A grim year Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev sums up the key developments in Russia’s domestic politics in 2021
The year 2020 saw the death of public politics in Russia. To accommodate a plebiscite on amending the constitution, the authorities introduced a three-day voting period (leaving ballots unsupervised at polling stations overnight), as well as “mobile polling stations” (giving rise to the infamous “stump” voting). The official result was 67 percent turnout, with 78 percent of voters supporting the constitutional changes.
With the authorities tinkering with the voting results so freely, the opposition’s participation in elections has increasingly become an exercise in futility. Why fight for a fraction of the vote if the results for government-backed candidates have been programmed in advance and are a breeze to ensure? The results of the elections to the State Duma and regional legislatures in 2021 only confirmed this thesis.
In November 2020, Meduza reported that the “party of power” had already received its targets for the 2021 elections to the State Duma. Putin’s administration wanted to see United Russia win 50 percent of the vote by party list, with 50 percent turnout — and obtain a constitutional majority. This KPI was met: United Russia won 49.8 percent of the vote and turnout was 51.7 percent, according to the official results.
The ruling party’s rating was hovering around 30 percent in August–September 2021, according to public opinion polls. Clearly, having full control over the ballot count helped the Kremlin a lot.
The election results didn’t trigger mass protests. And this is one of the main political outcomes of the last year. The machine that generates the results for the ruling party and Kremlin-aligned candidates is working its magic.
Moreover, it’s been modified. Electronic voting was implemented in Moscow and seven other regions of Russia. In the capital, the preliminary count of paper ballots indicated that in most single-mandate constituencies, opposition candidates endorsed by team Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative (mainly Communist Party candidates) were taking the lead. But the e-votes flipped the results — pro-government candidates won in every district.
According to Meduza’s sources, the authorities are planning to use electronic voting as widely as possible in the 2024 presidential elections. The tabulation of election results is finally going virtual.
Crushing the opposition and the free press
In some ways, the forecast for last year turned out to be too optimistic. In December 2020, it was hard to imagine that the non-systemic opposition would soon be completely crushed and that its key figures — namely, Alexey Navalny — would end up behind bars or in emigration. Just a year ago, team Navalny’s regional campaign offices were largely operational. Navalny himself was in Germany (recovering from an attempt on his life) and the authorities were signaling to the Kremlin critic that if he didn’t come back, the status quo would remain more or less in place.
From the point of view of Putin’s administration this was logical (as cynical as this may sound); it looked like another ploy to remove opposition forces from the upcoming elections. In late 2020, the concept of “foreign agent” candidates became law, obligating them to put disclaimers on their campaign materials, and the concept of campaigning itself was expanded — now, it also includes ordinary statements in support of candidates expressed by Internet users. The former made it possible to brand unwanted candidates, the latter made it possible to block team Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative as illegal campaigning.
However, there was another landmark coup that took place in the past year. It was not the political bloc of Putin’s administration that was tasked with countering the non-systemic opposition, but rather the security forces. Paradoxically, the Kremlin needed opposition figures — in some cases, to show citizens that there is competition and one can let off steam at the ballot box, but not in the streets. In other cases, simply to prove to Western countries that there is political opposition in Russia. At the end of the day, the Kremlin’s political bloc needed the opposition in order to prove its own worth to the country’s top leadership; to show that they’re fighting the opposition with “tough, but political measures.”
The security forces, however, use force. Alexey Navalny is in prison, his organizations have been outlawed as “extremist,” and many of his associates (and even politicians who simply hold similar views) have been forced to flee abroad or ended up in jail.
Political administrators have benefited from this, as well — arrests and emigration have taken many strong politicians out of the game at both the federal and regional levels. On the one hand, the security forces have made the job of Putin’s domestic policy bloc easier, on the other, they’ve made this bloc a follower and therefore a secondary player in this process.
Similar methods were used against media outlets, too — they were branded as “foreign agents” and outlawed as “undesirable organizations.” Such a purge was unimaginable even in 2020 (which certainly wasn’t an optimistic year).
Critics of the authorities — even the Communist Party (KPRF) — have been included in the list of “foreign agents,” “undesirables,” extremists, and criminals. The “leadership” has finally equated itself with the Motherland. And this is yet another sad political outcome of 2021.
The news isn’t all bad. To the extent that it can, Russian society is resisting the destruction of public politics in the country. Despite the rigged system for tallying the votes, residents of opposition-minded regions elect opposition candidates — the level of support for these politicians is such that it can’t be extinguished by fiddling with the voting results and mobilizing government employees to vote.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, a fifth party — New People — won seats in the State Duma. While the party’s dependence on Putin’s administration and its loyalty to the Kremlin are up for debate, voters did in fact choose to cast their ballots for the “new” rather than the “old.”
After the State Duma elections, the New People party’s rating grew to nearly eight percent, surpassing both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and A Just Russia. And this is a sign that a significant segment of the Russian population sees a need for change.
Even the “old people” are running out of patience. A Just Russia is trying to make amendments to Russia’s laws on “foreign agents” (New People wants to do the same). A Just Russia party leader Sergey Mironov also spoke out against the dissolution of Memorial, as did Communist Party representatives from the Komi Republic. The Russian authorities are attempting to put an end to political life, but it’s awakening in the most unexpected places.