The three days of Russia’s parliamentary elections have been shaping up over many months to be the least free since Putin came to power 21 years ago.
London: In a democracy, any party polling 26% just days before an election would almost certainly lose. But this is Russia, where voting defies electoral gravity and magic happens. It was just the same in neighbouring Belarus last year, when Lukashenko polled only 30% the day before the election, but by merely waving his magic electoral wand, this increased to more than 80% in the final count.
Today’s elections in Russia are not for the president; this will happen next in 2024, when Vladimir Putin will win for the fifth time. President Putin currently enjoys the support of roughly half the population, a mix of those who are partly grateful for the stability and prosperity he brought in the boom years following the chaos of the Yeltsin era, and those who support him simply because they see no alternative. Putin has removed all threats to his reign. “Since I left Russia in 2014, it is absolutely shocking how many businesspeople, academics, journalists, politicians, lawyers, NGO leaders I used to know there who are now dead, in prison, or in exile. Simply shocking”, Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted last week.
The three days of Russia’s parliamentary elections, completed today, have been shaping up over many months to be the least free since Putin came to power 21 years ago. Although President Putin is not officially a member of United Russia, the party has branded itself as “Team Putin”, hoping that some of Putin’s popularity will rub off on them. The Kremlin has rolled out the big guns in a media blitz to win voter support and Putin himself has been stumping up support, alongside Foreign Minister Lavrov, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the most popular figures in the country and widely believed to be his chosen successor. Notably, the nominal head of United Russia, former Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, has not featured either in the campaign nor the party lists as he is so widely despised for excessive corruption, exposed by Alexei Navalny.
The Russian Parliament has 450 seats, and any party holding two thirds of it, 300 seats, is considered a constitutional majority. This is important for United Russia as it will allow Putin to enact any further constitutional changes and effectively do whatever he wants. The problem for the party, however, is that Putin has actually hurt its popularity with a few painful reforms, including increasing VAT taxes by 2%, the main revenue generator for the government, and extending the retirement cut-off by two years, both of which immediately damaged United Russia’s poll numbers and resulted in the party losing an increased number of local elections. However, few Putin opponents doubt United Russia will achieve at least the required 300 seats, even though economic stagnation, high household inflation, the ongoing coronavirus crisis and environmental disasters have undermined support for the party that many Russians call “the Party of Crooks and Thieves”.
While Russia’s elections are clearly fixed, the issue for the Kremlin is that it needs to win as many genuine votes as it can. Simply making up the results, common in Central Asia, is not a preferred option and only a last resort, as it would end in widespread protest. That is what happened in 2011 when the Kremlin added some 12% to United Russia’s count, according to statisticians who studied the voting patterns. Some of the biggest mass protests erupted as a result, with crowds of over 100,000 gathering in Bolotnaya Park, immediately across the river from the Kremlin. Memories also remain fresh from Lukashenko’s rigging of the vote in 2020 and the subsequent riots and protests which continued for more than a year.
This time, the Kremlin has prepared the path to victory for United Russia well ahead of the elections. Any organisation considered a threat to Putin, such as Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, has been declared an “extremist organisation” and subsequently barred from taking part in the elections. The “extremist” label has also been applied to a number of young potential opposition candidates, some of whom were conscripted into the military or hospitalised. Others faced drug charges.
The Russian electoral watchdog Golos (which means “voice” and “vote”) has calculated that new laws have made over 9 million Russians ineligible to compete in today’s elections, a number that includes many members of other political parties who attended the rallies to support Navalny in February this year. Threats of long prison sentences against popular candidates have driven many out of Russia. Last month, the Kremlin labelled Golos a “foreign agent”, still angry that the group revealed the vast number of cases of fraud across Russia during the 2011 elections. They don’t want to be detected again.
Having limited candidates to those “preferred”, the next part of the Kremlin’s path to victory was to exclude independent observers from checking any fraud at the ballot sites. Last month, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that it would not send observers to Russia’s elections for the first time in nearly three decades because of “major limitations” imposed by Russian authorities on the mission. This was a polite way of saying that the Kremlin had restricted the numbers permitted so severely that it would be impossible to monitor the elections properly. The OSCE was not prepared for the Kremlin to use its name for credibility purposes while allowing only a handful of their observers across the vast country. Golos, as a “foreign agent”, was also prohibited from conducting any election monitoring.
Vote monitors fear that there will be even more opportunities to rig election results without their presence. They also note that the authorities in six major regions and in Moscow have been encouraging Russians to vote online. Electronic voting in Russia has increased in recent years, but in 2020 in a plebiscite on constitutional amendment, serious anomalies emerged in the online voting in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, with more people voting than were registered, in one precinct by 217%.
If that isn’t weird enough, consider what’s happening in St Petersburg. Boris Vishnevsky, a popular member of the liberal opposition Yabloko party complained last week that two of his opponents for a seat in the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly have adopted his name and altered their appearance to look like him in order to confuse voters and reduce his chances of success. ‘At each election for many years we say that these are the dirtiest and most dishonest elections ever’, he told reporters, ‘this is the only way these crooks can fight against me’.
The Kremlin’s main, and probably only worry is with Navalny’s well publicized Smart Voting system. In September 2019, faced with a slew of opposition candidates barred from elections to the Moscow city council, Navalny and his supporters launched a website with the idea of using their organisational power to rally voters behind any candidate with a chance of beating United Russia’s – and that is, ironically, usually the communist candidate. So concerned was the Kremlin that last week the Russian foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador, John Sullivan, to complain about the alleged interference by ‘American digital giants’ in the parliamentary elections. They wanted Washington to pressurise Google and Apple to remove the apps belonging to Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative as they were “in violation of Russian legislation”.
Few Putin opponents doubt that United Russia will win today’s election handsomely, thanks to the Kremlin’s tactics of silencing all critics, barring of independent candidates, voter intimidation, silencing of independent media outlets, crackdown on dissent and, if necessary, ballot rigging in an untransparent voting system with no checks and balances. A key figure to look for is the level of voter turnout. The growing sense that elections are futile will suppress turnout, which will be good news for the Kremlin as support for United Russia is about 42% among those intending to vote, much higher than the national 27% average.
According to the state owned Public Opinion Research centre, only 22% of Russians plan to vote in this year’s elections, compared with 55% in 2004. A low turnout will represent more than just apathy, it will underline the point recently revealed by the Levada Centre, Russia’s most reputable pollster, that almost half the population thinks the country is on the wrong track. As the Financial Times observed last month, this mood is not the same as yearning to be rid of Putin. As under tsarism or communism, Russia’s leader commands support simply because the system permits no rivals and no alternative symbol of national unity. But the Kremlin’s intensifying oppressions are also a sign that, in its third decade, Putin’s system is becoming an exercise in paranoia, self-preservation and very little else.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.