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Duma non-elections. A carnival of dirty tricks

The course of this year’s Russian State Duma elections demonstrates that the Kremlin has finally abandoned the pseudo-democratic game of appearances. In the coming years, a further tightening of the screws is likely. However, instead of complete control over the political system, the government may face a radicalisation of the social protest mood.

September 27, 2021 - Maria Domańska - AnalysisHot Topics

An old man casts his ballot during the parliament (Duma) elections in 2021. Photo: Gregory Stein / Shutterstock

The Russian State Duma is, in fact, little more than an appendix to the executive. However, the entire bureaucratic apparatus remained highly mobilised for many months to prepare an unequivocal victory of the party of power, United Russia (UR). This mobilisation served three key purposes. First, it intended to guarantee one-party control of the legislative activity. The two-thirds constitutional majority will give UR a free hand in shaping the laws without bargaining with the “licensed” parliamentary opposition. Second, it was supposed to create the illusion that the overwhelming majority of Russians actively support the government and thus dishearten an active, pro-democratic minority struggling for political change. This minority, labelled “foreign agents”, is in fact excluded from the national community. Third, the ruling elite was to receive a strong message: despite the worsening public mood and the prospect of lasting economic stagnation, the presidential administration exercises complete control over the situation in the country.

The parliamentary elections were treated as a kind of dress rehearsal to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the Putinist system in view of the presidential elections scheduled for 2024. It is likely that crucial decisions regarding the handover of presidential power will be made during the current decade. In this puzzle, the demonstration of the Kremlin’s power intends to persuade the elite to be fully loyal and to refrain from factional infighting that could undermine the regime’s stability.

Prevention is the best way to attack

Although Vladimir Putin’s regime is in no real threat, the Kremlin decided to pursue a “better safe than sorry” tactic – and tighten the screws long before the elections. Last year’s mass protests in Belarus, which had previously been considered a stronghold of stable authoritarianism, set off an alarm bell. However, even before the Belarusian crisis, one could hear small alarm bells ringing softly in Russia itself.

In 2018, Kremlin-supported candidates lost gubernatorial elections in four regions. In this way, the voters punished the authorities for an unpopular pension reform. For the same reason, Putin’s support among Russians dropped by about 20 percentage points and has been hovering slightly above 60 per cent since then – but public trust in him is twice as low (as indicated by independent Levada Center’s surveys). In 2019 the Kremlin’s rivals won almost half of the seats in the Moscow city council – even though the most popular oppositionists were barred from running. Alexei Navalny has become a recognisable and relatively popular politician in recent years, gaining as much as 20 per cent of support among those surveyed. After Navalny was imprisoned this January, solidarity rallies across Russia brought together up to 160,000 participants. These were the largest unauthorised protests in post-Soviet Russia. Formally “illegal”, they carried a severe risk of repression. In 2021 the electoral rating of United Russia fell below 30 per cent – the lowest in 13 years.

The authorities remained perceptive about the gradually worsening public mood. Russians have been struggling with deteriorating living standards for the last seven years and are increasingly aware that their country stands no chance of substantial economic growth. They have also become better informed about violations of civil rights perpetrated by state agencies. Social demand for systemic reforms has also been on the rise. In this context, the Duma elections could have proven not as “safe” as the government would have wished – which in turn could have jeopardised the smooth implementation of the Kremlin-designed political scenarios for the coming years.

The Kremlin’s campaign of “offensive prevention”, launched long before the election, was targeted primarily at Navalny’s associates and supporters. The organisational network they had created across Russia strove to restore real politics in the authoritarian system. Since 2018 Navalny’s activists have been implementing the “smart voting” project. They encouraged Russians to vote for the Kremlin’s strongest competitors in federal and local elections. Even though these were usually representatives of the licensed opposition, fully loyal towards the government, they could prove helpful in light of Navalny’s strategic goal. He sought to dismantle United Russia’s monopoly on power, breathe life into the docile parliament and thus convince his fellow citizens that political changes in Russia are not just pipe dreams.

This spring, Navalny’s organisations were banned as “extremist” and his closest associates fled Russia. His supporters were deprived of passive suffrage in the parliamentary election under an unconstitutional, retroactive law (as “persons participating in the activities of an extremist organization”). Another law, adopted in 2020, barred people convicted of certain “moderate” crimes from running for public office. These crimes include “multiple breaches of the law on public gatherings”, frequently abused to persecute political opponents. Among other common practices, signatures of support required to register as a candidate were wrongfully questioned. As a result, only a small group of relatively strong, real opponents of the Kremlin were allowed to run, but their campaigns were further hindered in every possible way.

The Kremlin also launched a crusade against the independent media and the internet. It primarily aimed to block information about the “smart voting” project. This year’s election campaign was also accompanied by unprecedented, aggressive anti-western propaganda. High-ranking officials regularly accused the United States and the European Union of seeking to interfere in the elections and destabilise Russia’s constitutional order. The authorities tried to disavow reports of electoral fraud in advance, and – at the same time – they actively instructed members of electoral commissions how to rig electoral results; this was proven by recordings leaked to the internet.

A farce at the ballot box

A whole arsenal of dirty electoral tricks was employed on the voting days, which had partially been tested during last year’s sham constitutional referendum. First, the voting lasted three days (Friday September 17th to Sunday September 19th). On Friday, polling stations across Russia were crowded with public-sector employees. They had been forced to vote on that day by their employers and the local authorities. Their ballots were then stored for another two days in safe boxes; however, numerous irregularities in their storage or even unequivocal forgeries were noted. It was no coincidence that the opposition encouraged Russians to vote only on Sunday – precisely to make such manipulations more difficult.

Second, the possibility of voting outside polling stations (including home voting) was extended. In such cases, independent monitoring is virtually impossible and ballot stuffing easy. In some regions, this practice was employed on a mass scale.

Third, online voting was introduced in seven regions of Russia. One of them was Moscow, inhabited by about 10 per cent of the country’s population, where, according to independent estimates, support for United Russia does not exceed a dozen or so per cent. This procedure had been employed on a limited scale in previous years’ elections and had always been criticised as highly opaque and burdened with serious shortcomings. Independent monitors have never been allowed to verify either its fairness or personal data protection. Yet, this time Russians were massively encouraged or forced to register for online voting. The “soft” incentives included prizes such as cars or flats to be won in lotteries. “Hard” persuasion often included threats from employers. In Moscow, the number of online voters reached almost two million. After just a few hours of voting, it turned out that the number of votes cast was five times higher than the number of virtual ballots issued.

In addition, numerous “traditional” violations were reported: meddling with lists of voters, ballot stuffing, carousel voting (the same people casting ballots multiple times), and even overt vote-buying. Compared to the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, the working conditions of independent monitors significantly deteriorated. In some regions, the police went as far as to detain people who reported breaches of electoral procedures; some others were physically attacked. Unlike in previous years, online video broadcasts from polling stations (one of the few effective mechanisms for detecting and publicising electoral fraud) were accessible only to a limited number of people (electoral commissions, candidates, political parties). Other internet users were in fact excluded from this process. The number of violations rose even in areas that had hitherto been perceived as relatively transparent (including Moscow).

During the elections, the authorities also managed to force Google and Apple to remove the Navalny! smart-voting app from their app stores after their local employees were threatened with criminal cases for “dissemination of illegal content” and “interfering in the course of the Russian elections”. In this way, the authorities in fact criminalised the grassroots political coordination of citizens. Information on smart voting was also blocked by YouTube and Telegram, even though the latter’s founder, Pavel Durov, had long struggled against Kremlin-orchestrated online censorship.

The Pyrrhic victory of the Kremlin?

As the pre-election polls showed, the Kremlin’s United Russia party would have been able to win a simple majority in the State Duma in a relatively honest way (if pre-election manipulations were not taken into account). Yet, the officially announced, implausible results gave it as much as 49.8 per cent of the party-list vote and 198 of 225 single-mandate constituencies. The official turnout reached 51.7 per cent. United Russia will therefore win 72 per cent of the seats in parliament (324 compared to 343 in the previous term).

However, according to independent research into statistical voting anomalies, United Russia might have won just over 30 per cent of ballots (with the actual turnout not exceeding 40 per cent). This means that about 14 million of votes officially attributed to UR (half of the total number) likely resulted from ballot stuffing.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, headed by Gennady Zyuganov, came in second with 18.9 per cent (while the pre-election polls assessed its rating at 25 per cent) and won more seats than in 2016 (57 compared to 42). It achieved the best results in Siberia and the Far East (over 30 per cent in some regions). However, with every hour of the vote count, moving from east to west along time zones, the official result of United Russia grew at the expense of the communist party. This dynamic cannot be explained solely by the lower popularity of the CPRF in Central and Western Russia.

In turn, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky suffered a significant loss. Officially, it reached 7.6 per cent (almost twice less than in 2016). Just Russia (joined in 2021 by Zakhar Prilepin’s nationalist party For Truth) slightly increased its number of seats. For the first time in many years, the number of parliamentary parties will grow from four to five, owing to the good electoral performance of the New People established in 2020 (5.3 per cent). Their success resulted both from the administrative directives and genuine social support. This party is a Kremlin-created project aiming to draw a part of voters (mainly urban middle class) away from the non-systemic opposition. It combines loyalty to the regime with demands for reforms and modernisation of the state.

None of the candidates backed by the smart voting strategy was permitted to win in Moscow’s single-mandate constituencies, although in most of them they were leading almost to the end of the vote count. Their alleged losses were brought by the official results of the online vote, which were published only on September 20th, after a significant delay. Overall, smart voting candidates won only 15 seats across Russia.

This ostentatiously fraudulent election is just another example of how the Russian regime has removed the safety valves that had made the authoritarian system more resilient. The Kremlin has abandoned the previous pseudo-democratic façade and any pretence of legality. In fact all peaceful channels of government–society dialogue have been shut down. Public gatherings unauthorised by the officials are penalised, unregistered political movements are suppressed as illegal, even moderate critics of the regime have been largely removed from the Kremlin-linked consultative bodies, and the voters have been increasingly disenfranchised. In the long run, the public’s alienation from the authorities may lead to radicalisation of protest mood, also among the loyal or politically passive electorate. It may backfire when the Kremlin wishes it least: in 2023–2024, right before the presidential election. Even occasional financial transfers (such as one-time allowances paid to pensioners or families with children just before this year’s elections) may not offset the negative social trends and the flaws of the increasingly archaic political-economic model.

The future of the communist party remains an intriguing unknown. Due to its extensive organisational network across Russia and a distinct social policy agenda, it attracts a large part of the frustrated electorate. It has become the main beneficiary of this year’s protest vote. The latter was a relatively safe way to express disapproval of the Kremlin’s policies once peaceful street demonstrations had, in fact, been banned. The communist party partly owed its success to the smart voting campaign (137 out of 225 candidates backed by this project were communists). The effective criminalisation of the anti-regime opposition can also make them a natural choice for politically-active voters. At the same time, possible co-operation between the loyal, “licensed” opposition and radical critics of the regime is one of the Kremlin’s biggest worries. Therefore, one can expect repression targeting some progressive communist politicians. The public should cherish no dreams that results of future elections may depend on the voters’ will and not the directives of the presidential administration. Ruthless attacks on the communist candidates already took place during the 2021 election campaign.

What does the West have to say to all of this? The EU and the US have criticised Russian non-competitive elections and, traditionally, expressed their deep concern about another crackdown on civil rights. But will western leaders go one step further to follow the European Parliament resolution from this September? It suggested that the EU should prepare for the non-recognition of the new State Duma. Such a move seems unlikely, however, as it would obstruct relations with Moscow unprecedentedly and go against the European political culture as EU politicians claim to understand it.

Nevertheless, the lack of resolute reaction will only encourage Putin’s regime to continue domestic repression in a neo-Soviet spirit. We should thus prepare for the successive waves of political emigration from Russia. The number of Russian political prisoners is also likely to rise. Internet users will find it more and more challenging to access independent sources of information, while the fight against “disloyalty” in schools and academia will intensify. As the ruling elite will be seeking to control its citizens’ public and private activities, the adoption of new repressive laws is only a matter of time. As long as former KGB officers govern Russia, the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West will also escalate. In these circumstances, expressions of deep concern will no doubt prove inadequate.

Maria Domańska, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.


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