In this week’s roundup, experts explored various aspects of the current —surprising —developments in Russian regional politics where the Kremlin has recently lost three governorships. Additionally, analysis of the Russian public mood suggests that people deeply distrust the state and mostly rely on themselves. Finally, in another important move in the regions, the Kremlin oversaw the signing of an agreement between Chechnya and Ingushetia, which establishes an official border between the two, thus ending the issue disputed since 1991.
Kremlin Losing Grip in the Regions?
The story: Developments in the Russian regions over the last few weeks point to a meltdown of the Kremlin’s regional politics.
This week, in the gubernatorial election runoffs in Vladimir and Khabarovsk, the current governors of the United Russia party lost to LDPR candidates.
These upsets follow last week’s scandal in Primorye, where the appointed governor Andrei Tarasenko won at the last minute in a falsified ballot count against Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko, leading the authorities to annul the results and postpone the re-vote for three months.
Then, on September 25, Vladimir Putin overnight fired governors in three regions—Astrakhan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Primorye, appointing new leaders in their place. [RBC; Vedomosti]
The recent elections have been marked by unusually high turnout—a protest vote against United Russia candidates. Khabarovsk’s first round had 36.09 percent turnout, increasing to 47.49 percent for the runoff. Turnout in Vladimir’s two rounds was 32.96 percent and 38.29 percent respectively.
These numbers are much higher than those in the last gubernatorial elections in 2013, indicating a shift in voter perception as citizens attach greater significance to their vote.
LDPR now has three governors and the Communists have two. But it’s important to remember that these victories represent a protest vote, not a political trend—it doesn’t matter what party voters choose, as long as it’s not United Russia. [Novaya Gazeta]
Candidates from LDPR and the Communist Party helped to release the steam bottled up inside Russian citizens since the announcement of the pension reform. But notably, these politicians aren’t members of the opposition—they’re part of the current system.
If United Russia loses three regions, it would be considered a tactical defeat for the Kremlin. The new vote in Primorye will take place in December. Next up is the second round in Khakassia on October 7. [RBC]
What it means:
Alexander Morozov, political scientist: In the recent elections, every possible technical effort was made to create the facade that the vote was transparent and fair, while reinforcing a robust, behind-the-scenes system of bureaucratic censorship. But while this system bars competition, popular belief in the low quality of the Russian bureaucracy and its deterioration is growing, which suggests impending instability. [RBC]
Maxim Trudolyubov, opinion editor: Russia’s cumbersome electoral system has plodded along for so long that it was starting to become invisible, but Primorye exposed the corrupt inner workings. Now the real competition is between the Kremlin and time itself as the state attempts to understand how politics works when citizens start paying attention to it. [Vedomosti]
Andrey Pertsev, journalist: After the 2013-2014 mayoral elections, which resulted in some oppositionist victories, the Kremlin embraced the results only to then give the regional legislative assemblies the right to abolish mayoral elections. Since Primorye, the Kremlin understands that running elections under the old set of rules will only result in a United Russia defeat, so it will abolish the rules altogether. [Carnegie.ru]
Cracks in the System
The story: On Monday, Aleksei Navalnyreceived another 20 days of detention (he was already serving a 30-day arrest for the rally he organized in January 2018). The court explained the additional 20 days as punishment for the September 9 rally that took place during the regional elections, but it’s also possible that Navalny’s video detailing corruption in the Russian Guard by General Zolotov had something to do with it. [New Times]
Why Navalny, again?
Grigory Golosov, political scientist: Direct gubernatorial elections were reinstated in December 2011 by Dmitry Medvedev, which many associate with the mass rallies taking place at that time against falsifications in the Duma elections. But this reform wasn’t aimed at democratization—it was meant to allow competition for secondary power positions (like governors) among parties supportive of Putin in order to stabilize authoritarian order.
When more protests were suppressed in 2012, Vyacheslav Volodin, then first deputy head of the presidential administration, did everything he could to make gubernatorial elections an empty formality.
This September, the echo of the 2011 rallies was unexpectedly loud. While on the surface of any authoritarian regime, only officially recognized characters are visible, the real dynamics and decisive players are often kept under arrest.
This year, Navalny was detained for the entire active phase of the regional election campaign. In the past few years, he has been arrested nine times, detained a total of 172 days, and put under house arrest for one year—the authorities know who the source of the problem is. [Republic]
What about the Russian public?
Tatyana Stanovaya, R.Politik: The regional votes show that Russian society is ready to solve its problems without Putin, which means that new political demands are forming against the long-standing Putin consensus.
Now, the Kremlin has a choice. It can sharply repress the “popular revolt” by getting rid of direct elections, increasing control over public and political life, and reducing opportunities for real opposition and freedom. Or, it can soften the rules of the game in order to preserve the Putin regime and win back popular support. [Carnegie.ru]
Yekaterina Shulman, political scientist: The results of the regional elections show a divergence between the political system, which has expanded its apparatuses since 2011, and the Russian public. In some ways this has been furthered by the reorientation of the Russian economy away from a resource-dependent model (on petroleum) to asking more of citizens (pension reform, the increase in VAT).
But sociological data from the past 10 years also points to a withering of the traditional state-as-parent relationship to the Russian public. In one poll about their relationship to the government, Russians were asked whether they resonated with “I rely only on myself” or “I hope for state assistance”—94 percent of respondents chose the first option. If the steady decline in public support for the authorities continues, the imitative democratic order that has been preserved by the government will be increasingly exposed. [Carnegie.ru]
Ella Paneyah, sociologist: In 2011, Navalny urged his supporters to vote for any party other than United Russia, but the voices of dissenters were barely enough to drop the party’s vote below 50 percent. At the time this seemed like a big victory, but come September, people voted so that the falsification system itself failed. What’s more, it was the mass voter’s doing—someone who, up until recently, took a neutral stance toward the government. [New Times]