Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tightening the reins since returning to the Kremlin, Russia’s September 8th elections show that the shoots of democracy remain alive in Russia.
The elections and some of Putin’s recent statements suggest that he seems to be pulling back from the more excessive aspects of the crackdown. He also may even be allowing greater electoral competition in the more cosmopolitan, pro-democracy urban centers in order to: (1) pressure the pro-Kremlin ‘Yedinaya Rossiya’ (YeR or United Russia) party or to improve its electoral performance, (2) reduce reliance on voter falsification, and (3) let off oppositional steam where the middle or ‘creative class’ is on the rise.
The September election results and the conduct of the campaign proceeded better than might have been expected in many places. To be sure, there were some of the usual dirty tricks, use of the notorious ‘administrative resources’, and other minor oversteps on the authorities’ part. In Voronezh, the pro-Kremlin YeR party may have stolen the mayoral election by falsifying the vote count. But elections for mayoralties in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Petrozavodsk, and several other areas were conducted with fewer constraints, though apparently not fully free or fair.
The Moscow mayoral election was the first vote for a regional head (Moscow counts as one of Russia’s 83 region in its own right) in eight years and the first fair election of federal significance in 13 years. Although the Kremlin had media advantages in the campaign, the voting and vote counting in Moscow (and several other regions) was honest.
Street opposition leader Alexei Navalnyi was allowed to campaign almost unhindered and won a surprising 27 percent of the vote, establishing himself as the leader of Russia’s opposition movement, democratic and otherwise. Pro-Kremlin acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin, won in a field of six candidates, winning 51 percent of the vote. There appears to have been little vote tampering in anyone’s favor, least of all Sobyanin’s. The final results’ contrasted with the pre-election polls, all of which showed Sobyanin easily breaking not only the 50 percent barrier needed to avoid a run-off second round, but also approaching or breaking the 60 percent barrier. Navalnyi polled over 20 percent in only one poll. Synovate Comcon found in its final pre- election poll conducted from August 29th to September 2nd among likely and decided voters found Sobyanin with 60.1 percent (free-falling from 78.5 percent in early July) and Navalnyi with 21.9 percent (rising precipitously from 10.7 percent in early July).
The low turnout (33 percent) - perhaps intended by the Kremlin by establishing September 8th as the single election day - backfired, as YeR voters stayed home unmotivated by Sobyanin’s lackluster personality and campaign. This stood in sharp contrast to Navlanyi’s ambition and innovative campaign. The low turnout was also due to other factors. Many Russians were still at their summer dachas or on vacation, others were not tuned into the debate because they had only just returned from their summer away, and others who might just have returned home were busy getting the children settled in their first week of school.
A part of Sobyanin’s decline and Navalnyi’s rise in the polls is attributable to identifying them by party, as Synovate Comcon did in August, precipitating a sharp 10 percent decline for Sobyanin in one week. Muscovites’ ballots showed the candidates’ respective party membership, while the opinion polls in which Sobyanin performed best did not indicate party. This should be a warning to the Kremlin regarding the YeR’s drag on its authority.
Still, democracy in Moscow is not out of the woods, not least of all because Navalnyi remains under the axe of his June conviction for corruption and could be arrested and imprisoned at any moment. The Kremlin is faced with a difficult choice: (1) let Navalnyi off and risk further pressure for democratization or (2) send him to prison and set off another wave of anti-Putin protests.
In the provinces, except for major provincial capitols, YeR retained its majorities in most gubernatorial elections, winning 7 of the 8 elections for regional heads, and legislative assembly voting. The shortness of the opposition’s electoral reach is best demonstrated by the 80 percent of the vote won by YeR’s gubernatorial candidate in Moscow Oblast, which neighbors Moscow city where Navalnyi mounted his challenge. The only region where the YeR did not win was one in which it did not run a candidate. Instead, the Kremlin backed the winner from the sometimes oppositional, sometimes not, Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya or SR) party.
In none of these regional votes (except for the Moscow mayoral election) did the winner receive less than 63 percent of the vote. Elections to regional legislatures ran pretty much the same. In less than cosmopolitan Chechnya, president Ramzan Kadyrov continues to hold the reins of power tightly; the YeR won 86 percent of the vote in a race with 17 parties.
However, in Russia’s fourth largest city of Yekaterinburg the opposition candidate, former State Duma deputy and founder of the anti-drug addiction organization, “A City Without Drugs.’ Yevgenyi Roizman won the mayoral election, despite the local authorities’ dirty campaign against him and his domestic partner Oksana Panova. A week before the vote the authorities accused Roizman of ties with the local mafia, delayed a verdict in a trial of Panova while offering Roizman her acquittal in return for dropping out of the race, and distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets saying Roizman had been removed from the ballot because of a 17-year old minor conviction. Nevertheless, Roizman defeated a field of 11 other candidates including the Kremlin’s incumbent mayor, and garnered 33 percent of the vote. In Petrozavodsk, the capitol of the Republic of Karelia, the pro-democracy Yabloko party’s candidate, Galina Shirshina, won the mayor’s race with 42 percent of the vote, a third more than that received by the YeR’s candidate.
The opposition made some small gains in the sixteen regional legislative assembly votes. In seven of them, the YeR could not muster 45 percent of the vote, and in two more it garnered less than 50 percent. However, none of the non-parliamentary parties did well, except for PARNAS’s breaking the five percent barrier to take several seats in the Yaroslavl regional assembly. The YeR, however, lost to one or more parties in several city and city district council votes and failed to reach a majority in many more.
But the main story is that perhaps Russia’s capitol is becoming an ‘opposition city’. This is reminiscent of the late Soviet perestroika era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Contrary to the conventional view that the fall of the Soviet regime (and ultimately the collapse of the Union) was largely driven by nationalist uprisings in the union republics then, it was actually the party- state’s split and the rise of opposition in Moscow that did the trick.
Could the same fate await Russia’s present soft authoritarianism? In addition to Navalnyi’s 27.24 percent, the pro-democracy Yabloko party’s candidate, Sergei Mitrokhin, won another 3.51 percent. This gives the pro-democracy non-systemic or non-parliamentary opposition (parties without State Duma seats) 30.75 percent or a third of the Moscow electorate. Moreover, the significantly pro-democratic parliamentary opposition SR party’s 2.79 percent, makes the pro-democracy vote more than a third. Thus, the Kremlin’s Moscow majority is extremely vulnerable to a regime split. This means that the defection of liberals from the YeR and/or the the non-democratic opposition parties could give the city to the pro-democracy opposition. From there, the rise of the opposition could spread nationwide. The one caveat is that a few of Navalnyi’s percentage points could have come from nationalist voters, given Navalnyi’s past ties to ultra-nationalists, ties he seems to have jettisoned.
In addition to some movement forward for electoral practice and pro-democracy forces gaining ground, Putin recently has been signaling he might might be pulling back on his crackdown. In a meeting with Russian political scientists in mid-August first deputy head of his presidential administration in charge of domestic politics, Vyacheslav Volodin, announced that the Kremlin had decided to allow competitive elections (thereby acknowledging the Kremlin had done the opposite in the past).
Moreover, Putin himself mentioned for a second time that the strict law designating as ‘foreign agents’ any NGO working in the political sphere that receives foreign funding is overburdensome and needs amending. Thus, he may realize that his crackdown was counter- productive in regards to stabilization, particularly on a background of an economic slowdown and possible budget constraints, which could limit the Kremlin’s patronage capacity and therefore lead to more defections from the regime by liberals who backed Medvedev’s liberalization.
The legacy of Putin’s handpicked predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, is playing no small role in the survival of democratic roots in Russia, and this sparks hope that a full peaceful democratic transformation could be forced on Putin under certain circumstances. Part of that legacy is the political reforms then-president Medvedev initiated in response to the mass demonstrations provoked most fundamentally by Putin’s decision to run for the presidency in Medvedev’s place and most immediately by the less than honest 2011 Duma election campaign preceding the presidential vote. The first mass demonstrations of December 2011 were themselves a legacy of Medvedev’s liberalization policies which included: greater access for opposition politicians to state television and radio, a more open approach to opposition initiatives, and less than successful police, legal, and prison reforms, which nevertheless further reinforced civil society’s sense that a political ‘thaw’ was underway and they could openly demonstrate in the streets in support of their demands. The perestroika 2.0 that Medvedev’s thaw inaugurated has survived Putin 2.0’s early ‘freeze.’
The Kremlin appears prepared under the growing pressure of civil society in more urban, middle class settings, to step back and allow more political competition. When Putin might allow opposition forces come to power in such metropolises as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhnii Novgorod or Yekaterinburg remains unclear. The next key test will be the Moscow City Duma elections set for next year. One key factor will be the level of societal mobilization. The more opposition forces can frequently organize timely and peaceful opposition demonstrations, organize thousands of election observers, and undertake other measures, the more likely it is that it can nudge Putin towards democracy without provoking a crackdown.
We should remember that ‘perestroika 1.0’ was not only a period of reforms. It included: (1) a societal reawakening, mass demonstrations, opposition election victories; (2) a multiple regime split; (3) political retrenchments and crackdowns in winter 1990-91 when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev began to fear he was losing control of the country and was under intense pressure from hardliners to rein in the chaos; (4) a return to reform and compromise with opposition forces led by Boris Yeltsin in spring and summer 1991; and (5) a failed coup to put a stop to the new Union Treaty that embodied and codified that compromise.
In other words, we can expect more ‘zigs and zags’ in the development of Russian politics and hopefully democracy before we reach the next denouement, regardless of whether that looks like democracy, authoritarianism or something worse.
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.; 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, and the forthcoming The Caucasus Emirate: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). 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.