Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO

Regional elections are often dull and predictable. Unfortunately for President Vladimir Putin, the ones in Russia will be neither on Sunday, when the world’s largest country by land mass goes to the polls. The dramatic poisoning of opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny adds to a string of events that will make it harder than ever for the Kremlin to guarantee its desired results.

A dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections due next year, this was never going to be a straightforward set of races. Russia’s economy is expected to contract some 4% this year, hurt by the pandemic and an oil crisis. Households are in pain. Anti-government demonstrations have persisted in Khabarovsk, on the Chinese border, and there’s evidence of discontent elsewhere. Finally, there’s the challenge to power in neighbouring Belarus, where marches have not abated.

An ailing Navalny adds a layer of risk.

The attack on one of Putin’s loudest critics has yet to prompt significant popular protests, perhaps in part because assailing opponents is hardly uncommon in Russia. That doesn’t mean the assault won’t encourage citizens to come out in greater numbers and support Navalny’s innovative approach to challenging a rigged system. Last year, his grass roots smart-voting campaign yielded results even where critics were kept off the ballot — most notably in Moscow’s city assembly race, where the ruling party lost a third of its seats. Researchers have found evidence of success in St Petersburg too. More may be inclined to listen this time.

Elections are troublesome for authoritarian leaders. The Kremlin has been remarkably agile in its efforts to retain control in regional and municipal elections, changing the rules frequently, limiting ballot lists and staggering votes.

When the popularity of the ruling United Russia party began to fade after 2018, its pro-government candidates stood as independents. This race will again lean on electronic, mobile and extended voting too — tools justifiable in a pandemic, but that also make it easier to massage results. That fact has not escaped sceptical voters, even if they welcome remote options. 

But the cost of victory is rising.

For legislative and municipal races, though, a combination of Navalny’s campaign, economic pain and general disaffection can do plenty of damage

The appeal of Navalny’s approach is that it works even in a system designed to combat dissenting voices by removing unwelcome candidates. He encourages voters to simply back the person best placed to beat the Kremlin pick, whoever that may be, and provides recommendations. This harnesses an often disparate opposition vote and chips away at United Russia. 

Importantly, it re-introduces political competition as a tangible idea for citizens, and does so at the local level, where it’s more achievable. 

The campaign has not slowed in Navalny’s absence. Indeed, it is set up to continue functioning during his frequent detentions, as Jan Matti Dollbaum, who studies the movement at the University of Bremen, points out. Its first in a series of planned anti-corruption videos, shot during Navalny’s ill-fated visit to Siberia, has been viewed almost five million times since it was posted at the start of last week. That’s just the sort of reach that matters for a fight that depends on breadth.

There is a risk that tactics that worked in 2019 will be countered by the Kremlin’s latest tinkering. Yet the efforts will also be amplified by underlying problems in the regions, including increasingly strained relations with Moscow. That’s particularly true in the Arctic and the Far East, two vast swathes of the country that are supposed to be Russia’s future, but have felt little benefit.

Troublesome Khabarovsk has got much of the attention. Residents there have been protesting since the July arrest of popular governor Sergei Furgal who defeated the Kremlin candidate in 2018. Their slogans have escalated swiftly from local grievances to complaints about the regime — for Putin, a worrying shift.

But there are plenty of signs of dissatisfaction elsewhere, from Bashkortostan’s environmental demonstrations to some uneven results in a constitutional referendum earlier this year, which approved amendments that mean the president could stay on until 2036. In the Arctic region of Murmansk, a relatively low near 63% of voters backed the amendments. It was a similarly lukewarm number in Kamchatka and Khabarovsk in the Far East.

The oil-dependent northern Nenets autonomous region rejected the whole thing, having also said no to unrelated plans to merge it with neighbouring Arkhangelsk. By contrast, the national result was closer to 80% in favour. 

The opposition’s ultimate goal of unseating Putin is distant. The Kremlin’s selected governors should be fine too, come Sunday. For legislative and municipal races, though, a combination of Navalny’s campaign, economic pain and general disaffection can do plenty of damage — and sound a warning for 2021. The Russian Duma, as Ben Noble of University College London points out, has been seen as inconsequential largely because Putin has been able to depend on its support.

The Kremlin may have to work harder to keep it that way.

Bloomberg

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