Where Does Russian Discontent Go from Here? Russia’s 2021 Election Considered

Independent statisticians and analysts estimate that only 38 percent of Russian voters selected representatives for the lower house of parliament—the State Duma—and a handful of other regional positions over a three-day period (September 17–19). Despite the declining popularity of the ruling United Russia party, rising inflation, and a prolonged decline in Russian standard of living, United Russia lost only 10 seats and will likely achieve a 324-seat majority, easily clearing the two-thirds threshold to adopt constitutional amendments at will, which was the driving purpose of this election.

But United Russia’s victory has and will continue to come at a price. The only way to guarantee a favorable result and therefore Putin’s political survival beyond 2024—when his final presidential term is set to expire—was through the use of military-grade Novichok poisoning, escalating repression, administrative chicanery, deception, and outright election falsification. In the aftermath of this exercise, two questions arise: Does legitimacy matter anymore to Russian authorities, and how will discontented citizens respond in the future?

Leaving Nothing to Chance

Legitimacy is still sought after by the Kremlin, but it has departed from traditional means to achieve it as fatigue with the nearly 22-year reign of Vladimir Putin has become entrenched. In fact, the approach used by Russian officials before, during, and after the vote shows just how detached legitimacy has become from the electoral process in the eyes of Russia’s leaders.

First, the Kremlin needed to eviscerate the true or “non-systemic” opposition. The attempted murder in August 2020 of Alexey Navalny, who famously branded United Russia as “the party of crooks and thieves,” did not silence him, but his jail term on dubious charges upon his return to Russia after recovering from the attack, the designation of his Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist organization by a Moscow court, and the forced departure of most of its staff effectively did.

Next to be silenced were independent media outlets that were branded as foreign agents and had their funding jeopardized though legislation supplied by a pliant State Duma.

Technology needed to be silenced as well. Navalny’s supporters piloted a Smart Voting mobile phone application which could identify candidates from the Kremlin-approved “systemic” opposition parties with the best chances to defeat United Russia. Previous use of the app had increased support for opposition candidates by up to 7 percent, which presented a substantial threat to United Russia in single-mandate districts that elect half of the State Duma’s 450 deputies and which the ruling party had increasingly relied on to maintain its parliamentary majority. (Candidates could win with as little as one-quarter of the vote amid a fractured competition.) Russian officials pressured Google and Apple into removing the Smart Voting application from their stores, eventually resorting to threats of prosecution against employees and dispatching armed bailiffs to their offices to demand compliance. When the list of Smart Voting candidates was uploaded onto the Google Docs platform to ensure its continued distribution, Russia’s mass media regulator Roskomnadzor blocked access to the service, reportedly causing internet outages. The popular social media application Telegram disabled bots used to distribute Smart Voting recommendations as voting began.

But silencing critics is only a partial strategy; at some point, voters and votes are needed. Here, the Kremlin turned to the nearly 600,000 residents of separatist-held areas in Donbas who were issued Russian passports in hopes of expanding United Russia’s base of loyal voters. According to the self-appointed head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” 825 buses and 12 trains were arranged to transport voters across the uncontrolled border to polling stations in the Rostov region; many others voted online. (Residents of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, had participated in previous elections and could already be counted on to support United Russia.)

When these measures did not seem to overcome the challenge, the regime simply turned to election falsification. This was the riskiest of tactics for the regime, as the gross falsification of the 2011 State Duma voting results created the largest protests in Russia of Putin’s long tenure. Nevertheless, the independent election watchdog Golos, which has been branded a foreign agent, said it had received nearly 5,000 reports of violations. The use of online voting appears to have been the falsification weapon of choice. It was introduced in six key regions to prevent crowding at polling stations amidst the coronavirus pandemic, but in reality, it gave election officials the opportunity to change the outcome. In Moscow, the final count of nearly 2 million electronic ballots was postponed for almost 24 hours, and when the tally was finally released, opposition candidates, primarily from the Communist Party (KPRF), who had built comfortable leads during the first two days of voting suddenly found themselves trailing United Russia rivals by a substantial margin. Election officials immediately were accused of doctoring the results to ensure a resounding victory for United Russia. Since then, statistical analyses of online voting results nationwide revealed a strong possibility of manipulation, prompting estimates that up to 30 percent of all votes cast in the election had been falsified.

What Alternatives Will Russians Pursue When the System Offers No Alternative?

Authoritarian governments often engage in elections to seek renewed legitimacy from (carefully managed) expressions of the people’s will, with voter turnout serving as a proxy for citizens’ enthusiasm and a wide margin of victory ensuring unchallenged power. Overt manipulations of the process have the opposite effect, signaling weak support from the people.

This recent exercise in sham democracy shows that the Kremlin no longer believes it needs to derive its governing mandate through an external validation process. Instead, ruling officials believe that their authority allows them to generate legitimacy for themselves. When power becomes self-perpetuating, maintaining the status quo—in this case, through the preservation of a parliamentary supermajority—is essential. Any alternative political path or candidate is immediately tarnished, sidelined, or criminalized. This is why Russian officials labeled Golos a foreign agent and did not want election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—they are no longer needed to provide legitimacy. Likewise, any acts of repression against political opponents are justified.

How tenable is this strategy? With non-systemic opposition parties out of the way, the only challenge to the Kremlin’s power that remains is the systemic opposition. The KPRF, which received a substantial boost from Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative, is best positioned to challenge the Kremlin and has the most incentive to mobilize, as early assessments suggest it was robbed of a substantial number of seats in the State Duma. The immediate (and small) post-election protests were led by the KPRF. Its leaders may test the limits of public protest in the new era. In Moscow, the KPRF announced that it did not recognize the results of electronic voting in local races and filed three petitions—all denied—to hold public protests. Hundreds of people defied municipal authorities to join the first protest at Pushkinskaya Square on September 20. It remains to be seen if these unauthorized protests grow in the coming days. If KPRF leaders are sincere about holding Putin’s regime accountable for their actions, they may be able to harness the righteous indignation that Navalny has tapped into, but the supporters of each party are an anathema to the other, making this a very limited potential partnership.

What binds these parties is that the Russian government has failed in recent years to deliver on the social contract that emerged in the mid-2000s, according to which citizens ceded certain freedoms and civil liberties in exchange for stability and economic growth, putting the government on a collision course with the Russian people. In recent polls, almost half of respondents said they thought the country was on the wrong track. Russians are growing restless and less likely to accept another back-room deal that would allow Putin to retain the presidency beyond 2024. Many are voting with their feet; disappointment with political conditions in Russia appears to be accelerating emigration. This is especially pronounced among young people, of which 4 in 10 already want to leave the country, as well as the professional class, raising concerns about brain drain.

In the meantime, the state is increasingly relying on the tools of repression to maintain order and prevent citizens from identifying a political alternative. Political protests are increasingly met with violence; police and state security officers used excessive force in 68 percent of demonstrations from January to March 2021, compared to 20 percent in the period from 2007 to 2020. The government has invested heavily in its security apparatus and plans to increase its staff. Further restrictions also are expected in the information space. Legislation passed earlier this year gives Roskomnadzor the ability under certain conditions to block access to foreign-owned IT “giants” presumed to include Google, Apple, Twitter, YouTube, and other popular platforms, which have been the lifeline to Russian civil society and opposition. The willingness of the first two companies to remove the Smart Voting application may embolden the authorities to separate the Russian internet from the outside world.

The Kremlin believes it can maintain its grip on power though manipulations and repression. In the short term, this strategy has worked. But where will Russian public discontent go in the future, and who or what will lead it?

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andrew Lohsen is a fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Heather A. Conley

Andrew Lohsen