The Kremlin is reportedly planning to ‘punish’ two opposition parties for winning a few races. Here's what that really means.
On September 23, candidates from LDPR won gubernatorial races in Russia’s Vladimir and Khabarovsk regions; in Primorye, election officials recently invalidated the incumbent governor’s runoff victory against his Communist rival; and in Khakassia the acting governor has dropped out of the second round of voting, likely meaning that his Communist challenger will win. The Communist Party and LDPR have already announced that they plan to cooperate and form coalition governments in Vladimir, Khabarovsk, and Abakan. Meanwhile, the newspaper Vedomosti says the Kremlin plans to “punish” the two parties for violating its “agreement” not to challenge United Russia’s near monopoly on political power. Sources in the Putin administration told Vedomosti that the LDPR and Communist candidates in these races were supposed to be merely “technical” opponents who didn’t actually campaign against the incumbents. To learn more about the feasibility of LDPR and the Communist Party joining forces to mount “real opposition” against United Russia — and to know what it could cost the two parties — Meduza turned to Grigorii Golosov, an associate professor of political science and sociology at European University at St. Petersburg.
The results of the recent gubernatorial elections have provided LDPR and the Communist Party with new political resources. In both parties, they realize that the Kremlin faces a dilemma: either it can allow them greater autonomy, thereby winning a higher degree of loyalty, or it can intimidate the parties so they don’t dare dream of autonomous actions even in the distant future. Since the latter hasn’t occurred, both parties are now trying to use their newly acquired resources to realize the first scenario.
It’s bargaining time now. LDPR and the Communist Party aren’t opposition parties in a strict sense. They don’t fight for power; they just want the share of power with which the Kremlin is willing to part. Right now, it’s not clear to them how much the Kremlin will share, and that’s why they’re making these moves today. LDPR and the Communists know from experience that, if you’ve got any resources for aggressive bargaining, you need to use them, as it will only do you good. And the fact that you then turn around and surrender everything when they finally throw you a bone is a separate story.
The creation of a coalition government isn’t such a terrifying threat, and I think the Kremlin has good reason to dismiss the whole thing. Gubernatorial power in Russia is personalized, and the regions lack a parliamentary system that would allow coalition rule in a strict sense. Additionally, governors are embedded in the power vertical, and no matter their party membership they nevertheless toe the Kremlin line, simply in the interests of their region. The parties could threaten to call people into the streets, and this would be genuinely dangerous for the Kremlin, but they’ve made it clear that they want to work within the system as it is. Still, they have to say something to convince the Kremlin that LDPR and the Communist Party aren’t just empty voids.
The Kremlin can do a lot to “punish” these parties. LDPR is a personalistic party, and any blow to Zhirinovsky could effectively destroy it. On the other hand, the Kremlin could keep LDPR for someone else and remove Zhirinovsky, who knows this is entirely possible (and recognizes that it's the greatest threat he faces). The situation with the Communist Party depends similarly on one man: a very elderly Zyuganov, who needs to prepare a successor. This creates excellent opportunities for meddling by the Kremlin, which we already witnessed in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.
The Kremlin has a powerful arsenal it could use against these two parties, but the Putin administration should realize that it could destroy these parties completely, if its actions are too harsh. Then Russia would be left without any convincing official opposition. Leaks [from the Kremlin] are part of the negotiating tactics. Exchanging remarks through the media is part of how the Kremlin and Russia’s official opposition work out their relations, which now need to be rebuilt, to some degree.