Oleg Shein might seem like a perfect choice of a candidate to challenge the ruling-party incumbent in the race for governor in Russia’s Astrakhan Oblast.
A State Duma deputy who endured a 40-day hunger strike to press allegations of electoral fraud back in 2012, Shein polls well and his name is known beyond the southern region on the Caspian Sea.
Maybe too perfect.
On June 28, the A Just Russia party declined to nominate Shein, who would have put up some stiff competition for acting Governor Igor Babushkin, a career Federal Security Service (FSB) officer from the faraway Yaroslavl Oblast who was appointed to the post weeks earlier.
That potential competition, analysts say, is exactly why A Just Russia backed off, flawlessly playing its role as a Kremlin-controlled party that is nominally in the opposition but in reality serves the interests of President Vladimir Putin.
A Just Russia has followed a similar line in several regions that are among those holding gubernatorial or legislative elections on September 8, political analyst Aleksandr Kynev of the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics told RFE/RL.
"If you look at some of these regions, there are very strong State Duma deputies from A Just Russia," Kynev said. "Chelyabinsk Oblast has Valery Gartung. Gartung has announced he will not run. Instead of Gartung, A Just Russia is nominating one of his aides.
"In Astrakhan Oblast, Oleg Shein is a man who regularly polls very well, a man with a national reputation who won a single-mandate Duma seat in Astrakhan Oblast. The situation there is unclear and it appears the regional party conference wanted to nominate him, but the federal leadership said no."
The process of fielding candidates for the September races is still under way, but government critics say it is already becoming apparent that the so-called systemic opposition – the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and A Just Russia, which purport to oppose United Russia but often vote in lockstep with it – is bent on clearing a path for the ruling party.
A similar pattern emerged in last year's regional elections, when the Communist Party did not nominate candidates in strongholds like Altai Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Omsk Oblast, or Novosibirsk Oblast. Voters in the Amur Oblast, an LDPR stronghold, had no chance to vote for a candidate from firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist party.
We are seeing governors en masse entering the elections as so-called independent candidates. I think the reason is perfectly clear."-- political analyst Aleksandr Kynev
Governors of 16 regions will be elected on September 8, including the city of St. Petersburg. Fourteen regions and the city of Moscow will select legislative assemblies, and 21 other cities will choose municipal councils.
Going back a few years, provincial campaigns have sometimes featured fierce competition between United Russia and the Communist Party, LDPR, and A Just Russia – the only other parties in parliament. The disappearance of candidates from the systemic opposition is just one of the strange phenomena seen across Russia as the Kremlin's "managed democracy" enters a tricky election season.
The post-Crimea popularity bump that Putin and the ruling United Russia party got after the 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula has worn away.
Putin's own popularity ratings have dipped, while those of United Russia, the government, the Duma, and other institutions of power have plummeted as a result of unpopular developments such as the raising of retirement ages, the expansion of garbage dumps in many regions, the introduction of road tariffs for long-haul truckers, and the perceived abuse of law enforcement powers to quash dissent.
The latest polling by the state-run All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) shows United Russia with about 34 percent support. According to an April poll by the independent Levada Center, just 25 percent of Muscovites said they are prepared to give their votes to United Russia.
"United Russia's rating is about 30 percent," Moscow-based sociologist Denis Volkov said. "A little more, a little less. In the large cities, it is more like 25 percent. That is, it is nowhere near the 50 percent that we saw right after Crimea when there were no problems…and everyone ran under the United Russia banner."
While United Russia's ratings have tanked, the ratings of the systemic opposition parties have hardly budged -- ranging from 15 percent to 6 percent.
Some respondents who have told pollsters they were unable to answer “will only make up their minds on election day," Volkov said. "Partially, of course, they will in the end vote for [United Russia], but it isn't the sort of unqualified and reliable support that has been there in the past."
The antipathy facing the ruling party has prompted it to roll out a raft of tactics aimed at ensuring Kremlin-friendly results at all levels. The period for nonparty candidates to submit valid signatures in support of their candidacies ends on July 5, making this the crucial period for managing the outcome of the election even though voters will only go to the polls in September.
"The signature requirement itself is prohibitive," political analyst Yekaterina Schulmann said in a post on her YouTube vlog on June 27. "It was created for that purpose. It was written precisely so that no unwelcome candidates could even make it onto the ballot paper."
United Russia has also adopted the tactic of running its candidates as "independents" rather than under the party logo. The ruling party, for example, currently controls 85 percent of the seats in Moscow's City Duma. However, officially it is not participating in the current campaign. All of its deputies are going through the motions of gathering signatures as "independent candidates," although as party candidates they would be given slots on the ballots automatically.
Perhaps the most notable of these "independent" politicians is City Duma Deputy Chairman Andrei Metelsky, who has served in the legislature since 2001 and is the secretary of the Moscow regional United Russia organization and a member of the party's national presidium. Although he has won four terms as a United Russia candidate, he is now seeking a fifth as an "independent."
Opposition politician Yulia Galyamina, who is struggling to gather signatures to run for a seat in the Moscow City Duma, has observed United Russia's tactics on the ground in her district.
"The mayor's office has excellent political consultants who know how to run focus groups, opinion polls, and so on," she told RFE/RL. "They understand that if they run from United Russia, they will simply lose. So the situation now is very strange: They are filling every district with several pro-government candidates. Why they are doing this, I don't know. We will only understand when the registration process is finished."
United Russia's gubernatorial hopefuls are also running away from the party's tarnished brand. St. Petersburg acting Governor Aleksandr Beglov is collecting signatures as an independent. Astrakhan's Babushkin is also suddenly on his own. In Sakhalin Oblast, the story is the same.
"We are seeing governors en masse entering the elections as so-called independent candidates," analyst Kynev said. "I think the reason is perfectly clear: They do not want to be associated with the United Russia brand so that they won't have to face inconvenient questions about the pension reforms, about taxes, about the garbage issue, and many other things.
"It is a pretty transparent tactic," he added. "It might fool some people, but I think a lot will depend on whether their opponents point it out or not."
In some cities, the laws have been rewritten to reduce or eliminate legislative mandates selected by party lists. In many areas, the words "United Russia" will not appear on ballot papers at all.
Genuinely independent candidates – many of them associated with the Anti-Corruption Foundation of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny – struggle to collect the necessary signatures. Russians living in high-crime cities are reluctant to open their doors to strangers canvassing door-to-door, while volunteers gathering signatures in public places are often subjected to threats, harassment, and violence by unidentified groups of thugs.
Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer with Navalny's foundation who is trying to get on the ballot for the Moscow City Duma, has seen her volunteers attacked and her posters smeared with feces.
In St. Petersburg, obviously fake candidates have clogged up election commission offices so thoroughly that genuine candidates have been unable even to file the necessary papers. Candidates and their supporters have been harassed by police to such an extent that Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova on June 27 threatened to cancel the municipal elections in the northern capital altogether.
The apparent purpose of much of this harassment is to prevent such candidates from collecting the necessary quantity of signatures and relieve local election commissions, as much as possible, of the politically volatile task of invalidating their submissions and refusing to register them.
During the 2018 regional election cycle, the authorities also implemented numerous schemes aimed at suppressing voter turnout, thereby giving more weight to United Russia's reliable electorate of state-sector workers and pensioners as well as making falsification easier.
Political Climate Change
Analyst Kynev expects similar efforts this year, although the political climate may make the task more difficult, at least in Moscow.
"I think the main enemy of the authorities in these elections is politicization," he said, suggesting that many Russians now want their voices to be heard.
"They wanted to carry out the vote as quietly as possible, for people to sit at their dachas and water their flowers…and think as little as possible about the elections. But as we are seeing now in Moscow, this scenario seems unlikely. We are seeing a chain of events that is increasing politicization,” Kynev said.
"Today, they are afraid of only one thing," he concluded. "They are afraid of mass, collective actions. It is important to understand this."