In a system of "managed" democracy such as Russia's, the importance of elections is not necessarily in their results but in how they are managed.
“We are talking about a test for the entire system that manages the elections,” Moscow political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya tells RFE/RL.
That system, Stanovaya says, includes the department of the presidential administration that handles domestic politics, President Vladimir Putin’s All-Russia Popular Front (ONF) project, the ruling United Russia party, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the so-called systemic opposition parties, and more.
“In a nutshell, we are talking about all the institutions that are activated to conduct elections,” Stanovaya says. “In such a case, the result is secondary. What is important is how the entire system works, how effective it can be considering the declining incomes of the population, low global energy prices, and many other varied risks.”
To understand Russia's September 18 national and local legislative elections, it is necessary to read between the lines.
The Kremlin clearly feels that the last round of Duma elections, in December 2011, and the presidential election in May 2012 were badly mismanaged, both producing credible claims of mass falsification and bringing thousands of protesters into the streets.
This time, the country is mired in an economic crisis stemming largely from low global energy prices and a sanctions standoff with the West over Moscow’s forcible annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. While generally apathetic, would-be voters are also showing less tolerance for United Russia’s alleged corruption, and the party’s popularity rating has declined steadily in recent months.
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Gudkov is running for a seat from a Moscow single-mandate district and is also on the Yabloko party list. He is one of the few State Duma deputies of the current Duma who didn't vote for the 2014 Crimea annexation and is the son of expelled Duma deputy and Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov. The younger Gudkov was kicked out of the Duma faction of the Kremlin-friendly A Just Russia in March 2013 after participating in protests against the falsification of earlier elections. He is running against former chief health inspector Gennady Onishchenko and has faced considerable harassment. Voters in his district recently were given copies of a newspaper claiming Gudkov is turning the district into "a boot camp for Maidan," referring to the Ukrainian protests that ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Will this outspoken young politician be allowed to return to the Duma?
In the capital of Karelia, liberal former Mayor Galina Shirshina was heading the Yabloko party list for the regional legislature -- the same body that ousted her as mayor last December. But at the request of the nationalist Rodina party, a municipal court disqualified the entire Yabloko list. On September 12, the Karelia Supreme Court upheld that ruling. The party is asking the Russian Supreme Court to overrule the decisions, but two days before the elections the disqualifications stood.
The liberal Yabloko party has the best chance -- albeit a slim one -- of any party that is not currently in the Duma to overcome the 5 percent hurdle and gain party-list seats. If it does, it could mean that liberal politician Lev Shlosberg could enter the Duma, as he is No. 4 on the national party list. The outspoken Shlosberg was a member of the Pskov Oblast legislature until fellow deputies expelled him in September 2015. He was noted for releasing information about two locally based paratroopers who he believed were killed fighting in Ukraine. At the vote to strip him of his mandate, United Russia deputy Aleksei Sevatsyanov called him "a tool of the [U.S.] State Department."
The ruling United Russia party has traditionally polled poorly in Samara Oblast, southeast of Moscow. In 2011, the party got just 39.1 percent there. So the Kremlin, in 2012, brought over the head of the Republic of Mordovia, Nikolai Merkushkin, to bring the oblast into line. In Mordovia, Merkushkin managed to produce a 91.6 percent result for United Russia in 2011. In Samara, he has been actively campaigning, claiming that the CIA backs the opposition and is trying to destabilize the region in order to break up Russia. He has also told voters that if they don't vote "97 percent" for United Russia, it will be their fault if he is unable to ask the Kremlin for any federal assistance.
By moving the voting from December to September, the Kremlin seems to be trying to lower the turnout, thereby increasing the voting power of its most reliable constituents -- state-sector workers, pensioners, and the military. The elections this year have also sparked deep divisions among the opposition over whether to participate at all. It could be interesting to see how the turnout this year compares to the 60 percent turnout officially recorded in 2011 or the 63 percent recorded in 2007.
-- Robert Coalson
As a result, the task of managing elections that outwardly appear as democratic as possible -- to weaken Western resolve on sanctions and to reduce social tensions at home -- is a challenging one.
“We know what instructions the presidential administration gave the governors across Russia: 'No scandals. Nothing that would render the elections unlawful, at least in the big cities,” exiled opposition activist and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in a Russian prison and whose Open Russia movement is backing a handful of candidates, wrote on his website.
“Putin has certainly not become a democrat. His new strategy of making these quasi-elections look like real ones is a deferred reaction to the 2011-12 protests, the result of a desire to avoid additional complications in relations with the West.”
The Kremlin has taken a number of steps that seem designed to make this round of elections appear more democratic. Putin replaced former Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov -- who was sullied by presiding over previous, compromised votes and endorsing flawed elections in other former Soviet countries -- with Ella Pamfilova, a former liberal Duma deputy and minister in the cabinet of President Boris Yeltsin.
In addition, one-half of the 450 deputies this time will be elected from single-mandate districts, with the other half elected from party candidate lists. Moreover, parties need to poll just 5 percent in order to win party-list mandates, down from 7 percent in the previous election. These are reforms that were proposed under then-President Medvedev following the protests of December 2011.
“I would like to say that I have listened to those who have been speaking about the need for changes and I understand them,” Medvedev said at the time. “We need to give all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life.”
A total of 14 parties -- including a smattering of genuine opposition parties and Kremlin-manipulated spoiler parties ranging from the far right to the far left -- have been cleared to participate. The Communist Party, the A Just Russia party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- all of which are represented in the current Duma -- are considered Kremlin-friendly parties that further the appearance of pluralism but regularly vote with the ruling United Russia party.
At the same time, other developments bolster the Kremlin’s control over the process and the outcome. The charismatic leaders of the 2011-12 opposition are no longer a factor: Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has fled the country after receiving death threats.
The respected independent election monitor Golos and the independent Levada Center polling agency have been officially labeled “foreign agents,” seriously hampering their work, some of which pointed to a recent decline in the popularity of United Russia.
This weekend's vote was also brought forward from December, a move that opposition figures fear will suppress turnout as many voters may choose to spend one of the last weekends of the summer at their dachas. New election legislation significantly shortens the campaign season, too. Even the usually loyal Communist Party voted in the Duma against these changes.
The legally mandated televised debates were shown on state television at 5:50 p.m., which considerably reduced their audience.
“It is 100 percent certain that the authorities don’t want many people to show up,” political analyst and former Duma deputy Igor Yakovenko tells RFE/RL, “and it is clear why. Because if more people show up, it will be more difficult to produce the desired result.”
Even many of the measures that might first appear to increase democracy actually play into the Kremlin’s hands, critics say.
The large number of parties means that even if 20 percent of the vote or more goes to anti-Kremlin parties, it remains likely that none of them will pass the 5 percent hurdle.
The small parties will play the role of “a collective spoiler, gathering about 15 percent altogether but none of them getting more than 1.5 percent individually,” political commentator Aleksandr Morozov tells RFE/RL. “Not one of those parties will get into the Duma, and all their mandates will be distributed among the four parties that do. This is an extremely likely scenario."
Although the restoration of the single-mandate districts offers the best hope for genuine opposition voices to appear in the new Duma, it also presents a powerful opportunity for Putin's former party.
The single-mandate districts “give United Russia a perfect chance to compensate for its falling party-list results,” analyst Stanovaya says. Many of the ruling party’s single-mandate candidates are local officials with close ties to their respective governors, raising the specter of some using administrative resources to secure victories. Stanovaya estimates that even if United Russia polled as low as 40 percent in the party-list voting, it would be able to secure an outright majority of seats by means of the single-mandate districts.
This mixed picture has prompted a sharp debate among Russia’s liberal opposition about a perennial question: whether or not to participate in the process at all.
Oppositionist Khodorkovsky says his Open Russia foundation is participating because “the sensible way forward for the real opposition is to make use of all possible opportunities to demonstrate to society that there is an alternative.”
But self-exiled opposition figure Kasparov argued earlier this month that any participation helps Putin’s government boost its appearance of legitimacy and, by extension, helps legitimize the Kremlin’s claim to the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Those “who go into the elections with the argument that ‘we have to at least do something’ are giving a priceless gift to the Kremlin and its agents in the West,” Kasparov wrote.
“For these elections, I don’t see any good strategy,” analyst Morozov says. “If you go and vote, you won’t get anything. If you don’t vote, you won’t get anything either and you won’t lose anything. Everyone must simply choose for themselves.”
With reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Mikhail Solokov and Yaroslav Shimov