The opposition is up. The ruling party is down. Incumbent governors are in. The Kremlin is worried. Aleksei Navalny’s "smart voting" strategy is…smart?
Despite Russian elections still being largely a stage-managed process, the September 8 vote resulted in some small surprises -- and a few genuinely new insights -- about the state of politics 16 months into President Vladimir Putin’s fourth term.
Here are five things to know about the vote, and what it could mean for Russia as the Kremlin tries to figure out what to do ahead of Putin’s planned-but-not-guaranteed departure from office in 2024.
A New Hope?
The Russian opposition has been stuck in a political wilderness for years now, a combination of Kremlin string-pulling and the persistent popularity of Putin, who has ruled the country essentially for 20 years.
But Putin’s popularity has slipped noticeably. He still commands approval ratings that are the envy of some other world leaders, but Russians are growing tired of his rule. Wages are stagnating, corruption is rampant, people hate tax hikes, and shipping Moscow household trash to other regions is unpopular in those regions.
And then there’s the ruling party, United Russia, which is decidedly unpopular for many voters. Putin himself spurned its endorsement in the last election, one indication of how the Kremlin thinks about it.
Now Navalny -- the anti-corruption lawyer, charismatic political organizer, and all-around gadfly-- and his liberal opposition allies has shifted tactics away from challenging the system on a national level, and instead gone local, at least for the time being. They pushed candidates to run for the Moscow City Duma. The thinking? If they can get a foothold on the city council, they can use that as a springboard for bigger political ambitions.
Electoral officials thwarted that plan by barring those would-be candidates from the Moscow ballot. So the opposition held major weekly street protests -- some unauthorized -- that directly challenged officials.
On September 8, genuine opposition candidates returned to the Moscow City Duma for the first time in years: the liberal party Yabloko won four seats. The number of seats held by United Russia and affiliated candidates dropped from 40 to 25. Two other parties -- the Communists and A Just Russia -- grabbed a handful of seats.
Navalny and his allies did not win -- obviously, since they were kept off the ballot. But the upshot is that the candidates affiliated with United Russia lost and the party’s grip on the City Duma was loosened. And it wasn’t just any old United Russia candidates who were sent packing: the losers included Andrei Metelsky, who headed the party’s Moscow branch.
“These weren’t real elections -- lots of candidates who would clearly have won weren’t allowed to run,” Daria Besedina, who ran as an independent but was endorsed by Yabloko, said in a post to Twitter.
Lyubov Sobol, a Navalny ally and equally charismatic public speaker who was blocked from running for the City Duma, exulted in the results.
“These elections will go down in the history of Moscow, thanks to the courage and perseverance of Muscovites and the cowardice and meanness of” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, she wrote in a post to Twitter.
And there are only 24 months until national parliamentary elections.
The Governors Strike Back
With Russian politics, it always bears remembering that as Moscow goes, so the rest of Russia does not necessarily go. While City Duma results present hope for opposition groups in the Russian capital, results from regional elections afford less of that.
In 16 regions where elections for governor, or administrative executive, were held, all incumbents were decisively reelected; all were either United Russia candidates or nominally-independent-but-in-fact-United Russia-affiliated candidates. Prior to the September 8 vote, all had been effectively appointed to their positions, in acting capacity, by the Kremlin.
Among those winning was the head of Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Beglov, whose campaign was dogged by mangled speeches and a botched ribbon-cutting ceremony involving new subway stations. Like at least five other governors, he ran as a nominal independent, to avoid be tainted by association with United Russia.
What this means is that opposition activists will have a steep hill to climb if they want to seriously dent the Kremlin’s grip on the State Duma in September 2021, never mind mount a serious challenge to the Kremlin in 2024.
United Russia suffered a noteworthy blow in the regions on September 8. In the Khabarovsk region, on the Pacific coast, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) scored a resounding victory in the election for the regional legislature, reportedly winning 34 or 35 seats, according to a near complete tally of results. Like the other main political parties, the LDPR Democrats almost always vote the Kremlin line. But it’s still a rejection of the ruling party.
In the other 12 regions that held legislative elections, United Russia retained strong majorities, another reflection of how the Russian regional politics hew very differently than Moscow politics.
Return Of Navalny
In 2011, when he first began garnering national attention, Navalny coined a caustic nickname for United Russia that has stuck to this day: “the party of crooks and thieves.”
And he has spearheaded a series of corruption investigations that have delved into the finances of people like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and even Metelsky, whose loss was due in no small part to Navalny’s digging.
With genuine opposition kept off the ballot, and with Navalny repeatedly sidelined by criminal charges he contends are trumped-up, he and his allies came up with a new tactic: so-called "smart voting."
The idea works like this: vote for the candidates who are on the ballot and are nominally in opposition to United Russia. (“nominally” is the key word here, since the biggest, non-ruling-party political parties in Russia rarely vote against Kremlin initiatives).
The idea appalled many liberals disgusted at the idea of supporting, say, a Communist Party candidate. But it worked in at least a couple instances in Moscow. Valeriya Kasemara, a rector at a prestigious Moscow university who was affiliated with United Russia, would have been challenged by Sobol, had Sobol been allowed to run. Instead, Kasemara lost to an obscure candidate who had been endorsed by Navalny’s smart vote initiative.
In all, 20 of the candidates backed under the smart vote won, and Navalny trumpeted the result in a Twitter post.
“All this is the result of the ‘smart vote’ I came up with last year, when I was serving 50 days in jail after rallies against pension reforms,” he wrote.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov cautioned against reading too much into United Russia’s lackluster showing.
“In some places, they got more seats, in some places they got less,” he was quoted by news agencies as saying. “But on the whole, in the country, the party showed its political leadership.”
Revenge Of The Kremlin
Moscow -- and St. Petersburg, to a large degree -- is more liberal, more cosmopolitan, and more politically diverse than the rest of Russia, not to mention wealthier and home to a more diverse media environment.
That means what happened in Moscow may be virtually impossible to repeat on a national level.
Still, Navalny managed to leverage outrage last year over a Kremlin initiative to raise the retirement age into broad demonstrations that drew a wider array of voters in a wider array of towns and cities.
But Putin remains popular, and there is no other political figure anywhere in the country that rivals him. Moreover, the Kremlin controls the medium by which most Russians receive their news and entertainment: TV. That means voters can be swayed to support political parties, or candidates, or state-backed projects.
So, the Kremlin has the tools to mold the 2021 State Duma elections to its liking, and not to the opposition’s.
And then there’s Putin’s own fate when his current term ends in 2024. Among several options reportedly under discussion behind closed doors in Moscow are keeping Putin in power by tweaking the constitution. That requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, not a sure thing given United Russia’s unpopularity.
The Kremlin has already shown signs of trying to preempt mass political unrest. Prior to this summer’s Moscow protests, a new elite domestic police force was set up -- the National Guard -- under the leadership of Putin’s former bodyguard. The National Guard played a starring role in beating protesters. Among the monikers they’ve been bestowed with: storm troopers.
For some Russians who recall the chaotic years that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, having a strong leader may outweigh the price of forsaking a democratic system.
For the first time, Russian election officials gave a test run to a new electronic voting system, a bid to make voting easier and more accessible, and, potentially, increase turnout -- something that always concerns the Kremlin worried about an election’s legitimacy.
The experiment, which involved utilizing the blockchain technology used in cryptocurrencies, had already had problems even before the election. In August, computer researchers broke the code, demonstrating how the system could be corrupted if put into full use.
On the eve of the election, the respected monitoring organization Golos published its assessment of the experimental system, giving it a lukewarm endorsement: “In the absence of proper tools for monitoring the system and the presence of vulnerabilities, the use [of the electronic voting system]…is fraught with critical risks of failures and interference, which society may not be aware of.”
On September 8, election officials set up a small-scale trial run in three precincts in Moscow. Russian news reports said the system went down twice over the course of the day. Still, among those registered to use the system, turnout was reportedly as high as 90 percent.
Stay tuned on whether electronic voting is here to stay in Russia.