Russian voters open the field

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

No doubts, the Kremlin is happy with the results of the 10 September municipal and regional elections. The opposition is not unhappy either.

Those elections have been seen as a way to evaluate the attraction of United Russia, the party of power. It was also a way to test public opinion ahead of a potential fourth candidacy of president Putin. Up to now, the parliamentary elections were held a few months before the presidential, providing information to those in charge of the campaign.

This time, this role of providing a national test of the level of support for United Russia was left to regional and parliamentary elections, helping Putin to decide the right level of involvement with United Russia ahead of the presidential votes. There was no certainty that the party might play the traditional role of “Parties of Power” in the provinces where polls have been showing a growing alienation from the voters.

Obviously, the test went better than expected. Witness the discreet ceremony which, according to the newspaper Vedomosti, was held in the Kremlin when Sergei Kiryenko, deputy head of the presidential administration, handed letters of recognition for “professionalism and active participation in preparing and holding elections” to 20 “political strategists”.

Points for the Kremlin

Voters were due to elect 16 governors, six regional parliaments, two new State Duma deputies, 13 City Dumas and 125 Moscow district municipal legislatures.

All 16 pro-Kremlin governors standing in the election gained comfortable majorities. This is not very surprising bearing in mind the intervention of the Kremlin to sideline embarrassing or unruly governors ahead of elections, and the way candidates are nominated.

United Russia performed better that expected despite some local surprises from opposition candidates well known in their constituencies. It has now to be seen if Putin will present himself as the candidate of United Russia, or as an independent candidate – an option which has been aired during the recent weeks. Being an independent would reinforce the image he cherishes the most – that of a man above parties, and president of all Russians. Meanwhile, nothing prevents United Russia from declaring it will back his candidacy, without being the kiss of the death that its bad reputation might have represented. So the choice is more open than expected.

The opposition has not bothered much with claims of irregularities which have been its staple food from election to election. It knows that there have been cases of irregularities but not up to the point to modify the balance of strength. And Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin made a point by firing two top officials in the Novo-Peredelkino district a day before the election, after a YouTube video showed one of them bribing election monitors.

In fact, United Russia candidates have been helped by the very low turnout – in Moscow, a supposedly politicised society, the turnout was 14.8%. A low level of participation always plays in favour of the larger parties, especially if they can use “administrative resources” to attract their supporters to the booths. This did not prevent anti-Kremlin forces from denouncing dirty tricks to lower the turnout by providing either insufficient or confusing information to voters. Up to now, they have denounced irregularities to increase the turnover more than to modify the final results.

Points for the opposition

The opposition to Putin has also all the reason to be satisfied. Independent and liberal-democratic parties including Yabloko and Parnas gained a majority in 17 voting districts out of 125 in Moscow, and even 100% in the Gagaransky district where Putin has been voting. The winners included a large proportion of people under 35.

Pessimists say it does not matter much because local and regional legislature do not have much power. But representatives of the opposition will benefit from what they lack today – the opportunity to learn the exercise of power. The other valuable bonus is they will have access to information, which is a real power in such an opaque Russian system. It is also noteworthy that many of those new figures campaigned on very local issues, sometimes a single cause which can seem trivial for pundits but who are of major importance for the daily lives of residents.

Those include a lot of old people who feel abandoned, without voice and nowhere to be taken seriously when they call for fixing their lifts, cleaning the paths around their building, or increasing the medication available in their local pharmacy. And generally, those old people have been keeping the traditional Soviet faith in youth “our future”. They like this new generation of polite youngsters who “care about us” and not about their careers and money.

New ways and a new face

The campaign has also paved the way for a new role for Dmitri Gudkov who has been launching his “United Democrats” movement far from the stuffy atmosphere of the party of power and the taking shop where everyone is at the throat of everyone as it is the case in the opposition. He is as good looking as Alexei Navalny but less populist and, more importantly, he has political experience. For 5 years, he served as a deputy in the Duma from A Just Russia, then as an independent up to 2016 when he failed to be reelected on Yabloko list in 2013. Together with his father Guennadi they led the most vocal opposition in the assembly in Russian recent history. He was expelled of A Just Russia on 13 March 2013 after his party accused him of “calling on the American authorities to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs” on the basis of remarks he made during a trip to the US. His political experience can attract the support of seasoned opposition figures, including that of Mikhaïl Khodorkovsky who recently declared that a Navalny in the Kremlin would be a Putin’s regime without Putin.

He is certainly a person to follow, if he can protect himself of being the centre of the same unrealistic expectations that killed so many opposition leaders in the past. The test will come soon, when he will – or not – formulate a real opposition programme. It might even include proposals for dialogue with the authorities on the basis of common interests, abandoning old instincts for confusing opposition and streets permanent mobilisation.

Of course, he will also have to position himself for the presidential elections which have been fixed on 18 March, the anniversary of Crimea ‘rejoining the Russian Federation’. A unnecessary provocation, 4 years after the annexation he was the only one refusing to vote in the Duma. But he did not oppose, he abstained.

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