COMMENT: Force vs. Smartness – Russia three months before legislative elections

COMMENT: Force vs. Smartness – Russia three months before legislative elections
Russia will go to the polls in September to vote in a new parliament. However, the landscape has changed dramatically since the arrest and jailing of Alexey Navalny and the outlawing of his organisation that intended to use its "smart voting" to block the election of ruling United Russia candidates. / wiki
By Andras Toth-Czifra in New York May 26, 2021

Russia will hold legislative elections in September this year, along with regional and municipal elections in almost half of the country’s regions. The elections will take place in an environment characterised by previously unseen degrees of repression. But this may not be enough for the Kremlin to pass the test. A bird's-eye look at the preparations for the vote shows difficult dilemmas and accumulating anxieties for the authorities not just in September, but well beyond.

The governing United Russia Party will select its candidates in mid-June after the party’s primaries. These elections can be competitive, but don’t expect any major surprises. Many of the party’s candidates are already known. They include plenty of relatively new faces, mostly celebrities, such as athletes and media personalities, but it also looks like all current party heavyweights in the Duma will have a guaranteed place, along with people linked to the Presidential Administration. This would suggest that the ruling party’s political strategists want to suggest that the party is capable of renewal, but with the smallest possible amount of actual change.

As regards the whole party system, something similar seems to be in the cards. When new “systemic” opposition parties, including the Greens and New People – a party headed by Alexey Nechaev, a cosmetics tycoon – gained seats in regional legislatures last year, the talk of town was that the Kremlin might be interested in letting these parties soak up the protest vote in the regions, even if this means that they are winning seats in the Duma. But the authorities’ approach to civil society and protests has markedly changed since then. While the election is still more than three months away, it now seems likelier – and pollsters seem to agree – that the same four parties will enter the Duma as before (even though the Fair Russia Party has been “enriched” with two nationalist upstarts).

Make it boring

One could ask why it is so important for the Kremlin that United Russia has a constitutional majority.  After all, the constitutional position of the parliament was weakened by last year’s constitutional reform (which mostly just codified an existing situation), and systemic opposition parties – the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and Fair Russia – have not exactly been keen on contradicting the Kremlin on key issues. One reason is that whether the Kremlin wants it or not, United Russia has no discernible ideology other than whatever Putinism means at a given moment, and it is widely regarded as the party of power; thus the election is already a kind of a referendum on the system. Second, United Russia is more than just a vehicle of power; it is an organisation with its own strongmen and interests, its own property and power network. Third, the Duma is more than a giant rubber stamp: Ben Noble, a lecturer at UCL showed, on the example of the Russian legislature, how legislative amendments are used in authoritarian policies to resolve differences that cabinet-level deliberation could not. Even if systemic opposition parties often seem hardly more than just brands, they are separate organisations, and it is harder to pass legislation if they are empowered through bigger deputy groups in the Duma. And as the next term of the Duma is expected to be critically important – deputies elected in September will be in office when Putin’s fourth presidential term ends in 2024 – it would not be surprising if the Kremlin preferred stability over experiments.

In normal times, to guarantee the desired result in legislative elections, the authorities would rely on a combination of demobilisation of voters, tinkering with electoral registration and control over key resources from electoral infrastructure and state institutions to the media. Unlike in presidential elections where an enthusiastic re-election of Putin has been the goal – and thus turnout is important – when it comes to Duma elections, the Kremlin is better off if most Russians, except for those who will vote for United Russia, stay home on election day. But how to make an election boring at a time defined by an increasing number of highly politicised issues, from falling real incomes and rising prices to increasing repression of civil society?

To make matters more complicated, a series of regional and municipal elections will be held on the same day in several regions and cities that have become political hotspots over the past year. Usually Duma elections increase interest in regional votes if they are held on the same day; this year it might happen the other way around.

Add it up

In theory, there are plenty of things that the Kremlin and the government can do to make the election a smoother ride for United Russia, beyond the nomination of celebrities. Fiscal easing, including significant income support to the population, may still be in the cards, although so far there is little indication that this is planned. Instead, the government has stuck to price and export control measures and ad hoc crisis management. Putin’s carefully massaged approval ratings are still significantly above United Russia’s – even in Moscow: thus it would theoretically make sense for the ruling party to have the president as its flag bearer, or at least as its mascot. But this would also increase the risks of a poor result.

If the goal is for United Russia to preserve its constitutional supermajority, this is not an impossible task, even as the electoral rating of the party is lower than it has been at any time during the past decade. Constant amendments to Russia’s electoral legislation – raising the parliamentary threshold, making it more difficult to run for office, and most importantly, setting up single-mandate districts with a first-past-the-post system – have ensured over the past 15 years that the governing party would remain firmly in the saddle, even when its popularity tanked. The newest innovation is multi-day voting, introduced last year due to the pandemic, which has demonstrably made it easier to falsify results and bar independent observers.

The problem is that the Kremlin does not only need to make sure that the numbers check out in the end. It is also important to ensure that the result seems sufficiently legitimate for a sufficiently large number of people. Rigging, tricks and repression have been part of Russia’s elections for decades, but so far the results tended to be such that a critical mass of people could live with them, even if they did not believe in the honesty of the process. When a critical number of citizens know that their votes were trashed, and know about each other, however, the election risks turning into what one could call a “Big Injustice” (think of what happened in Belarus in August 2020). The 2011 Duma election was perhaps the closest that the system got to a critically illegitimate result, which was partly the consequence of the “castling”, as Putin’s return to the presidency is colloquially known. The situation this year is eerily similar.

Smart voting and its enemies

The genius of Alexey Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign is in its simplicity: instead of staying home on election day, go out and vote for the non-United Russia candidate with the best chances of winning, whoever that is. It is based on the realisation that the most important point of the Kremlin’s electoral autocracy is also the weakest. It was single-mandate districts that granted United Russia a constitutional supermajority in 2016: the party won 90% of these districts that make up half of Duma seats, with slightly more than 50% of the vote, according to the official count. In many districts the United Russia candidate won significantly less than 50% of the vote, but due to the first-past-the-post system and a divided opposition vote, they took the seat. And it is thus in single-mandate districts that smart voting works the best. A targeted attack on this part of the electoral system, if it works, leaves the authorities with unpleasant choices only: accept a defeat, however symbolic, or rig the election, thereby increasing the risk of protests.

It is impossible to eliminate the danger of smart voting to the Kremlin through pressure on systemic opposition parties, because the system is not designed to get a specific candidate elected; indeed, the one important thing is the message that the vote sends. It relies on a coalition of people, not of parties, and as long as the authorities are interested in maintaining the electoral façade of the regime, there will always be at least two candidates.

The Kremlin’s attention has thus turned to what makes smart voting work, and the authorities have unleashed targeted attacks against it, which go well beyond the jailing of Alexey Navalny. Recognising that a vast majority of the population, while not exactly satisfied with the regime’s performance, would also likely not be ready to risk their livelihood or safety. Thus the authorities are visibly trying to force this choice on Russian voters.

Smart voting relies on two main pillars: opposition voters should be motivated and able to turn out for the vote; and they should know which candidate to vote for. Earlier, Navalny’s team was able to rely on their local offices to organise campaigns, and on an application to get the necessary information to voters. So Navalny’s offices were forced to close down and his associates have faced harassment; fake smart voting applications appeared online to confuse voters and to spread disinformation; and well-publicised data leaks have discouraged voters from signing up to any online platform run by Team Navalny. The latest of these breaches affected the “Free Navalny'' website, set up by Navalny’s team to register prospective protesters. The database, which initially only contained e-mail addresses, was then enriched with personal information from other sources, and some victims received threatening emails, in a campaign that Meduza’s journalists attributed to people linked to the Presidential Administration. In May, the Moscow Transport Department fired dozens of them, again, apparently following orders from the Kremlin.

Scare tactics

But this was not the first time that something like this has happened. In 2019, following protests in Moscow in support of opposition candidates who were refused registration for the election to the city’s municipal council, a database containing information on opposition supporters was leaked on a Telegram channel by unidentified people. If the purpose then was to suggest to Muscovites that it was better to stay home, it worked: turnout in the election was barely above 20%. But this alone did not do the trick: despite the low turnout, 20 opposition deputies were elected to the 45-member council.

And even without apps and co-ordinating offices, people can still talk to one another and organise, online or offline; or they can “smart vote” spontaneously, as they did in 2018 in four regions where incumbent governors, supported by United Russia, were toppled by a wave of protest votes. In short, the risk is still too big for the Kremlin. Now, with Navalny’s organisations labelled “extremist”, the authorities are taking the pressure up yet another notch.

The newest version of a bill before the Duma would forbid not only members or associates of “extremist” organisations to run for office, but even those who voiced support for one in any form. This means effectively disqualifying anyone who posted as much as a comment in support of Navalny or his network online. Simultaneously, leading pro-Kremlin politicians are using every opportunity to argue for legislation that would put an end to anonymity on the internet. Even if this does not happen, keeping the issue on the agenda, like a sword of Damocles hanging above the heads of opposition supporters, may be enough to hinder online discourse to thwart any kind of potent organised action. On one hand, this is a whole new level of paranoia. On the other hand, it is the continuation of the scare tactics by other means.

And on whole new levels: this version would also extend the ban to lower-level elections, e.g. in regions and cities. This is important for two reasons. First, city councils are where opposition candidates, including several Navalny associates, have made the most headway in recent years: apart from Moscow, smart voting registered successes in Novosibirsk and Tomsk in 2020 and several mid-sized cities became protest hotspots this year. The bill would potentially eliminate not only Navalny’s associates, but even those Moscow communists from running for another term in office who were elected thanks to smart voting in 2019, who expressed pro-Navalny views, and some of whom already face backlash in their party.

Changing terms

Second, federal authorities would essentially ensure that regional elites, who control regional elections through regional parliaments and electoral committees, cannot even try to tolerate, co-operate or ally themselves with people whom the Kremlin deems unreliable or dangerous. This is the latest step in an ongoing centralisation of power over what the Kremlin thinks are the potential flashpoints of regional politics; recently it has also centralised crisis management and data collection through creating the government’s Coordination Center and collecting citizens’ complaints, bypassing regional authorities, as well as fiscal governance down to the level of municipalities, by means of revenue centralisation and debt instruments. This may seem logical, but it betrays a declining trust between regional elites and the federal centre.

In recent years, protests in the regions have become more common and in certain cases regional elites were tempted to side with or at least tolerate dissent. For almost two decades, regions have faced a combination of fiscal and political centralisation and growing obligations, which in many cases led to indebtedness. The understandings that underpin the relationship between regional elites and the federal centre have gradually broken down, as evidenced, among other things, by the growing role of the security establishment in running the regions under Andrey Yarin, the head of the Kremlin’s domestic policy directorate.

This matters, because these people will not only have to administer elections but also have to manage the aftermath of the vote. It might seem that the legislative election is a test that the regime has to pass, but the real challenge, even with a docile Duma, will be governing the country with a looming consumer debt crisis, falling incomes, low investment rates on the horizon, and with a Kremlin that values the fullest possible control over resources above everything else, even sensible fiscal policies.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, the Duma election is a story of path dependency. It can only solve potentially dangerous underlying issues by creating new risks: smart voting through repression and rigging, a breakdown of governability through overcentralising resources, a looming social crisis through giving up austerity and control, etc. At the core of all this is a contradiction as simple as the genius of smart voting: in democracies, elections (usually) solve legitimacy problems. In Russia, it appears, they create them.