Alexey Navalny’s election boycott reveals the symbolic matrix of Russian politics

Boycotting the Russian presidential elections is the logical extension of the opposition politician’s radical street politics. RU

Dmitry Lebedev
9 March 2018


Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, at Central Election Commission's session which is about to deny his right to be in the ballot on the upcoming presidential elections. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Evgeny Feldman / Wiki Commons. Some rights reserved.Presidential elections in today’s Russia are often talked about as mere formalities, as procedures essential to maintaining a democratic façade. The outcome of the process is known to everyone in advance. In public, the only person who can doubt the outcome is the one who is actually responsible for it – Vladimir Putin, who delayed announcing his re-election bid for long enough to generate rumours about potential successors. This “modesty” is an integral part of the game: the acting and future president has to hesitate (playfully) in order for the elections to gain symbolic weight – only then to announce his candidacy over rapturous applause during a visit to Gorky Automobile Plant.

But here’s what makes the 2018 election unique: doubt over the election results, which had been privatised by a key political figure, has now been expressed by unofficial leader of the Russian opposition Alexey Navalny. More accurately, Navalny’s large-scale grassroots presidential campaign turned out to be the form of that doubt. Eighty campaign offices across Russia, thousands of activists on the ground – this sits in clear contrast to the Presidential Administration’s traditional script. To say it more simply: Navalny has proposed a new, democratised interpretation of the elections – and, as expected, the Central Electoral Commission refused to register him as a presidential candidate, citing a corruption conviction (which, according to Navalny himself, was politically motivated). Once Navalny was barred, the campaign organically morphed into what he has dubbed the “voters’ strike”.

Navalny proposed a new, democratised interpretation of the elections – and, as expected, the Central Electoral Commission refused to register him as a presidential candidate

Navalny made it clear after submitting his candidate registration papers in late December that he could potentially switch his strategy from campaigning in the elections to advocating a boycott of them (his chances of being registered were obviously negligible). “To go to the polls,” he said in a pre-prepared video statement, “is to vote for lies and corruption.”

This change in strategic direction precipitated the widespread boycott protests on 28 January. Held in cities all over the country, these protests resulted in 371 arrests, including that of Navalny himself. It has also sparked a broader debate on the point of staging a boycott – and, by extension, the meaning of the 2018 presidential elections themselves.

The mathematics of the boycott

This isn’t the first time Navalny has deployed protest tactics in an election context: in 2011, for example, he called on voters to cast their ballots for any party other than United Russia. The “party of power” ended up with under 50% of the vote (although calculating the effectiveness of Navalny’s tactics that year is next to impossible). Yet attempts to grab a piece of the pie during a presidential election whose outcome is a foregone conclusion, with a known-beforehand winner taking all, yield less conspicuous results. On the other hand, low turnout cannot be catastrophic for the simple reason that the minimum turnout threshold was abolished in 2006.

As expected, the idea of ​​a boycott wasn’t received with mass enthusiasm by the liberal opposition

As expected, the idea of ​​a boycott wasn’t received with mass enthusiasm by the liberal opposition, which, given how fragmented it is, is by no means certain to get on board with Navalny’s initiatives. “It’s a delusional, meaningless protest. A great many political scientists have already said as much. What’s the point of holding a boycott? In all of history, if statistics are anything to go by, doing so made sense about twice,” claimed Ksenia Sobchak in an interview with Radio Liberty in late December (with Navalany barred from running, Sobchak is one of only two remaining candidates from the liberal-democratic camp, the other being Grigory Yavlinsky).

Among the political scientists and experts alluded to by Sobchak, there’s a clear preference for a mathematical approach. Simply put, if we want to evaluate the boycott, we must first of all consider its impact on the final results. The logic is simple and clear: if fewer potential anti-Putin voters turn out to the polls, then, in purely mathematical terms, this is going to play right into the latter’s hands –while Putin’s share of the vote will increase, a high turnout will still be guaranteed by fair means or foul. This is the stance of Yabloko deputy Boris Vishnevsky. Writing in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Vishnevsky stresses that “as far as the winner is concerned, electoral success is determined primarily by vote share rather than turnout” – and argues for the theoretical possibility of a second round. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin deploys the same kind of arithmetic in this January column, underscoring that the boycott will only amplify the significance of the elections in regions such as Chechnya and Dagestan, where both turnout and Putin’s vote share are traditionally at their highest. Oreshkin’s calculations also imply that the probability of a second round would automatically decrease in the event of an active boycott.


Rally at the Academician Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, 24 December 2011. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Wiki. Some rights reserved.Generally speaking, this mathematical angle on the elections is subject to the following prerequisites: the elections are just that (elections) and the election commission’s refusal to register Navalny doesn’t render them a sham by default. This means that the opposition’s prospects cannot be reduced to those of Navalny, and Putin’s vote share must be reduced by every possible means, which, in the liberal paradigm, implies a vote for Yavlinsky or Sobchak. Turnout, meanwhile, isn’t treated as the most important piece of the electoral puzzle.

And yet, categorically dismissing the notion of a boycott as an appropriate tactic on the basis of numbers alone may be a step too far. As political analyst Grigory Golosov told me: “2011 taught us not to invest too much belief in mathematical forecasts because of their conservatism: they are made on the basis of observed electoral dynamics and are extrapolations of what has already happened. We cannot regard such large-scale social processes as mere manifestations of social mechanics, and a lot depends on the degree to which people are actively involved.”

This is how it really works

In a sense, Navalny himself is for this mathematical perspective, albeit with an emphasis on turnout: thus, he openly declares a decreased turnout to be the boycott’s primary objective while maintaining that his primary battle force is a network of observers tasked with calculating that turnout on election day. It’s unsurprising, then, that physicist Sergei Shpilkin, an active researcher of the electoral calculus in Russia, put in an appearance on the Navalny.Live YouTube channel. In one of his calculations, Shpilkin stressed that the boycott would prove ineffective in terms of the final result if all campaigning were geared exclusively towards opposition-minded voters. Pro-boycott campaigning, Shpilkin argues, should therefore be geared towards potential and actual supporters of Putin – precisely what Navalny is calling for.

That turnout does indeed represent a crucial element of the elections in the eyes of the regime is evidenced by specific examples: local referendum initiatives, door-to-door visits by polling station commission members, and the notorious use of “administrative resources”, including appeals to state-financed sector workers to turn out and vote. As sociologist Denis Volkov told me: “turnout is a genuine issue, but it’s quite possible that the government will ensure that it remains high by mobilising the state-dependent electorate. In addition, the eve of the elections witnessed increases in pensions and salaries, and a withdrawal of Russia troops from Syria was announced as well, which, of course, represents a pivot towards Putin’s traditional electorate. And although there’s no utilitarian need for a high turnout, 70% is the regime’s benchmark – they’ve more peace of mind that way.”

As Ilya Budraitskis, a left-wing commentator, told me: “A high turnout is important [for the regime] as regards the legitimacy of the elections; in the eyes of local authorities, on the other hand, it constitutes an indicator of loyalty.”

In this way, the boycott seeks to emphasise on a symbolic level the illegitimacy of the interpretation of the elections put forward by the Kremlin

The electoral mathematics around the turnout question sheds light on the key refrain of this new phase in the Navalny campaign, which concerns the illegitimacy of the elections as such – that is, a phenomenon of a primarily symbolic order. Attention to the final turnout figures stems from a general refusal to play by the rules in view of what is believed to be a politically motivated registration refusal. Even Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has pointed out the connection between refusal and legitimacy, stating that “if a would-be presidential candidate is prevented from participating in accordance with the law, this can in no way affect the legitimacy of the election.”


Ilya Budraitskis. Source: Youtube.Paying exclusive attention to the turnout issue, and that of that final results, can, in this case, give greater prominence to the significance of the boycott, which denies the Russian political system as such. According to Ilya Budraitskis, “a high turnout will be achieved, and Putin will secure a high vote share, so on one hand all the mathematically-inclined arguments are correct, but, on the other, they give rise to no political conclusions other than submission and passivity. The boycott issue is specifically propagandistic, facilitating the initiation of a discussion that isn’t about programmes and superficial differences within the existing system but about the system as such. So as far as propaganda efforts are concerned, calling for a boycott is very much the right tactic.”

In this way, the boycott seeks to emphasise on a symbolic level the illegitimacy of the interpretation of the elections put forward by the Kremlin, and, ipso facto, that of the entire institution of presidential power – the keystone of political reality in Russia.

Street style

In January, the popular Hobbes Channel on Telegram, whose primary focus is political analysis, drew attention to a scientific study of boycott strategies in authoritarian regimes. The results of this study were less than reassuring: a minor boycott that fails to attract the involvement of major political forces is not capable of exerting any influence on the electoral process and simply constitutes an additional mode of protest. As for large-scale systemic boycotts, the chances of subsequent democratisation aren’t really that great either.

The strike announced by Navalny, meanwhile, represents a situational transformation of a more general grassroots street protest. In the words of Budraitskis, “Navalny is constructing his campaign not in the form of an electoral campaign but as a campaign of non-system street politics. From this point of view, the boycott is an element in the construction of a movement centralised around a single persona – a persona for whom every step is tactical in the sense of exerting progressive pressure on the regime and bringing the movement into the [mainstream] political area, with the key goal of abolishing the existing political model.”

Despite the fact that the “voters’ strike” that took place on January 28 wasn’t particularly well attended, it marked a natural transition from preparing for the elections to disavowing them for the movement’s activists. As Golosov notes, “these protests are necessary in order to unite the activist collective. In the absence of a massive upturn in political engagement, they can perform no other function. A massive upturn in political engagement can only achieved on the basis of certain results. I believe that Navalny himself is very much aware that whatever the results of the election, the effect of the boycott will depend on the results.”

Targeted repressions against opposition activists aren’t the only threat to the boycott: there’s also the ill-concealed leaderism of Navalny himself

The authorities’ response has been telling: having decided to eschew mass arrests in Moscow on the eve of the elections and even to give the go-ahead to a small procession with flares, they still unleashed targeted repressions (for instance, the St Petersburg campaign office coordinator and an activist detained in Moscow together with Navalny were both sentenced to 30 days arrest).

But targeted repressions against opposition activists aren’t the only threat to the boycott: there’s also the ill-concealed leaderism of Navalny himself, who periodically stands in marked contrast with the active and ideologically diverse grassroots movement and potentially repulses possible supporters. The arguments of those in favour of participation in the elections often emphasise precisely the fact that calls for a boycott are, as it were, the flip side of Navalny’s striving towards one-man leadership of the opposition.


The “voters’ strike”, January 28, 2018, Moscow. Source: Youtube.That said, it remains impossible to affirm with any certainty that the boycott is reducible exclusively to the figure of Navalny. As Golosov recalls, “when the tactic of voting for any party other than United Russia was implemented in 2011 – and with great success to boot, I think – the reason this happened wasn’t because the adopters of this tactic were all supporters of Navalny, who was little known back then.”

According to Budraitskis, “a great many people refuse to conflate Navalny and the boycott and take to the streets simply to voice their discontent. There was a demand for a movement and a persona of this ilk, and that demand was seized on and instrumentalised by Navalny. If the movement keeps growing, it will inevitably outgrow him.”

Elections without choice

The effectiveness of the boycott, however, will not be so easy to assess. According to Golosov, “we will not be able to quantify its effect in numbers, even if we look at public opinion polls. We’ll be able to gauge the effect of the campaign from public sentiment, from the tone struck on both official and unofficial media outlets, and from whatever happens on social media.”

Changes in the mould of the cosmetic measures introduced after 2011, such as the installation of video monitoring systems at polling stations (to combat falsification), could serve as a possible indicator of the boycott’s successfulness. But measures of this kind, purely technical as they are, clearly do not meet the symbolic and pragmatic objectives of a strike demanding real elections without the removal of representatives of the non-systemic opposition. As Denis Volkov points out, Russian society does not as yet “understand that fair elections mean more than just fair vote counts – that they also presuppose equal access to the media and a level playing field as a matter of principle.” The boycott is the sole remaining means for Navalny and his grassroots movement to articulate this.

Thus, the voters’ strike should be understood as an extension of the general protest movement in Russia – one that throws into question not so much the formal institution of elections per se, but that institution’s specific, system-imposed meanings. As a protest against the stage-managed nature of the elections and the politically motivated barring of would-be candidates, the boycott actually only serves to emphasise how essential it is that this and other democratic institutions function appropriately. On the other hand, Navalny has repeatedly stated that the elections will not usher in a change of regime in Russia. This means that the main result of his campaign, which has gone from collecting signatures to the boycott itself, will remain a revitalisation of street politics – otherwise marginalised under Putin’s managed democracy.

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