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The Kremlin’s next headache Russia’s electronic conscription law has disrupted the public’s trust in the state’s digital bureaucracy. This will likely backfire when it’s time to re-elect Putin.

Source: Meduza
Maxim Blinov / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

Having hastily passed a new conscription law under pressure from the Defense Ministry, Russia’s political establishment is faced with an unexpected conundrum: re-electing Putin (especially in triumphant unanimity, as the Kremlin has envisioned since last fall) will now be more difficult, as Russians grow warier of getting anywhere near the state’s online bureaucracy. Andrey Pertsev explains why electronic voting is essential to Putin’s re-election strategy, and what stands in the way of “successful” election fraud in 2024.

The Kremlin has now tasked Russia’s regional governments with preparations for the next presidential election in the spring of 2024. The specific goal is to get 20 percent of voters to register to cast ballots online rather than in person. Two sources close to the presidential administration informed Meduza about this specific objective, and a party insider at United Russia also confirmed it.

Last fall, Meduza reported on the Kremlin’s plan to produce “record results” in the 2024 pro-Putin presidential vote. “We must get total support,” a source in the administration said at the time, explaining that the proclaimed unanimity of the pro-Russian referendum vote in the annexed Ukrainian regions made anything less than total support for Putin in “mainland” Russia simply unacceptable. “Total support” was also imperative to demonstrate Putin’s popularity to the West, the same insider explained.

During the 2018 presidential election, Putin garnered 76.7 percent of the vote with a 67.5-percent turnout. In contrast, the pseudo-referendums on joining Russia among the residents of occupied Ukrainian territories yielded (through grotesque manipulation) a close to 100-percent vote in favor of joining. This sets a high bar for the upcoming presidential election cycle, which is what makes it necessary to resort to electronic voting — a tool favored in Russian politics, thanks to its practically unlimited potential for fraud.

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“Why do we need remote electronic voting in the regions? Because it means guaranteed turnout,” says a speaker close to the presidential administration, adding: “It helps us plan our work better.”

Sources close to the Kremlin, as well as a high-ranking regional official who agreed to speak with Meduza on condition of anonymity, explained how this is going to work. Groups that depend directly on the federal government and state funding will be required to register to vote remotely. These will be, first of all, the state-paid bureaucrats and employees in various state-funded organizations and loyalist corporations, exactly as seen in the State Duma election of 2021.

After registering, Meduza’s sources suggest, these groups will not just vote — they will “almost certainly vote for the establishment candidate.” “Registration works as a pledge,” explains a political consultant who has worked with the Kremlin in the past. Once you make a pledge, he explains, it gives rise to a fear of repercussions if you don’t follow through with it.

Informed speakers believe, however, that registering even pro-Kremlin voters for the electronic vote is going be problematic. Looking back to previous elections, says a United Russia insider: “People didn’t want to vote electronically. They said their data would be leaked onto the Internet.” The fear, he explains, is identity theft: stolen passport data can be used to open a line of credit, and this deters voters from registering online.

Speakers close to the Kremlin note that people in Russia’s more remote regions are particularly hard to convince to vote online. Although generally loyal to the regime, “they have a fear of data leaks and more generally of anything they don’t understand,” observes one political insider. “Many of them have to be persuaded not just to register to vote, but even to open an electronic State Services account. People in the cities have fewer fears, but they’re also not as loyal,” he says, meaning loyalty to the political status quo.

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These problems were exacerbated this April, when lawmakers hastily passed new legislation that permits electronic notification about conscription into the military. The amendments that became the basis of Russia’s new military recruitment law was championed by the Defense Ministry, in the wake of its unsatisfactory mobilization campaign in the fall of 2022, when many Russians chose to flee the country rather than join the military.

The novelty of the law countering draft-dodging is that a draft summons no longer needs to be signed by the recipient to become legally binding. Instead, once an electronic draft notice is delivered through the person’s online State Services (“Gosuslugi”) account, the recipient can be barred from leaving the country.

As soon as the State Duma passed this legislation, users started deleting their accounts from the State Services website. (Multiple reports that the option to delete the account from the state bureaucracy website was no longer available triggered further alarm.)

Sources close the presidential administration believe that the new legislation may become a real obstacle to “mobilizing” the public for electronic voting, especially if it coincides with another round of military mobilization. Any rumors about a new round of the draft, and any sign of actual conscriptions, will further undermine the public’s readiness to engage with electronic state bureaucracy, one source told Meduza. Under those scenarios, “people will turn away from State Services,” the source said.

This disruption of trust in Russia’s digital bureaucracy may, in turn, threaten the Kremlin’s plans for the 2024 election. Without electronic voting, says a source close to the administration, getting that “record percentage” of votes in Putin’s favor will not be easy.

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Reportage by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Anna Razumnaya

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