Counting down to Russia’s 2016 Duma Elections

As Russia gears up for a parliamentary elections this autumn, how can the country's embattled opposition and civil society offer a real contest to the Kremlin's "imitation democracy"?

Janek Lasocki
17 May 2016

March 2016: Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev appears at a United Russia primary forum in Moscow. (c) Ekaterina Shtukina / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Five years after the turbulence that rocked the 2011 contest, Russia is gearing up to hold parliamentary elections on 18 September. It would be hard to claim that this election will be fair, that the result will have any effect on the make-up or policy direction of the government, or, indeed, that the chamber has any autonomous impact of its own. And yet it still deserves attention.

Many Russians are treating the process seriously. A majority will probably cast their vote. With all its significant flaws, the election will still be an important test of Putin's popular support amid considerable economic uncertainty.

It is also an opportunity for Russia’s opposition to mobilise its electorate and show that a credible alternative is possible. So how is it expected to play out in 2016?

The enduring dominance of “United Russia”

In the Russian imitation of democracy, the intention has been to convince people that they have a vote and even different parties to vote for, but that the majority should actually want to vote in favour of the government.

In the Duma that means United Russia, the clearly dominant party associated with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, and the so-called “system” opposition parties: the Communist Party, the so-called Liberal Democrat party and Just Russia. The Kremlin's goal this year is to use the many tools at its disposal to maintain this status quo. 

“Political technology” will also be used more than ever in the ruling party's favour. Fake “spoiler” parties will appear on ballots to confuse voters

In an attempt to whip up enthusiasm around the party, United Russia are for a third time running open primaries. Here, any citizen is allowed to vote on who should be the party’s federal and local candidates (although many slots are already pre-reserved). The whole process, including debates between local candidates, is receiving wall-to-wall coverage on federal and regional TV channels. Local party officials are under pressure to ensure the participation of 10% of all registered voters. Putin himself has gotten actively involved, visiting party HQ to meet candidates and confirming attendance at the party congress when lists are announced. 

Thus, among the over three thousand registered candidates, there are cosmonauts, sportsmen and TV personalities, but also a significant number of non-party members. This gives the perception of openness. But, in reality, a side-effect of this inclusiveness is that many with little interest in the party (and knowing they cannot win) are using the process to build their own profile so they can represent other parties or contest other elections in the future.


September 2014: Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician who runs on an anti-corruption platform, holds a meeting after Moscow's mayoral election. CC BY-NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.“Political technology” will also be used more than ever in the ruling party's favour. Fake “spoiler” parties will appear on ballots to confuse voters. The Communist Party, for example, popular especially (but not exclusively) with older generations, will have to face parties including the Communist Party of Social Justice and the Communists of Russia. Single mandate districts are being brought back so half of the 450 seats will be won by individuals in each region.

Last autumn saw massive redrawing of electoral boundaries. As a result, urban and rural districts were mixed (favouring United Russia with their monopoly on government resources) and districts where United Russia came second in 2011 were broken apart. Regardless of the final vote percentages county wide, likely domination of the single mandate MPs should ensure United Russia their majority. 

The (dis)unity of the democratic opposition

Russia’s democratic opposition, by contrast, is divided, lacks credibility and, for the young and ambitious, it just lacks prospects. There remain high expectations they should be able to make an impact, but the extent to which they are at a massive disadvantage is often taken for granted.

State-controlled TV, the source of most Russians' news, has reached levels of propaganda unseen since Soviet times. If any airtime is given, it is only negative. Opposition parties lack money or government resources and suffer from prejudice against “liberals” and “democrats” that emerged after the chaos of the 1990s.


March 2015: people gather in Moscow in memory of murdered politician Boris Nemtsov. CC BY 2.0

Evgeniy Isaev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Those who do try to make careers in opposition politics can often end up paying for their decision: Lev Shlosberg (of Yabloko) was violently attacked then stripped of his mandate as a Pskov regional assembly member in late 2015 after publicising that local soldiers had gone to fight and died in Ukraine; Alexei Navalny (Progress Party), after an impressive result in the last Moscow mayoral elections, saw his brother jailed and is himself now banned from standing for office; Boris Nemtsov (Parnas Party), outspoken opposition leader, was murdered in view of the Kremlin in February 2015. 

To win seats in the Duma, a party needs to pass the 5% threshold. Three percent would at least ensure federal funding for the next five years. In order to overcome the many obstacles, the liberal opposition need to put up some sort of united front. So when a new “democratic alliance” between Alexei Navalny and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov (Parnas) was agreed in April 2015, people allowed themselves some optimism. 

Five parties in all joined the grouping, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave his blessing from afar. They set themselves the task of contesting local elections in the autumn before then building momentum for the Duma this year. After announcing their intention to focus on four regions, they were effectively blocked in all but one (Kostroma), where they achieved a disastrous 2.2%. Nonetheless, this year was going to be different on a country level, and the coalition began planning its own primaries. 

Negotiations on joint lists aside, greater opportunities lie with putting up strong candidates in single mandate districts — and making sure other opposition candidates do not stand in the same district

It all came crashing down in April this year. National broadcaster NTV aired an "expose" programme heavily featuring Mikhail Kasyanov, who had been due to head the party-coalition lists uncontested. Infighting broke out into public view and with the coalition now seeming unfixable, all eyes now turn to the liberals at Yabloko, who stand to gain Navalny's support and now have the best chance of a good result.

Negotiations on joint lists aside, greater opportunities lie with putting up strong candidates in single mandate districts — and making sure other opposition candidates do not stand in the same district. This type of arrangement should be realistic. Yabloko has already announced a number of candidates with a public profile and experience which should make for some interesting races: Galina Shirshina in Petrozavodsk, who was forced out of being mayor there this year; Dmitry Gudkov, a former Just Russia MP known for vocally opposing Kremlin policy, in Moscow; Vladimir Ryzhkov in Barnaul, former MP for Altai and longtime oppositionist.

With the success of the NTV film still lingering, opposition candidates will face the full arsenal of the Kremlin propaganda machine as well as the risk of just being excluded on fabricated legal grounds. But if the opposition are able to stop making the news with their internal arguments and fight good local campaigns, it is feasible some might get in.

Limiting independent election observers 

In the 2011 parliamentary election, thousands of volunteer election observers armed with smartphones contributed over 5,000 reports to a “violations map” during the campaign, while on election day hotlines were rung off the hook; social media was awash with their videos and personal accounts of electoral abuse. 

The Kremlin's response to that embarrassment was to quickly increase restrictions and attacks against civil society organisations. And no more so than against Golos, the organisation behind much of the successful observation. A victim first of hacking, staff intimidation and fines, it was then declared the first NGO to join the register of so-called “foreign agents” (NGOs involved in undefined “political work” and receiving funding from overseas) in 2013. There are now over 120 on this register. Intrusive office searches, TV propaganda, and increasing fines followed — even though Golos no longer receives foreign funding — including an unprecedented large fine in April 2016. All of this was supposed to harm its credibility as well as its ability to function. 


March 2014: Moscow Memorial building covered with graffiti reading "foreign agent". Photograph via www.memo.ruThree laws have also been passed to make electoral observation that much harder. First, any organisations registered as “foreign agents” can no longer legally engage in observation, a rule clearly directed at Golos (for whom this is their raison d'etre). Second, with NGO observers banned, now only journalists working at their respective publication five months before the election will be accredited, making it a lot harder to enlist volunteers who could previously get registered for a media outlet just before election day. Third, observers representing parties will now have to register no later than three days before election day to one specific polling station significantly limiting what they can do and enabling potential planning of violations at polling stations where it's known there won't be any observers. 

For people who do volunteer to observe the elections, there is a high risk of intimidation. Local coordinators have in the past been forced to submit lists of volunteers. Students, for example, have then been called in by university rectors and told (in no uncertain terms) it would be to their detriment if they took part. These volunteers may never pass on what happened, just leave their post unmanned.

Despite all this, Golos still hopes to somehow be able to recruit enough observers and jump through all the hoops for a credible assessment (5% of 95,0000 polling stations, requiring roughly 2,000 people).

For both domestic and international observers, the campaign is far more important than election day itself, when clear violations will probably be relatively minimal

Moscow is also likely to not be too welcoming to international observers. There is already a colourful history of constraining OSCE ODIHR missions. In 2007, they refused to come at all after visas were issued late and only to a small number. In 2011, two hundred observers were allowed in, but that was still less than had been requested. That year, OSCE concluded that “the contest was slanted in favour of the ruling party...” It's been announced that an invitation to the OSCE will be forthcoming. What problems they'll encounter this time is still unknown. 

For both domestic and international observers, the campaign is far more important than election day itself, when clear violations will probably be relatively minimal. Should long term observation be successful, it will be hard to give a different assessment to that of the OSCE in 2011: there was a “lack of independence of the election administration, partiality of most media, and undue interference of state authorities at different levels. This did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.” 

The prospects for mass demonstrations

After widespread reports of election falsification in the 2011 parliamentary campaign, people took to the streets in numbers unprecedented since Putin began his rule. With crowds of up to 100,000 gathering in the height of Moscow winter, the sheer scale of the “white ribbon movement” took the Kremlin by surprise.

After six months of regular demonstrations, it all came to a crashing end on Bolotnaya Square on the day of Putin's inauguration in May 2012. Clashes with police and hundreds of arrests, some said it was the closest Russia came to a “colour revolution”. The Kremlin has been clear it intends to prevent any repeat this time.

Attempts to neuter observers, minimal election day violations and the appointment of Ella Pamfilova (former Human Rights Ombudsperson) as chair of the Central Election Commission, are all meant to give the process more credibility and counter calls “for free elections” (as in 2011-2012).

Under Putin, the liberal opposition will never be allowed much. After fighting in public, maybe now the opposition can consolidate enough to make themselves look credible

New ways to curtail freedom of assembly have been found and demonstrators have been made an example of. Thirty five participants of the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2012 have been charged, and a number given prison sentences. Four years on, the pursuit of activists continues. In April this year, Maksim Panfilov from Asktrakhan became the “latest victim of politically motivated prosecution”. Wide condemnation of the sentences and recognition as political prisoners hasn’t stopped them being officially vilified. Public rallies in general are restricted; small pop-up protests are aggressively broken up and their participants detained. 

In 2012, large fines were brought in against organisers of unsanctioned demonstrations, in 2014 fines and prison sentences were brought in for protestors even if they were acting on their own, and in 2016 tent cities and protests in vehicles have been made illegal without permission. Activist Ildar Dadin became the first to be sentenced (to three years) under the new law that punishes solo pickets. Along with growing repression of civil society, all these laws have contributed to a huge emigration of young and educated Russians, many of whom would or already did take part in demos. 

Preparations are also visibly under way to prepare security forces to get assertively involved. Russia’s new National Guard, made up of 350,000 troops and officials and answerable to Putin himself, has ostensibly been created to fight terrorism and organised crime. But it's been confirmed that the new agency will both police demonstrations and have the right to shoot without warning. 

Despite all this, while less likely, demonstrations can't be ruled out. Tens of thousands marched through Moscow after Nemtsov's murder a year ago. Indeed, it is dissatisfaction with the falling standard of living that could be the spark: the Centre for Economic and Political Reform in Moscow counts a 50% rise in strikes or protests across Russia this year, often due to workers not being paid. A new tax on long distance truckers started months of protest action in 2015 and showed how large scale demonstrations could come from unexpected places. 

If Putin's high approval doesn't translate into votes, control of the media, use of government resources and political technology should ensure United Russia has unquestioned dominance and things stay much the same again in the Duma. 

But this is the first time an election is being held during an economic crisis. This will have the Kremlin concerned. Under Putin, the liberal opposition will never be allowed much. After fighting in public, maybe now the opposition can consolidate enough to make themselves look credible. They should use this opportunity to offer an alternative solution and convince more Russians a different system is possible.

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