From, Sept. 17, 2022, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note.– How does the war affect elections? Can an opposition party win some additional votes by supporting the “special military operation” [in Ukraine]? Or does such support, on the contrary, make the party less popular? Is the RFCP still the main opposition party in Russia? Or is it just like all the others now? Is it worth voting, even if you think elections are a sham and their outcome means nothing? To discuss the results of elections in various parts of Russia, which went largely unnoticed this year, our Opinions editor Maria Zheleznova (designated by the Russian Justice Ministry as a media professional acting as a foreign agent) met with political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.

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Question. – CEC chairwoman Ella Pamfilova described the recent elections as “boring” – referring, apparently, to their predictability. Independent experts, including yourself, predicted in the run-up to the elections that the authorities had nothing to worry about. Did everything go according to plan, with the Kremlin cruising to victory?

Answer. – Yes, with a few exceptions. The elections were boring because they took place mostly in the provinces where the process is controllable and where no close races were expected – at least, not the kind where you grab some popcorn and watch to see who wins. We didn’t see anything of that sort. But there were a few places, like the Udmurt Republic for example, where things got interesting. But, of course, chances of an upset were very low.

This year, we have a unique situation: On the one hand, there are elections where a lot is at stake [but they don’t get a lot of attention]. But on the other hand, there are elections that people follow for different reasons. The former include elections to provincial legislative assemblies (in six provinces), gubernatorial elections (in 14 provinces) and elections to city councils in province capitals (in 12 provinces). From a political point of view, these are the campaigns that matter. But people did not follow them. Instead, they followed the Moscow municipal elections. That’s because Russian media tend to focus on Moscow too much. What is happening in Moscow seems much more important to people than, say, the elections somewhere in Sakhalin Province, even though the Sakhalin elections decide who will sit in the provincial parliament, whereas local council members in Moscow have no real power. The only reason elections in Moscow may be important is because many political activists live there, and it is extremely important for them to know where they are and what to expect, and these elections help them with that. Since this matter is so crucial to them, they attach a lot of attention to these low-level elections – even though there are other elections where there are more candidates, more voters, etc.

Actually, each election is special in its own way, be it in Moscow or some other part of Russia. They have different patterns and limiting factors at play.

Overall, of course, the outcome was largely predetermined, and there were very few surprises. But instead of considering the results on their own, it would be useful to compare them with the results of similar elections in 2017 and the previous federal elections, i.e., the 2021 State Duma elections [see Vol. 73, No. 38‑39, pp. 3‑6].

If you compare the 2022 results with 2017, it feels like déjà-vu. I mean, there are provinces where the numbers match exactly, sometimes up to the hundredths place. In some cases, there were minor differences, but this is primarily because back in 2017, the Noviye Lyudi party was not in the mix, whereas this time around it has taken a few votes from each of the other parties.

Q. – What does it mean that the numbers are practically the same? That voter preferences did not change much? Or that the people tallying the votes received the same instructions as in the previous elections?

A. – It means that these provinces have what one may call “planned politics,” where all political processes are kept under stringent control. The target numbers remain the same as before. Once set, they remain the same for years, and they didn’t change this time either.

But if you compare the recent elections with 2021, you will see that there is a difference, and a major one at that.

The very fact that the 2022 elections were similar to 2017, not 2021, says a lot. It means all the gains the opposition made over these four years because of some unpopular moves by the government (for example, the 2018 pension system reform [see Vol. 70, No. 35‑36, pp. 6‑9]) have been lost.

This means there was not much the opposition could do in this new situation where, on the one hand, it was hard to campaign due to a number of reasons (lack of funds, legal restrictions, censorship, self-censorship, newly introduced bans on certain activities, etc.) and, on the other hand, people were extremely demoralized and did not know what to expect. Why run in an election if you are not even certain whether you want to win? Obviously, the safest strategy for most political players in a situation like that was to reach out to the local authorities, work out some kind of deal and avoid taking any risks. Thus, there should have been no competition at all – and yet we did see some pretty close races later in the campaign. Anyway, a return to the 2017 numbers was perhaps inevitable. In fact, the results could have been worse than in 2017. So, the fact that opposition parties were able to repeat their performance from 2017 can in itself be regarded as an achievement.

Q. – But there were a few changes nonetheless?

A. – If we leave Moscow aside, because it is always a special case (there are no party tickets, there are multimandate constituencies, etc.), we can say that the biggest change in other provinces was that the opposition votes were somewhat redistributed among parliamentary opposition parties.

The RFCP did much worse this time than in the 2021 elections.

In 2021, the Communists came in second with a huge gap between them and all the other opposition parties (they got almost 50% more than all the other parties in both party list districts and single-mandate districts). This was made possible by the fact that, in those elections, the RFCP positioned itself as a broad coalition for all sorts of opposition figures. It had all kinds of people on its tickets – civil activists, environmentalists, libertarians, former supporters of [jailed opposition leader] Aleksei Navalny, you name it.

And now, a year later, this effect is gone. Once the special operation was launched, the old RFCP leadership tightened its control of the party, and all personnel decisions in the run-up to the elections were made by old functionaries who miss the good old days of the Soviet Union. All the outsiders were kicked off the ticket.

As a result, the RFCP, having supported the special military operation, fell between two stools, as it were. Whenever there are hostilities, the population always consolidates around the government, and there can be no alternative rallying point. . . .

The RFCP painted itself into a corner. If all it does is pursue United Russia’s program, the logical question is: What are you for, then? Who are you, actually? The RFCP failed to present itself as a distinct voice to people, so it made no sense for the loyalists – the people who support what the Kremlin has been doing since Feb. 24 [when Russia invaded Ukraine – Trans.] – to vote for it. It makes more sense for them to vote for United Russia directly. However, there are people who used to vote for the Communists because they were, after all, an opposition party, albeit not a genuine one. But now, when they saw the Communists welcoming the special operation, they said, “That’s it. Enough is enough. I didn’t sign up for this. There’s no way I’d vote for the special operation, because I don’t want to see people going to the front lines and dying there. I voted for the RFCP because it used to be a platform where people with different views would get together to speak out against the Kremlin. I have no intention of endorsing the Kremlin’s actions.” So, in the end, the Communists lost both the dissenting civil activists and the loyalists. Both flanks collapsed, and the RFCP ended up in a political “purgatory” of sorts. . . .

Q. – How much did the RFCP lose by endorsing the special military operation?

A. – Compared to 2021, it lost almost half of the votes it had in various provinces. Take Sakhalin Province, for example. Of all the provincial parliamentary elections, the race for the Sakhalin Duma was one of the most contested ones. In September 2021, the RFCP got about 28% of the vote there. This time, they got only 14%. There are places like Vladivostok and Omsk, where the Communists came in first in 2021. This time, they lost nearly all the single-seat constituencies. In Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the RFCP came in behind the LDPR. In Kirov, they came in fourth, behind both A Just Russia and the LDPR, with Noviye Lyudi breathing down their necks. In Kursk (which is in the heart of the Red Belt!), the RFCP sank below second place for the first time ever. . . .

Q. – Considering all this, do you think the Communists are still the main and leading parliamentary opposition party? Or are they just a party now, not that different from all the other opposition parties?

A. – They are still the leading opposition party. But they are clearly losing ground. . . .

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, were able to hold their positions pretty well.

Q. – So, it seems like the death of [former LDPR leader] Vladimir Zhirinovsky [see Vol. 74, No. 14, pp. 3‑5] had little or no effect on the party, right? After all, the LDPR has long been operating as a franchise brand, with all sorts of people using it at the local level.

A. – Yes, but in the past the brand was quite strong, whereas today, I would say, voters are not that impressed with the LDPR brand. But there is a kind of electoral memory. The campaign was quite bleak, so people who vote for the Liberal Democrats do so primarily out of inertia, because that’s who they voted for in earlier elections. There were no controversies; as always, LDPR candidates handed out cash and gifts. This kind of targeted approach is often used in local elections, and it is quite effective if you have low turnout. Of course, with a nationwide campaign, there will be new issues coming into the spotlight and voters will forget about their old preferences, so it will be more difficult for the Liberal Democrats to do well by relying merely on their past achievements.

A Just Russia built its entire campaign around social issues. [Party leader] Zakhar Prilepin is not as popular as [RFCP leader Gennady] Zyuganov or Zhirinovsky. Many people don’t even know about him or his role in the party. So, basically, people just see that the party has a nice name, and they talk about raising pensions and lowering prices, so their candidates must be nice people, so why not vote for them?

Noviye Lyudi’s campaign was designed to sound positive. They have adopted the “small deeds” theory, helping people where they can, not attacking anybody. They use warm, bright colors for their visuals. In a situation where people see so many negative things around them, a positive message appeals to them because they all look for some encouragement. . . .

Q. – Were there a lot of candidates interested in running with Noviye Lyudi?

A. – We didn’t see any particularly prominent figures, although there were a few candidates joining the party. For example, there were a few local activists in Moscow who ran under its brand, and there were some independent members of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk City Council who ran as the leading candidates on its party ticket. On the whole, the party continues to rely on people with no prior political affiliation. However, in Krasnodar Territory, for example, two of the three candidates at the top of the party’s ticket were former United Russia members. But they failed to clear the electoral threshold, coming up 0.1% short. Of course, this is ridiculous; it simply means that they must have cleared the barrier, but somebody in the local administration decided that, just to be on the safe side, they shouldn’t allow a new party to win any seats.

Q. – So, it’s not true that Moscow had asked local authorities across the country to provide some electoral assistance to Noviye Lyudi?

A. – No, in our current situation, all decisions regarding various political parties are always made at a regional level. The way our political system works, there is strict coordination over who gets appointed to top positions, like governor, vice-governor and a few other jobs. But for lower-level positions, governors are allowed some leeway. They can decide on their own who they need in their province and who they don’t. There is a general trend, and most provinces stay within its limits, more or less. But if a governor strongly dislikes some candidate or party, they are free to bar them from getting elected. In North Ossetia, for example, the Liberal Democrats were not allowed into parliament, and Noviye Lyudi wasn’t even allowed to register. In Penza Province, A Just Russia lost all of its seats in the legislative assembly. In Tuva, too, A Just Russia was kicked off the city council.

Q. – If there weren’t a war this political season, do you think the results would be any different from what we have now?

A. – Yes, I think they would be closer to what we had in 2021. The opposition parties would not have lost as many votes, turnout would have been higher and the campaign would have been more memorable. For example, I think Noviye Lyudi would have played a much more prominent role, because they were on the rise after the State Duma elections; their ratings went up, and they looked quite promising. But because of the current situation, they were timid and decided to keep a low profile.

Q. – And how much of the vote would United Russia have gotten in such a scenario?

A. – They would have definitely gotten fewer votes. Perhaps about what they got in the [State] Duma elections. For example, there are two regions where protest sentiment used to be quite strong – Udmurt Republic and Sakhalin. United Russia got 15% more in these two provinces compared to 2021. That is a significant increase.

Q. – So, you think this reflects a genuine increase in popularity, not just some irregularities in tallying the vote?

A. – In those two regions – yes, I think it was genuine. Low turnout played a role here. It was lower than in the national elections. In addition, you have the “rallying around the flag” effect and the fact that the Communists lost some of their voters.

Q. – Was it to be expected that opposition candidates in Moscow would not be allowed to be municipal deputies?

A. – The Moscow authorities relied on the good old strategy of keeping actual turnout as low as possible. That’s why the campaign was so anemic. That’s why there was so little publicity. That’s why nobody encouraged people to vote. As a result, out of 7.5 million registered voters in Moscow, 1.75 million voted electronically and a little under 700,000 voted in person (which is about 9% of registered voters). In other words, the online to offline ratio was about 3:1. This means that the low turnout strategy of keeping undecided voters away from the polling stations worked. Five years ago, turnout was at 14% to 15%, but those were actual people voting in person. This time around, some of the people who had voted before did not show up: In some cases, this is because they are demoralized; in other cases, they simply didn’t know there was an election; and in still other cases, they listened to the voices saying the sky is falling and there’s no need to vote because it makes no difference anyway.

But, amazingly, some of the opposition candidates still made it through. Of course, we no longer have municipal councils that are completely controlled by the opposition, but at least we have opposition candidates elected to municipal councils. If only we had 100,000 more people turning out to vote, bringing up the total to 800,000 instead of 700,000, we could have had twice as many opposition candidates elected, because many of them came in sixth in five-seat constituencies (thus, just a few votes short of getting elected – Ed.). So, there’s a lesson to be learned here. I mean, all this talk of “what’s the point,” “it’s all over,” “the system’s rigged anyway because of online voting,” etc. became a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t show up, so the remote online voting system votes for you. Had more people shown up, there would have been fewer opportunities for fraud with online voting.

Q. – But don’t you think that, had real turnout been higher, the remote electronic system would just have had to work harder?

A. – No, I don’t think so. I don’t think the people managing this system knew how many people would show up in person. I think fraud with online votes was limited to a certain number – namely, the number of public sector employees who voted on Friday at their jobs. I agree that there are some fake accounts, but their number is limited. I don’t think the authorities could crank up the level of fraud much further. . . .

Q. – But, just to be cynical for a second, municipal councils mean nothing in Moscow today. They are purely symbolic, and little depends on them. So why do the authorities attack opposition candidates so viciously? Why are they so desperate to keep them from winning that they are willing to rig the vote?

A. – You’re right, municipal councils have no real power. They only decide things like where to build a new dog park. With all due respect to dog owners, I don’t think it is a tremendously important matter.

I think that all these efforts [to prevent independent candidates from making it onto municipal councils – Trans.] come from overzealous bureaucrats who want to make the whole system airtight. Of course, their zeal is useless; it only makes things worse. Those councils did not pose any threat. Have they ever stopped [Moscow Mayor] Sergei Sobyanin from doing what he wanted even once over the past five years? On the contrary, they were like a valve you can use to let off some steam through legitimate means – procedural meetings instead of street protests. If anything, activists gave the regime additional legitimacy by working on those councils. . . .

So what are we left with after the kind of voting we saw in Moscow? First, remote electronic voting as a technology has been totally discredited. You cannot possibly explain to people why the people who vote in person all vote one way and the people who vote online all vote a different way. It is an outrageous situation, and it will always be perceived as such. So, if the authorities announce now that they are going to use the online voting system in the presidential election, they will basically make the election look fraudulent even before it is held – which is the last thing the Kremlin needs right now, it seems to me.

Second, it is stupid to demonstrate that you refuse to talk to other political forces in a situation where people in Moscow are only going to grow increasingly discontented.

Q. – Let’s go back to the issue of online voting and the point at which an election loses credibility and appears fraudulent. Why should the Kremlin worry? Elections have never been totally above board . People must be used to that by now. What online voting does is, basically, make a controlled election even more controlled.

A. – No. Legitimacy is the main reason why elections are held at all. And if the procedure is compromised, the outcome is compromised as well.

And no, I don’t think that the Kremlin no longer cares about legitimacy. Every regime holds some things sacred, and ours is no exception. The leader’s legitimacy is the top value in Russia; it’s an article of faith, an object of worship. . . .

Q. – What are the key trends of this campaign that will remain relevant for next year’s election and beyond?

A. – First of all, stay positive. If you want to win, you have to offer people something positive. The lack of hope demoralizes people. And if you discourage people from voting, this is actually dangerous, because such calls demoralize people – not just with respect to elections, but in general.

At the very least, it looks very weird if you discourage people from voting but encourage them to protest against the special military operation. It doesn’t work like that.

If a person is politically active, they are active in everything. If you encourage people to be active, you can’t pick and choose between different kinds of activism or say what kind of activism is needed and what kind isn’t. It doesn’t work like that.

Second, you need teamwork. You should always have a backup, just like space crews always have a backup astronaut. Just in case somebody gets disqualified from running, or the electoral commission refuses to register them as a candidate, etc. This kind of culture is very widespread in Latin American countries. Opposition parties know very well that their primary candidate has a target on their back. They can be barred from running, put in prison or even killed. So, parties always have a backup candidate, or even a couple of them. And if the primary candidate gets disqualified, they should be willing to stay on the team and keep on working to help the backup candidate. We don’t have this kind of culture, apart from a few isolated cases in Moscow this year. It seems to me that this kind of teamwork will be increasingly important, considering our circumstances. This is something people have to learn. It might seem to you that there’s no benefit in helping someone else. But actually, the opposite is true: By helping others, you remain a leader even without running in an election. For countries like Russia, where there’s not too much democracy and elections are not exactly free and fair, this is a pretty common situation: You are not in the government, you don’t have any official powers, but you are definitely a political leader. What matters strategically is not whether you can get elected yourself; it is important to know how to get other people elected. . . .