A new strategy for Moscow During this year’s State Duma race, Russia’s ruling party hopes to split the opposition, deceive inattentive voters, and (as always) mobilize state employees
Russia’s ruling political party is concerned about its low electoral ratings in Moscow. According to the latest VTsIOM survey, United Russia only stands at 20 percent — but the party is holding out hope for an even better result in the September 2021 State Duma race than in the previous parliamentary elections. As such, United Russia is preparing to counter Alexey Navalny’s strategic voting initiative — including by betting that inattentive voters will fall for fraudulent websites and misleading bots. The ruling party is also preparing to drive a wedge between Russia’s opposition parties, by creating “inter-party conflicts” and turning “opposition events into a circus.” Meanwhile, their “Full Speed Ahead” project for controlling turnout at polling stations awaits state employees. Or at least that’s the plan according to the strategy for United Russia’s Moscow branch obtained by Meduza.
In the September 2021 State Duma elections, United Russia expects to win 40 percent of the vote in Moscow and see 35 percent turnout — that’s slightly higher than the figures in the last parliamentary election (38 percent of the vote with 35.2 percent turnout). Currently, United Russia’s rating in Moscow is only 20 percent (though the party’s countrywide average is 32 percent), and 55 percent of Muscovite voters would like to support an independent or opposition candidate. Nevertheless, United Russia intends to win most of Moscow’s 15 single-mandate constituencies. To achieve these goals, the ruling party will have to persuade a little more than one million Moscow voters. The Russian capital is home to 7.44 million voters in total, meaning that United Russia needs the vote of one in seven of them.
These are the figures outlined in the Moscow branch of United Russia’s strategy for the 2021 State Duma elections (obtained by Meduza). In response to questions from Meduza, the head of United Russia’s Moscow branch, Andrey Metelsky, gave an evasive answer: “I don’t know, maybe it’s a fake spread by our opponents. As for some numbers and indicators that the party plans to achieve, first and foremost, it’s necessary to work with the people, then there will be a decent result.”
Judging by the output data, the strategy was drawn up at the end of 2020: the document used data from opinion polls conducted by VTsIOM (the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center) last September. But, according to a Meduza source close to the Moscow United Russia branch, these sociological indicators are still relevant.
There will be no “dominant” citywide issue in United Russia’s Moscow campaign, since “local problems” are coming to the fore in each of the city’s districts and even in its neighborhoods, the strategy says. As such, United Russia will focus its campaign efforts on the 15 single-mandate constituencies, and canvassing for party lists and single-mandate candidates will be based on local issues.
According to the results of the VTsIOM polls that form the basis of the strategy, the party has the lowest rating in Moscow’s Central district — just 15 percent (the Yabloko party’s rating there is 12 percent). Even districts that can be classified as the “workers’ outskirts” look problematic for United Russia. In the Medvedsky single-mandate district, United Russia’s rating in September 2020 was 16 percent (the Communist Party’s (KPRF) rating was 13 percent), and in the Perovsky and Babushkinsky districts it was 18 percent. In the more prestigious Kuntsevo district, only 17 percent of VTsIOM respondents were ready to vote for United Russia.
The strategy names Team Navalny’s “Smart Voting” initiative as one of the main “information risks” for United Russia, as well as the regular investigations carried out by Alexey Navalny’s non-profit, the Anti-Corruption Foundation into federal and municipal leaders, and other prominent members of United Russia. The opposition deputies who entered the Moscow City Duma in 2019 are also seen as a threat to the ruling party. “Moscow City Duma sessions are used by opposition deputies as a public platform for discussing local problems,” the strategy says.
United Russia plans to combats these information threats with a counter-campaign targeting “the main opposition speakers,” as well as by drawing attention to “identified news stories that can be used against the opposition (the case of Sheremetev, Platoshkin, and others).
“Creating a mirror site for ‘Smart Voting,’ nominating spoiler candidates, turning opposition events into a ‘circus,’ radicalizing and marginalizing their demands’’ — these are the methods for combating information threats listed in the strategy. Other political technologies set to be employed include “putting a block in the federal media,” and “introducing inter-party conflicts, [and] disinformation aimed at stimulating conflict between parties and splitting them internally.”
United Russia is especially concerned about undecided voters, who could direct their votes towards the candidates proposed by Team Navalny’s “Smart Voting.” To prevent this from happening, United Russia plans to conduct “push polls,” which, once completed, will advise the respondent to vote for a United Russia candidate, by claiming that this candidate is aligned most closely with the respondent’s own views.
They also plan to try and mislead voters with deceptive technologies — for example, Telegram and Whatsapp bots. According to the strategy, this project has the working title “Smart Vote” (Umny golos in Russian, as compared to Navalny’s “Smart Voting” or Umnoe golosovanie). “Voters who consume policy information superficially, and plan to vote according to ‘Smart Voting’ recommendations may confuse [these] resources,” the document explains.
According to the strategy, a bot with the same name was already used during the elections in the town of Vidnoye in the Moscow region in December 2019. “The ‘Smart Vote’ project had a significant impact on the voting results — of the 30 candidates proposed by the bot, 22 won,” the strategy’s authors report (Meduza didn’t find any external evidence of this project’s effectiveness).
United Russia’s Moscow branch hopes to hit its election targets by mobilizing the “party’s nuclear electorate,” for example, by working with activists in the housing and utility sphere on a “Capital Repairs” project or organizing workouts for children and teenagers in apartment complex courtyards through the “Courtyard Trainer” project.
That said, they’ve also envisioned direct, administrative mobilization, through a project titled “Full Speed Ahead” (“Polniy Vpered”): “A closed competition for partnership-based participation. Enterprises ready to support the Party [United Russia] in the elections (state corporations, medical institutions, educational institutions, etc.) are invited to participate in the competition. The registration for companies with information on the number of employees (a request for a quantity of fliers) is on a separate Internet portal. The fliers have a unique QR-code. Managers independently note the employees in the mobile app (when voting by absentee ballots), or the mark is made by volunteers at polling stations. Winners are determined by a coefficient.” The strategy doesn’t specify the prizes that await the “winners.”
During the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in 2020, state employees in Moscow were forced to register to vote via an electronic portal, but this strategy provoked a scandal. Absentee voting was also used during the plebiscite.
According to the strategy, a weak point for the ruling party is “the opinion formed by opponents and embedded in the minds of Muscovites that United Russia’s regional party leaders are shying away from the United Russia brand and showing detachment from the party.” The strategy’s developers maintain that the party’s image was negatively affected by the “non-nomination” of United Russia candidates in Moscow’s 2019 City Duma election and 2018 mayoral election (Sergey Sobyanin ran for the post of mayor as a self-nominated candidate, and the United Russia members who were nominated to the Moscow City Duma did the same).
Therefore, during the 2021 campaign, United Russia candidates will “focus attention” on their party affiliation and even demonstrate “pride” in this regard. While canvassing, they will pay attention to the party’s social achievements, such as “cultivating special access to the president, broadcasting their involvement in influencing the agenda, including the social agenda (the budget).” United Russia candidates will also talk about “protecting stability and traditional values,” “justice and social development,” pride in Russia, and “development and renewal.”
In the last parliamentary elections, United Russia won 54 percent of the party-list votes (and 140 seats) countrywide and 203 seats in single-mandate constituencies, but in the Russian capital they only gained 38 percent. Judginging by United Russia’s strategy for Moscow, the ruling party is determined to make even a slight improvement in its results compared to the previous elections. Given their current rating in Moscow, this will be especially difficult.
Translated by Eilish Hart