20 years under Putin: a timeline

The September 17-19 elections in Russia, which included voting for State Duma deputies and heads of federal subjects, as well as filling seats in the regional legislative assemblies, did not lead to the upset for the Kremlin that Putin critics had hoped for. But despite United Russia’s regaining a Duma supermajority, a closer look at its performance across various regions reveals important nuances about the public mood in the country, allowing inferences to be drawn about the Putin regime’s political trajectories.

 

September 20, 2021: One of the new faces in the new Duma is Alexei Nechayev (left), founder of the Russian cosmetic company Faberlic and chairman of the New People, a center-right party founded in March 2020. Backed by the Kremlin, the New People gained 13 seats in the parliament. Photo: Pavel Bednyakov | Sputnik via AP.

 

  State Duma results

   Source: RIA Novosti. * There are 450 seats in the Russian State Duma; 2/3 share constitutes supermajority.

 

Different fraud patterns

In the course of the September elections, citizens across Russia reported to Golos, an independent election observation movement, more than 5,700 instances of likely violations. But most of the rigging presumably went unreported given that in many regions known for their rich traditions of falsifications, observers had limited access to polling stations. So it comes as no surprise that it was in these regions that the pro-Kremlin United Russia party received over 50 percent of the vote (Golos’s statistics suggest a high level of data manipulation). Still, the Kremlin was unable to thoroughly “milk” these regions: United Russia managed to increase its voting share compared to 2016 only in three of the so-called “electoral sultanates”—regions with suspiciously high turnout and high pro-government vote patterns: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Tuva.

One of the principal issues on the political agenda in the post-election period was the blockchain-based online voting, a nontransparent novel element of the voting system, which proved to be highly prone to coercion and likely falsification. According to official results, more than 54 percent of online votes were cast in favor of the ruling United Russia. This number can be partially be explained by coercion of state employees (one of the pillars of United Russia’s base) to register and vote for the “correct” candidates.

In Moscow, the announcement of the online voting results was delayed, and the release of the final count overturned what initially looked like safe victories for the opposition candidates, suggesting possible fraud. In the six other federal subjects (including Sevastopol in the occupied Crimea) where online voting had been introduced, no such suspicious patterns were registered; in fact, online votes did not much help the ruling party. In the Yaroslavl Region, for instance, United Russia actually showed the worst results anywhere in the country at below 30 percent, with two Duma seats won by members of the Just Russia party in the single-mandate districts. In the Rostov Region, the ruling party’s result dropped from 58 percent in 2016 to 51 percent, despite the incoming votes of newly-added Russian citizens bussed in specially from Eastern Ukraine (some were even “passportized” on the spot). Yet, Moscow’s example—and the Kremlin’s urgency to expand online voting to the whole country—suggest an intention to use this system for further control over election results.

 

What the government pulled off

One of the main takeaways is that neither the high COVID-19 mortality rates, nor the mandatory vaccination schemes introduced in more than half of Russian regions, left a sizable dent in the ruling party’s results—and the Russian government is probably taking notes. Some regions where falsifications are rarer, such as Arkhangelsk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk, Karelia, Murmansk, and Tomsk, had seen a 30-percent increase in mortality over the past eighteen months compared to the average rates. Karelia, Murmansk, and Arkhangelsk, as well as the Perm and Khabarovsk Territories (relatively “clean” in terms of vote rigging) introduced mandatory vaccination over the summer. United Russia’s results dropped in all of these regions, yet not substantially—and likely for various reasons. United Russia’s 12-13-point drop (compared to 2016) in Khabarovsk and Arkhangelsk could be attributed to these regions’ strong protest movements over the past years. In the Tomsk Region and the Perm Territory, the ruling party lost 8-9 points, but this might reflect the work of local viable opposition structures.

Contrast these numbers with the Belgorod Region, a leader of the vaccination campaign in Russia, which remained a stronghold of the ruling party—a result that has likely to do with its well-oiled administrative machinery; or the Volgograd Region where turnout grew by 50 percent and where United Russia performed substantially stronger than five years ago, even adjusting for potential fraud. In a similar vein, in Yakutia, which has suffered from horrible wildfires this year and elected a Communist to the State Duma, United Russia’s result was not terrible, and it even swept up the municipal elections.

No surprising upsets were seen in the nine gubernatorial elections. Officially, Tver Region’s Ivan Rudenya came closest to a runoff, but his result of 52 percent in what was a relatively “clean” vote still far outperformed United Russia’s 38 percent. In Khabarovsk, which saw unprecedented protests last year, the Kremlin-appointed Mikhail Degtyarev, member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), also managed to win outright—likely due to the almost non-existent competition, which has allowed the Kremlin to shelve its concerns about the region’s protest movement, for now. And a fellow LDPR member, Vladimir Sipyagin, who was elected governor of the Vladimir Region in 2018 against a Kremlin-backed United Russia candidate, will now take up a seat in the Duma, signalling to the rest that in Russia legitimacy always comes from above, not below.

Russia’s party system, which for the past decade has been perpetually on the verge of collapse, according to various commentators, survived yet another election. The only slight modification is the introduction of another Kremlin-approved, quasi-liberal party, New People (Novye Lyudi), which is set to enter the new Duma. The party, which appears to be a project of Putin associates the Kovalchuk brothers, and thus was heavily assisted by the authorities and state-owned media in its electoral campaign, has focused on regional issues in its agenda. But, essentially, it is a blank canvas, which may make some in the political elite uneasy, especially since its members made it into 20 regional parliaments, while the Pensioners’ Party, another Kremlin-linked project, which missed out on the Duma, jumped the threshold in 16 regions.

 

“Smart voting”: where and how it worked

It is difficult to assess the impact of Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” on the results, given the authorities’ crackdown on the movement’s infrastructure, both online and off, and widespread falsifications. In some regions, e.g. Yakutia or Novosibirsk, Team Navalny appears to have endorsed the “wrong” opposition candidate. But it is possible to infer that the initiative worked better in cities where information flows more freely. Moreover, the idea of coordinated opposition voting for a best alternative to the Kremlin candidate gained traction across the country. The Communist Party might have benefited from it: according to unconfirmed reports, the authorities had to provide a helping hand to LDPR and Just Russia when early results from the Far East suggested that these parties might not make it into the Duma. Not only did the Communists make sweeping gains in the Far East and Siberia, but also had surprisingly strong results in the Republics of Komi and Mari El, as well as the industrial Samara Region. In the Ulyanovsk Region, a long-term communist stronghold, incumbent governor Alexei Russkikh faced no opposition from United Russia, but his result of over 80 percent was still higher than expected. 

“Smart voting” worked better in so-called “protest regions,” such as the Komi Republic and the Nenets Autonomous District, where opposition voting is more likely, the social networks that facilitate coordination are stronger, and rigging is riskier. Economically depressed areas, such as the Omsk Region, also delivered opposition victories. 

United Russia spectacularly underperformed in the Kirov Region, which was the setting of one of Navalny’s recent videos, focusing on the foreign assets of Maria Butina, a pro-Putin political activist who was convicted in 2018 for acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia within the United States. It is difficult to establish a direct link between the two events,  but it is noteworthy that the party’s results were so low that Butina only made it into the Duma after Kirov governor Igor Vasilyev declined his parliamentary mandate.

This brings us to another problem inherent in the election engineering that granted United Russia a renewed supermajority: the results are not only widely out of sync with the public mood in the country as a whole, but also individually in specific regions. For one, four of the five leaders of United Russia’s federal party list declined to take uptheir Duma mandates, as did all the regional governors who headed regional lists (few people expected them to go over to the Duma anyway). United Russia’s weak victories may stir up more trouble for the establishment. In 2016, it gained less than 30 percent in four single-mandate districts to claim victory. This year, the number grew to thirteen, including the Komsomolsk-on-Amur district in the Khabarovsk Territory, where Pavel Simigin scored a mere 18 percent of the vote. Many of these districts are in protest regions, such as Tomsk or Arkhangelsk, where local civil and political movements have energized politics in recent years. The ruling party’s weak performance will only exacerbate its legitimacy problems in these regions.

 

The twilight of legitimacy 

Based on the official results of the vote, the amount of fraud, as well as the pre-emptive and post-election crackdowns (not always administered by the center), it might appear that the Kremlin no longer cares about public perception of electoral legitimacy. A bigger underlying question is, however, whether it was possible to preserve stability without resorting to such measures, given that the government is lacking a grand vision, an ideology, and, increasingly, the promise of better lives for voters.

For now, the answer is yes. But the elections have not given a conclusive answer to this question. The choice to do away with the veneer of democratic legitimacy will require the government and the security elite to continue down the path already taken before the election. The following legislative proposals introduced shortly after the vote offer some insights into their thinking: online voting will be expanded to the whole country; spending on the security services will go up by 28 percent in the next three years; regional governors will see their two-term limit lifted, while the federal government will have an even bigger say in appointing regional officials and implementing policies in the regions, so that regional heads can focus on managing the public mood; sizable infrastructure loans will be given out to several regions with less-than-enthusiastic support for the regime, including Sverdlovsk, Murmansk, and Yakutia, but without ceding an iota of fiscal and political control back to regional governments.

The emerging alternative for the political elite seems to be a new kind of Eurasianism, based on rejecting technocracy and Western-style modernity, and invoking grand projects. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s lofty but unrealistic proposal to build new cities in Siberia and the Far East around industrial clusters fits well into this line of thinking. It would, as its supporters hope, help rejuvenate regions that seem increasingly lost to United Russia—and likely benefit Shoigu himself, as he is overseeing a string of major infrastructure projects in the Far East and Siberia, including the extension of the Baikal-Amur Mainline.

No doubt, in the coming months we will see attempts to shoehorn these grand ideas into existing development plans. This will make little difference to younger middle-class voters, who are barely represented in the political decision-making, and whose views Russia’s techno-authoritarianists would like to manage from above and neo-Eurasianists would rather ignore altogether. The “coalition of the fed-up” has not gone anywhere: unrepresented voters will be looking for, and likely find, new opportunities to express dissent, influence politics, and seek out practical solutions to the issues they care about—often locally, if there is no other way.

 

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