As the war against Ukraine rages on, Russians head to the polls What to look out for in Russia’s 2022 regional elections
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
For all of the strides it’s made towards totalitarianism in the last year, the Russian Federation is still a representative democracy on paper. September 11 is the country’s official “single voting day,” but some citizens will begin voting in regional elections as early as the 9th. Those voters’ ballots will be the first cast in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale war against Ukraine — and started showing a new willingness to use state power to silence dissent at home. With the authorities in possession of a range of new tools to remove opposition candidates from races, Meduza assesses whether this weekend’s elections have the power to change anything at all.
Which offices are up for election?
September 11 will be this year’s “single voting day” in Russia. Governors will be directly elected in 14 regions, while the head of Russia’s Adygea Republic will be chosen by the regional legislative assembly. Six regions will elect new regional parliaments. And 12 regions, including Moscow, will hold municipal elections.
In fact, rather than a “single” voting day this year, Russia will have three: September 9–11. Each region was given the option to keep the polls open for a single day or for all three; the Central Election Commission didn’t issue strict instructions. Municipal elections in Moscow, for example, will take place over three days, while voters in the Sverdlovsk region will only be allowed to vote on the 11th.
But is there any reason for Russians to vote anymore?
News about the election has obviously taken a back seat to news about the war in Ukraine in recent months. Russia’s mainstream parties all unanimously support the war, proclaim the importance of uniting around Vladimir Putin, and try their best not to run strong candidates against one another. As a result, according to data from the independent election monitoring movement Golos, this weekend’s election is shaping up to be one of the least competitive in years.
On one hand, voters who oppose the current authorities (and the war) usually have nobody to vote for. On the other, voting for an opposition candidate remains one of the few ways to register one’s protest against the Kremlin’s policies. The Putin administration pays close attention to the ruling party’s performance in elections — and takes its failures to heart. This form of expressing opposition is also one of the few safe ones.
Do any of the races stand out?
While constituents will vote to elect new regional heads in 14 of Russia’s regions, the races only look to be true competitive in three of them: the Yaroslavl region, the Republic of Buryatia, and the Mari El Republic.
The Yaroslavl region has a longstanding tradition of electing protest candidates. For example, in the 2012 mayoral elections in the city of Yaroslavl, United Russia candidate Yakov Yakushev lost to the independent (though formerly United Russia) candidate Yevgeny Urlashov. In 2013, the Party of People's Freedom, led by Boris Nemtsov, was elected to the regional legislative assembly, making Nemtsov a regional deputy. That same year, Urlashov was arrested on corruption charges, declared guilty by a court, and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Two years later, Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow.
In the 2021 State Duma elections, United Russia received a smaller share of the vote (29.7 percent) in the Yaroslavl region than almost anywhere else in the country, and both of the country’s single-mandate districts went to candidates from the party A Just Russia, former governor Anatoly Lisitsyn and local party head Anatoly Greshnevikov. The party’s win was largely a reaction to the recent appointments of various “outsiders” to leadership positions in the region: former Putin security guard Dmitry Mironov was governor at the time, his fellow Secret Service officer Dmitry Stepanenko was regional prime minister, and the Yaroslavl city mayor was Vladimir Volkov, who had previously served as the head of a village in the Moscow region. Soon after the local Duma elections, Mironov was fired. He was replaced, however, by a St. Petersburg former Yabloko member named Mikhail Yevrayev — another “outsider.”
Local A Just Russia members claimed they were “prepared to fight back against Yevrayev,” but ultimately didn’t nominate another candidate for governor. According to two sources close to the Putin administration, “Yevrayev has nothing to worry about” this time around. One of the region’s top businessmen told Meduza that Yevrayev “made a deal with someone, and people were satisfied with the terms of the agreement.”
The Mari El Republic, like the Yaroslavl region, stood out for the size of its protest vote in the last State Duma election. The Communist Party of Russia (KPRF) came out on top, winning 36.3 percent of the vote. The local Communists are led by businessman Ivan Kazankov, who owns a large agricultural holding, and his son, Sergey Kazankov, won the region’s only single-mandate district in the 2021 election. Like in the Yaroslavl region, the regional head of the republic was dismissed in the wake of the ruling party’s poor performance. Vladimir Putin appointed former Kalmykia head Yury Zaitsev, a United Russia member, as his replacement. Because the Communist Party didn’t nominate a candidate, Zaitsev is running unopposed this year.
The KPRF also decided not to defy the “party of power” in Buryatia, though they could have run their local State Duma deputy, Vyacheslav Markhayev. Markhayev is widely known outside of Buryatia for criticizing security officials and for speaking out against the war in Ukraine (though he supported Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”). Instead, the party nominated Markhayev’s aide, Viktor Malyshenko, who’s not well-known and who doesn’t stand much of a chance against current republic head Alexey Tsydenov.
What about the regional parliamentary elections?
Voters will elect regional parliaments in six regions. It initially looked as though United Russia could have difficulty winning elections in the Sakhalin region and the Udmurt Republic; a year ago, the Communist Party won 28.6 percent of the vote (compared to the ruling party’s 35.7 percent). Eventually, though, the local authorities successfully engineered a rift in the party.
Legislative assembly deputy and former municipal committee member Yury Vygolov, who's heading the Party of Pensioners list, has received a lot of media attention. According to a source close to the Putin administration, the authorities have ensured there are “spoiler” candidates in the region to absorb some of the protest vote (such as candidates that share last names with opposition candidates).
United Russia performed poorly in the 2021 Udmurt Republic State Duma Elections as well, winning only 35 percent (while the KPRF received 25 percent). But it’s unlikely that the region’s Communists will manage to win many seats: only a third of the parliament is elected by party lists, while the other two thirds are chosen in single-mandate districts. Because they have access to enough campaign resources to all but guarantee they win, United Russia candidates tend to have an advantage in single-mandate districts.
Meanwhile, in North Ossetia, A Just Russia has a higher chance of doing well than in most other regions as its list is headed by popular local politician and two-time Olympic wrestling champion Arsen Fadzayev. Before his current party merged with the parties For Truth and Patriots of Russia in 2021, Fadzayev led the local chapter of the Patriots party, which won 26.5 percent of the vote in Ossetia in 2012.
Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that United Russia’s odds are made even worse by the fact that Fadzayev doesn’t have a good relationship with the acting head of North Ossetia, Sergey Menyailo.
Another race worth watching is the one in the Saratov region, where the Regional Duma is up for election. The Communist Party is not including one of the region’s most popular politicians, blogger Nikolai Bondarenko, on its party list. As a result, Bondarenko is running in a single-mandate district against former Saratov mayor and United Russia candidate Mikhail Isayev.
What about Alexey Navalny's 'Smart Vote' initiative?
Navalny's team is still putting out recommendations this year, but only for the Moscow municipal elections. Last time the same elections were held, in 2017, opposition candidates did relatively well: there were seven districts where not a single United Russia candidate won a seat, and 25 where the party won a minority of seats.
This year, most well-known opposition candidates have been removed from the race either for “displaying extremist symbols” (a designation that applies to the Smart Vote logo itself) or for “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. Many of them are in custody and under investigation. It’s become clear in recent months that arresting popular opposition candidates to get them out of the race has become the authorities’ main strategy for winning this year’s elections.
Nonetheless, Alexey Navalny’s team has prepared Smart Vote recommendations for the race. The activists are positioning the project as a campaign against the “party of war” and recommending 778 candidates — 285 from the Communist Party, 132 from Yabloko, and 187 who are independent. Navalny himself has called on Muscovites to “vote against war, corruption, and poverty.”
The Yabloko party is approaching the elections with similar rhetoric, including in their slogan: “For peace!” The organization has 224 candidates running in Moscow (and also has a reasonable chance of winning in Pskov, where the local chapter is led by popular politician Lev Shlosberg). More than 100 registered candidates have also received support from Vydvizheniye (a double entendre meaning both “Nomination” and “You are the movement”), an opposition project started by State Duma deputy Alexander Zamyatin and former candidate Mikhail Lobanov. Independent politicians Yulia Galyamina and Marina Litvinovich are involved as well. All four have been targeted by the authorities; this summer, for example, Lobanova was arrested for 15 days for “discrediting” the Russian army.
Whatever the case, sources close to the Moscow Mayor’s Office and the Presidential Administration told Meduza that the authorities believe that the establishment candidates will “have no problem beating the opposition,” which has effectively been destroyed in the last seven months. If anything goes wrong, the Kremlin plans to use its electronic voting system to ensure the pro-government candidates win.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale