Grigory Golosov
Grigory Golosov
Political analyst, Professor of European University in St. Petersburg
To hack elections. How to turn a boycott into political instrument

Every single time when Russia faces upcoming elections, there are appeals being heard to boycott them. It is crucial, however, to do that in a right way.

The Mayor Yevgeny Roizman of Yekaterinburg upon having enlisted the support of the Yabloko party was nominated as a candidate for the position of the governor of the Sverdlovsk region. Some time has passed after which Roizman refused to take part in the elections, giving an explanation that he could have obtained a sufficient number of signatures of the municipal deputies. In other words, to get a pass through the so-called municipal filter. And since in the interim of this development of events Roizman has arrived to the conclusion that only those candidates, who have managed to get the approval of the authorities could pass the said filter, he decided that the elections were not legitimate and called upon citizens to boycott the procedures of the elections. Shortly after that Alexei Navalny has joined him in the appeal.

Playing the imitation game

To any knowledgeable observer Roizman’s attempt seemed to be doomed to failure from the get go. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult to even apply the very concept of “illegitimate elections” to the procedure used for the appointment of governors in today’s Russia. This procedure only becomes somewhat similar of the same notion to that one of the elections proper in the narrow, technical sense that there also are: electoral committees, voters, ballot boxes and ballots involved in it. However, if one were to put a true literal implication into the word “elections,” which suggests first and foremost the fact that there are several potential variations of the outcome, and second of all, that the result depends on the expression of the will of the citizens, then in this particular case there is nothing of the kind that is happening. This procedure is not an election. The very purpose of the municipal filter’s existence is to keep that similarity remaining as simply precursory.

Roizman is one of the most experienced Russian politicians, and naturally so, he is aware of these circumstances not in any lesser degree than I am. Nevertheless, nobody can call his idea of nominating himself for the position of the governor stupid. There is a subtle peculiarity present in this case. Yes, the only way that one can self-nominate himself for this position at the gubernatorial elections is by securing a prior approval from the Kremlin, not to even mention winning them. However, the essence of the game, which we call gubernatorial elections, is exactly in making incumbent governors more vulnerable, to place them in the position of potential take down and replacement, which is factually sanctioned by the Kremlin, without having to bear any official responsibility for doing so. As a matter of fact, this simply is just an additional lever to control the governor’s cabinet even more so effectively. Nonetheless, in order for this lever to be efficient it is vital to set the threat into action from time to time. In the year of 2015, the governor of Irkutsk region – Sergei Eroschenko lost to the Communist Party nominee Sergei Levchenko. As of now, in full harmony with the Kremlin Levchenko reigns in his region.

Yevgeny Roizman, Mayor of Ekaterinburg

It is neither a sin, nor is it stupidity to count on such a potential outcome of events. One cannot exclude the possibility that if Roizman would have been approved, and would have gotten a pass through the municipal filter during his campaign then he might have demonstrated his excellent political qualities to the Kremlin so clearly and obviously that the President’s Administration would have, indeed really thought about the possibility of replacing the current governor. And why not? Yes, Roizman is not completely predictable, his loyalty cannot be reckoned as a guaranteed one, but one cannot call him a complete outsider either. And the next year, by hook or by crook someone ought to lure the residents of Yekaterinburg to go out to the polling stations for Putin’s election. It would be fine if Putin were to get a tad less of the votes. Nonetheless, the turnout would be quite substantial.

That is the kind of motivation that Roizman might have attributed to the Kremlin when he self –nominated for the governor’s position. Additionally so, he could have quite sensitively so expected that the federal center would stop on some kind of “in the middle of the road” version, that is to register him for the participation in the procedure, but to not allow him to become a governor. The Sverdlovsk Region is vast, and all the votes cast outside Ekaterinburg then could have been attributed to the incumbent governor. However, at the very same time, upon having received massive support in the regional capital, Roizman would have significantly strengthened his position of a mayor, in other words, he would have claimed a pure net – victory.

Now it has become obvious that the Kremlin did not take advantage of any of these plausible strategies. By this token, by the way, it has indicated to Roizman that he was not bound to keep his mayor’s chair for too long either. So it does not strike anyone as a surprise that in his response Roizman played double or nothing game and started talking about boycotting the elections. Evidently so, in his rational he had nothing in particular left there for him to lose. And this is a valid strategy – if you cannot at the very least act snarly and growl back in such situation, then they will absolutely stop taking you seriously. Although, it is quite apparent that now Roizman will be forced to continue his fight for his political survival in even far less favorable conditions than the ones he was placed in previously. He has lost that battle.

Hacking the elections

At this point the localized part of this story ends, and the nationwide part of having something to do not so much with Roizman per se, but with Navalny proper unravels. It is of common knowledge that his strategy has always been targeted at the maximum utilization of the opportunities for fighting options access to which the Russian political regime is still keeping open. It would be sufficient enough to recollect the campaign of 2011: “Vote for any other party.” Even as of today, there remains an effort at the center of Navalny’s activity on attempting to take part in the presidential elections, in which, as every single acting participant knows just as well as any of all those narrowly informed observers do he would not have been allowed to participate in a million years. However, there is no mistake in here: the creation of the regional electoral headquarters makes a significant contribution into building the foundation of Navalny’s organizational base in the field, and the lack of such foundation has always been the main gap in the resources available for this politician.

Thus, the idea of boycotting the elections does not quite come across as a natural one for Navalny. However, I suppose, that if it were to be applied properly, it could then turn out to be fruitful. It is just important to realize how to utilize it properly. Appeals to boycott the elections can be heard during each and every single Russian election campaign. As a general rule, such appeals do not result in any particular outcome that would be useful for the opposition. These campaigns mostly take place in the internet space, so they only reach those target audiences the regular participants of which already are a no show up at the polling stations as it is. As a result, a decrease in the turnout of the voters, which quite obviously should be perceived as a major potential result of such campaigning, given of course that there even is any drop in the numbers at all that is actually taking place. And even then it happens on a minimal scale. Propaganda and administrative mobilization of the voters invariably so enable the authorities to attract an acceptably big number of citizens, who are oblivious to their social duties to the voting stations. And if this is not the case, then the falsification of the turnout results comes into play.

Alexey Navalny, Russian opposition leader

There is not a single example in the international practice when a boycott of the elections would have resulted in a collapse of the authoritarian regime. Quite the opposite, there are several instances available from Poland to Georgia, in which vulnerable dictators upon having decided to conduct the elections, either lost them or provoked mass disapproval of the people because of an unfair ballot count, which led to the collapse of their regimes. It goes without saying that participation of the opposition in the elections is a crucial condition for such scenarios. Another thing that is also quite apparent is that in modern conditions of today’s Russia real opposition cannot participate in the elections. Well, then why does one even talk about boycotting the elections? If the citizens do not think of the elections as elections proper, then it is dumb to even go to the voting stations as it is, and it does not require any call to boycott them.

The correct way of boycotting elections.

However, I shall repeat myself yet again, there is some logic in the idea of the boycotting the elections. By the international standards, the circumstances that exist in Russia are not unique. Opposition parties around the world are well informed about the miniscule influence effect that the boycotts have on the results of the elections. Nevertheless, the calls to boycott the elections are heard on quite a regular basis, and this is happening not just for the sake of having the turnout volume decreased.  As a general rule, the opposition calls for a boycott of the elections for the sake of its own organizational self -preservation and its further development.

The fact of the matter is that campaigns for boycotting elections do not necessarily have to take place in a format of a slight rustle over the Internet, as it has always been the case in Russia. Similarly to any other large – scaled political campaign they must lead towards the mobilization of all active powers available through the creation of organizational structures, and by mobilizing other citizens for participation in a massive public event format. Thus, the boycott does get transformed, but not into a non-participation, but it rather becomes a true participation, a prominent and noticeable gesture for the general public.

Intrinsically so, it is the organized activity proper that constitutes that very pivotal condition under which the boycott of the elections could become a strategy, that is capable of bearing fruit. Perhaps, Navalny will succeed in combining this activity, which ties his unrealistic prospect of taking part in the presidential elections up with a campaign to boycott the elections in one of the biggest cities in Russia. Then, in the long run, he will remain in the winning positive gain streak, and that more than justifies the appeals to boycott the elections.

This article first appired at the Republic site.