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Russian Elections: No Surprises Amid Intensifying Crackdown on Dissent

01 Oct 2021
By Ian Hill
Two automated ballot boxes stuffed with ballots in a polling place in Russia. Source: Alexander Davronov

In Russia’s managed democracy, election outcomes are seldom in doubt.  And so it proved with Russia’s parliamentary elections on 17-19 September.

Despite sub-30 percent polling ahead of the election, the ruling United Russia party won about two thirds of the 450 seats in the Duma, thereby retaining its “super-majority.”  Nationwide, voter turnout was around 50 percent, much the same as in 2016.

The Communist party gained ground, coming in second with 57 seats, followed by the nationalist LPDR with 21 seats.  Along with the smaller minor parties, however, they constitute the approved “systemic opposition,”, and can usually be relied on not to rock the boat.

The election outcome was, then, much as expected. But this was hardly surprising for, as the US, EU, and UK all observed, the election could hardly be described as free and fair.

The Kremlin left nothing to chance. The lead up to the polls saw a harsh crackdown on “non-systemic” (unapproved) opposition. This included outlawing jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organisation as “extremist,” driving his supporters underground or abroad, accompanied by moves to muzzle independent media outlets and civil society, including election monitors, by branding them “foreign agents.”   The authorities succeeded in bullying internet providers into undermining Navalny-inspired online efforts to promote tactical voting, designed to encourage voters to support whatever parties and candidates were best placed to defeat United Russia. This climbdown may come back to haunt the tech giants in future.

While making life as difficult as possible for independent voices, the Kremlin used blandishments to incentivise its support base to vote. The Kremlin doled out special one-off payments to key constituencies: US$200 each to soldiers and policemen, $135 to pensioners, and $130 to families.   State employees and the military were strongly encouraged to vote.

There were numerous allegations of fraud around the election itself, especially in Moscow – all denied by the authorities.  Critics claimed the extended three-day voting period and promotion of online voting (ostensibly to minimise pandemic risk) abetted vote manipulation and made the job of election monitors (exacerbated anyway by the absence of OSCE and other credible foreign observers) more difficult.

If the election outcome was a foregone conclusion, what was the point? Curiously enough, elections do actually matter for the Kremlin.

Symbolically, the Kremlin, like all authoritarian regimes, values the formal legitimacy and veneer of democracy that elections confer. And in practical terms, securing the two-thirds supermajority of seats for United Russia is necessary to ensure the Duma remains essentially a rubber-stamp body. This underscores how Russia’s institutions have been hollowed out, as power is centralised in the Kremlin.

The Kremlin also hopes the election outcome will reinforce popular perceptions of the regime’s strength and stability – and demoralise domestic opponents. And while elections don’t determine who gets to rule Russia, they do provide the rulers with a useful barometer of public sentiment.  And represent a test of the authorities’ ability to control the political system.

Against that performance indicator, the political technologists in the presidential administration will count this election a success.  It will give the Kremlin some confidence in their ability to manage the political process through to the next nationwide poll – the presidential elections in 2024.

But for opposition activists, the outlook is pretty bleak.  In the current repressive climate – which the security hardliners (siloviki) in the Kremlin will have no intention of relaxing ahead of 2024 – it will be difficult for dissenting voices to retain significant public profile or relevance within Russia.

As for the wider Russian populace, the Kremlin will not be unhappy if the prevailing mood of cynical political apathy and disengagement remains.  Long accustomed to a paternalistic society, many ordinary Russians have very little expectation of being able to have much real influence over how or by whom they are governed.

Yet Russia’s problems won’t go away.  Inflation, especially food and utilities, is making it more difficult for Russians to make ends meet. Real incomes are now eleven percent lower than they were in 2013.  Public services are in a sorry state, with schools and hospitals under-funded  – it’s telling that more of the state budget is spent on internal security than on education and healthcare combined.

This feeds popular dissatisfaction. Failure by Moscow to address these concerns risks such discontent festering – especially with economic growth forecast to remain sluggish.  Yet it may be too much to expect fresh thinking from a stale regime.

Is any of this likely to affect how Russia interacts with the rest of the world?  Probably not.  Russia’s latest National Security Strategy suggests the Kremlin is doubling down on its hardline approach. The strategy identifies threats everywhere and in everything.

If Putin feels he has cowed domestic opposition, that may further embolden him in his dealings with outsiders. And the international community should not delude itself that international criticism will change how the Kremlin acts domestically.

Better get used to it. This, then, is Russia’s “new normal.”

Ian Hill was a senior career diplomat in the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  In the course of his 41 year career, Ian was posted three times to Moscow, serving twice as Ambassador (2009-12 and 2016 -20).  He also served as New Zealand’s Deputy Ambassador in Washington DC for five years (2004 – 2009), and as High Commissioner to Tonga (1995-98).  Earlier postings included London and Suva.  Among a range of senior roles in the Ministry in Wellington, Ian was Divisional Manager responsible for Europe in 2012 – 2016, and earlier served as Prime Minister’s Foreign Affairs Adviser for three years (1993-1995).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.