You’re better off this way How the Kremlin canceled public politics in 2020
The principles of Russian politics changed beyond recognition last year. In-person voting held over multiple days (first introduced as a temporary pandemic measure) was codified and made permanent, supposedly for voters’ convenience, guaranteeing victory for the authorities’ candidates (even in regions where protest sentiment is high). The State Duma hastily adopted a series of repressive laws that complicated election monitoring, campaigning, and peaceful forms of protest. The authorities tried to remove society from political participation and distance the public from any decision-making, as the country prepares for new parliamentary elections in 2021. At first glance, these efforts have been a success, so far.
“How can they possibly expect such results? Where are they going to find these people who will support the amendments?” a high-ranking ruling party official in Russia’s Central Federal District told Meduza, ahead of a national plebiscite on constitutional reforms. The Kremlin planned in advance to turn out at least half of all eligible voters and win with at least 50 percent of the vote.
A political strategist who works with officials in Russia’s North-Western District told Meduza that he suspected the Kremlin would offer a “discount,” in terms of turnout and voting results, to areas with lower regime loyalty, anticipating that places like Tatarstan, Bashkiria, and the North Caucasus would compensate for lower numbers and keep the Putin administration’s 50/50 objective within reach. “[In the Kremlin] they understand that people in the north are reluctant to vote and more protest-inclined,” he said.
The constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin laid out in a major speech in January 2020 presented his administration with what seemed at the time like a nearly impossible task. Despite the Kremlin’s attempts to highlight new social-spending pledges (the indexation of pensions and welfare benefits, raising the minimum wage to the subsistence level, and so on), Russians correctly understood what the president was after. Within weeks, half of all respondents in a Levada Center poll said they were certain that Putin wanted to change the Constitution in order to maintain his grip on power (perhaps through some new government office, like the State Council). It quickly became clear that many people no longer trusted the authorities, whatever the Kremlin promised. To make matters more difficult for the Putin administration, the presidential legislation amending the Constitution stipulated that the proposal should be put to a national vote and win a majority, in order to take effect.
In March, State Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova suggested a last-minute addition to the constitutional amendments, all but declaring the Kremlin’s true intentions: reset Vladimir Putin’s presidential term clock and allow him to run for another two six-year presidential terms. With the authorities’ ratings among voters still hurting from lawmakers’ decision two years earlier to raise Russia’s retirement age, the electorate’s position on “zeroing” Putin’s term clock was ambiguous. There seemed to be too few Russians who would support another six, let alone 12, years. Led by Sergey Kiriyenko, the president’s domestic policy team set about achieving the impossible. Admittedly, to pull this off, Kiriyenko effectively had to kill off public politics in Russia.
Who knows how Russia’s constitutional plebiscite might have played out without the coronavirus pandemic, but the plague ended up being decisive. Under the pretext of public safety (though the Kremlin, of course, could simply have postponed the vote entirely), the Putin administration (technically, Russia’s Central Election Commission) concocted a new scheme whereby voting would stretch across multiple days — a full week, in fact, from June 25 until July 1 (though the first six days were officially called “voting before voting day”).
With the plebiscite in the country’s rearview, officials then enshrined in law the idea of multiple-day voting, permitting election commissions to extend voting to three days and allow ballot collecting outside formal polling stations. The pandemic’s mark on Russia’s electoral system is now permanent.
Drawing out the voting process effectively smothered falsification allegations against the authorities. In the past, election monitors would challenge the official results, citing voting rigging like carousel voting, stuffed ballots, and even doctored final vote tallies. These charges could sometimes incite public outrage, like during the 2011–2012 winter protests against Russia’s parliamentary election results. Now absent for much of the voting process, observers will find it far harder to identify and prove irregularities. Additionally (and most importantly), observers are now unable to monitor the contents of the secure bags containing cast ballots, which are held for several days by election commissions until the final day of voting. Evidence of tampering with these materials already exists. Multiple political strategists who worked in this year’s regional contests told Meduza that this was the authorities’ main means of achieving desired election results.
Another feature of Russia’s new extended voting is the opportunity to shift tactics after early results. In the first few days of an election, the authorities can identify areas where turnout or voting trends deviate from official plans and then correct their mistakes, for example by mobilizing state employees or “processing” the secure bags containing cast ballots. As a result, observers might witness an entirely honest vote count on the final election day. This year, the Kremlin has essentially told the public that it will secure the election results it needs, whatever the electorate’s mood. Here are your three days of ballots, your “stump” voting (see photo below), and, look over here, some security bags lying around at the election commission without any oversight from election monitors. This is Russia’s new sincerity in all its glory. The results of 2020’s plebiscite and regional elections speak for themselves: according to the official tally, 78 percent of voters with 68-percent turnout supported the constitutional amendments. In gubernatorial races, the Kremlin’s candidates won more than 70 percent of the vote.
Sergey Kiriyenko, the Kremlin’s domestic policy chief since 2016, spent years as head of the Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, where many of his closest associates also worked. This team has imposed its corporate-style management on Russian politics, pursuing desired election results for pragmatic reasons while simultaneously demonstrating its success as visibly as possible. The Kremlin’s political managers exhibited these abilities in Russia’s 2018 presidential election when Vladimir Putin won 76.7 percent of the vote with 67.5-percent voter turnout. Kiriyenko’s corporate organizational approach was on full display now. Turnout and the president’s support in the Far East weren’t particularly impressive, but areas in Siberia that had previously indicated anti-Kremlin sentiment delivered high numbers for Putin, according to the official tallies. These results were the work of Kiriyenko’s corporate mobilization, laid out and orchestrated ahead of election day.
The authorities’ public support tumbled that summer, however, after lawmakers raised Russia’s retirement ages. In the September 2018 regional elections, the Kremlin’s gubernatorial candidates lost in four different races to “technical candidates” who were only allowed onto the ballots so they could lose. In 2019, the Putin administration’s domestic policy team devised a way to neutralize this effect, expanding the use of early voting in many regions, which is far easier to manipulate. The following year, citing the coronavirus pandemic, officials extended voting day itself.
As a mechanism for achieving the necessary results, this new machine operates effectively, but it’s an inanimate system that replaces living, breathing politics. Russia’s authorities have harnessed all the skill and knowledge they need and it’s no longer expedient for them to bother dressing up their ideas or positioning themselves publicly. Just recall the authorities’ feeble campaigning for the constitutional amendments or Arkhangelsk gubernatorial candidate Alexander Tsybulsky’s campaign slogans, which repeated verbatim the same catchlines Nizhny Novgorod Governor Gleb Nikitin used in his election billboards.
Another pillar of the Russian authorities’ new sincerity is the repressive legislation adopted by the State Duma in the final months of 2020 that relates directly to future elections. The law now recognizes “foreign-agent candidates,” who must indicate this status in all campaign materials, which are defined broadly as any declaration of support for a particular candidate by a blogger (and every person using a social network is technically a blogger). If these declarations aren’t financed directly from the candidate’s election fund, Russia’s federal censor is supposed to block access to the content. Prohibiting political rallies will now be easier than ever, as well. Any sum of money transferred from abroad to a rally’s organizer is sufficient grounds to ban the event.
These new policies appear to be the authorities’ response to protests during Moscow’s city council elections a year and a half ago, when thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets for several weeks after election officials refused to register a handful of independent candidates. As a result, 20 of the city council’s 45 seats went to candidates endorsed by opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative. Once the new legislation takes effect, officials wishing to delegitimize independent candidates and justify the decision to deny them registration can immediately label them “foreign agents.” It will also be more difficult to hold rallies in support of opposition candidates. Russia’s federal censor could even block the Smart Vote website under the pretext of illegal campaigning or target posts on social media with voting recommendations.
It’s no mystery why the Kremlin has pursued these reforms: Russia has parliamentary elections later this year, and the Kremlin has tasked United Russia with maintaining its constitutional majority in the State Duma. Popular support for the country’s ruling political party has plummeted to new lows in recent years, but the revised rules for voting and campaigning make it entirely feasible for United Russia to defend its position in parliament.
Everything laid out above resembles a rewritten social contract between the Kremlin and Russians when it comes to public politics: If you support us, that’s great, but it doesn’t really matter because now we’ve figured out how to count correctly all on our own. Based on the elections held last September, even in areas more prone to anti-Kremlin sentiment, the nation’s voters seem to have consented to the new arrangement. In Yaroslavl, for example, the region’s last elected governor, Anatoly Lisitsyn (nominated by A Just Russia and endorsed by Smart Vote) lost to United Russia’s candidate in a special election. In Khabarovsk, where thousands of people turned out for anti-Kremlin protests against the arrest and ouster of LDPR party member Governor Sergey Furgal, a candidate endorsed by United Russia won a by-election for a seat in the region’s legislative assembly. The opposition’s successes were limited to smaller local races, like city councils in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, where some of Alexey Navalny’s campaign chiefs won seats.
For now, the Kremlin is willing to lose some municipal elections far from Moscow. In fact, the Putin administration has even touted the victories of candidates “not from the authorities,” like Marina Udgodskaya, the new head of Povalikhino, a small town outside Ivanovo. The pundit Dmitry Kiselyov even devoted an entire segment to her on television (where broadcasters typically call Udgodskaya a “cleaner,” though she previously served as a United Russia deputy in the town assembly). President Putin and Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova have similarly praised Udgodskaya and others like her.
Inconsequential victories like these in rural towns by “technical candidates” actually aid the Kremlin’s political agenda. The authorities can present the public with lowly housekeepers and night watchmen who win office and vindicate Russia’s flourishing democracy. The Kremlin loses nothing in this arrangement. The average rural community wields a meager budget and relies heavily on federal and regional subsidies, spending most of its money on salaries for local officials (which hover around 30,000 rubles, or $400, in towns like Povalikhino). By design, major achievements are beyond the reach of candidates like Marina Udgodskaya who win in remote places. If they fail outright, all the better: voters themselves are to blame for choosing someone whom the authorities did not endorse.
The Kremlin’s new election rules will likely hold up in the near future. The pandemic drags on and last year’s regional contests provoked no major backlash. In the long term, however, removing voters from Russia’s decision-making process could lead the public to seek out news means of making political decisions without first consulting the Kremlin or the state authorities.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock