Despite the Kremlin’s claim of victory, Putin’s regime is in a weak position in the run-up to the to the 2024 presidential elections.
The Russian parliamentary elections of September 17-19 took place amid a sweeping Kremlin crackdown on the political opposition, independent media and civil society.
The Kremlin sidelined the Navalny network by labeling it extremist, while many other organizations and individuals have been designated as “foreign agents”. Many prominent opposition politicians were not allowed on the ballot, with some arrested and others forced to leave the country. For example, prominent politician Lev Shlosberg of the liberal “Yabloko” party and Anton Furgal, the son of jailed governor Sergey Furgal, have been barred from seeking election. Andrei Pivovarov, former executive director of the opposition “Open Russia” movement, who was previously included in Yabloko’s party list, has been jailed, and Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician and former lawmaker from “A Just Russia” party (from which he was expelled) has left Russia after being detained for allegedly not paying his debts. Not to mention the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny himself. The opposition figures who did make it on the ballot faced pressure and intimidation.
Navalny’s “smart voting” campaign —a strategy aimed to oust the candidates from the ruling party, United Russia, by tactically casting votes in favor of candidates from other parties —offered hope for change. It encountered major setbacks when the Big Tech succumbed to the Putin regime’s pressure, with companies like Google and Apple removing “smart voting” apps from their online stores on the first day of the elections. Russia’s Yandex removed Navalny’s voting website from its search engine and the messaging app Telegram blocked chat bots used by Navalny’s team to promote “smart voting”.
The opposition had hoped to break United Russia’s two-thirds majority threshold in parliament to establish a meaningful independent faction. However, according to the official announcement of the Russian Central Election Committee, United Russia still managed to secure 324 seats (down from 334 seats in 2016) out of 450. The ruling party received 49.8 % of the votes cast for party lists, giving United Russia 126 out of 225 deputy mandates and 198 out of 225 seats distributed through single-mandate districts.
This outcome, however, does not reflect the declining level of support for the United Russia party – which, according to independent pollster the Levada Center, saw historically low ratings at 30% prior to the elections – but is the product of large-scale falsification. In addition to standard tactics like pressuring state employees to vote for the ruling party and ballot-stuffing at polling stations, in this election, electronic voting, especially in Moscow, has been alleged to have been manipulated to secure the win for United Russia candidates. In Moscow, electronic voting results have been reversed in many electoral districts where “smart voting” candidates were previously winning. The Insider investigative outfit estimates that the result was changed in at least 8 out of 15 districts.
When the polls opened, there were few independent election observers and no international observers from the OSCE – the Kremlin had demanded that observation efforts be minimized due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The US State Department issued a statement saying that the Duma elections “took place under conditions not conducive to free and fair proceeding”. The EU has issued a statement by its High Representative Josep Borrell, noting that it is “deeply concerned over the continuous pattern of shrinking space for the opposition, civil society and independent voices across Russia”. Neither the US nor the EU recognize the elections for the Russian parliament conducted “on sovereign Ukrainian territory”.
“The EU needs to be ready not to recognize Duma elections as legitimate,” said Andrius Kubilius, a member of the European Parliament (EP) from Lithuania, during an online discussion “Russian Dialogues: 2021 Legislative ‘Elections’” that he hosted on September 23. The Lithuanian MEP, who serves as a standing rapporteur on Russia and chair of an informal platform of the EP called the Friends of European Russia Forum, emphasized that the elections should be qualified with the prefix “so-called”.
Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician associated with Alexei Navalny’s team who took part in the discussion, said that the outcome of the elections was disappointing for the opposition.
“We hoped that in many races opposition candidates would be able to beat United Russia,” he said. He added that the opposition had sought to bring down United Russia’s parliamentary presence to below 40% and to defeat the governors of the ruling party. “This hasn’t happened,” he said.
Nevertheless, the large popular support for the “smart voting” campaign made the protest movement in these elections very visible. Russians are “fed up with the system, with Putin and his government” and the opposition still managed to mobilize people despite the crackdown, said Milov.
“We can deliver further significant blows to Putin’s system,” he added.
Milov said that United Russia’s result of less than 50% by proportional party lists – despite the fraud – shows that the regime has lost its “organic support”. The election can be seen as a failed “referendum” on Putin, who was actively involved in United Russia’s campaign, notably announcing one-off cash payments to Russia’s pensioners and military service personnel to boost the party’s popularity.
Milov cited numbers from an independent election analyst Sergey Shpilkin, who estimated that approximately half of the 27 million votes claimed by United Russia were fraudulent. Without these fraudulent votes, the ruling party’s support would have been around 30%, corresponding to fewer than 200 seats in the Russian Parliament – far below the constitutional majority.
This does not put the Kremlin and Putin in a strong position ahead of the 2024 presidential elections – and they know it – said Milov.
Russian opposition politician and former Vice President of Free Russia Foundation Vladimir Kara-Murza said that the last democratic election in Russia was the parliamentary election of December 1999.
He noted that according to the independent vote-monitoring organization Golos, there are 9 million people in Russia who are precluded from running in elections for various reasons. “In 1927, there were approximately 3 million of them in USSR,” Kara-Murza added.
The current absence of protests and the silence of the Russian public is “deceiving and temporary,” said Kara-Murza, and the situation may explode in 2024, when “Putin, no doubt, will attempt to extend his presidential mandate”.
“When governments cannot be changed at the ballot box, they are sooner or later changed by the street,” he said. “And this is where the current regime is leading us, as for the past 20-plus years now, the Kremlin has done everything to dismantle and destroy all opportunity for Russian citizens to be able to change the government at the ballot box”.
Russian journalist and political commentator Konstantin Eggert agreed that 2024 will test the regime. This is especially likely if Putin decides to stay on and the Russian political elite will have to decide whether they “really want to stick with him.” The divide may grow between the people at the very top and those in lower power echelons, he added.
In the meantime, the opposition has to re-think its strategy on how to challenge the Kremlin, said Eggert, who himself supports a tactic of boycotting all elections rather than trying to break the system by participating in them.
“You don’t play cards with the mafia. Essentially, if we say that these people are illegitimate, we have to show they are illegitimate by not voting,” he said. “It is a so-called election. It is a so-called president. It is a so-called constitution and, frankly speaking, these are so-called political parties that took part in this farce,” said Eggert. Approved parties are a “department of the presidential administration under different labels,” he said.