On the first day of the new school year, the head of the city council in Kamensk-Uralsky, a city of about 160,000 located deep in central Russia and very far away from Ukraine, took the microphone in front of a tired-looking school building and exhorted voters to reelect the regional governor.
“So that we can live in a peaceful time, our guys, our soldiers are taking up arms in Ukraine. But we can’t stand here with weapons in our hands,” Valery Permyakov told the crowd. “So together, our task on September 11 is to not allow representatives of the fifth column of the united West to change the leadership of our Sverdlovsk Oblast.
“For this reason, when you go to the polls… among the five gubernatorial candidates on the ballot, find the name of Yevgeny Kuyvashev and vote for him,” he said, according the video of the September 1 event. “And then we together can ensure that Russia will remain a free country!”
Local and regional elections are being held this weekend -- three days of voting that end on September 11 -- across a mish-mash of Russian regions for a hodgepodge of posts: Governors will be chosen in 15 regions; legislatures in six locales. In the capital, Moscow, voters will choose nearly 1,500 members of district councils.
It’s unclear whether railing against the West and extolling the heroism of Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine will propel candidates for public office to victory -- for example, in an election in the middle of the Ural Mountains.
But the effort is also a partial reminder that nothing in Russia is really the same anymore since February 24, when President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- a war that has pulled the rug out from under Europe’s long-standing security structures, not to mention the steady economic growth Russia has seen in his 22 years as the country’s preeminent leader.
That goes double for elections, where for years Russians and non-Russians have had mounting doubts about whether it’s possible in an increasingly authoritarian system to have a true democratic vote.
For the most outspoken critics of Putin’s government, there’s still reason to vote.
“Since the beginning of the war, the regime in our country has been completely reborn, which again provoked discussion: Does it make sense to go to the polls?” said Leonid Volkov, a leading activist with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, established by the now imprisoned Aleksei Navalny.
“I believe it does. The essence has not changed,” he wrote in a post on Telegram. “Any action aimed at weakening any of the elements of the Putin system is correct and is the duty of a citizen.”
Because of the far-flung geography of the regions voting -- from the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad to the Pacific island of Sakhalin -- and because voters are selecting local leaders, the main driving issues aren’t “big,” said Stanislav Andreychuk, a longtime member of Golos, a nongovernmental organization focusing on voting rights that has been all but banned in Russia.
“They concern the problems that citizens face every day: tariffs for heating, garbage collection, urban development, reduction of hospitals and schools, etc. Therefore, they continue to matter,” Andreychuk said in an e-mail.
They also serve, he said, as a pressure valve: The authorities allow people to cast votes, up or down, reflecting local concerns; people get to vent their anger or support.
“In a situation where it is not possible to freely express your position on mass rallies, which are prohibited, and for a statement in social networks you can get several years in prison, elections remain the only safe way to express your disagreement with the government's policy,” Andreychuk said.
There certainly hasn’t been, and won’t be, any notable expression of opposition to the war, said Margarita Zavadskaya, a political scientist at the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Helsinki.
“The war led to intensified large-scale repression, and it dampened the last opportunities for the moderate opposition to run at the elections and voice their position,” she told RFE/RL. “The anti-war agenda is pushed out of the legal and acceptable public space and can’t be used in the campaign.”
Don’t Think Globally. But Vote Locally.
Russian pundits expect few seismic changes in the political landscape from this weekend’s voting. United Russia is predicted to hold onto most, if not all, the executive seats up for grabs. The party is also expected hold onto a majority of legislative seats.
In Moscow, where voters tend to be more liberal than the rest of the country, the district councils are expected to see more diversity of candidates, but little else. The district councils are legislature bodies that mostly decide on hyper-local issues like new playground equipment, trash removal, or other quality-of-life concerns.
Kremlin efforts to water down the influence of Russian voters, or the impact of voting, go back to the early years of Putin’s presidency. After a series of terrorist attacks, Putin started eliminating long-standing electoral procedures, like the direct election of regional governors.
That effort was tweaked following a wave of street protests over what activists said were rigged State Duma elections, but the Kremlin then pushed through a law that allowed Putin to pick candidates for regions.
The upshot was that the Kremlin-aligned political party United Russia gained a lock not only on a majority in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, but also in most legislatures and regional executives around the country.
Still, government authorities allowed Russians some space to dissent on issues of local importance, as long as the opposition didn’t pose a systemic threat.
Protesters in the central city of Yekaterinburg faced off against riot police over plans to build a church on the site of a popular park in the Urals region city in 2019. And other demonstrations erupted earlier that same year against a landfill proposed in a remote Arctic region to handle household garbage from Moscow.
Electorally, however, the Kremlin has allowed less room to buck the system. In the Pacific region of Khabarovsk, voters backed a popular governor over a United Russia candidate. But in 2019, that governor, Sergei Furgal, was abruptly arrested, charged with ordering a series of murders years prior, then shipped off to Moscow to stand trial. The arrest prompted weeks of huge protests in Khabarovsk.
In 2020, meanwhile, the Kremlin pushed through sweeping changes to the constitution that consolidated many executive powers, while also leaving wiggle room for Putin to stay on as preeminent leader – either in the presidency or in some other capacity – after his current term ends in 2024.
Smart Vote, No War?
The last national elections were held in September 2021, for the Duma. United Russia won overwhelmingly.
Still, opposition groups led by Navalny’s organization made a valiant effort at trying to thwart a United Russia sweep, utilizing something called the Smart Vote. The system aims to help opposition-minded Russians vote for candidates deemed most capable of beating United Russia candidates.
WATCH: Smart Voting is a successful voting strategy promoted by opposition leader Aleksei Navalny that makes the Kremlin -- and the ruling United Russia party -- nervous. It helps opposition-minded Russians vote for candidates deemed most capable of beating candidates from United Russia. Here's how it works.
Navalny’s team is aiming to do the same thing in this weekend’s vote, although the effort will be limited to Moscow’s local elections, Volkov said.
“If you are a supporter of the boycott of the elections, no problem,” he said in his Telegram post. “I hope that on September 11 you have found a more effective course of action for yourself.”
In an interview with the now-banned independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, Volkov also added another variable to the system: Smart Vote would not endorse candidates who support the Ukraine war, which would eliminate a swathe of Communist Party candidates, traditionally the strongest alternatives to United Russia. For that reason, he said, they were limiting Smart Vote to just Moscow.
“When we looked at 2022, we realized …we would be forced to recommend some kind of pro-war candidates, which is politically wrong and suicidal,” Volkov was quoted as saying. “For moral reasons, Navalny's team cannot recommend a candidate who takes an open military position.
“And we fought over this puzzle -- how to combine a moral position and the principle of voting for the strongest candidate -- for a very long time,” he said. “In the end, we decided to limit ourselves to Moscow only.”
The weekend’s elections should not be viewed as a clear barometer of Russian voters’ sentiment, Zavadskaya said.
If anything, however, they will show the ability of the Kremlin to manipulate the domestic political system, she said.
The elections “show the…capacity of the regime to demonstrate and generate desirable outcomes, signaling to the opposition that they have no hope,” she said, “and to the rest, an illusion of a majority that supports the regime.”