Russians go to the polls, but would-be protesters have few options against Putin's election juggernaut

Russians go to the polls, but would-be protesters have few options against Putin's election juggernaut
A few Russians have tried to protest against Putin's stage-managed presidential elections, but have few options left. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 17, 2024

A few brave Russian attempted to protest against the stage manage presidential elections on March 15-17. A video posted on social media showed one woman in the Moscow district of Otradnoye pouring a bottle of the green antiseptic zelenka, which is notorious for its ability to stain, into a ballot box, ruining the votes. The Russian Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case, with the woman taken into custody for questioning.

Across the country there were around a dozen actions of social disobedience, with ballot boxes and booths set on fire, or ballots spoiled with zelenka as a few Russian tried to rail against the farce of an election. In another incident a middle-aged women threw a Molotov cocktail at the polling station, but was quickly arrested.

Security was tighten before the vote. There were no serious opposition candidates on the ballot as they have all been jailed, driven into exile or killed, but nevertheless the security services were searching the homes of artists and other would-be protesters.

The Kremlin is worried about turnout and covertly financed a range of programmes to increase interest in the election. Workers were given instructions on how to vote (a common practice before any election). But Meduza reported that state-owned companies are finding it more difficult to exert pressure on employees to turn out and vote than usual, since threats of getting fired are less effective in Russia’s current tight labour market. 


The Kremlin has a long track record of fixing elections and it has become increasingly good at it – and it has to, as if it gets it wrong this could spark large-scale protests.

In 2011, the Kremlin injected some 11% of extra votes into the count to ensure that the ruling United Russia won the Duma elections. That was too big a number and over 100,000 people came out on the streets of Moscow to protest against the vote fix in a series of rallies that led up to the Bolotnaya protests in the park across the river Moskva from the mustard-coloured walls of the Kremlin that ended in violent clashes with the OMON riot police.

By the 2018 presidential election the Kremlin had become more subtle. The Russian presidential vote was fixed, with between 1.5mn and 10mn extra votes stuffed into ballot boxes and President Vladimir Putin re-elected for a fourth term. It was not even done subtly. Early election results in 2018 released by the authorities raised a wry grin amongst Russia watchers, as in addition to showing Putin well in the lead, the total percentages added up to 122%. That blooper was quickly corrected and the final result with 99% of the votes counted gave Putin 76.65% of the vote.

The irony is that in a fair and free election Putin would easily win, as he remains genuinely popular. However, the tweaks are made so as to cross important constitutional thresholds that consolidate Putin’s hold on power.

In previous elections, this tweaking process gave the United Russia Party just over 50% in 2011, and a constitutional majority of over 66% in the elections before that. These tweaks are small, but the upshot is they make a substantial difference to the distribution of power. In the parliamentary election the winner of an absolute majority gets control of all the Duma committees that actually make the laws, whereas in 2008 a constitutional majority meant that while the newly appointed president, Dmitry Medvedev, could attempt to sack the then prime minister Putin, the Duma could overrule him with its supermajority vote.

And the cheating is obvious from statistical studies. Famous Russian physicist and election statistician Sergei Shpilkin analysed the voting patterns in several elections and showed that millions of extra votes had been injected into the count. Without getting into the details, a vote should produce a purely random distribution of numbers, but when the vote is fixed this random pattern is skewed, which jumps out from a mathematical study of the votes. In simple terms, officials adding votes to the count tend to round up the count to convenient numbers, which produces spikes in the vote count on results around any number that ends with a zero or a five – in a random distribution those spikes won’t be there.

Shpilkin study showed that half the votes in Duma election in 2021 were probably fake. The early results showed that the Communist Party (KPRF) had probably crushed United Russia in a protest vote against the creeping authoritarianism, but Shpilkin found a “comet effect” and a “Moscow blob” that suggest the final vote was almost certainly massively falsified. In both the 2016 and 2021 elections there is a distinctive “tail” to the core of the results that rises for United Russia and falls for the KPRF, which strongly suggests ballot stuffing.

The only political party in Russia that has a realistic chance of challenging the Kremlin is the KPRF, which has a mature country-wide and grassroots political network with millions of loyal voters that miss the Soviet Union, but its leader Gennady Zyuganov has long since succumbed to Kremlin pressure and become part of the so-called “systemic opposition” that makes a lot of noise in the Duma debates, but toes the Kremlin line in major policy votes. Zyuganov’s decision to not object to the blatant falsification of the 2021 Duma elections was one of the few points in the Putin-era when there could have been a popular revolution that could have ousted the president.

Russian leaks

The Kremlin has invested north of a billion dollars in heavily in controlling the info space and a wide-ranging campaign that has not just targeted this election, but will be working for years as Russia returns to a system of information control reminiscent of the Soviet Union.

As bne IntelliNews has reported, leaked documents from the Kremlin revealed details of Putin's meticulous plans for securing his re-election in March, VS Square reported on February 26. These leaks came from the offices of Sergei Kiriyenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, and lay out the details of programmes, plans and just how spending large amounts of money can manipulate public opinion to ensure Putin is returned to office for at least another six years.

This campaign has recently been extended to Latin America, according to reports, where the Kremlin is heavily investing in social media, movies, cartoons and other information resources to stir up resentment against the US and Ukraine, while portraying Russia in a positive light for standing up to US global hegemony.

The 2021 was probably the last relatively free and fair election, as it still relied on paper ballots. Given the freedom to check a box on a piece of paper, there was a physical record of votes where the electorate could vote for someone else, even if there were no real opposition candidates on the ballot. Due to the paper ballots the Kremlin was forced to physically stuff hundreds of fake ballots into boxes across the country and was routinely caught on camera doing so, destroying what little credibility it had.

However, in 2021 the Kremlin introduced electronic voting for the first time, which negates the need for physical ballots. The early exit polls from the vote in Moscow showed that the KPRF swept the board in all the capital’s regions, but when the electronic voting numbers were added the next morning that result was overturned and United Russia claimed victory in all of Moscow’s regions.

For this vote the system has been expanded to the 17 most important regions where the bulk of the population live. Moreover, the voting period has been extended to three days instead of one, allowing the Kremlin more time to tweak results depending on the real results and fix “problems” as they come up.

Physical ballots are still in use, but in one video posted online, the ballot boxes were issued with special pens that use invisible ink: if the paper is heated then the ticks in a box disappear, allowing officials to change the vote at will.

Russia going in the “right direction”

As bne IntelliNews has reported, Russians are not happy with Putin and would like him to leave, but that has not translated into any widespread support for the opposition. The fissiparous Russian opposition movement remains divided and prone to backbiting and squabbling, unable to unite behind any single leader, nor does it have any agenda other than “not Putin.”

Opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny had been by far the most successful opposition leader and managed to build up a regional network of support, with offices throughout the country. His smart voting tactics were also successful, causing upsets in some local races for mayors and governors; Navalny encouraged voters to consolidate their votes behind any candidate that was in second place to the establishment candidate, which became a thorn in the side of Kremlin attempts to put its people in power.

However, even Navalny never gained much popular support amongst average Russians. A poll by the Levada Center found that in January 2021 his support had quadrupled to 19% following his arrest, but 56% of Russians still disapproved of him, although the share of Russians that knew his name increased dramatically after he was poisoned and collapsed on a plane in 2020.

Still, given the Kremlin retains tight control over the election process, it remains moot as to how well he would have performed if he had been allowed to run an open and unfettered election campaign. Navalny surprised everyone by taking nearly a quarter of the vote when he ran in the Moscow mayoral elections in 2013 – a shock result that triggered the Kremlin’s harsher crackdown on his activities.

Without any credible opposition leader in any of the electoral races Putin has a clear field; however, he remains genuinely popular, as the majority of Russians are still grateful to him for bringing the chaos of the Yeltsin years to an end. Under Putin the economy doubled in size and with 10% pay rises a year for a decade, he lifted average incomes in PPP terms up to European standards.

A poll of liberal opposition news outlet Meduza’s readers found that while most Russians, even liberal ones, had disapproved of the decision to go to war in Ukraine, the majority said that now a war had started they supported the Kremlin, as they didn’t want Russia to lose. Most respondents bought into the Kremlin line that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war and Russia is under attack from Nato.

Now the war has started to go Russia’s way that has been reflected in the latest Levada polls that show Putin’s popularity had risen to 86% as of February, against 11% that disapprove of him and 2% that are not sure. That is up from a low of 53% approval rating at the start of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in the spring of 2020.

Likewise, the same poll found that those that think Russia is going in the “right direction” has risen to 75%, with 15% who think it is going in the wrong direction and 11% who don’t know. That is an improvement of some 25 percentage points since the pandemic and its highest level in over a decade. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has very effectively rallied regular Russians to Putin’s patriotic flag.

The other poll results also show similar big gains in popularity for the State Duma, the performance of the government, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and the regional governors.

Conversely, the propensity to protest with either political or economic demands has fallen sharply to 15% and 17% respectively as of Levada’s January poll. Russia remains a very long way away from mass protests against Putin’s regime. The problem is that despite their fatigue with Putin as president, the fear of losing what they have gained in the last two decades continues to outweigh their desire for a more liberal and democratic society. Moreover, the economic chaos that followed both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014 in Ukraine was watched closely by Russians and acted as a brake on any desire to forcibly change the regime in Moscow.

Protest tactics

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died on February 16 in a Russian prison camp, called on Russians to turn up en masse at 12:00 on March 17 in a mass protest action called “Noon against Putin” and reject Putin in any way they like, hoping the symbolic stand against him will lift their supporters’ spirits.

In the absence of anyone else serious to vote for, Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta highlighted the five choices that Russians faced in this election.

Tactic #1: Vote for the lesser of all evils

Many in Russia view exercising their democratic right to vote as their prime goal amid the encroachment of fascism on all aspects of personal freedom. Perhaps the most popular suggestion is to sincerely vote by ticking only one candidate’s name. By doing so, there is an increase in turnout and a larger percentage of votes allocated for candidates other than Putin.

Tactic #2: Spoil the ballot by voting for multiple candidates

For those too sickened by Russian “democracy” to want any part of it, spoiling their ballot by voting for multiple candidates is perhaps the best option. Doing so will lower the percentage of votes received and will result in none of the Kremlin-sanctioned spoiler candidates receiving even a protest vote. Voting for everyone will become a vote “against everyone”, as political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin recently told Novaya Europe.

Voting for multiple candidates has the backing of several public figures and groups such as grassroots demobilisation movement The Way Home and the liberal Yabloko party.

There used to be a category “against all” on the ballot, but after that category embarrassing won several regional elections it was removed many years ago. 

Tactic #3: Spoil the ballot by writing down another name

For those unhappy with voting for multiple candidates, they may also write another name down as a way of spoiling their ballot. By writing down a name such as Navalny’s their vote is discarded as invalid.

However, this is open to misuse. If the tick box is left unmarked, the ballot may be tampered with and someone may vote for Putin as the “correct” candidate anyway. One voter crossed out Putin's name and voted for Hollywood actor Ryan Gosling instead. 

Tactic #4: Take the ballot paper home or tear it up

Russians may also choose to take their frustration out on the election system by taking the ballot paper home, and tearing it up. In doing so, the vote will not be considered, but it won’t affect the percentage of votes for any candidate.

This tactic will also protect voters from fraud, as no one else is able to vote on their behalf using their ballot.

Tactic #5: Boycott the elections

Perhaps the most unreliable form of protesting against Russia’s democratic institutions – boycotting the presidential election – has only been endorsed this election season by the liberal Yabloko party, who advocated many options. While boycotting the election does disrupt turnout percentage, this decrease in participation by those who are disillusioned has traditionally benefited the candidate in power and the pro-government electorate.

Therefore, to reduce Putin’s guaranteed win, people should go to the polls regardless. Should people choose to stay at home and boycott the election, they run the risk of someone else voting for them who has been told how to “correctly” vote. This vote on their behalf will also almost certainly be in favour of Putin.