With less than a month left before Russia’s State Duma elections, President Vladimir Putin has begun campaigning for his United Russia party, offering both political and material support.
It is obvious that the ruling party is far less popular than Putin himself, and it seems that in the final stretch of the campaign, the Kremlin’s political managers finally realized that without Vladimir Putin, their approval ratings leave a lot to be desired, and something urgent has to be done.
Putin has been unequivocal that United Russia is his party. He has participated in a meeting with party candidates and keynoted the party convention. Putin has formally endorsed leaders of the party list, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This suggests that the data regularly circulated by pro-government sources greatly exaggerates the popularity of both Ministers Shoigu and Lavrov. On their own, the two of them do not evoke any enthusiasm among voters.
Putin’s financial backing for the United Russia’s campaign has been unprecedented. Twice in the same week, he offered public guarantees of cash payments to Russian citizens—first at the meeting with United Russia candidates, and again— at the party convention. During the first speech, details of a timeline for these payments were sketchy, and one could easily infer that they would probably take place after the election and conditioned on positive outcome. At the United Russia party convention, however, Putin made an explicit promise to make the payments, regardless of the election results. It is entirely possible that between the first and second speeches, research confirmed that Russian citizens were skeptical that they would actually receive these promised cash payments that appeared to hinge on election results. In any case, in Putin’s second speech, he was much clearer and far more generous.
Putin’s plans to hand out money before these elections first were floated last year, when, just before a vote on amendments to the constitution, certain groups of citizens suddenly received cash benefits. Officially, they were compensation for losses incurred during the pandemic. In practice, though, everyone understood that these payments were connected to the votes Putin needed for eliminating presidential term limits.
The upcoming State Duma elections have confirmed what everyone had already guessed. During his speech at the Federal Assembly on April 21 of this year, Putin announced payments for families with children – up to RUB 10,000 (around $125) per child. Officially, the payments were tied to the beginning of school year, which in Russia always starts on September 1. The three-day vote for State Duma deputies ends on September 19, making it difficult to deny the real reason for the payments. Putin then highlighted that people should not expect their payments immediately, in August, but rather on the eve of the elections. This naturally led to a public outcry and accusations that he was attempting to bribe voters.
Probably by some point last spring, Kremlin strategists had realized that the payments would be sufficient to improve the electorate’s mood just prior to the elections. But given that in August, Putin again promised new, large-scale payments, the effects of earlier announcements on the voters’ attitudes had fallen short of expectations.
Another, more likely possibility is that as of August 2021, United Russia’s approval ratings are so low, that drastic measures had to be taken. We can’t ignore the fact that the money that are expected to be disbursed immediately before the elections are going to two groups of citizens traditionally considered as Putin’s voting base. Putin has promised RUB 10,000 to Russian pensioners. The fact that additional measures are required to keep pensioners’ loyalty is easy to interpret as evidence that Putin’s popularity and that of his party are falling, even among this traditional stronghold. Of course, none of this comes as any surprise in a context of rising prices for groceries and home utilities, as pensioners tend to be the first to feel the effects of those changes. Of course, a one-time payment may not be sufficient change society’s mood – after all, prices continue to climb, and pensioners still believe that the state could pay them more if it wanted to, but only does so rarely, and right before elections.
Even more remarkable was the announcement that all law enforcement officers would also be receiving payments. Initially, the payments were only supposed to be for military personnel, but in the end, anyone in uniform, whether military or police, including cadets, was promised RUB 15,000. On one hand, this looks like a bit of encouragement to the regime’s guards before the protests that are likely to break out after the elections. On the other hand, paying the military, looks like an attempt at mitigating dissatisfaction among the ranks. It is now known that a significant percent of several military units actually voted against constitutional amendments last year. There is another possible major motivation – Russia has many law enforcement officers, and Putin simply found a way to distribute money to the widest circle of people he could prior to the elections.
According to various estimates, one way or another, the payments will be distributed to up to half of the Russian electorate, which would make it the most wide-spread, brazen attempt at buying votes for a ruling party through direct cash payments from the state budget. While we will only be able to evaluate the success of this effort after the publication of election results, it is already safe to assume that distributing money is sure to have an effect. Some people already feel they are now obliged to vote for Putin’s party. The cash payments are also laying the groundwork for something else—should the election results be absurdly in favor of United Russia despite its low approval ratings, it would be easily for the Kremlin to explain its sudden spike in popularity – after all, people have just received money!
Attempting to improve the ruling party’s popularity before elections through widespread, direct cash payments to tens of millions of voters is a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. Not so long ago, people assumed that Putin was so popular that his support alone was enough to ensure any United Russia candidate’s victory. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, it seemed that Putin was going to ride the “Crimean consensus” wave until the end of his political career, guaranteeing his party’s victory every time he brought up his 2014 geopolitical feats.
Seven years later, we can see that neither Putin nor his party can count on his personal popularity. The Russian authorities do not offer messages or platforms capable of inspiring Russian voters to come out and support them. Even when the political field has been cleared out of all critics and set up to be ripe for voter fraud and election rigging, Putin is not feeling so confident anymore. Even in the face of an election devoid of competitors, he still has to pay people to vote for his party.
What is happening in Russia right now should put an end to any claims of Putin’s overwhelming popularity among Russian citizens (and even more so, to those of Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov). It should also dispel any expectations of Putin’s ability to offer a vision for mobilizing and uniting the nation. The only thing that Putin can give Russia’s impoverished population is a one-time pittance of a payment from the state budget, right before elections. To those dissatisfied with his regime, he has long offered a choice between silence and repression.
In 2021, Putin’s regime relies on buying votes, voter fraud and election rigging, and threats to anyone who doesn’t agree with all of this. When it comes to any ideas, personal popularity, or Russian voters rallying around Putin, the train has long since left the station.