Russian Elections of September 9: Initial Conclusions

Russia’s nationwide elections at the level of local government which took place on September 8 attracted extraordinary attention in Western media, given that, at best, they could be viewed as a very preliminary indication of popular sentiment towards the “Putin regime” midway between the presidential election of 2018 and the next Duma (parliamentary) elections of 2021.

In fact, nearly all Western journalistic attention was focused on the race for the Moscow city legislative council because that is where the so-called “non-systemic opposition” led by anti-corruption activist and one-day presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny had chosen to make a stand against the Kremlin by all means fair and foul.

Navalny and others in the various anti-Putin movements denounced the disqualification of candidacies to the Moscow city council from their own midst by the electoral officials on technical grounds of insufficient numbers of signatures of supporters to qualify or of falsified signatures. Whether or not such disqualification of candidates whose normal level of voter support among the general population of Moscow would have been on the order of one or two percent was justified or arbitrary, the confrontation it sparked between the non-systemic opposition and the government escalated from war of words to successive, unauthorized street demonstrations. Tens of thousands came out to protest in Moscow. Moreover, what began as peaceful demonstrations ended on several days in violent clashes with police that assumed significant political dimensions because of the numbers of participants involved and the allegations of excessive use of force by the authorities.

I have introduced this essay by reference to “Western media” coverage of the elections. From the very beginning, Western media saw in Navalny and his fellow-protesters champions of democracy against an authoritarian if not autocratic regime. On the other hand, from my own observations, the man-in-the-street’s opinion of these activists, at least outside of Moscow, was that they were the paid lackeys of the United States hell-bent on recreating the chaos of the 1990s when Russia was the “sick man of Europe.” It remained to be seen on election day, 8 September, whether the broad electorate would be indifferent to the cause of the non-systemic opposition or be moved to embrace them by the harsh treatment they were receiving from the ruling establishment.

As it turned out, the Russian elections of September 8 were held in an atmosphere of relative calm, both nationwide and in Moscow. There were no noteworthy scandals, no voting irregularities, and no necessity for run-offs to decide the victor in close races. The polling results were unremarkable for the country as a whole, though they certainly provided grist for the Putin doomsayers in the West as regards the city of Moscow.

Headlines of first reporting on the Russian elections in Western mainstream media carried the message that the Kremlin had suffered a major setback, that the Putin regime was unraveling and that the “liberal opposition” had scored victory. The most surprising feature of this reporting was identification of Duma parties (Communists, Fair Russia, Yabloko) which did well in the city of Moscow (taking 13 seats, 3 seats and 4 seats respectively to United Russia’s 25) as now constituting a veritable “opposition” to the governing party. Over the years, they have all been characterized by the West as “Kremlin projects,” tame parties allowed to exist solely to provide a semblance of democratic choice. This time, of course, was different. They, and particularly the Communists, had received the backing of Alexei Navalny in his “smart voting” advocacy meant to bring down United Russia at any cost.

In the past, I never agreed with the notion that the Duma opposition parties were just “pets.” I always saw them as having and often trying to implement in the Duma, legislative programs at greater or lesser variance with United Russia’s as regards domestic policies such as health care, education, pension reform, etc. Except for Yabloko, which is odd man out, these systemic opposition parties are supporters of Vladimir Putin’s energetic foreign policy defending Russian national interests. That is so not because they are appealing to the Kremlin but because they are appealing to the general population, which overwhelmingly supports that foreign policy. The odd man out, Yabloko, can gather its several percent of the vote, as just happened in the elections this past weekend, and will do no better given their fifth column, anti-patriotic foreign policy stance.

Let me begin my own estimation of the September 8 elections with the contests in the “regions.”

The 16 races for governorships do not seem to provide much material for creative analysis. United Russia won hands down, without serious challenges. The only region where United Russia lost control of local government was in Khabarovsk where they were overwhelmed by the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), who held the governorship. Not surprising there, because Zhirinovsky’s appeal to patriotism above and beyond the level nourished by the Kremlin has a ready audience in the Far East and their man on the spot was exceptional.

Why United Russia won in the regions has to be examined in each separate case, of course, but there is an overriding principle which has not much to do with carousel voting or other possible abuses, or even with the party’s domination of media. I know the issue very well from the case of acting governor Beglov in St. Petersburg, where I am a frequent visitor. Bland as he may be, he represents Kremlin investments in the region: elect him and major infrastructure projects will be financed, elect someone else and the region will go penniless. That results not merely from top down hardball politics but from the sadder fact that Russian bottom-up government has very few sources of income not tied to the federal taxes. Sooner or later, Russia will raise the property taxes at the local level from their pitifully low level to something more serious and then when the regions are self-financed, the thumb of Moscow on the scales of local politics will weigh much less. But that reform will come only after the Center is persuaded that locally elected officials have the competence and the integrity to spend their revenues wisely, without a flow of directives and inspectors coming from Moscow.

The Moscow city council elections are a very different case. They were highlighted by Navalny and other non-systemic opposition for the purposes of mobilizing the general population and grabbing media attention, which they certainly did.

Yes, United Russia was humiliated, losing more than one-third of its seats. But it is more problematic to say who won. It is particularly difficult to assess the influence of Navalny on the outcome. One could read in some Western outlets that his support for the Communists explains their tripling their results over the last council elections to win a total of 13 seats on the council. That reckoning is debatable. In fact, the lineup of “winners” is precisely the same as in Duma elections, with the Communists doing three or four times better than any one of the other Duma parties. That they did poorly in the last presidential elections was due largely to Zyuganov’s not having done due diligence on his non-party candidate Grudinin and the exposure of his property abroad and expropriation of assets from the farming cooperative he headed.

In any case, the idea put up by one leading Western newspaper that Moscow’s liberal opposition “held its nose” and voted for the Communists at the urging of Navalny does not stand up to critical analysis. The Communists have their own loyal supporters, who number at least the share they received at the polls not counting any liberals who may have been sent their way by Alexei Navalny.

A separate issue is why in light of all the hullabaloo over the Moscow elections the turnout there was just 21%. I have not seen this issue discussed though it is critical to understanding what happened on September 8.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2019