20 years under Putin: a timeline

On September 14, Russia held its regional elections. Following an extremely low turnout, and the manipulation and removal of opposition candidates, representatives of the ruling party won in all regions. Kommersant correspondent Maria Karnaukh summarizes the voting results.


According to many analysts, United Russia candidates showed good results due to Vladimir Putin’s high ratings and traditional manupulation tactics of the local authorities. Photo: ITAR-TASS.


A low-turnout victory

Regional elections held in Russia on September 14 in all of the country’s eighty-four regions resulted in victory for the United Russia party. According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), in the race for governors’ seats, the ruling party candidates scored an average of 77.2 percent, a record number since the return of direct elections. The record was set by the governor of the Samara region, Nikolai Merkushin, who was supported by 91 percent of the voters. The narrowest victory for United Russia was 50.6 percent—for Alexander Berdnikov of the Altai Republic. 

The picture of United Russia’s triumph was marred, however, by low turnout in many regions. In central Russia, only 25–30 percent of voters came to the polls, about as many as in the Far East. The capital experienced a record-low turnout: only 21.04 percent of Muscovites turned out to elect the Moscow City Duma deputies. By comparison, in 2009, 35.63 percent of citizens voted, and in 2005 the turnout was 34.8 percent. 

As usual, the highest turnout was in the national republics. According to the CEC, in Vladikavkaz, the turnout was 64.79 percent; in Karachay-Cherkessia, 67.56 percent; in Tuva, 70.03 percent; and in Kabardino-Balkaria, 71.06 percent. Activity was high in the newly annexed Crimea, where 51.89 percent turned up at the polls. “The heads of these regions have tried to demonstrate to the [Kremlin] that is in control, so they’ve made every effort to ensure a high turnout,” says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Political Information Center in Moscow. 

However, as Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy chairman of the Central Bank and a well-known economist, noted on Twitter, in the last forty-six minutes of voting, turnout in Crimea jumped by 15 percent. “You can sense a magician’s hand,” the expert noted sardonically. 

Despite the victory of United Russia, in a number of regions the party’s position was quite shaky. According to Russian political analysts, in the Astrakhan region, Oleg Shein, the leader of the local branch of Just Russia had a chance to become governor. Back in 2012, after the mayoral election in Astrakhan, which was marred by widespread irregularities, Shein went on a hunger strike that lasted forty days. Shein has managed to draw the attention of the federal mass media to the situation in Astrakhan and to make the CEC address the violations. Nevertheless, despite being relatively popular among the local population, Shein managed to score only 16.22 percent of the vote (with a turnout of 40.52 percent). The winner was the incumbent governor Alexander Zhylkin of United Russia, with 75.28 percent of the vote. 

The territory of Krasnoyarsk was another region where an opposition candidate had a fair chance of winning. Ivan Serebriakov, the candidate for the Patriots of Russia party, was supported by Anatoly Bykov, the former head of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant and a businessman known for his successful election campaigns. Despite Bykov’s support, however, Serebryakov came in third with 13.9 percent of the vote, while the winner was the interim presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District, Victor Tolokonski, who got 63.28 percent (with a turnout of 31.22 percent). 

As might be expected, though, in many regions the elections were marred by numerous violations. 

An interesting situation was observed in Zhukovsky outside of Moscow, where the local branch of the opposition, the Yabloko party, put on its ballot so-called people’s candidates, i.e., activists supported by the population. The result was unprecedented violations and fraud. As one observer wrote on his blog, the major violations were ballot stuffing, rewriting of protocols by the local election commission, illegal removal of public controllers, and gross violations of the Federal “Law On Police” by local law enforcement. “A typical result for Yabloko before the rewriting of protocols was first or second place with 25–45 percent of the vote, and after the rewriting of protocols, it was less than 2 percent,” the blogger stated, also noting that, in total, at least 40 percent of protocols were rewritten. It should be noted that at the elections to the Moscow City Duma, Yabloko received 13 percent of the vote on average, despite numerous violations, and in some districts it received more than 30 percent. 

Numerous voting violations were also reported by the parliamentary opposition in St. Petersburg, where interim mayor Georgiy Poltavchenko won the early elections with about 80 percent of the vote. These reports were supported by representatives of Just Russia, Yabloko and the Civic Platform parliamentary group, which does not recognize the recent gubernatorial elections as legitimate. During the voting, party observers noted more than 1,500 violations that will be reported to the law enforcement authorities. In addition, it was revealed a few days ago that at the municipal elections in this region, two United Russia candidates received more than 100 percent of the vote: Dmitry Ilkovsky with 103 percent; and Andrew Gills with 117 percent.


Political apathy 

According to recent sociological surveys, the level of Russian civic engagement has dropped to nearly zero—a record low. According to a survey conducted in September by the Public Opinion Foundation (POF), over the last two years, more than 90 percent of respondents have not expressed their civic or political position; 95 percent are not affiliated with any political party and have not supported a particular politician by collecting signatures; 91 percent have not acted as observers at elections or participated in mass actions; and 94 percent have not engaged in campaigning against any legislative initiative. In other words, neither the notorious Dima Yakovlev Law that imposed a ban on Americans adopting children from Russia, nor the proposal to punish Internet users for using indecent language on the web, have stirred much discontent among Russians.

A radical change of attitudes in society after the annexation of Crimea caused an emotional uplift among the population and ensured United Russia’s victory in the regional elections.

The only thing Russians have not stayed indifferent toward is their own comfort. According to a POF survey, 27 percent of respondents participated in solving public issues at the local community level, and 72 percent provided help to strangers. 

It should be recalled that according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), public and political activity among Russians peaked in 2004 and 2007. Back then, only one-third of the population purported not to care about politics: 32 percent in 2004, and 29 percent in 2007. In 2011, public participation began to decline: two-thirds of Russians ignored what was happening in the country. 

Politicians blame the apathy toward the last regional elections on a lack of informational campaigns in the media and the fact that there are no prominent leaders able to take on government-backed candidates. Forming coalitions has become the only option for the parliamentary opposition. “Parliamentary parties have found a way, making deals with United Russia in some regions,” says Mukhin. Thus, in the territory of Primorsky and the Orenburg region, candidates from the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party were among those running for seats in the Federation Council; and in the Kirov and Orel regions, acting governors who were not members of the ruling party agreed to appoint members of United Russia to the senate race. 

Alexei Navalny, a well-known Russian opposition leader, noted in his blog that it is this collusion between United Russia and the systemic opposition that is “the main obstacle for future campaigns and the main disincentive for voters, and it will be extremely difficult for us [the non-systemic opposition] to convince those voters to change their minds.”


The Crimean factor 

That said, the main reason for United Russia’s victory is Russian president Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and the growing confrontation between Russia and the West. “Today United Russia completely dominates the perceptions of voters, as it is part of today’s institutions of power, whose policies the population supports,” says Alexander Oslon, POF’s founder. 

What catalyzed Russians’ support was a phenomenon that many analysts refer to as the “Crimean Consensus”: the annexation of the peninsula had an immediate impact on the ratings of both the head of state and the ruling party. “After the elections of 2012, and up until March 2014, the share of respondents ready to vote for Vladimir Putin was 45 percent, while 39 percent favored United Russia,” Oslon says. “In March, the numbers were respectively 68 percent and 52 percent.” 

A radical change of attitudes in society after the annexation of Crimea caused an emotional uplift among the population and ensured United Russia’s victory in the regional elections. “The president has provided us with additional electoral support,” said Sergey Neverov, secretary of the General Council of the party. The emotional uplift and associated surge of patriotism resulting from the Crimean Consensus is fueled and kept alive by the ongoing events in Ukraine. 

Observations by experts confirm this. “We have seen how the mood changed in March. And this was reflected in the change in government perception indicators: overall approval of their actions, a sense of cohesion and consolidation,” noted WCIOM head Valery Fyodorov. 

Similar trends are noted by Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada-Center. In a recent commentary for Voice of America radio, he said that the reason behind the “current of patriotic and nationalist upswing in Russia and the euphoria over the annexation of Crimea is the deep, unhealed wound that was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.” According to Gudkov, in January 2014, only 28 percent of respondents stated their willingness to vote for Putin in the next election, the lowest-ever approval rating for this president. However, the Crimean campaign, “accompanied by propaganda and slogans about ‘Russia protecting its own people’ and ‘fighting against Ukrainian fascism’ with the subsequent ‘return of the ancestral lands’... all that gave a fantastic boost to his rating.” 

Which brings us to the second reason for the victory of pro-Kremlin candidates in the recent elections: propaganda, coupled with an almost total blackout of alternative sources of information. “The information field has been narrowed to the minimum,” said Gudkov. “At the same time, only the dominant interpretation of events was provided, and it turned out to be very important to interpret the events, the nature of the sanctions. An alternative version simply did not exist. Those clichés everybody got accustomed to so fast were repeated continuously, which shaped the structure of public opinion.” 

Despite all this, the opposition will have an opportunity to prove itself as early as the coming year. The recent regional elections were a rehearsal for the more important parliamentary elections of 2016. According to experts, next year, the attention of voters (which is now riveted to Western sanctions and the situation in Ukraine) will switch to internal problems, particularly those related to the general deterioration of the country’s economy. As a result, the year 2015 could be decisive for the opposition.