(WRITING COMPLETED OCTOBER 29, 2021 – PUBLISHED NOW) – Obviously the war in Ukraine will harshen the Putin regime and makes cancellation of some or all elections in Russia more likely. Putin might curtail Russian elections, leaving some elections in place but reducing them to a completely formal ritual on the order of Soviet elections.
by Gordon M. Hahn
Why hasn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin terminate the holding of elections in the country? One reason is that he is not a totalitarian type. He is moderately authoritarian, preferring to balance than crush. Examples of his balancing are legion and occur weekly if not daily. Along with an arrest of an opposition leader can come an invitation to the Valdai international conference from Putin to Nobel Prize winner and opposition member, Novaya gazeta editor-in-chief Dmtrii Muratov and their give-and-take in the question and answer period of Putin’s presentation. Along with an election plagued by claims of fraud in the electronic voting and elsewhere came the entry into the Duma of a new constitutionalist republican party, New People.
Rather than do away with elections, Putin would rather manipulate the pre-election playing field and, if necessary, pad the count. But can his moderate, practical autoritarianism be the only explanation? Perhaps there others just as weighty.
One might be that there is siginifcant demand for elections among Russians. To some extent, they became used to elections as a social ritual during the Soviet era when failure to vote was a violation of the law. The Soviet regime created a somewhat cozy, even holiday atmosphere around the process which attracted Russians with their preference for communal activity. Furthermore, the ritual continues in an election atmosphere that seems to and sometimes does offer an element of choice, if not uncertainty as to outcome. No longer do all Russians have to amuse themselves with the mere myth of real elections because sometimes voters’ choices do result in opposition victories to office at lower levels of government and in unimportant regions. For elections where the outcome is certain, such as presidential elections, Russians turn back to the myth that there is a real choice, and even for some of those who would vote for opposition candidates the right to vote satisfices the demand for the expression of their own, if not the entire people’s will. A recent Levada opinion survey done in the awke after the September Duma elections found the country divided over the fairness of the election, with 46 percent viewing them as more r less fair, and 45 percent regarding them to have been unfair. 56 percent of those who voted expressed trust in the elections’ results, 37 percent thought them unfair. Among those who did not vote, the percentages were reversed – 34 percent and 54 percent, respectively. Even a quarter of communists, whose party has protested the vote, expressed satisfaction with the elections. 51 percent think the new Duma convocation includes a party or parties that will represent their interests. Among those who voted 72 percent think so (www.levada.ru/2021/10/06/kak-rossiyane-otsenivayut-itogi-vyborov/). Thus, if Putin were to cancel elections a third to three-quarters of the population would consider themselves to have been disenfranchised.
An entire lucrative industry of ‘political technologists’ – consultants, consulting firms, related media and advertising – constitutes a semi-institutionalized stakeholder in the electoral process that any ending of elections would offend.
Another factor that would have Putin hesitate or refrain from ending elections in Russia is the Russian constitution. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has been careful to maintain at least the veneer of constitutionality and legality in his actions and policies—what I called two decades ago ‘stealth authoritarianism’ (“Stealth Authoritarianism: Setting the Stage for the Federal Election Cycle in St. Petersburg,” 2003 Duma Elections – St. Petersburg (Moscow: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center, 5 November 2003), http://www.carnegie.ru/en/pubs/media/68588.html; https://gordonhahn.com/2017/06/21/republication-stealth-authoritarianism-setting-the-stage-for-the-federal-election-cycle-in-st-petersburg/ and “Managed Democracy?: The Establishment of Stealth Authoritarianism in St. Petersburg,” Demokratizatsiya, 12, 2 (Spring 2004): 185-232, https://demokratizatsiya.pub/archives/12_2_Y362651657613568.pdf). This remains true to this day and was largely adhered to even in the course of Putin’s constitutional ‘pre-coup’ last year when he engineered the nullification of the number of presidential terms he has served so the opportunity to run again in 2024 (and 2030) remains. The exception was exceeding the number of amendments that can be made in one draft constitutional law (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/03/10/putin-2024-2030/).
Also, elections are probably the best measure for assessing popular support for the Kremlin and its policies. They provide the kind of feedback a moderate authoritarian leader needs both in terms of the public’s preferences and with regard to whatever party or state institutions the leader relies on to organize or manipulate elections. The level to which the electoral palying must be tilted or falsifications tolerated or encouraged to its favor, tells the Kremlin how much resistance is extant in society and among the opposition.
In addition to constraints and costs of ending elections, Putin is likely aware that although popular dissatisfaction with elections in the past and perhaps growing at present at home, not to mention aborad in the West, there is no urgent need to end elections. Despite the high incidence of color revolutions around elections and their disputable results, populations can be predisposed to vote for authoritarian leaders, especially in countries where the political systems traditionally has been more authoritarian than constitutional-republican as has been the case in Russia. In this way, Russia’s political culture renders the country not particularly vulnerable to destabilization under the relatively popular Putin and the present Russian practice of elections.
This brings up another constraining factor. As I noted on connection Putin’s operation nullification, he demonstrated not just the need to gain the constitutionally mandated institutions’ approval for the nullification and the attendant constitutional amendements – the Duma, Federation Council, and Constitutional Court – but also displayed hesitancy as a form of humility (smirenie) as required in Russian culture (https://gordonhahn.com/2020/07/12/a-cultural-interpretation-of-putins-constitutional-pre-coup/). Similar smirenie would have to be displayed in any attempt to end elections, which would likely need to be balanced by the introduction of some political-institutional compensation of some kind.
However, a recent poll shows that now only 44 percent consider themselves to have democratic values (www.levada.ru/2021/10/19/demokratiya-sotsializm-i-rynochnye-reformy/). It is important to note that the ‘right to elect and be elected’ is not valued very strongly by Russians. VTsIOM public opinion surveys have shown consistently since the early 2000s that this right ranks approximately 16th among the various rights listed by Russian poll respondents, mentioned by only 6-14 percent in its polls from 2003-2016 (https://wciom.ru/fileadmin/user_upload/table/table_3264.html). Could a Russian leader get away with ending elections in Russia, without provoking serious upheaval? Could some elections be ended? There is some talk that gubernatorial elections en toto may soon be phased out. Cancelling all but presidential elections would lend Putin the status of the people’s lone representative, but would and appointed legislature be tolerated? The answer of course depends on the context and atmosphere at the time the action was taken, but in a crisis, probably, yes, Russians most likely would not mount insurmountable protests to the ending of this institution. But the required environment – war, a major CBRN terrorist attack, a tidal wave of terrorist attacks, economic collapse, famine – for such an action does not exist at present. The COVID pandemic, after all, could have been used as a pretext but so far it has not been used this way. Moreover, the mere fact of and the institutional effort to push through the nullification amendments to allow Putin to run in 2024 should he wish suggests that Putin has no plans to cancel the institution of elections in Russia at present.
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.