Russia held local gubernatorial elections in 26 regions across the country, on September 9. And the results were unprecedented when compared to the usual political outcomes of recent years (TASS, Meduza, September 10). In four regions (Primorsky Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, the Republic of Khakassia and Vladimir Oblast), a second round was called because none of the candidates in these races had won a majority—despite expectations of easy victories by the ruling United Russia party. And today (September 19), the Central Election Commission recommended that the results of the run-off election held in Primorsky Krai, on September 16, be invalidated due to reports coming out of suspicious vote tallies being tabulated. After looking like he would lose the race to his Communist Party challenger, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Andrei Tarasenko, suddenly surged ahead as the last of the votes were counted (Meduza, September 19).
When Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 (following his four-year term as prime minister), he introduced the principle of “preventive democracy” in regional elections. This method, designed to maintain the ruling regime’s control over local governments, involved the president appointing a “temporary acting” governor (usually from United Russia) several months before regional elections; then, this appointee would triumphantly win these elections, strongly supported by administrative resources and state media propaganda (see EDM, November 17, 2017).
This practice worked successfully for six years. The only time it broke down was in 2015, in Irkutsk Oblast, when the gubernatorial elections were won not by a Kremlin nominee, but by a local member of the Communist Party of Russia, Sergei Levchenko (The Siberian Times, September 28, 2015). Today, the main rivals of the Kremlin appointees in Primorsky Krai and Khakassia are again Communist candidates. Whereas, in Khabarovsk Krai and Vladimir Oblast, the top opposition contenders are both members of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Of course, these competing political forces can hardly be called a true opposition, since they fully support the Kremlin on strategic issues (for example, the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s confrontation with the West). A real opposition to Putin has simply not been allowed to participate in Russian elections.
Leonid Volkov, the head of the election headquarters of anti-corruption blogger and former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, says the authorities refuse to register their party, as they fear it could win the vote. In the September 9 election, Alexei Vorsin, a supporter of Navalny, ran for the post of mayor of Khabarovsk. However, the authorities, under a trumped-up technicality, removed him from the race. According to Volkov, in these elections “people [have been willing to] vote for anyone—just not for United Russia” (Afterempire.info, September 17).
The president’s party has been sharply shedding voters. In addition to the weak results in several gubernatorial elections, it also lost its plurality to the Communists in two regional parliaments—Irkutsk and Kakhassia—while other political factions also saw gains across the country. The main reason for the mistrust has been United Russia’s support for the draft pension reform (Meduza, September 10).
Besides the local elections, September 9 saw thousands of people in 40 Russian cities come out to protest the government’s pension reform (Navalny.com, September 9). These protests aroused greater public interest than the vote itself—electoral turnout across the regions generally did not exceed 30 percent. Rallies in most cities were not sanctioned by the authorities, but people joined the demonstrations nevertheless. Besides the slogans against cuts to retirement benefits, in some cities protesters chanted, “Down with Putin!” (Svoboda.org, September 10).
These outcomes reflect a profound change in Russians’ public sentiments. By forcing through the pension cuts backs, the authorities have destroyed the unwritten “social contract” with the population. Heretofore, the Kremlin was able to pursue authoritarian policies, violate civil rights and preserve massive corruption, but in exchange for social welfare guarantees preserved from Soviet times. However, today, the Kremlin’s imperialist policy, which requires huge expenditures on the power structures (siloviki) and propaganda, has come into conflict with the social needs of the population.
The Kremlin is desperately attempting to retain its regional appointees in power. The aforementioned situation in Primorsky Krai, where a second-round gubernatorial election was held on September 16, is quite indicative. In this Far East province, United Russia member Governor Andrei Tarasenko faced Communist Party representative Andrei Ischenko. With 97 percent of ballots counted, the opposition candidate looked to be in the lead. But the electoral committee awarded the final victory to the incumbent, who, allegedly, outflanked his opponent by 1.5 percent of the vote (RBC, September 18). These falsifications provoked outrage among the residents of Primorsky Krai, who began organizing protest rallies.
Pro-Kremlin political analysts Alexei Chesnakov and Yevgeny Minchenko have argued that the need for second rounds in this year’s gubernatorial elections signifies evidence of real political competition in Russia (Actualcomment.ru, September 10). Yet, in truth, that competition remains quite limited. For example, candidates from the liberal opposition—Dmitry Gudkov, Sergei Mitrokhin and Ilya Yashin—were not allowed to compete in the mayoral elections in Moscow, also held on September 9. The acting mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who enjoyed significant support from state-run propaganda, easily won over the “systemic opposition” candidates (from the Communist Party and the LDPR) present on the ballot.
Carnegie Moscow Center expert Andrei Pertsev believes that the authorities’ striving for a political monopoly is not actually strengthening the regime, On the contrary, “By clearing and simplifying the political field, the center [Moscow] has created a situation whereby simplicity [of Russian politics] has begun to create complications of its own. If real opposition candidates are not allowed to win, the authorities will face chaotic protests. And fighting them with the usual methods is impossible—any actions only multiply the chaos” (Carnegie.ru, September 10).
Today’s Russia is entering an unstable political reality, whereby the authorities are briskly losing the loyalty of the population. The situation might be compared to the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, who also sought to maintain the leading role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but the people actively opposed it. However, in 1990, free elections took place, in which many candidates from the opposition won. They were able to legally enter politics and take up positions of power. Arguably, as a result, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union was relatively mild. In contrast, the Putin regime is blocking opposition politicians from participating in free elections, opening Russia up to the prospects of revolutionary change.