Look closely: the districts to watch in Russia’s elections

This week from Friday to Sunday, as Russians head to the polls, United Russia’s supermajority (and the amount of falsification necessary to maintain it) will ultimately depend on how the party fares in single-mandate districts. These are the ones worth looking at more closely.

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Developing interests

After a year defined by pandemic-driven policies, the government is eager to shift the focus back onto development projects, from the National Projects to the National Development Goals. The core problem is still the question of how to stimulate investment, including into social infrastructure, in regions and in cities, which risk becoming protest hotspots, without significant private investment and without ceding political and fiscal power to regions. Development policies remain a mixture of projects driven by short-term political interests and grandiose long-term visions, but the government is an increasingly important player and the focus is shifting.

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The 225 meanings of legitimacy

Amidst an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, a crisis of legitimacy haunts the Duma elections that will take place in seven weeks. But what does this actually mean? I argue that Russia in 2021 is not Belarus in 2020, but uncertainty about what is political and the structure of the election allow the Russian opposition to think globally and act locally.

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Primary rehearsal

The governing United Russia party held its “primaries” (irritatingly “translated” to Russian as праймериз) in the last week of May. The votes were totaled and a party congress will, on June 19, approve a list of candidates for the September Duma elections (and other votes to be held on the same day). It is worth taking a closer look at the primaries, because behind the façade of utter dullness, they offer a glimpse into tactics and techniques that could and probably will be used in the Duma election as well.

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Merge, subordinate, centralize

Last year’s constitutional reform created the concept of federal territories, a new type of administrative division, and seemed to integrate municipalities into the system of administrative power. 2020 also brought the issue of regional mergers back onto the political agenda. These three main reform directions seem to reflect, reinforce, and potentially codify existing trends in Russia’s domestic politics that are mostly motivated by political and security interests and have little to do with fostering efficiency or economic development.

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The regional races

It is likely that Vladimir Putin’s address to the National Assembly also closed the spring “gubernatoropad” the season of the “falling of governors”, that is, the dismissal of regional leaders before regional elections. We can thus take a look at the lay of the land before regional elections that will take place, along with the Duma election, on September 19.

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On restructuring and reconstruction

Vladimir Putin’s proposals to restructure the debt of Russian regions will likely provide regions with some much-needed fiscal relief in an election year. Putin expects governors to come up with ideas, spend on them and take responsibility for their implementation. But don’t get too excited: the federal government will remain in charge and the proposals foresee no major structural change, be it political or economic. Indeed, debt relief is likely to remain uneven, and without significant investment growth, Putin’s proposals will just kick the can further down the road, while leading to further fiscal and political centralization.

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