The predictability of the presidential elections in Russia, scheduled for March 18, forces the authorities to look for inventive ways to attract voters to the polls and ensure a high-enough turnout. When the result is known in advance, many people will surely prefer to ignore these elections, even if they are not supporters of opposition politician and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny’s call for a “voters’ strike,” encouraging Russians to stay home on election day (Vedomosti, January 14).
Although the level of turnout at polling stations has no legal bearing on the validity of the final reported results, it is nevertheless symbolically important for the authorities. If less than 50 percent of voters come out to cast ballots in the upcoming “Vladimir Putin election,” this will be construed as a sharp decline in legitimacy of the “national leader,” who has been ruling Russia for 18 years.
Recently, Navalny reported on a project by Moscow oblast authorities to organize a “school referendum” in this region on the day of the presidential elections. Of course, schoolchildren will not be allowed to vote in the real elections, but according to the project, they must bring their parents to the polling stations (Navalny.com, January 22).
In light of the concerns over turnout, the presidential administration has been developing a whole series of municipal and regional referendums to be put on the ballot in order to boost interest among the electorate. However, there is one important condition: these referendums should not have a political character. The Kremlin presumably fears that public electoral engagement on regional political initiatives could violate Putin’s top–down “vertical of power” system of control over the country (see Monitor, May 11, 2000).
For example, the Russian Ministry of Construction is now promoting the project “Building a Comfortable Urban Environment.” Officials are developing various related proposals for different cities, and there are presently plans for such referendums to be run in 81 of the Russian Federation’s 85 regions during the course of 2018. However, all these votes in the regions are expected to be combined with the presidential elections on March 18, purportedly to reduce administrative costs (Vedomosti, January 16).
The authorities directly admit: referendums on acute social and political issues are risky for the stability of the regime. But themes of urban amenities and the efficiency of municipal services are quite safe. In addition, they are likely to attract votes from even apolitical citizens—a rather large category in present-day Russia. The questions that some of these regional referendums ask voters to decide on this year may look hyper-local and even laughably mundane: the demolition of outdated garages, the color of curbs in the area, the collection of fallen leaves, etc. (Ura.news, January 15). In various cities, such referendums are being called “fake” because the choice of some public areas for improvement will do nothing to help the development of the regions as a whole (Mustoi.ru, January 16).
However, even in the sphere of urban culture, sometimes acute questions arise that the authorities are afraid to put to a referendum. One notable example is the fate of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, and whether to keep this building a museum or transfer the property back to the Russian Orthodox Church. Last year, several stormy city rallies took place in defense of the museum (see EDM, October 10, 2017). A referendum on this issue, therefore, could easily unleash uncomfortable political fervor.
The vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, Alexei Makarkin, admits, “Political referendums in Russia are extremely rare and they are held only when you cannot do without them: for example, when merging the subjects of the federation. The authorities, in principle, do not approve of this way of solving problems—the result can be completely unpredictable” (Kommersant, January 9). Sergey Mikhailov, the coordinator of the inter-regional campaign of referendums on the return of direct elections of mayors, noted, “When questions are ‘innocent,’ the authorities do not hinder referendums, but when we try to bring back the direct elections of mayors (according to a poll by Levada Center, 2/3 of Russians supported this initiative), this proposal is blocked because free elections of mayors are dangerous for everyone who canceled them. Holding a referendum on ‘painful’ issues on election day will not have a chance” (Novaya Gazeta, January 11).
Illustrative of Mikhailov’s point, last year an initiative was launched in the Republic of Komi to hold a local referendum on the transfer of the administrative capital from Syktyvkar to Ukhta. But in the end, the authorities blocked this idea (7×7-journal.ru, December 26, 2017). The reason for the refusal was formally a violation in the collection of signatures. But in reality, such a referendum could serve as a political awakening for the regional elites, and Moscow feared the consequences. After the arrest of former governor Vyacheslav Gaizer, in 2015, there is no local politics in Komi; all local figures are intimidated. Moreover, various cities of this northern republic—particularly, Syktyvkar, Ukhta and Vorkuta—have interests that are not being addressed.
Mintimer Shaimiev for many years had a reputation as the most active federalist in Russia. He was the first president of Tatarstan and a co-author of the Declaration on Sovereignty of this republic. It was Shaimiev who ensured that sovereign Tatarstan did not sign the Federal Treaty with Moscow in 1992, because he believed this document was too centralist for a real federation. However, this January, Shaimiev became one of Putin’s proxies in the upcoming presidential elections (Idelreal.org, January 22). Thus, through his support for the Kremlin, he essentially has endorsed the actual liquidation of republican sovereignty that occurred since 2000 (see Commentaries, April 4, 2017) and even Moscow’s heavily centralizing policies, like the abolition of the Tatar language course in Tatarstani secondary schools, which was passed at Putin’s initiative (see EDM, September 19, 2017).
At present, no governor in the Russian Federation is willing to risk defending federalism. And there is no prospect that, under the Putinist system, any real democratic referendums will be held in the Russian regions for the foreseeable future.