixing is a grassroots phenomenon, with thousands upon thousands of local officials and even volunteers doing whatever it takes to deliver the results that they believe the Kremlin wants to see. According to reports from the election-monitoring group Golos, there were already signs of manipulation at voting stations across the country more than 24 hours before polls officially opened.
How widespread that fraud turns out to be, the scale of impact it has on declared results, and the level of resistance from voters witnessing the fraud should all be taken as an indication of the ability of the Kremlin to shape the behavior of more or less ordinary Russian citizens. After all, even in Russia, electoral fraud is a crime. For people to take the risk of prosecution — usually without being formally ordered to do so — they need to believe that they’re doing the right thing, and that Putin will have their back. Significant fraud, then, will tell me that Putin’s grip is still strong, paradoxical as it might seem.
I’ve written before that I do think Putin has engineered a real “rally ‘round the flag” — one that is allowing him to maintain support despite the material damage the war is doing to Russians’ livelihoods (and lives). But I’ve also written that Putin has, over the last couple of years, put his regime on a new kind of footing, one that procures popular compliance through coercion, rather than through persuasion. What I have yet to figure out is whether coercion will prove to be as effective as persuasion has been in the past, or whether the compliance Putin gets will, in some respects at least, be begrudging. I’ll be looking to this weekend’s elections for the beginnings of an answer.
If you want to know more, take a look at Andrei Pertsev’s excellent overview in Meduza, and then tune in on Monday for a Twitter Space with me, Nataliya Vasilyeva and András Tóth-Czifra to unpack the aftermath.
What I’m reading
Thinking about the elections, two rather lengthy chunks of text weighed on me this week. The first was a report — admittedly published last week — from Ilya Azar in Novaya gazeta, covering a massive Russian opposition conference held in Vilnius earlier in the month. Since it was published on 4 September, Azar’s piece was the Moby Dick of Russian political journalism, an obviously important piece of writing that everyone talks about but almost no one actually read. And there’s a reason for that. For most in the Russian opposition, including most of the Russians in my social media feed, the story was already painfully familiar: disarray, dysfunction and a dismayingly predictable lack of willingness by the opposition’s “great and good” to engage with the grassroots.
If people did read the piece, though, they might actually come to a different conclusion: there is a grassroots to the Russian opposition, one that has been motivated by and galvanized in the crucible of Putin’s wartime crackdown, after most of the movement’s older leaders had left the country. Younger, more radical and more ideological, these activists are not the revolution that will bring down Putin. But, at least from what I can tell (and what Azar’s report seems to confirm), they’re a lot closer to it than many (if not most) of the rest of the people who gathered in Vilnius.
To understand the hill that any Russian opposition movement will need to climb, though, take a look at the latest report from Levada Center director Denis Volkov and Carnegie Endowment Russia fellow Andrei Kolesnikov. Their data confirm my own (less encompassing) findings, which suggest that the war and the crackdown are creating increased polarization of Russian public opinion. That said, the initial result of that polarization does seem to be the consolidation of support for Putin and the war, and the marginalization of everyone else.
What I’m listening to
I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I just discovered The Staves — specifically their 10-year-old album Dead & Born & Grown — and I’m blinking in the light. If you haven’t heard them, think of the perfect harmonies of the Waylin’ Jennys, but with lyrics by Laura Marling. The prettiest song on the album has this for a chorus: “Why do you whisper, when you really need to yell?” Kinda sums up a lot these days.
Or just listen to this: