What is at stake in Russia’s regional and municipal elections?

On September 8-10 Russia holds regional gubernatorial or legislative elections in 33 of its 83 regions, including in Moscow. Apart from these votes, a number of municipal votes will be held across the country, and the occupying authorities will stage elections in four occupied regions of Ukraine. Below is a short overview of what is at stake in these elections and what to look out for.

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A mayor issue

The issue of direct mayoral elections and of local representative democracy in general is triggering protest movements and referendum initiatives in several Russian regions. This is partly due to national and regional politics becoming less and less pluralistic. However, the federal government also has not been able to address or sidestep the issue.

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Shrinking spaces

From keeping up appearances to maintaining social stability and meeting the needs of the army, regional officials are finding themselves in tight spots more and more often. A handful of developments from the recent past highlight the means and pitfalls of center-regions politics in post-2022 Russia.

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No country for old politics

March has seen the start of this year’s spring “gubernatoropad” (“the season of falling governors”) in Russia with the dismissal of (as of this writing) two governors. While ongoing rumors and some recent investigations indicate that there could be more of these to come, it is a fact that since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has put a greater emphasis on political stability, dismissing fewer public officials, including regional leaders. Thus it is worth looking at the implications of these recent dismissals, and, in a broader sense, the ways in which the Kremlin’s relationship with regions has been changing. Below are five main trends from the recent past that are worth keeping an eye on.

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The changing face of the crisis

The year 2023 will be bumpier for many Russian regions than the past year was. Warning signs are already visible: tighter money, distracted officials, more friction points. The September regional and local elections are not without risks, either.

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Low on capacity

As timelines in Russia’s war against Ukraine are shifting, the war has highlighted Russia’s low state capacity. Military mobilization and the state’s reply to the economic disruptions created by the war offer two recent examples. This will become a much bigger problem as the government has to face another issue: shrinking regime capacity.

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Built for a different purpose

As timelines shift in Russia’s war against Ukraine, costs and risks are reinterpreted by the authorities, but always with the regime’s perceived security interests in mind. The divergence between regime security and Russia’s interests will grow. Consider how budget cuts and mobilization will affect Russia’s system of governance, which was not built to deal with this kind of crises.

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