Over the weekend, LDPR candidates routed the incumbent governors in two runoff elections. In Vladimir, Governor Svetlana Orlova lost to Vladimir Sipyagin, 37.46 percent to 57.03 percent, and in Khabarovsk, acting Governor Vyacheslav Shport lost to Sergey Furgal by a whopping 27.97 percent to 69.57 percent. The newsletter The Bell argues that LDPR’s candidates won these races in spite of themselves, riding the protest vote. Sipyagin, for example, didn’t even campaign in the second route, political expert Alexander Pozhalov told Vedomosti. Before winning, Sergey Furgal even said he’d accept a role in Shport’s government (though he now denies this).
While LDPR buried its head in the sand, the Kremlin dispatched its spin doctors to Vladimir and Khabarovsk, making deals with local elites and calling out political celebrities to try to keep Orlova and Shport in office. Moscow sent Alexander Kharichev, the Putin administration’s deputy head of internal policy, to Khabarovsk, and sent Andrey Yarin, Kharichev’s boss, to Vladimir.
Experts like Abbas Galyamov and Alexander Kynev have pointed out that United Russia failed in this year’s gubernatorial races where it promoted the reelection of acting regional leaders, avoiding problems where the party renewed its cadres. The establishment also came up against the historical “protest spirit” of the Far East and the poverty of the Vladimir region, aggravated by United Russia’s support for unpopular pension reform.
Citing Alexander Kynev’s analysis, The Bell argues that LDPR’s victories over the weekend could actually weaken Russia’s “systemic opposition” in the future, as the Kremlin likely responds by lifting restrictions on party registration (maybe even eliminating the hated “municipal filter”), in order to splinter the vote against United Russia, “so that, in the next gubernatorial contests, it’s not three but 23 candidates competing.” The new strategy could also be a public relations coup for the Russian authorities, as they make a show of “loosening the screws,” The Bell writes.
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that United Russia’s election troubles in a few runoff votes are all part of the cycle that has emerged in the Putin regime, where a “democratic vaccination” occurs every so often, followed by another round of “screw-tightening.” Kashin also highlights that United Russia only encountered problems where it fielded “old-fashioned” candidates, and recalls comments by “loyalist Telegram channels” (citing Russianfuture) that United Russia opened the door for Sergey Furgal when it didn’t oppose his candidacy for local office in 2016. (Kashin also says State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin “produced” the 2016 elections and speculates that he might be blamed for the upset in Khabarovsk.)
Kashin’s main argument is that the recent gubernatorial runoff races aren’t evidence that “the system is out of control.” So what happens next? Kashin expects the recent elections to be a “holiday” boon for political spin doctors, who can now count on more money, more Kremlin support, and more administrative resources.
In an op-ed for the newspaper Vedomosti, columnist Maxim Trudolyobov argues that the upset gubernatorial runoff elections expose the Kremlin political machine to doubts about its efficacy. “Why do we need supposedly controlled elections, if they’re apparently not controlled, and why do we need political parties that are supposedly controlled, if they’re not actually controlled?” Trudolyubov says Russians (not just state officials, but also ordinary citizens) are now asking.
Additionally, the system’s failure will worry the Kremlin’s latest gubernatorial “recruits” (Trudolyubov says the younger generation of regional leaders enlisted to spread Moscow’s domestic “civilizing mission”), while the “Kremlin towers” and regime-loyal political parties compete for the chance to “repair” the system. This rivalry “disrobes” the Kremlin’s management of Russian electoral democracy, Trudolyubov argues, making politics more accessible to ordinary people, who in turn question the benefits of Kremlin control.
In an opinion piece for Bloomberg, columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes that Putin’s “customary methods” (unfair elections and federal investment programs) failed in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk because of the “gap” that has emerged between the Kremlin’s usual managed politics and “the way people lead their daily lives.” While most Russians respond to this inconsistency with apathy, Bershidsky says attitudes in the Far East are different because of “a lively sense of being on the empire’s edge.” To “solve” his Far East problem, Vladimir Putin will need to overcome his “centralizing impulses” and find a way to reduce the gap that’s alienated voters.