This month Russia held a series of gubernatorial, legislative assembly, mayoral, and municipal council elections across the country. Russian authorities’ at all levels in the United Russia (UR) party continued use of the infamous ‘administrative resources’; that is, using state institutions to give their party and pro-Kremlin candidates an advantage, in addition to some fraud to try to control election outcomes. Nevertheless, contestation, intrigue, and occasional uncertainty continue to emerge in some of the elections.
All of the UR candidates won in the five gubernatorial elections conducted under the new system of vetting candidates through a ‘municipal filter’ for the first time. The UR also won all six elections to regional legislative assemblies, taking a majority in five of them. In North Ossetia, where the UR fell short of a majority (45%), the second place finisher was the Patriots of Russia (PR) party, which is not unfriendly to the Kremlin. Thus, in a recent meeting with activists from the UR-tied All-Russian National Front (ONF), Putin suggested it seek alliances with like-minded parties, singling out the PR for specific mention (“Vstrecha s aktivom Obshcherossiiskogo narodnogo fronta,” Kremlin.ru, 18 October 2012). Much of UR’s success was a product of administrative resources and fraud, including the infamous ‘carousels’ which transported groups of voters around to different precincts so they can vote numerous times.
However, in smaller jurisdictions, the authorities were more hard-pressed to flaunt the electoral rights of neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, and friends so easily or flagrantly, producing some opposition victories, especially in mayoral elections. Thus, UR candidates lost six of 12 mayoral races. Although in three of those cases, the victors were former UR politicians, in the others the winners were well-known oppositionists. For example, in the mayoral election in Sverdlovsk Oblast’s city of Degtyarsk, the candidate of the opposition ‘Fair Russia’ (Spravedlivaya Rossiya or SR) party, Igor Busakhin, won an astounding 64 percent victory. Since Putin’s return to the presidency, the SR, which defected to the street opposition’s side during the winter-spring mass demonstrations against Putin and for democracy and free and fair elections, has been under constant pressure from the security organs. Its leader Gennadii Gudkov was run out of parliament for retaining his business activity while serving in the Duma – something many, including UR deputies. Another top SR deputy, Ilya Ponomaryov, was censured from speaking in the Duma for a period of time. So the SR’s victory in Degtyarsk is important.
However, the popularity of UR’s candidates and a divided opposition camp also helped. A good example of this was the most watched race locally and internationally – the mayoral race in the Moscow suburb city of Khimki. That town has been the focus of a long and dirty dispute between local authorities led by Khimki mayor Oleg Shakov and Moscow environmentalists led by Yelena Chirikova over the construction of a highway through the pristine and ancient Khimki Forest. Both ran in the Khimki mayoral election, which UR candidate Shakhov won, taking 48 percent of the vote to Chirikova’s 17 percent. The election was free and fair, for the most part. Even oppositionist Yuliya Latynina, a commentator for the pro-democracy Ekho Moskvy radio station and the newspaper Novaya gazeta acknowledged this, emphasizing that the opposition’s claims of fraud were “an obnoxious scream.” She attributed Shakhov’s victory to his door-to-door campaigning, which contrasted with Chirikova’s reliance on the Internet. The liberal environmentalist vote also was weakened by the fact that it was split between Chirikova and another environmentalist candidate Mitvol, who garnered 15 percent of the vote. In short, Shakhov likely would have won even without the adiministrative resources.
Although UR won all nine of the municipal council elections held in provincial capitols and key Moscow suburban hubs, it failed to win a majority in three. It took only 35.7 percent in the Moscow suburb of Elektrogorsk, with the Communist Party winning 24.7 percent, the pro-democracy parties ‘Right Cause’, Yabloko, and the SR winning 11.2 percent, 9.2 percent, and 7.9 percent, respectively. The UR won a rather weak plurality n the Karachaevsk, one of the republic centers in the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessiya (KChR); the UR won its smallest percentage – 38.7, while the SR finished second with 20.7 percent and the PR in third with a healthy 20.4 percent.
Another feature of October’s elections was unprecedented low turnouts in most venues. This continuing atrophy of Russia’s electoral culture, despite the rise of a significant protest movement and then President Dmitry Medvedev’s electoral reforms, heralds poorly for both democracy and stability. Opposition sentiment in conditions of such participatory apathy is more likely to be acted out on the streets, increasing the risk of violent confrontation between regime and opposition.
A key reason for the low turnout, besides the local rather than federal nature of the elections, has to be the continued sense of much of the population that Russia’s elections are unfree and unfair, rigged in favor of UR. Examples of corruption in the October elections included the ‘carousel’ or transport of some 1,200 students to vote for the UR repeatedly in different precincts in the southern Siberial city of Barnaul. This was reported by the moderate and well-respected moderate opposition leader and cochairman of the Republican Party of Russia/National Freedom Party, Vladimir Ryzhkov, who hails from Barnaul. His party nevertheless managed to exceed 5 percent of the votes (5.45%), the barrier needed to take seats in the Barnaul City Duma.
One hopes that awareness of the threat of complete democracy paralysis informed President Vladimir Putin’s cautious remarks supporting further democratization at his meeting with OFT activists. He told them that, despite some Russian traditionalists’ reticence about gubernatorial elections, he continues to support them and that in the future popular election will be extended to the senators of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council (“Vstrecha s aktivom Obshcherossiiskogo narodnogo fronta,” Kremlin.ru, 18 October 2012). However, it was unclear whether Putin was talking about direct elections of senators or the upcoming introduction of a new system for electing that half of the senator corps that is selected by regional governors. In the new system passed this spring and signed by Putin into law, gubernatorial candidates will nominate a senatorial running mate, who will be elected senator if the gubernatorial candidate wins election. This leaves the other half of the Federation Council still being elected by regions’ legislative assemblies. All 83 of them are dominated by the UR.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program.