by Gordon M. Hahn
In the past I have argued that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian meeting. However, over the past year or so I have noted on several occasions that the Russian system is moving closer to a mid-range authoritarian system. Although to some extent, some of the authoritarianizing measures taken over the last few months were prompted by the Kremlin’s desire to control the election outcomes in the face of deteriorating ratings for Putin and his ‘United Russia’ (UR) party and fears of Western-inspired ‘color revolution’ immediately after the elections, the recent national level State Duma elections and regional gubernatorial and assembly elections confirm the latter hypothesis. Most significantly, the Kremlin took unprecedentedly tough measures to slant the playing field in favor of pro-Kremlin candidates, leaving minimal maneuver for pro-republican opposition parties and individual candidates. But some room was left, leaving Russia hovering just over the cusp from soft to midrange authoritarian rule.
The ways in which the Russian government tilted the playing field are myriad as they were in the U.S. 2020 elections which have sparked such outrage in the U.S. But the methods are quite different. In the U.S., the government, in particular state governments led by Democratic Party governors and legislatures, opened the gates for election fraud through the legalization of massive mail-in voting, the unsecure handling of such ballots, unsecure vote tabulating machines, and hinderance and intimidation of Republican Party election observers, all leading to massive fraud that very well may have decided the 2020 presidential election outcome.
In Russia, most fundamentally greater restrictions on demonstrations, Internet expression, and the crackdown on Navalnyi and his anti-corruption efforts marked the initial phase of securing a more open playing field for UR. Aside from Navalnyi’s poisoning – which the Kremlin claims it had no hand in and remains mired in mystery, given recent revelations that the plane sent to take Navalnyi from Tomsk to Germany had been commandeered before he fell ill (http://johnhelmer.org/how-the-navalny-novichok-operation-was-prepared-new-evidence-from-germany/#more-45502) – the Kremlin was able to squeeze Navalnyi in other ways. Security organs pressured and islated Navalnyi’s anti-corruption foundation such that it went bankrupt, and harassed, arrested, and they convicted some of the foundation’s leaders in order to forestall any Navalnyi effort to whip up post-election demonstrations towards a color revolution.
Since the uptick in falsification and cheating in the 2011 Duma vote, the Kremlin has backed away from that method and installed video cameras, and now, in the Orwellian world of the Wuhan virus, online voting has been implemented for this election in seven of Russia’s eighty regions (Moscow, Rostov, Murmansk, Kursk, Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod Regions, and Sevastopol). Also, mail-in voting has been slightly expanded. But it is important to note that outright voter fraud has never been the main lever fixing Russia’s illiberal elections in the recent two decades. The real leverage has come from the broad use of ‘administrative resources’ or official powers and resources to tilt the playing field in favor of Kremlin candidates. This consists of pressure from the Kremlin down the hierarchy on regional leaders, state-funded and state-tied institutions or associations to impress upon their workers, members, and associates the importance of voting ‘properly’ in order to avoid unpleasant resource cutoffs or other forms of retaliation. The national republics, especially the Muslim republics, are particularly well-known for producing high turnout and vote tallies for the Kremlin. The kinds of institutions so pressured can range from military units, to the Russian Orthodox Church, to school staff and students, to Chechen ‘teip’ (clan) members, to official Muslim umbrella organizations, to Sufi ‘tariqats’ (brotherhoods), to state enterprise staff and employees, and so on. The ubiquity of the state and funds from its budget ensure a broad-based push from the top down in favor of the Kremlin. This and Putin’s popularity, however gradually weakening, are enough to ensure the necessary votes, without resort to massive fraud, which, however, can be significant in some localities.
More immediately this year, the federal Central Election Commission, Justice Ministry, and the courts used selective use of legal technicalities and other measures to remove from the playing field many of the most popular opposition candidates, who previously had been allowed to participate in various Russian elections. Examples include prominent liberal republicans Dmitrii Gudkov and Lev Shlosberg. Pavel Grudinin, the popular communist agricultural businessman, who participated in the 2018 presidential election taking 12 percent of the vote, was dropped from the party list of the Communist Party of Russian Federation (KPRF) to run for a seat in the federal Duma after his former wife suggested he had foreign business holdings, which officeholders cannot possess according to Russian law. Law enforcement’s pressure on the KPRF was driven as well by the fact that Grudinin announced in 2019 that he will seek the KPRF’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election. His exclusion from the Duma deprives him of a platform to build support. A favorite Kremlin trick being used more frequently in recent elections is to nominate candidates with the same or similar name as that belonging to an opposition candidate.
Another measure to tilt the playing field against UR’s opponents was to block access to the somewhat successful initiative of Alexei Navalnyi, so-called ‘Smart Voting.’ SV consists of a list of non-UR candidates that Navalnyi and his associates regard as the most likely able to defeat UR’s candidates. If voters follow SV suggrstions, then presumably the opposition vote is consolidated behind a single candidate making it more likely the UR candidate can be defeated or (in gubernatorial elections) be forced into a runoff. In these elections, the Kremlin tried to block access to the SV list when it was published on Instagram and then on YouTube, as a result of pressure from the Russian oversight body RosKomNadzor, which justified its ban on the claim that it violated election law’s restrictions against election agitation and propaganda in the last days before and on election days (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2906080-echo.html). Similarly, Google and Apple were pressured to remove a SV app created to help voters and coordinate SV voting. Does any of this sound a little familiar to 2020 Republican voters and Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube users who so the Big Tech giants comply with Democrat Party pressure to ban Trump from social net sites, negative news about the Bidens’ business ventures based on Joe Biden’s White House office, and reports on charges of rape by Joe Biden made by Tara Reid? It appears that also like the U.S. Democratic Party in 2020, the Kremlin expands the methods of rigging the playing field in order to make it difficult to pinpoint and combat the onslaught of machinations. Russia’s continuing trend of de-democratization is part of and being joined by an autoritarianizing wave across the globe.
While Putin’s system is becoming more mid-range than soft authoritarian, it is still a long way from being non-pluralist and entirely repressive against republicanists. U.S. academia, especially DC-based academia, overstates the degree of homogenization the Kremlin orchestrates. George Washington University’s Masha Lipman got things quite wrong, when she claimed: “For those Russians who care about liberal ideas, democracy, and civil liberties, there are no candidates among the permitted parties running to represent them” (www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2021/0917/Russians-vote-Sunday.-Why-don-t-dirty-tricks-dissuade-the-opposition). In fact, despite the abovementioned constraints, there were parties and single-district candidates for Westernized liberals to choose from. The 14 parties running in the recent vote included the old, well-known pro-republican liberal party ‘Yabloko’ and a new pro-republican liberal party New People (Novyie lyudi or NL), which stands on positions of re-democratization, political rights, and federative decentralization. Moreover, such an analysis leaves out the candidates in the single-mandate districts, where there are many liberal republicans: including prominent ones like Boris Vyshnevskii (among whose opponents are two ‘doubles’ with the same name), Oksana Dmitrieva, and Vladimir Ryzhkov; the last of whom reportedly won a Moscow district seat to the Duma (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2906852-echo.html). At least Lipman’s point of their being no liberal republicans in the outgoing Duma was legitimate, if one assumes that none of the four Duma parties has a single liberal republican in their Duma fraction, even one who is simply playing ball to make a living or in the desparate hope that things will liberalize soon.
Fourteen parties were registered to run candidates in the party list voting that elects half of the Duma’s 450 seats, and five appear to have qualified for seats according to the party list voting minimal barrier of 5 percent. The other seats are filled in voting for candidates for each of the 225 single-mandate district seats. In the outgoing Duma, UR held 334 of the 450 seats, 131 won by virtue of its 54% in the party list vote and 203 of the 225 district seats in 2016. Having lost about a third of its support since then, according to Russian opinion polls, UR’s 49-50 percent percent in the 2021 party vote seems a bit high. This suggests some padding of the vote but not the kind of more large-sacle fraud that sparked the December 2011 protests, the ‘white ribbon’ movement, and Medvedev’s radical electoral liberalization soon overturned by Putin. This percentage will give UR approximately 112 seats. In the single-mandate districts, UR was projected to have won in 200 districts (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2906852-echo.html). Thus, UR will maintain its constitutional majority, with some 311 seats – 23 fewer seats than it held in the previous Duma. This was to be predicted and fits in with even liberal think tanks’ projections if on the high end, pushing the envelope of range predictions (www.noyardstick.com/?p=916).
The only real surprise or at least new development in the 2021 Duma election results is the new NL party’s surpassing the 5 percent barrier, taking 5.4 percent of the party list vote. For the first time since the barrier was raised from 3 percent to 5 percent, a liberal republican party has exceeded the minimum and so will have a fraction in the Duma. NL appears to have been ushered through the gates by Kremlin political managers in order to siphon off support for the Yabloko party, which took only 1 percent of the party list vote, and thus bring a small portion of the liberal opposition into the halls of power and off the streets. NV’s success and the apparent election in Moscow of opposition republican Vladimir Ryzhkov, who was backed by Yabloko, suggests the Kremlin has decided to bank on moderate republicans in its effort to establish a foothold among liberals. Yabloko is now far away from qualifying for state funding and will fade from the scene as an institution. Individual leaders may survive politically at the national level, and regonal organizations could survive for some time.
The other ‘pro-system’ parties – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and ‘Just Russia/Patriots/For Truth’ (JRPzP) – all return to the Duma, having won 19, 7.5, and 7.4 percent, respectively, in the party list vote. There are other small pieces of news. One is the survival of the waning Just Russia party through its merger with the new ‘For Truth’ party, led by popular nationalist writer Viktor Prilepin, and the nationalist-oriented ‘Patriots of Russia’ party. The new party is a more nationalist version of the old socialist ‘Just Russia.’ Another is that appears the Kremlin avoided a real power-sharing arrangement that would have been required should UR have been be unable to win a constitutional majority of 300 of the Duma’s 450 seats. In that case, it most likely would have set up a coalition with Prilepin and JRPzP rather than any liberal parties that might have succeeded in breaking through to the Duma. A third piece of small news is that the KPRF appears to have benefitted by some two additional percentage points (in comparison with pre-election polling results) from the SV suggestions to voters, though that conclusion will require some deatailed research to confirm.
The question arises: To what purpose are these new changes, if one assumes that they occurred under Kremlin control, which most certainly they did. It appears the object is to broaden the public support base of the regime, by extending an olive branch to moderate republicans on the ‘left’ and moderate nationalists on the ‘right’. At the most optimistic, the results of the Duma elections suggest continuity with the hint of possible change. The hint, however, is faint at best. No outcome that was possible in the real world of Russia’s soft-midrange authoritarian politics could have changed the rubberstamp nature of the State Duma under the current configuration of the system and the correlation of political forces it tends to produce.
In other words, the executive branch’s domination of the legislative branch will continue. The VII Duma (2016-2021) approved the majority of laws submitted to it. For comparison, in the last Duma lacking a UR majority (1999-2003), it passed only 16 percent of bills submitted. Moreover, the VII Duma approved 99 percent of the bills submitted by President Putin and 81 percent of those submitted by the government. Moreover still, bills are now being passed with little to no discussion in the Duma. In the VII Duma, bills were given on average 18 minutes for discussion. In the VI Duma the average was 14 minutes. At the same time, the most important of bills receive little discussion. The bill on starting from 2024 the count of two six-year presidential terms allowed by the constitution, allowing Putin to remain in the Kremlin feasibly until 2036 was discussed in the Duma dor 25 minutes. The bill repealing the age limit for persons appointed by the president was discussed for 21 minutes, the bills against LGBT propaganda for children, instituting prison terms for attending several illegal demonstrations, and the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ were discussed for 45-46 minutes each. The law banning members of extremist organizations from running for seats in the Duma was discussed for 50 minutes, despite the broad defimition and use of the designation ‘extremist organization’ (https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/09/15/chto-vy-prinimaete). The executive branch’s domination over the legislature will continue. It is matched by the executive’s control over the high judiciary and any lower courts making decisions of a political nature.
An important regional test for the Kremlin was mid-term gubernatorial election in the Far East regin of Khabarovsk Krai, where the arrest of a popular governor from the LDPR, Sergei Furgal, on alleged involvement in corruption and a murder last year led to months of weekly protests. The region is a LDPR stronghold, so the Kremlin replaced Furgal, who still awaits trial, with a LDPR Duma deputy, Mikhail Degtyarev. During the campaign, Furgal’s son had his registration to run in the race revoked. Degtyarev won with 59.55 percent of the vote (http://www.khabarovsk.vybory.izbirkom.ru/region/region/khabarovsk?action=show&root=127400112&tvd=4274001282385&vrn=22720001116501®ion=27&global=&sub_region=27&prver=0&pronetvd=null&vibid=4274001282385&type=234). One analyst argued that the Khabarovsk outcome suggested funny business. He pointed to an exit poll conducted by a Kremlin-friendly polling agency, the Foundation for Public Opinion or FOM, which projected 61 percent for Degtyarev. This contrasted with a supposed actual outcome of 57 percent, which presumably demonstrated Kremlin weakness or giving the appearances of competition since exit polls have a margin of error of 1-2 percent (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/oreshkin/2906850-echo/). But the actual outcome was, as noted above, 59.55 percent, neatly wthin the margin of error for exit polls. The Kremlin appears to have weathered the storm on the Pacific in Khabarovsk, and no spin can undo that fact.
Finally, the number of complaints regarding voting irregularities was small in comparison with recent elections, and no protest demonstrations rocked Moscow or any other Russian city in the days after the voting. However, a ‘surprise’ occurred when the KPRF refused to recognize the results of the electronic voting in Moscow and declared it would contest the legality of electronc voting in Russia’s Supreme Court, and if necessary perhaps hold street demonstrations (www.vedomosti.ru/politics/news/2021/09/20/887406-kprf-otkazalas-priznavat-rezultati-elektronnogo-golosovaniya-v-moskve?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=kprf-ne-priznaet-rezultaty-elektronnogo&fbclid=IwAR1eVWTYVIBIAM-cuvp_eQSK3teCYFJoBiXLmXh18bm9ja6ZSaZ2f3Ji9Fk and https://echo.msk.ru/news/2906820-echo.html). What, has George Soros decided to fund communists even in Russia? Not likely. I have always contended that the ‘pro-system’ parties, especially the KPRF and Just Russia, were playing ball with the Kremlin because it had little choice but very well would jump ship when the regime begins to deteriorate. Has the KPRF leadership decided it can shake the system? It hardly thinks the Kremlin is in a condition of serious deterioration. Hard to tell what gives here. There indeed may have been some funny business. With over 90 percent of the votes counted in Moscow the news portal Znak.com reported that in 12 of Moscow’s 15 single district races, opposition candidates were in the lead, but when first preliminary results were published. UR had won all 15 seats (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2906852-echo.html). The communists took the majority of party list votes in protest Khabarovsk Krai. Has the KPRF been emboldened (unadvisedly so) by such an outcome? There may be some ‘color revolution’ drama yet surrounding these elections, but my bet is against such a development. Perhaps, the KPRF feels the need to cater to a more activist post-Soviet generation of communists less cowed by the events of the 1990s or simply hopes to mobilize communists in the run-up to November 7th and boost turnout at its own ‘October revolution’ parade or both? On the other hand, color revolutions are made in capitols, and according to the official count UR received only 45 percent in Moscow, the seat of power and financing in Russia. So we shall see.
In sum, the 2021 Duma elections were an uneventful exercise in measuring Russian society’s willingness to oppose Putin’s soft/midrange authoritarian brand of government and registered no fundamental change from post-Medvedev status quo. Now Putin will make his final decisions whether or not to run for the presidency in 2024 (or earlier) and or make any significant changes to his ‘sistema.’ For the near-term, stability was signaled in the Kremlin’s decision not to form a new government or replace any ministers. The Duma vote could be the calm before the storm, as Putin’s decision to run or designate a temporary or permanent successor cannot but unsettle the elite and might even create an opening for opposition or pro-system quasi-opposition forces, like the KPRF.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, forthcoming in 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.