NY Dispatches: voting rights for Donbas residents?

Yesterday it was reported that the State Duma is considering a bill that would make it possible for the residents of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – separatist territories in Eastern Ukraine under de facto Russian control – who hold Russian citizenship to vote in this year’s Duma election. How could this happen and what are the risks?

Russia started giving out passports to Donbas residents in a simplified procedure in July 2019, three months after Putin signed a decree to this effect. Despite several boosts to the infrastructure and the abolishment of application fees in April 2020, the number of new citizens has consistently stayed below expectations. In March 2020, for example, the total number of new citizens from the two Ukrainian regions was 225,000. In early 2020 Russia gave out 30,000 new passports a month, on average, but the plan was to get to a total of 800,000 new citizens before the end of the year, which would have required doubling the pace. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed things down: in December the total was around 300,000 only. However, in January 2021 Duma deputy Andrey Kozenko said that around 400,000 residents of the region held Russian citizenship, and a couple of weeks later, on February 18 an Interior Ministry official spoke about 639,000 passports. In March Denis Pushilin, the head of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” said that there were 224,000 Russian citizens in his region, adding that by September this number would be 500,000.

In short, no one seems to have a good sense of how many Donbas residents actually requested and got Russian passports, what caused the boom at the beginning of 2021, and how big of an impact it might have on the election in September. At the first sight, the number may look small: even if one takes the highest available figure – 639,000 – this is only about one-fifth of the estimated number of all Donbas residents. But it is more than one-third of the number of Russians who were registered to vote abroad in the 2016 Duma election, and in the coming months the number will no doubt become higher, perhaps even double.

Pushilin also said that Donbas residents were “patriotic voters” who had been looking forward to given voting rights in Russia. It remains to be seen how many of them will actually use it (should the Duma actually give it to them). In 2016 only 215,000 Russians abroad voted in the Duma election. A similar turnout among Donbas residents right now would provide only 73,000 additional votes (in contrast: in 2016 officially 52 million Russian residents voted), but this number could theoretically be ten times higher, if the election is administered similarly to some North Caucasian republics that have consistently produced high turnouts, officially at least. This would approximately be 1.3 percent of the total vote, if turnout is comparable to 2016. Or even up to twice this much, if the number of passports given out to Donbas residents actually grows twofold between now and September.

As Sam Greene of King’s College, London pointed out, it is also questionable whether these new Russian citizens of the Donbas would turn out in droves to vote for United Russia. For obvious reasons there are no reliable surveys measuring political preferences in the Russian-controlled parts of the region but a 2019 study found that separatist sentiments and Russian identities were not as strong as many have assumed. One could argue that people with stronger Russian identities are more likely to sign up for a Russian passport, but in fact Donbas residents apply for a number of reasons, including additional mobility or work. Still, it is worth noting that in 2016 Russian citizens in two other Russian-occupied regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, voted overwhelmingly for United Russia (82 and 75 percent respectively). Similarly, many (e.g. political scientist Dionis Cenusa) have warned of the risk of electoral fraud in Moldovan elections, where voters who live in the separatist Transnistria can vote and are often bussed in, in an organized manner.

This brings us to the third question: provided that they get the right to vote, how will Donbas residents actually exercise this right? Right now, this is unclear: the Central Electoral Committee is “considering” various options, including Donbas residents voting in Russian cities close to the region. Unless this includes separate polling stations for Donbas residents, this would likely allow the authorities to “hide” the preferences of these voters by adding their votes to the tally of the Rostov Region (and thereby explain, for instance, a surge in turnout). In this case, it also seems likely that Donbas residents would vote for the candidates in one of the region’s single-mandate districts (SMD). By contrast, diaspora voters in 2016 voted physically in Russian diplomatic representations, but their SMD votes were added to the tallies of specific regions: 75 districts in 30 regions, seemingly at random (although consistent with the number of voters in each country/district), e.g. Russians in Tajikistan voted for candidates in Kaliningrad, while Russians in Canada voted for candidates in Ivanovo. Since turnout was low, this did not make a lot of difference, but in tighter races it theoretically could, if, for instance, Donbas voters are assigned to SMDs with weak incumbents and turn out in large numbers. There would be something in this for the separatists as well, since they would likely directly participate in administering the vote (and Pushilin spoke in favor of this variant). On the other hand, this method would require the authorities to count the votes of Donbas residents separately and therefore leave less room for ambiguity about their political preferences.

Again, we are likely talking about a small number of additional voters, compared to the total number of expected voters. However, the fact that it is unclear how many voters there are, what their political preferences are and how they will vote can potentially create wiggle room for the authorities to prop up the governing party here and there. United Russia’s electoral rating has now dropped to 42 percent, according to the Levada Center. If this trajectory continues, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain the party’s supermajority in the Duma election while also keeping the election legitimate enough for a large enough number of people. Anything that enables plausible deniability for rigging can come in handy.

It is not a given that Donbas residents’ voting in Russia’s legislative election will become a tool for the authorities to engineer the vote. But it very well can. And it probably won’t be the only such move between now and September.

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