Refusing to recognize the State Duma elections and their results as an effective means of
pressuring the Putin regime.
Time and again, the Putin regime has flaunted its indifference, if not outright contempt, for any statements on democracy and human rights in Russia from any Western politician or international organization. Rather than taking the regime’s declarations at face value, we should interpret them as attempts at discouraging Western criticism of Putin’s dictatorship and domestic policies, or from any harsh reactions to harassment and intimidation of the opposition or blatantly rigged elections.
The Kremlin’s greatest hope is that American and European politicians become convinced that nothing they do or say will affect the Russian regime, and they simply wash their hands of the matter altogether. This is also precisely why we should not, under any circumstances, ease international pressure on the Putin regime. In fact, the international community currently has a unique opportunity to demonstrate its steadfast resolve in opposing authoritarianism in Russia, while putting Putin in a very uncomfortable political position.
In September, Russia will hold elections for the State Duma, its legislative body. It is already clear that these elections will be the freest and fairest in post-Soviet Russian history. We must also keep in mind that the crudest methods for manipulating votes during the election and then while tallying results cannot compare to the most effective technology there is for falsifying election results- simply refusing to allow members of the real opposition to take part. Through intensified repression, intimidation, criminal charges, and even attempts at physically removing Putin’s opponents from the country, the Kremlin has managed to create a situation in which members of the opposition not only have no hopes of winning, but cannot even run for office.
The only option left for Russia’s opposition-minded citizens is Aleksey Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy. However, the best that this strategy can hope to achieve is to create stress on the system Putin created, in which the Duma ends up with a mixed bag of deputies rather than the regime’s pre-anointed winners. There is no guarantee that they would be any improvement on those to whom the regime had promised victory on a silver platter, but it might provoke the Kremlin into some sort of reaction with unpredictable consequences that might drive the regime into turmoil.
But all of this is a domestic Russian issue, and the West’s position is of no significance. So- what can the West do?
The answer lies in the statements made by high-level leadership within Russia. When speaking to students at Far Eastern University in Vladivostok, Russian Foreign Minister and a leader of the United Russia Party, Sergei Lavrov, stated, “We can predict that on the eve of the upcoming State Duma elections, there will be new attempts at undermining and destabilizing the situation, and provoking some kind of protests, which are likely to be violent, as the West is wont to do. They will likely follow up with a campaign aimed at not recognizing the results of our elections. We are already aware of their plans… I want to be clear- this plot hatched by the West will not be come to fruition… anyone who organizes provocations against us of any kind will come to regret it”.
Setting aside for a moment the ritual accusations that the West is instigating protests in Russia, and violent ones at that, and threats to any potential “provocateurs,” if we examine this statement more closely, it becomes much more interesting when we pick out the part on refusing to recognize the Russian election results. By even bringing it up, Lavrov has inadvertently revealed what the Kremlin secretly fears. After all, the authorities already know how to deal with protests within Russia- there is no doubt that any demonstrations in the street will be brutally crushed. But- what do they do if the West simply refuses to accept the results of the Duma elections? The Kremlin simply does not know. It hopes that this does not happen, and that after it has falsified elections from start to finish, Western capitals continue to receive “parliamentary delegations” comprised entirely of compliant former Kremlin officials and retired members of law enforcement.
This leads us to ask a very reasonable question- why does the Putin regime even care about whether or not the West recognizes State Duma elections? North Korea also has elections every now and then, but no one there seems to care about the international community’s response. For 70 years, the Soviet authorities held fraudulent elections that were heavily criticized by the West, but no one even batted an eye.
Contrary to popular belief in many circles, the West’s acceptance of election results is extremely important to Vladimir Putin and the entire apparatus he has built. What’s more, Putin’s rule has been based on the West’s accepting election results from the very beginning, when he was presented to the Russian public and international community as Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, and Yeltsin’s inner circle then orchestrated his 2000 presidential election victory- which was disputed by no one, either in Russia or abroad.
If Putin wanted to cancel all elections and was sure he could get away with it, he would have done so a long time ago. It is difficult to say what he really wants, but it is clear that he cannot simply do away with elections. Why not? Because without elections, there is absolutely nothing underpinning his power and authority. The tsars inherited their power, fully in line with Russian laws and international standards at the time. The Soviet authorities ran a dictatorship all those years, but legitimized it through an ideology that was allegedly in the best interest of the majority of USSR citizens.
Putin is not a legitimate monarch, and if he were to declare himself emperor in the 21st century, he would be viewed not so much as on the same level as the tsars, but as a laughingstock, both within Russia and abroad. His regime also has no particular ideology justifying his kleptocracy’s authority.
Prior to Putin’s mandate, Russia was not a dictatorship. Under his rule, however, it has gradually become just that. Putin cannot act like a leader in North Korea who inherited his authority from the previous dictator in an already-established dictatorship. In fact, Putin himself constantly reminds us that his rise to power and continued rule are both fully in line with Russian legislation. In order to gain the right to remain in power, in 2020, Putin had to rewrite the constitution, burying the clauses allowing him to continue his mandate among many others, most of which are meaningless or openly demagogic.
Elections are in fact the only thing sustaining Putin’s authority, and even if the significance of the entire process was forgotten and distorted long ago, it is the cornerstone of the entirety of his personal power. But there is an important nuance here- for Putin, it is not enough to hold elections and ensure his own victory and that of his party. He also needs them to be accepted by the West, in order to later argue with Western politicians in a language they understand- “If you recognize the Russian election results, even with reservations, you have to accept everything that the leaders elected by Russian citizens do, along with the leaders themselves!”
For this reason, refusing to recognize the results of the State Duma elections might be an important source of pressure on Putin and the Russian regime, while also creating a very stressful situation for the Kremlin as a whole. If the West follows through with this, Vladimir Putin will have to seriously consider how to respond if the 2024 presidential elections lead to a similar reaction. His crystal ball may be right next door in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko was swiftly ostracized after the international community refused to accept his electoral victory claims, and is only hanging onto power thanks to Putin’s own support. In a similar situation, who could Putin turn to? Russia’s commercial and political elite are much more powerful and influential than those in Belarus, and they are unlikely to remain loyal to Putin if his authority is delegitimized.
The West’s refusal to recognize the results of September’s parliamentary elections or the new State Duma may become a decisive factor in changing Russia’s political landscape. The threat of delegitimizing the parliament, and then a Russian President who was elected against a backdrop of terror might even force some factions of Russia’s administrative, law enforcement, or commercial elite, if not Putin himself, to make crucial steps toward steering the country back to a normal path of development and shedding the dictatorship that has driven the entire Russian government to a dead end of illegitimacy and isolation.