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The Week In Russia: A Dangerous Game Changer

An election official at Polling Station No. 144 in Moscow on September 20
An election official at Polling Station No. 144 in Moscow on September 20

Welcome to The Week In Russia.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk.

Every Friday, I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. Subscribe here.

Amid mounting oppression, the Kremlin walks away with an election -- and heads toward the next one with a new tool that critics contend is being used to fix voting results in its favor. Meanwhile, analysts warn, the problems that have fueled disaffection and prompted protests are going unaddressed as the state resorts to force to maintain control, leaving the future uncertain.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

The Backdrop

It was a new twist on a tired, old standby: The authoritarian leader of a former Soviet republic casting his ballot in a contest that is certain to go his way, as shutters click and cameras roll for the benefit of election-day newscasts on state TV.

But when Russian President Vladimir Putin walked around his desk and tapped briefly at a keyboard, then looked at a screen saying: “Your vote has been recorded,” it heralded the advent of a relatively new and potentially powerful instrument in the Kremlin’s election-control toolkit: online voting.

Introduced in Moscow and six other regions in the September 17-19 elections, online voting may have been instrumental, indeed, in delivering Putin’s desired result: the preservation of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party’s two-thirds majority in the Duma, the country’s lower house of parliament.

Russian President Vladimir Putin votes online at his residence outside Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin votes online at his residence outside Moscow.

The “supermajority” is seen as crucial for the Kremlin as 2024 approaches -- and with it the question of whether Putin will seek another six-year term, after handing himself that option by securing constitutional amendments in 2020, a process that included staging a nationwide vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

If he decides not to stay president, he may seek to retain power through some other post -- even as the head of a union with Belarus, if he can manage to rope Russia’s smaller neighbor even tighter into Russia’s embrace.

Whatever he does, though, he presumably sees a Duma under firm Kremlin control, and one in which United Russia can approve further constitutional changes without the help of other parties, as an important safeguard.

'A Phenomenal Sham'

The Kremlin’s need to keep the Duma on a short leash and provide Putin as many options as possible in 2024 is acute because its ability to rely on his popularity at every turn is not quite what it once was, having faded following a surge sparked by Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and declined further after a highly unpopular retirement-age hike in 2018.

If online voting helped secure a supermajority for United Russia despite its own popularity problems, which polls show are far more dire than Putin’s, it came at a potentially high cost in terms of credibility.

Ahead of the three-day elections, Kremlin opponents and others warned that online voting was opaque, a fresh opportunity for fraud. After the balloting, Cole Harvey, a U.S. political scientist who studies election manipulation, said that e-voting in Russia was “deeply untransparent” and “a game changer.”

Electronic voting is "an absolute evil, a black box” whose contents cannot be verified, Sergei Shpilkin, a researcher who contends that millions of votes for United Russia were falsified, wrote in a September 21 Facebook post detailing his conclusions.

If e-voting is used nationwide in the 2024 presidential election, “monitoring the sanctity of the vote will not even be theoretically possible,” wrote Stanislav Andreichuk, a leader of Golos, an independent vote-monitoring group that has documented allegations and evidence of electoral fraud in numerous Russian elections.

When several Moscow races flipped abruptly in favor of United Russia when the delayed results from e-voting in the capital, the candidates suddenly on the losing side cried foul, as did many Muscovites. Anton Barbashin, editorial director at the Russia-focused media outlet Riddle, said the vote count in the capital was “a phenomenal sham,” and Harvey wrote that it would be “hard to overstate how unusual this degree of fraud is for Moscow.”

'They Have The Scoreboard'

Imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, whose Smart Voting initiative was thwarted in Moscow once the state’s count of the online votes came in, hailed the strategy as a “huge success” but used a sports metaphor to suggest that victory was stolen by the state through fraud, including in the count of ballots cast online.

In a statement on his Instagram account, which is run by associates, he said that “we have united, focused, and, with the help of [Smart Voting], simply smashed our opponents in the match. But they have the scoreboard. And they drew themselves a victory again."

Still, only a few hundred people came to Moscow’s Pushkin Square on September 20 to decry the sudden U-turn in the vote count in the capital, and major protests appear unlikely in the short term for various reasons.

The Communists posted substantial gains in the elections, even according to the official results, but analysts say they are conflicted and, in many cases, too comfortable in their role as part of the “systemic opposition” to mount a real challenge to the Kremlin.

The opposition forces that are outside that system and were kept out of the election, meanwhile -- weakened by a massive clampdown that focused on supporters of Navalny but ranged far beyond his camp, targeting independent voices in civil society, the media, and everyday life -- may struggle to regain momentum.

If the State Duma elections were a “key test of the Kremlin’s capacity to unlevel the electoral playing field and get away with it” -- as Ben Noble and Nikolai Petrov put it in an article published by British-based think tank Chatham House, where both are fellows in the Russia and Eurasia program -- the Kremlin seems to have passed.

Beyond the practical advantages of holding more than 300 of the Duma’s 450 seats, Noble and Petrov wrote, the “symbolism is no less important because retaining a thumping majority helps sustain the narrative of Kremlin dominance which is important regarding different audiences.”

“For the opposition, the goal is to hammer home the message that irrespective of whatever challenge they mount -- including Team Navalny’s tactical Smart Voting project -- the authorities can get the result they want,” they wrote, adding: “For the general population, the goal is to project an image of strength and stability.”

“For the elite, the message is clear,” Noble and Petrov added. “Putin is still very much in charge and people should not be distracted by thinking about a post-Putin future -- especially with the 2024 presidential election emerging on the horizon.”

Fear And The Future

If the Kremlin is planning to use online voting in 2024, it may have to address the concerns about fraud -- though it seems to see little need or no need to do so at this point. But in the meantime, the problems that the elections raised, and those it did not address, will remain.

The “underlying issues which led to growing support for Navalny and the falling approval ratings of United Russia have not gone away. People may now be somewhat accustomed to corruption revelations and footage of ballot stuffing, and egregious violations may become less shocking with repetition,” Noble and Petrov wrote. “But the specter of rising food prices has not disappeared and, if the Kremlin cannot tackle this and other issues, the grip of repression is likely to tighten even further to keep criticism, protest, or dissent under control.”

Several other Russia experts also suggested that the Kremlin was declining to address problems that have promoted growing dissatisfaction among the populace, instead resorting to force and falsified elections to maintain control -- and that this approach may ultimately be unsustainable.

WATCH: Disappearing Ink: Another Item In Russia's Election Bag Of Tricks?

Disappearing Ink: Another Item In Russia's Election Bag Of Tricks?
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In a Twitter thread on September 20, New York-based political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra wrote that “the election might be over, but unlike in democracies where elections resolve legitimacy issues, in autocracies they often create [or] escalate them.”

“The issues defining the campaign are still there and it's questionable if the authorities are able [or] willing to deal [with] them,” he wrote.

“These elections seem more like a halftime than the end of a match, and Russia’s longer-term future remains obscure to all the players as well as the spectators,” Andrew Wood, the British ambassador to Moscow in 1995-2000 and now an associate fellow at Chatham House, wrote in a September 17 comment.

“The extent and intensity of the repressive and dishonest measures used by the authorities against any Russians thought liable to be critical or even liable to differ tells the story of those in power living in fear of what might happen if they lost control,” Wood wrote.

That fear is more likely to lead to further repression than to reform, observers say. According to Wood, Putin “appears to have no fresh political, social, or economic programs in mind which might effectively refurbish his former standing with Russia’s people.”

The longer the concerns shared by millions of citizens “are allowed to fester,” he warned, “the deeper the risk of what could become a conviction that the division in Russia between the present regime and a considerable part of the country can only be resolved by the rejection of those now ruling it.”

That's it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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