Six months before this year’s Duma election Russia’s political landscape is in flux. The future of “smart voting” remains a factor of uncertainty. Shifts in public opinion, the Kremlin’s new red lines and how the systemic opposition has reacted to these, however, provide some clues about the political space that will be contested in the coming months.
Short-term changes and long-term trends
On one hand, Putin’s trust rating seems to have bounced back in January from a low point at the beginning of the year. This is the open-ended survey, in which Levada asks participants to name 5-6 politicians whom they trust. It is too early to pass a definitive judgement, but it is entirely possible that the focus on Putin – a consequence of Navalny’s investigation and the protests – as well as renewed focus on Navalny in the state-controlled media energized the president’s base, by setting his word against Navalny’s and his system against an emerging, but still unclear, alternative. On the other hand, the protests have highlighted several dividing lines running through Russian society, including between younger (up to 35-40 years old) and older voters, as well as growing grievances in mid-sized cities, which likely contributed to higher turnout figures in January.
Indeed, a survey by the Levada Center also showed that while Navalny’s investigation may have triggered the protests, corruption is not one of the main reasons why people would like to get rid of Putin. Only 8 percent of those who would like to see him leave in or before 2024 named this. Rather, overwhelmingly people seem to be tired of him: 40 percent mentioned one version of Putin’s having been in power for too long, and arguably, there is little the Kremlin can do about this. Some suggested that recent publicity around prime minister Mikhail Mishustin could be part of a plan to tackle this problem: the strengthening of personal accountability that gives a semblance of change, an activist government that is seen to be taking ownership of policies, etc.
What the Kremlin may be able and willing to take a stab at resolving is what 14 percent of Russians who would like to see Putin go named as their reason: social problems. This itself reflects a longer trend. Recent years have seen a shift in attitudes towards social justice, with more Russians expressing preference for a socially more active state. Yet, in the pandemic the government has so far focused mostly on supply-side stimulus. It is possible that Putin himself will announce some sort of income assistance in the coming weeks, but so far it looks like the government is in crisis-micromanagement mode, addressing problems such as rising food prices directly and one by one.
Where does this leave systemic opposition parties?
On the one hand, their ground has been notably shrinking: as the authorities are getting more paranoid about various forms of dissent, red lines are shifting and systemic parties are busy reacting to these shifts. As Tatiana Stanovaya suggested, this likely explains an emerging brand of “anti-Western liberalism”. Some members of the liberal opposition are disowning Navalny partly due to pre-existing disagreements, but partly because they cannot be sure whether they look different enough from the “intolerable” opposition and civil society from the angle of the Kremlin and the security services. The Communist Party is busy tearing itself apart: even figures such as Valery Rashkin, the Moscow party head whose organization has benefited from Navalny’s smart voting has to tread a fine line. Dmitry Loktev, a Communist deputy of the Moscow City Assembly who was recently expelled from the party claimed that Rashkin “sacrificed” him to secure his own position, lest he would be perceived as a “Navalnyist”. (Still, remarkably, the Communist Party has so far failed to field a candidate in Moscow’s single-mandate district no. 199 where Rashkin ran in 2016). Alexey Nechaev, a cosmetics mogul and chairman of the New People Party, a political project tolerated (or even supported) by the authorities, which managed to pass the parliamentary threshold in four regions in last year’s elections, dismissed even the suggestion that his party might be interested in cooperation with Navalny’s campaign, pointing out that New People had a larger regional network (nominally, the party has offices in 73 regions, almost twice the number of Navalny’s, although it is questionable how active these offices are).
On the other hand, the Kremlin is not interested in sucking the air away from opposition parties completely. In September the main task of the authorities is not so much to ensure that United Russia has a large enough majority in the Duma – for this they probably have the tools – but to manage the election so that this victory seems legitimate enough for a large enough number of people. Otherwise, the election may turn into the kind of Big Injustice that brings people to the street. Again, there is some wiggle room.
Tales of two parties
People’s perception of regime performance is closely tied to what they think about Putin: in Levada surveys, in the past decade the percentage of those who think that Russia is moving in the right direction has closely tracked the percentage of those who approve of Putin’s activities, closer than it did the electoral rating of United Russia. However, there has consistently been a notable gap of around 15-17 percentage points between the two groups: people who are dissatisfied with the state of affairs, but for whatever reason – state-controlled media has a key role in this – are not blaming Putin for it. This gap used to be larger and has been shrinking slowly since 2018, (earlier I explained this as the effect of a creeping crisis of political responsibility) but it still exists. And thus, it is a constituency that systemic opposition parties can safely target.
In its electoral campaign, which the party wants to launch with a rally on 17 March (called “За СССР”, only the abbreviation stands for a „strong, fair and socialist Russia” rather than the Soviet Union), the Communist Party is going to demand that the Kremlin implement the social guarantees that were enshrined in the Russian constitution last year (even though the Communists were initially against the constitutional reform). With an eye on another ascendant systemic opposition party, the Party of Pensioners, there is a renewed focus also on the government’s unpopular 2018 pension reform: Rashkin recently claimed that the government was going to raise the retirement age again (which the government denies). The pension reform was a boon to the Communists; it energized their grassroots activists and likely helped the party win regional and local elections, all while it allowed the party to stay within the “acceptable bounds” of criticism; social demands based on Putin’s constitutional reform would likely be deemed acceptable as well.
Opposition parties can also build on regional grievances. The New People party has been aggressively building out its regional network – especially since last year’s regional elections – and poured money into campaigning. Nechaev announced the “Marathon of Ideas”, a party initiative to collect policy suggestions from the regions, in Tatarstan, one of the country’s wealthiest regions with a well-connected governor. Further initiatives included a proposal to revamp Russia’s public environmental monitoring system, reflecting on various local concerns over ecological problems that have triggered various protests in recent years. Older systemic opposition parties, notably the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party are, besides their regional network, also brands that regional and local interest groups buy into, as long as they look healthy enough to win guaranteed seats (and occasionally mayoral or gubernatorial elections). This requires balancing between political activism (so the party looks viable in polls) and cultivating relations with the Kremlin (so candidates are not banned from elections). Lately the Communists seem to have been struggling with this. Developments such as the arrest of party activists and a candidate in the Penza Region and the Saratov Region, respectively, and corruption scandals around Valentin Konovalov, the Communist governor of Khakassia may prompt local interest groups to rethink their relationship with the party. The LDPR went through a similar period in 2020 following the arrest of Sergey Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk Territory, but the party was quick to strike a deal with Moscow in Khabarovsk, all while enjoying a bump to its popularity across the country.
Lastly, parties can engage in “soft anti-elitism”. Some proposals of the New People, for instance, look as though they were reflecting on problems raised by the non-systemic opposition, but the answers offered by the party are muted. Nechaev told the press that criticizing Putin and his family and participating in unsanctioned protests were red lines for his party, and in another interview warned about the “Belarusization” of Russia, portraying his party as the sober middle course between a radicalizing non-systemic opposition and the security elite. Some proposals are relatively safe reactions to the divisions highlighted by Navalny’s case, e.g. criticising the legislative proposal of Irina Yarovaya, a Duma deputy, to make insulting veterans a felony. Some proposals are simply unrealistic but may sound compelling to disgruntled voters, e.g. capping the proportion of the seats of the winning party at 35 percent or abolishing single-mandate districts, which have guaranteed United Russia a constitutional supermajority. Some are downright parodistic, e.g. an online reality show, in which the party will bring 30 political activists together in a house to work on policy proposals, for a cash prize and the opportunity to run for office as the party’s candidate.
These are the fields where the authorities and the systemic opposition can do “traditional” politics in the next six months. The rest is difficult to predict, or even to anticipate.