Hence the interest of Russian and foreign observers for Duma election. For them, the fragmentation of the Kremlin inner circles reflects the complexity of the Russian scene, too simplistically described as a monolithic bloc under an authoritarian president micro-managing all the country. Those circles do not consist anymore of old-style oligarchs lobbying for business or/and familial interests, but groups competing to influence the nature of the regime. Inside this snake’ pit, any switch of political sensitivity by the electorate, especially among the systemic parties, can change the balance of forces. For instance, it might influence the president’s move towards more or less state intervention; more or less cooperation with the West; preferring the use of the carrot more or the baton; playing the Asiatic or the European card. Putin’s role of referee will be more complex.
The Kremlin wants to keep a two-third majority in the Duma presently dominated by United Russia (76 % of the seats) and supported by three “systemic” opposition parties: the Communist Party (9,3 % ), the Liberal Democratic Party (8,6 %) and Just Russia party (5,1 %). Plus, three deputies of the ‘liberal’ opposition. The Russian mixed electoral system has been created to consolidate the “party of power”: half of the 450 deputies are elected on a federal proportional representation system and the other half in single constituency on the basis of a “first past the post”. Just in case, the Duma had decided to transfer 15 seats from the proportional to the single constituency system. But, for many Russians the election has been growingly seen as a game between elites. Hence the astonishing lack of public interest for the campaign.
And the Kremlin circles turned their attention from non-systemic parties, which they continue to repress up to the last minute, to systemic parties. This has been specially so towards the Communist party, earlier seen as an outdated bunch of nostalgists, but whose appeal for more social justice reverberate among the population. In consequence, the Central Electoral Commission has been used to bar Communist candidates from electoral lists, including the popular Pavel Grudinin. He attracted 12% of the votes in the 2018 presidential election, coming second after Vladimir Putin with 76%.
Systemic or not
As the date of election approached, the Communist candidates have been more critical of the authorities, understanding they can attract votes from almost all the spectrum, from United Russia to some part of the non-systemic opposition – including people disappointed by Navalny. The later poorly inspired call for his supporters to make use of his Smart Voting Initiative in the parliamentary election infuriated liberal opponents, including close allies. His Instagram post dates from on 13 September, a few days after Russia’s communications watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked the Smart Voting website, and after a Moscow court banned Google and Yandex, Russia’s most popular search engine, from returning search results related to Smart Voting. Most of the opponents understand that Navalny needs to stay in public attention, for his own security and simply to stay relevant, but his constant attention-seeking declarations have led to renewed accusations of ego-centrism. They consider that Smart Voting has been efficient at regional level, but is self-defeating at federal level. They wanted to rally the opposition forces around candidates coopted according to their chances of success and their capacity to convince electors that their votes mattered. Navalny’s call will reduce the chances of Yabloko to structure a reformist opposition inside the Duma, and further divide the liberal opposition.
The Smart Voting call also played into the hands of the Kremlin thanks to the unexpected entry of geopolitics in the electoral campaign. The federal elections have been put at the service of Russian foreign policy at unpreceded levels, despite evidence that voters, in Russia as elsewhere, are not guided by those arguments. Even the minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov, has been turned into a leading candidate of United Russia, together with another popular minister, Sergeï Shoïgu.
The argument is that the opposition is working for “foreign interests”. Hundreds of people and organisations have been targeted, as if Russian leadership never went through the trauma of the demonstrations of 2011-2012 that it continues to see as inspired by Hilary Clinton, and coopted by the Europeans. Then came, on 9 September, the accusations of the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, giving another dimension to the theme of “foreign hands” behind opposition forces and almost any critic of the authorities. She accused the promoters of the project Smart Vote Initiative of links with the Pentagon through unnamed “American digital giants”, pushing for a new level of “US interference in the Russian elections” and “providing Navalny’s camp with a basis to feed diplomats’ reports to Washington about Russian elections”. The following day, Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the US envoy to Moscow, John Sullivan, over America’s alleged interference in the country’s elections. The ministry said Russia possessed “irrefutable proof of the violation of Russian law by American ‘digital giants’ in the context of preparations for and running of elections to the State Duma”.