Russia’s reluctant elections

The results may be predictable, but Russia’s parliamentary elections hint at the next stage of regime mobilisation.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky Maxim Edwards Thomas Rowley
19 September 2016

18 September, 2016: residents young and old vote in Ekaterinburg. (c) Pavel Lisitsyn / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.“Don’t vote” was the implied message, “but if you have to, vote for Putin” - the caveat. Yesterday, Russia went to the polls for legislative elections, which were, on the whole, some of the least “agitated” in 25 years of independence.

The turnout was 47%, with big (and potentially rebellious) cities like Moscow, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novogorod and Novosibirsk hovering between 20-30%. “Putin”, of course, meant the ruling party United Russia, which received a majority at 51% of the votes. There are some minor changes in the systemic opposition, meanwhile — the Communists received a surprisingly low 14% (down from 19%), whereas the Liberal Democratic party (don’t be fooled) rose slightly to 13.9% and Just Russia - 8.1%. 

In many ways, these elections were superficially more “democratic” — the vote barrier for entering parliament was lowered, a section of the opposition was allowed to participate, and, in general, a range of parties registered in the protest years of 2012-2013 were involved. At the post-election morning briefing, Ella Pamfilova, the new head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said that the commission hadn’t expected the results to turn out as they did. 

Yet this contest comes on the heels of five years of pressure against the opposition. Russia’s last parliamentary contest, which brought people out on to the street in 2011, kicked off a concerted campaign by the state to bully, discredit and atomise the country’s politically active segment. The “Crimea consensus”, which has held since 2014, has been used to ramp this pressure up, putting the country on a war footing against enemies inside and outside. 

Two liberal opposition parties, Yabloko and PARNAS, not only finished the night with no deputies. They also failed to beat the 3% threshold needed to guarantee state funding for their campaigns.

Anecdotally, many people weren’t even aware that an election was happening

Strangely enough, though, there’s been little attention paid to these elections. United Russia’s “primaries” in the spring soaked up a lot of cash, and for the autumn the regime opted for a low turnout (and got it — in Moscow it was 28.6%), swamping potential rebel districts such as Irkutsk and St Petersburg with agitprop (to confuse!) and public sector pressure (to mobilise!) while generally keeping a low tempo in most regions (why bother?). Here, there was little in the way of election materials on the street or “public events”. Anecdotally, many people weren’t even aware that an election was happening.

Instead, Russia’s electorate was exhorted to vote for United Russia, the party of Putin, to ensure the country’s ever-elusive “stability” — the basis of the Russian regime. In conditions of economic downturn, however, stability for many people outside the capital is defined by increasing precarity at work, rising shadow-sector employment and uncertainty about the country’s economic future. 

Aside from the serious amount of electoral falsifications, the fact that the public campaign was based almost exclusively around personalities rather than the country’s future shows the potential limits of authoritarian management: the regime may be flexible, but consistent crisis management eventually puts you in a dead end.

As the results were verified, business daily Kommersant reported that the Kremlin is preparing to introduce a new security ministry 

So far, 2016 has seen the Russian economy continue its downward spiral. As rent-seeking elites have doubled down to defend their gains, Russian workers continue their protests. Whether it’s hunger-striking miners in Rostov or farmers from the Kuban region, labour unrest, much of it related to unpaid wages, has increased during the second quarter of the year.

Recently there’s been some speculation about a more confrontational Communist Party (KPRF) that could force the Kremlin’s hand on at least some pressing domestic issues. With a poor showing for the KPRF on Sunday, it seems that there are scant hopes for Russia’s social protest to find a voice in the Duma. If, indeed, that was ever possible. 

The alarming rise of the Liberal Democratic party speaks to more than the theatrics of its demagogic nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Russia prepares for presidential elections in 2018, and the regime is bunkering down for a long fight. Street nationalism has a real presence in Russia, and the extreme chauvinism of the regime’s choreographed “opponents” on the right has come to serve as grudging justification for enduring Putinism. Putin isn’t just a moderate compared to them, the spin doctors will claim; he’s the only moderate you’ve got left.

If current trends continue, writes Tatyana Stanovaya, the Kremlin could face embarrassment at the presidential elections in 2018 (namely, a second round of voting for Putin.) Avoiding that could mean moving presidential elections forward to September 2017, when Putin could garner around 60% of the vote. In this case, groundwork would mean building a pliant Duma filled with equally pliant deputies, eager to take a place in yet another Putin administration.

The idea that these elections were a “chance” for independent politics is erroneous, but they do reveal the next stage in Russia’s “regime production”

New Duma deputies will include Crimea’s chief prosecutor Natalia Poklonskaya and St Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov, known for his homophobic campaigns and outbursts. Dmitry Sablin of the AntiMaidan movement is also among them. 

The Duma also says goodbye (or rather, good riddance) to Dmitry Gudkov, a member of A Just Russia before his expulsion from the party in 2013. After Ilya Ponomarev went into exile, Gudkov was the Duma’s only openly critical deputy, a member of the “non-systemic opposition” who somehow got a place in the system. Gudkov was one of the only deputies who didn’t vote for the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move which may have cost him dearly.

Further south, this was Crimea’s first experience of Russian democracy (or rather, elections). The OSCE refused to send observers to the region, where Russia has no legal basis for holding elections. The Crimean Tatar Majlis called on members of the community to boycott the vote. 

As in 2011, Russia’s autonomous republics registered a high turnout. Bashkortostan saw 64%, Tatarstan 88%, and Tuva 91% (with 59%, 88% and 84% for United Russia respectively).

This pattern is particularly notable in the North Caucasus, where local strongmen ensure a high turnout to demonstrate fealty. In Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov has been re-elected head of the republic with 97% of the vote, the turnout was 95% (96% of which went to United Russia). Neighbouring Dagestan registered an 87% turnout, of which United Russia took 89%. No surprises, then, that these regions also saw some of the most brazen violations at polling stations.

Russia’s “near abroad” also participated. Polling stations opened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, de-facto states on Georgian territory where the majority of the population are also Russian citizens. Russian citizens in Transnistria (a breakaway state in Moldova) have also voted. Both Chişinău and Tbilisi have voiced protest. 

The idea that these elections were a “chance” for independent politics is erroneous, but they do reveal the next stage in Russia’s “regime production”. Today, as the results were verified, business daily Kommersant reported that the Kremlin is preparing to introduce a new security ministry. The Ministry of State Security, as it is to be called, will be based on the current Federal Security Service, and incorporate foreign intelligence and federal protective service. 

This news, then, seems to herald the real future of the country, especially when United Russia has a constitutional majority. Our task, as ever, is to amplify alternative voices and trace the potential for other futures.

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