Navalny’s campaign put a pause on protests and will likely focus on this year’s Duma election – which is expected to be heavily rigged – even as the leaders of loyal opposition parties are scrambling to assure the Kremlin that they are not seeking cooperation with Navalny’s team. This might look like a defeat, but the Duma election is important and systemic opposition parties are facing more dilemmas than their leaders will admit.
The January protests shook up the “systemic opposition” as well. On the one hand, we got a reminder of why the parties are referred to as “systemic”. Their leaders were scrambling to distance themselves from Navalny: the head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in a characteristically overblown rant, called on the authorities to both imprison and institutionalize Navalny; Gennady Zyuganov, the dour leader of the Communist Party (KPRF) called him an agent and criticized his supporters. Sergey Mironov, the head of the Fair Russia (SR) party took time out of his no doubt very busy schedule – merging his moribund party with two nationalist parties – to call Navalny a puppet and a traitor. Grigory Yavlinsky, a senior politician and former leader of the liberal Yabloko, penned an article, in which he painted Navalny as a dangerous nationalist.
None of this was surprising, of course. In Russia’s electoral autocracy where the Kremlin controls most financial resources and legal avenues that parties need to conduct electoral campaigns – and often the ballot boxes too – party leaders are dealing with the Kremlin more often than they do with their electorates, especially in an election year. Yavlinsky, for his part, has had a bone to pick with Navalny who was expelled from Yabloko in 2007 after criticising him (then the head of the party).
On lower levels, however, the parties reacted very differently. Local Yabloko deputies openly criticized Yavlinsky. Several senior members of the KPRF – former Irkutsk governor Sergey Leshchenko, Valery Rashkin, the head of the party in Moscow, Denis Parfyonov, a Duma deputy and Vyacheslav Markhaev, a former member of the Federation Council, made ambiguous or supportive statements as regards Navalny or the protests, as did Leonid Razvozzhayev, a prominent member of the Left Front, an ally of the KPRF. The KPRF announced a “constructive and sensible” protest for February 23, the Day of the Fatherland’s Defenders, while the LDPR called for what appears to be a pro-Putin rally on the same day.
Notwithstanding Zyuganov’s loyalist remarks, the authorities seem to have increased the pressure on the KPRF. Moscow decided not to give permission to the protest on February 23. Nikolay Bondarenko, a deputy in the parliament of the Saratov Region and a rising media-savvy star of the party who took part in the January protests and had recently announced plans to run against Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin in the September Duma election, was detained and accused of corruption.
The Kremlin’s strategy and its pitfalls
The harsh authoritarian response to Navalny’s return to Russia and the January protests as well as the crackdown on Navalny’s smart voting initiative are reducing the spaces for systemic opposition parties to cooperate with the “non-systemic” opposition. This was fully expected. But, much like after the January protests, the crackdown is not indiscriminate. Ensuring that a critical number of people accept the official result of this year’s Duma election is at least as important as it is to grant United Russia the necessary number of seats to navigate the turbulent years ahead. Thus the authorities seem to go after the most obvious targets – opposition candidates openly courting Navalny as an ally, as well as Navalny’s regional campaign offices – while they are relying on party leaders and more acquiescent opposition candidates to discredit smart voting either by openly denouncing it or by trash-talking Navalny himself. At the same time, they are also trying to offer voters just enough new faces – either in new parties or in old parties merging with new ones – to make the election palatable for them without endangering United Russia’s position.
This also reflects a realization that in recent years the electoral base of systemic parties has become more complex in several regions. The KPRF boosted its appeal in 2018 by briefly replacing the ossified Zyuganov with the much more energetic Pavel Grudinin as the headliner of the party, and by supporting protests against the government’s pension reform. The LDPR’s appeal grew briefly when two of the party’s gubernatorial candidates triumphed over Kremlin-backed incumbents in 2018. In Khabarovsk, the LDPR delivered a double whammy to United Russia when, one year after Furgal’s surprise victory, the governor’s party all but demolished the ruling party in the Khabarovsk Territory.
Allowing systemic opposition parties to take liberties in order to make them look more alive and appealing has been part of the Kremlin’s toolbox for more than a decade. Yet, it seems that the growing grassroots activism of recent years has prompted the local elites who dominate the local and regional chapters of these parties to rethink their interests, led to more uncontrolled activities, and made it more difficult for the Kremlin’s political technologists to keep the lid on the loyal opposition.
Furgal’s election predated smart voting, but voters followed the same principle and in 2019 Navalny’s campaign suggested that it was partly due to their efforts that LDPR candidates won a landslide victory in the Khabarovsk city council as well as the regional parliament (the party disputes this). Following Furgal’s arrest in July 2020 the LDPR was offered a deal to accept the appointment of Mikhail Degtyaryov, an associate of Zhirinovsky who had no links to Khabarovsk, to head the region. Zhirinovsky accepted the deal, but the Khabarovsk LDPR almost tore itself apart over the issue and while the protests in the city ultimately ended, the decision had a devastating effect on the party’s standing in the region – and likely elsewhere, as a significant number of Russian citizens followed the protests.
The KPRF faces a very similar dilemma in Moscow. When local authorities refused to give the party permission to hold a protest on February 23, Valery Rashkin, its leader in Moscow announced that they would go ahead with the rally anyway. As I mentioned above, Rashkin has been one of the advocates of cooperating with Navalny and with good reason: the KPRF has been the main beneficiary of smart voting across the country, but especially in Moscow where 13 of the 20 opposition deputies elected to the city council in 2019 were KPRF candidates. Only in this case, the stakes seem to be higher.
These questions inevitably feed into the already ongoing debate about the party’s future as the KPRF mulls the question of who should succeed the aging Zyuganov. One obvious candidate who is widely mentioned as the Kremlin’s preferred successor, is Yury Afonin, the deputy head of the party’s Central Committee, but, as recent years have shown, other Communist politicians are available.
The party will ultimately also need to address the question of its dwindling popularity – in November 2020 Levada survey gave it an electoral rating of 11 percent as opposed to the LDPR’s 17 – and crucially, where to look for support. The drop might partially be due to the Kremlin’s actively or tacitly supporting a number of left-wing political startups in recent years; this should prompt party leaders to seek an arrangement with the Presidential Administration.
However, the party’s performance in regional elections in recent years tells a different story, which may suggest to the KPRF that it is better off keeping smart voting on the table. First of all, in 2016 its candidates finished second in the largest number of vulnerable single-mandate districts (SMDs that the United Russia candidate won with less than 45 percent of the vote): in almost three times as many as did LDPR candidates, even as the proportional vote of the two parties share was roughly the same. Second, the perception that the KPRF is Russia’s “second strongest party” has seemingly benefited it as an increasing number of voters wanted to express their dismay with the Kremlin through the ballot boxes. In regional legislative elections held in 2018-19 the KPRF increased its vote share relative to the 2016 Duma election significantly (by more than seven percentage points) in nine regions, including in ones (Khakassia, Vladimir, Ivanovo, Irkutsk, Altai Republic) where this was certainly not due to a significantly lower turnout. In Moscow it increased the number of its deputies from 5 to 13. The LDPR was able to achieve a similar improvement in only one region – Khabarovsk, where in 2019 it took more than 56 percent of the vote – and, to a much smaller extent, in the occupied Sevastopol. In the 2020 regional elections both parties suffered when compared to their 2016 results, but this was likely due to increased rigging. Yet it is worth mentioning that the KPRF did significantly better.
Lessons for everyone
There are three lessons about smart voting that can be drawn from this. One for the systemic opposition, one for the Kremlin and one for both.
The first lesson – for both – is that smart voting can lock in opposition gains by reducing scepticism and removing reservations against opposition figures, as well as by amplifying their reach. The LDPR’s sweeping victories in Khabarovsk in 2019 were quite likely the consequence of Furgal’s first year in office at least as much as of smart voting. It is possible that we will see something similar in Tomsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow in this year’s Duma election (not necessarily in the official results, although more actual votes for opposition candidates also make rigging more difficult).
The second lesson – for systemic opposition parties – is that if their candidate is seen as the best bet against a United Russia incumbent in a single-mandate district, this perception can also improve their proportional vote share, which will yield mandates more easily than winner-takes-all SMDs. In other words, voters will be more likely to give both of their votes for the same party. Admittedly, this requires more rigorous analysis, but the KPRF outperforming its national electoral rating in several regions suggests that it is worth considering.
The third lesson, finally, is for the Kremlin. It is that smart voting does not require the public consent of those whom it benefits. The “coalition of the fed-up” (as Mark Galeotti called it) will not necessarily care whether or not Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky or Yavlinsky endorses Navalny or smart voting. Two years ago, liberal Muscovites fiercely debated whether it was acceptable to vote for Communists just to hold up a finger to the Kremlin. The result was a strong yes. Voters in the regions, many of whom feel short-changed by Moscow and devastated by an ongoing economic and health crisis, would likely care even less. A crackdown on protests may have discouraged people from taking to the streets, as Levada’s latest data show, but it certainly did not make them forget their problems. And as long as there are elections in Russia – even if in name only – they will be able to articulate this anger.