By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
Analysts continue to scrutinise the message send by Russian voters during the municipal and regional elections of 8 September to identify the winners and the losers. The sad fact is, probably, that despite the defeat of many candidates campaigning under the banner of United Russia, few liberal opponents won, and that despite big demonstrations the turnover was low. Many “independent” candidates were members of United Russia who did not need instructions from the top to make the switch, beeing too well aware that the label was a kiss of the death.
For the same reason, it would be audacious to conclude that president Putin suffered a personal set back. Regional and municipal assemblies have limited powers, and many voters were keen to express their frustration and dissatisfaction by rejecting United Russia while continuing to see Putin as a pole of stability. In any case, he does not have to be elected anymore.
A larger country
Moreover, Russia is larger than Moscow where United Russia lost 13 seats, and opposition parties won 20 of 45 seats (13 for the Communist Party, 4 for Yabloko, 3 for Just Russia. But even in Moscow, the turnover was low (22%, as last time).
However, throughout Russia, with the exception of the Far East and some municipalities, “pro-Kremlin” candidates won. More importantly, they did at gubernatorial elections, a position of power contrary to that of the local assemblies. In any case, the question is now to follow how the “oppositions’ forces” will behave, a key test for the “managed democracy” that has been the hallmark of president Putin’s regime.
In any case, the September elections’ results cannot be so much a question of figures and statistics as a way to measure the evolution of Russia and of the Russians.
First, what happened shows that the system of “party of power” installed in most of the former Soviet republics to back the president, is showing its limits, including in Russia. That should shake the inertia at the top in the face of future parliamentary and presidential elections, if only they are motivated by a sense of survival.
Second, mobilisation has been strong when local social problems were at stake or for environmental questions. In that, Russians seem to be well included in a global movement where people look beyond political parties, attracted by worthwhile grassroot movements, led by local people they know and trust. It is also worth remembering that the love of nature, so deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, has been a space of contestation already observed under Soviet regime and again under perestroika.
Third, Navalny launched a new political jargon – the “smart vote”, consisting in voting for any candidates who does not support the present authorities. His movement not only called people to demonstrate on the street; it also mobilised electors by sending out texts on their mobile phones with the names of candidates from various opposition groups who had a chance to win in their districts. “Smart vote” was a smart way to introce the new notion that votes matter, but the low turnout obliges to question its efficiency.
The old games
It also vindicated those oppositionists who cannot swallow that Navalny might invite electors to vote for communists or members of the LDPR who have been their villain since 1991. The decision, by a single man without consultations with other partners, demonstrated how personal games and concurrence between personalities continue to be the worst enemy of the liberal opposition. Navalny decided that the network his movement has been building will devote its time and means to spread “smart vote” tactics instead of calling for further demonstrations. Doing so, it deprived the other parties and movements of means to call for larger demonstrations – hence the low level of participation during the latest pre-electoral street protests.
This was certainly an efficient way to show who is the primus inter pares in term of capacities for mobilisation. But it left the liberal opposition split once again on electoral tactics and Navalny’s appeal for a “smart vote” underlines the weakness of the liberal forces, unable by themselves to offer an alternative to the pro-Kremlin forces.
Moreover, if it also blurred the distinction between systemic and non-systemic opposition. The liberal opposition, the core of the non-systemic opposition, always accused opposition parties represented in parliament of being creations of the Kremlin playing inside the system – hence the name “systemic opposition”.