From Vedomosti, Feb. 15, 2021, complete text:

Experts with the Petersburg Politics Foundation presented scenarios for the State Duma elections. Those will depend on what results United Russia gets; how security officials act; and whether elections are accompanied by protests or the social apathy that has persisted for almost a year continues. They presented their findigs in their report, “Elections to the New or Old State Duma: Dynamics vs. Inertia, Which Is Worse?”

The experts called the first scenario the “Fortress Plan.” It assumes that increased pressure by the security forces and a demonstration of widespread social support for the regime will convince all parties that it’s impossible to change anything via elections. This means curtailing any sort of [protest] activity and barring [independent] parties and candidates from running in elections, which in turn is fraught with conflicts over ballot counting and only generates more discontent. The results of the constitutional amendments referendum [see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7] are one factor in favor of this scenario. Under this scenario, according to experts, voter turnout could amount to 40%-45%, with United Russia winning 55%-60% of the vote, thus getting a constitutional majority. The main question that will determine the success of this scenario is whether [society] will grow just as disillusioned with the prospect of influencing the authorities through protests as through elections. One of the biggest risks is how the election results will be interpreted, including accusations of illegitimacy.

Under the second scenario, called “Winds of Change,” United Russia gets 45% of the vote via [party] lists and a simple State Duma majority of 260 seats. This scenario presumes that expectations for new party movements will grow, while the extent of permissible criticism [of the authorities] will be expanded. In this case, up to five parties may make it into the State Duma. This scenario allows [people] to let off steam. At the same time, the lack of a constitutional majority does not present a threat for United Russia. However, this scenario runs a greater risk of things spinning out of control, the foundation’s experts note.

Finally, in the third scenario, called “Elusive Majority,” pressure on election participants is reduced.

This scenario has two options: In the first, United Russia gets a simple majority by winning a lot of single-seat constituencies. However, it runs into problems in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other regions where it is unpopular. In the second, United Russia gets fewer than 225 seats and is forced to seek a State Duma coalition. This option is a win-win, the experts say: The protest movement calls it a success and points to the authorities’ record-low results, while the actual balance of power in the State Duma still enables the regime to control parliament. However, the likelihood of such a scenario is lower than that of the first two.

“I would be wary about the possibility of the first scenario. Naturally, we are witnessing several manifestations of it now – such as [the regime] unleashing repressions, equating opposition activity to treason, etc. But the regime’s modest approval ratings and the risk of the further erosion of legitimacy undermine [the likelihood of this option],” said Mikhail Vinogradov, president of the Petersburg Politics Foundation. “Moreover, the events of 2021 have shown the protest movement hasn’t gone anywhere, and the impending elections may serve as a catalyst for it, similar to the 2019 Moscow State Duma elections scenario.”1 At the same time, the authorities have a safety margin that makes all three scenarios plausible, since all opposition movements are pretty much under control, said Vinogradov. “Under this logic, the second scenario looks rational. The question is whether it’s possible to carry it out delicately, without ending up with the third scenario,” he believes.

1[These remarks refer, respectively, to protests over the arrest of opposition politican Aleksei Navalny following his return to Russia (see Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 3‑6, and pp. 7‑10), and protests in the run-up to the Moscow City Duma elections (Vol. 71, No. 30, pp. 7‑11; No. 31, pp. 8‑12; and No. 32, pp. 8‑12). – Trans.]

The above scenarios should not be viewed dogmatically; all of them will take place to some degree, believes Konstantin Kostin, head of the Civil Society Development Foundation and coordinator of the United Russia expert council. According to him, by the time the campaign kicks off in May 2021, the regime’s ratings may drop – an end to the quarantine and the start of the post-COVID‑19 reality will initially negatively affect the social mood – i.e., the possibility of the “Elusive Majority” scenario may emerge. “But [the regime’s] ratings will stabilize during the campaign, and the second scenario will be implemented. At the same time, winning 45% of the party list vote may very well give United Russia a constitutional majority with a 45% voter turnout. [That means] United Russia would win at least 185-190 districts. Meanwhile, in the report, only the first scenario presumes a constitutional majority,” Kostin said. It is also quite possible that the first scenario will kick in during the last three weeks [of the campaign], when everyone will work on mobilizing [the electorate] and getting United Russia a constitutional majority, the expert said. At the same time, he believes election protests won’t play a significant role. “If [the authorities] can avoid blatant violations, and the biggest social groups don’t believe their rights were violated, then we won’t see any significant protests. Everything will be limited to the usual events, in the usual locations and with the expected turnout.”

The regime has always believed it’s necessary to create a way to let off steam for social groups not represented in parliament and for those inclined to protest, said political analyst Aleksandr Kynev: “That is why carefully managed [party] projects were periodically created, even though this was rarely seen through to the end, since these projects were either undermined or torpedoed. In 2007, A Just Russia was seen as pretty much the second leading party; now it’s barely represented in the State Duma. This was followed by Mikhail Prokhorov’s Just Cause and Civic Platform, which disappeared.” This kept happening because fears always won out, believes Kynev: “Every regional official responsible [for ensuring a certain result] is always going to worry about what might happen. So the first scenario will always come into play. In order for a different scenario to happen, administrators must take responsibility for it, and no one wants to do that.” In his opinion, another indication that the elections will go along the first scenario is the fact that governors are heading up United Russia party lists not only in the [State Duma] elections, but also in regional legislative assembly races: “This means that governors will be held personally responsible for the results within the power vertical.” Kynev called the second scenario, which presumed United Russia getting 45% [of the vote], a good option, but added that in order for it to be implemented, the three-day voting period [instituted during the pandemic – Trans.] needs to be eliminated. Moreover, [the regime] must not put governors at the top of United Russia party lists, and prevent local officials from getting too eager with ballot-stuffing.