As exit polls from the Khaborovsk region's gubernatorial runoff pointed to a landslide victory for Sergei Furgal, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) candidate was asked what swayed the September 23 vote.
"People are tired," he replied to reporters. "They want change."
Furgal routed his rival, United Russia's Vyacheslav Shport, by taking nearly 70 percent of the vote. Coupled with another gubernatorial seat won by LDPR at the expense of United Russia the same day, the victory dealt a humiliating defeat to Kremlin-backed candidates and caused heads to turn in Moscow.
But analysts caution against seeing the LDPR -- or the Communists, who have also been making gains -- as any real threat to the political system established under President Vladimir Putin.
The nationalist LDPR and the Communist Party, which remains in the running in two pending gubernatorial runoffs, are widely seen as being among the handful of Kremlin-approved parties that together form Russia's "systemic opposition."
Furgal's victory in Khabarovsk, and the triumph in the Vladimir region of his party colleague Vladimir Sipyagin, may have inflicted damage to United Russia's image and weakened its hand in upcoming contests against the Communists in the process.
Few analysts see the two "opposition" parties' success as a sign of any serious shift on the political scene, however.
According to Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, those who cast votes on September 23 cared little what party Furgal and Sipyagin represent -- they cared only that they were not from United Russia. Writing in The New Times, an independent Russian weekly, on September 23, he said the elections should be seen as a public-opinion poll for the Kremlin, and proof that many Russians are thumbing their noses at Moscow.
Despite widespread cynicism and an overarching sense in Russia's regions that little will change, people are nonetheless motivated to head to the polls. In both the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions, the September 23 runoff exceeded turnout in the first round.
Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank, chalks this up partly to inertia and partly to anger over recent plans to hike the retirement age. A protest vote replaces a street protest, he says. "People are scared to go on the streets, and one way to express dissatisfaction with the government is to vote against United Russia," Makarkin tells RFERL.
Stanislav Belkovsky of the National Security Institute, a political consultancy based in Moscow, compared the current situation in Russia with the late 1980s in the Soviet Union, when people used the first partially free elections to elevate "freaks and outcasts" of all stripes just to spite the Communist Party.
"The authorities' contemptuous approach to the public has prompted it to vote for any opposition candidate whatsoever," Belkovsky told the Russian news portal Business Online. "But [Putin] is not reacting. He believes that the chosen governor will be on his side whatever happens, because he depends on federal financing in any case."
People have learned since 1996, when Yeltsin's reelection was engineered, that the authorities will not allow them to democratically change the government, local St. Petersburg lawmaker and veteran liberal politician Boris Vishnevsky wrote in Novaya Gazeta on September 24.
But this year's regional elections have set a precedent, he argued, by giving people a sense that power can be changed not only from above, but also from below. "It's not all the same who wins," he wrote. "Because the precedent of a change of government is more important than the 'veneer' of a new government."
Whatever the case, there are indications that the Kremlin has been rattled by its defeats in the regions.
Sources in the presidential administration told Vedomosti on September 25 that Furgal broke his promise to the Kremlin to refrain from campaigning and ultimately become his rival's deputy. The Kremlin is now seeking to punish the LDPR and the Communist Party by withdrawing assistance to their candidates in future regional elections and limiting cooperation with them, an unnamed source told the newspaper. "They crossed a red line," the source is quoted as saying. "They've turned into the nonsystemic opposition and may now share its fate."
If true, that may set the tone in two other regions preparing to head to the polls.
In the Primorye region, a rerun has been ordered after the election commission annulled the previous vote, citing fraud. In Khakasia, the United Russia candidate and incumbent Governor Viktor Zimin has pulled out, leaving his Communist rival as the favorite. The playing field seems wide open.
Might Not Matter
According to Makarkin, many Russian citizens have long bought into the idea that they are voting for real change -- just as many believed the claims made in a recent interview with state media by the men Britain accused of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
"The average voter believes that the Communists are a real opposition party," he said, "just like they believe Boshirov and Petrov are guys who went on holiday to the U.K."
But ultimately, Kolesnikov writes, "there's practically no difference between ruling party candidates and 'opposition' candidates."