On online voting, the war coalition and others

What happened in Russia over the past week? A couple of words on the role of online voting, on the importance of a visibly strong pro-war coalition for Putin, and some regional political and economic news.

In the following paragraphs I am appending some additional analysis on politics and political economy, as well as news of interest from Russia’s regions, to the Bear Market Brief newsletter, which comes out every week. This is an experimental format that I am planning to publish every 7-10 days as long as I have the capacity for it. Feedback is always welcome.

How online voting matters

Russia will hold a presidential election next week, and I often get the question of whether one can even call the three-day parade taking place between March 15 and 17 an election, given that it is obvious to everyone – including the three “opposition” candidates – that the official result will amount to a coronation of Vladimir Putin for a fifth term. My usual answer is that it makes no sense looking at the election as one would in a democracy where elections serve the purpose of selecting accountable representatives on a more or less level playing field; at the same time, elections do have important functions even in a hard autocracy. From the point of view of the ruling authorities, they provide an opportunity to stress test the mobilizing capacity of the system and showcase, both to the elite and to citizens, that the ruler has no viable alternative. For citizens they are either a ritual to express a minimal degree of loyalty to the system, or to express dissatisfaction in variably risky ways, from engaging in activism (riskiest) through protesting at polling stations (still considerably risky) to “voting with a fig in your pocket” (Russian for casting a protest vote or an invalid vote in the intimacy of the polling booth), knowing that at least some people in the vertical of power will be aware of the actual results, and that engineering the desired outcome will always come with costs.  

I wrote about the most important task for the authorities in this presidential election – driving up turnout – in this week’s Bear Market Brief. And on March 12 I will talk about the elections in general with Olga Khvostunova and Robert E. Hamilton. Here I will add a couple of words specifically about the role of online voting, as it shows how the Russian authorities are dealing with these challenges.

Novaya Gazeta has a useful summary of online voting’s expanding role in various Russian elections, since it was first introduced in 2019, and how it is promoted, often quite assertively, by local authorities and enterprises. This aspect itself is not unique: it is often how coercive policy implementation looks like in Russia (previous examples include offline voting as well as policies like covid vaccinations). Yet, the persistent focus on the promotion of online voting is itself notable.

Since the 2021 Duma election, in which online votes helped to overturn what looked like opposition victories in Moscow, there have been growing concerns about the lack of transparency of online voting and fears that the authorities can use it as a kill switch to falsify election results. It does not quite work that way, although previous examples have shown that online voting results do skew noticeably towards the ruling party. But the key is that online voting allows the authorities to do the same things that they would in “offline” voting, only more efficiently and in a less resource-intensive way.

To name just a couple of examples: due to a lack of transparency of the whole process, from registration to tabulation, ballot-stuffing may happen out of sight, electronically, without people stuffing actual ballots in actual bins. But it may not even be necessary, as online voting also makes it easier to increase turnout and pro-regime vote in less violative ways. Many are either automatically registered to vote online (even if they did not choose to, as we have seen in previous elections) or are nudged by their employers, just like they would be in an offline election; but signing up takes less time and effort than actually going. Observers have a harder time monitoring the vote, even more so than in the case of offline voting, as the Kremlin has adopted a series of legislative amendments in recent years to this effect.

Voter intimidation also demands less resources than in offline votes, as people need to log in with their government services credentials, and cannot be fully sure that their vote will not be tied to their name. Fewer officials need to supervise and engineer the vote, which makes it both more cost-effective and less fault-prone.

Online voting also allows the authorities to focus on problematic regions where traditional “offline” methods are less likely to work. It is notable, for example, that none of the so-called “electoral sultanates” – regions with consistently sky-high turnout and pro-regime vote figures – will use online voting, both because there is no need for it, and because the local officials operating the political machineries that deliver these votes are aware of their usefulness and guard their privileges. Not all regions using online voting count as “problematic”, either, and not all problematic regions will use online voting. But there’s a significant overlap. In 2018 regional-level turnout figures were, on average, 2 points lower and vote for Putin 1 point lower than the overall turnout and pro-Putin vote. This is not much, but in the 2021 Duma elections, which took place following three politically rather turbulent years – these figures were 6 and 10 points respectively, counting the United Russia vote as the pro-regime vote. (Of course, the two cannot be directly compared – Putin’s vote share was always much higher than United Russia’s – but there is correlation.) Some of the regions where online voting will take place contain Russia’s largest cities where the price of electoral manipulation is traditionally higher and voters are less likely to support pro-Kremlin candidates (e.g. Sverdlovsk or Perm), regions with low pro-regime vote shares (e.g. Yaroslavl or the Altai Territory) or regions where the opposition made inroads in the past years (e.g. Tomsk and Novosibirsk).

Rather than preventing some kind of massive anti-Putin election stunt (which is unlikely to happen under the current circumstances), it looks like regional officials are trying to wring a couple of additional percents here and there, in the hope that it will ultimately add up.

In this year’s election online voting will take place in 26 regions as well as Moscow – which uses a different system – and the occupied Crimea. These regions have roughly 48 million voters between themselves, of whom 3.75 million were registered for online voting before March 6, a week before registration is closed, however, this does not include voters in Moscow where no registration is needed (the capital had around 7.6 million voters in 2023, and in 2023 roughly 80% of those who voted in the city’s municipal election cast their vote online).

3.75 million in the regions might not seem like a particularly high figure, given the total number of voters, but it is not a final figure (Stanislav Andreychuk of Golos estimates that in the end 14-15 million people could vote electronically) and it is already more than three times the total number of votes cast online in last year’s regional elections outside of Moscow, when online votes made a marked difference (adding, on average, 3-4 points to United Russia’s vote share). It should be noted, however, that turnout is also expected to be much higher in this election (60-70%) than in regional votes, so the overall effect of online voting will likely not be four times as big. Still, assuming that close to everyone who registered will vote online and online votes will skew towards Putin as they did towards United Russia, the president can easily get, at least officially, 8-10 million online votes or more (in 2018 Putin officially got 56.4 million votes in total). This will not be a pure gain, and Putin will not get the desired result solely by online voting, but it will help the authorities get closer to the desired record-breaking figures. Other relatively novel forms of manipulation, such as three-day voting and organizing the election in the occupied territories of Ukraine, will likely also play their part, as will more traditional forms of mobilization and coercion.

It’s worth adding that online voting doesn’t do another thing that is important in an autocracy: it does not showcase support for the incumbent at the ballot box. People are not actually mobilized – even by the standards of “normal” mobilization, which is often reluctant and passive. They do not “perform their duty” as much as it happens to them.

Still, the above is important because it underlines that it is getting more difficult to engineer turnout. Not only are people generally less interested in a pre-decided presidential vote after 24 years of Putin, but positive incentives (including money) are also tighter at the regional level, and, judging from a recent report in Meduza about employees pushing back against election-related coercion, knowing that they are worth more in Russia’s tight labor market, people may also understand that negative incentives are not always credible.  

Offline campaign

Putin also continued his pre-election tour last week, with visits to Stavropol and Krasnodar in Southern Russia. Just as his state of the nation speech last week, which was likely designated as the apex of his campaign (if one can call it that) did not really offer any coherent vision of the future, these visits are also less campaign events than they are carefully choreographed theater to show either that he, unlike local officials, cares about the issues in the region that he visits, or (whenever he is photographed in what looks like a crowd) that he is well-liked all across the country. This was probably important for the Kremlin in the aftermath of Navalny’s funeral that actually attracted tens of thousands of people.

From Putin’s point of view in the late stage of the campaign it is probably much more important to showcase that he is successfully building a pro-war coalition. His mention of a “new elite” in his speech last week was part of this effort, but in reality this should be read as a call to existing elites to fall in line to avoid unnecessary risks to their position or property.  

There is precious little to suggest that war participants without prior experience (and connections) in politics can hope to occupy important positions in public administration after their return, even though pro-government media has been suggesting this for more than a year. The latest “veteran” to obtain such a position, Sergey Yefremov who was appointed deputy governor of the Maritime Territory last week, was a local official before he became the head of a “volunteer battalion”.

The Kremlin is definitely keen on creating winners of the war not only in the elite but also in the larger population. A recent analysis by Laura Solanko of the Bank of Finland pointed out that certain regions have seen a large and anomalous increase in bank deposits since mid-2022, likely as a result of payments to war participants and their families (although the proportion of recruitment bonuses vs social support is not clear). The rise of social payments to war widows and orphans can be tracked through the Unified State Information System of Social Security (EGISSO), and, as we have also noted it in Bear Market Brief over the past years, it appears that recruitment bonuses have also seen a sharp increase across regions.

This goes hand in hand with more coercive measures, such as draft offices tracking down citizens with unpaid utility bills, as Sibirsky Express noted seems to happen in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. Keeping people in line about the war also takes intimidation: security services in at least three regions are reportedly stepping up efforts to deanonymize Telegram users by investing in specialized software.

Regional officials having to spend more money or employing more coercion to recruit soldiers or to monitor dissent definitely does not scream that the pro-war coalition is strong and enthusiastic. However, it does suggest that the authorities still possess the means to ensure the level of compliance that they need so that rising up against what looks like the strong majority position remains an unpalatable choice to many.


  • The past week did not see a lot of noteworthy developments as regards regional economies. Rosstat’s publication of industrial production figures for January 2024 suggest the continuation of the trends observed in 2023 where the defense industry and its adjacent industries fuel economic growth, but overall there is little room to enhance industrial production further under the current war conditions, especially while both equipment and labor remain expensive. Meanwhile, metallurgical and fuel plants continue to suffer drone attacks in several regions, causing production outages.  
  • The week, however, also saw the announcement that the Chinese Great Wall Motors, which manufactures Haval cars in the Tula Region, will invest in an engine production line. While such investments are relatively rare, Chinese companies did make inroads into Russia’s car industry over the past two years as it was abandoned by Western brands.
  • This week saw some developments in the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to scale back the remaining vestiges of local self-governance in the country (of which I have recently written an article for Riddle Russia). Novosibirsk started accepting candidacies for the city’s upcoming “competition” for mayor, a year after direct mayoral elections were scrapped in the city. The competition, which will take place in April, will produce candidates for the city assembly to vote on, but due to the selection process, in reality it will likely result in the nomination of a mayor acceptable for the region’s governor, Andrey Travnikov (which is why Svetlana Kaverzina, an independent deputy who will also be running, will likely not be recommended). It will be interesting to see, however, to what extent Travnikov will make an effort to placate the city’s local elite. What this process may look like for uncooperative local deputies, however, was illustrated by the resignation, this week, of Chingis Akataev, a United Russia deputy of the city council in Tomsk, which had scrapped its direct mayoral election and appointed an outsider mayor months before Novosibirsk. Akataev had earlier been forced to resign from his position of speaker of the local assembly due to a conflict with the region’s governor, Vladimir Mazur. However this was not enough for Mazur who demanded that Akataev leave the city council altogether due to alleged problems with his wife’s income declaration. In Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, however, local elites seem to have pushed back against the governor’s attempt to abolish mayoral elections; the regional legislature, which was due to discuss and vote on the proposal last week, postponed it for an indefinite period.
  • And finally, this week saw controversial proposal in the oil-rich Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District (known also for its governor, Natalya Komarova with a history of carelessly honest statements), where the government will set up a ChatGPT-style LLM to help local officials write laws and regulations. While its developers claim that the machine will produce “high quality” documents, the fact that it is going to be trained on existing laws and regulations makes this already very debatable.
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