Empty promises

A boastful statement by a party chairman and a meandering interview with a Duma deputy offer a glimpse onto the limits that “systemic” opposition parties and their politicians have to observe in Russia, and how they are trying to use the opportunities that the system provides. They also suggest that as Russian politics is becoming more authoritarian and polarized, these opportunities are fading, which is also a risk for the authorities.

Second fiddles

After a mayoral election in Yakutsk, which saw Vitaly Obedin, the candidate of the Fair Russia (SR) party come a close second, Sergey Mironov, the head of the party called the result “a fulfillment of the task that I set for the elections to the Duma: finish at least second.” Mironov’s statement was clearly absurd, and not only because it implied that the SR, whose electoral rating nationally has hovered around five percent, could beat United Russia, the party of power. Even in Yakutsk, it was a bit of a stretch. Arguably, Obedin came close to beating Yevgeny Grigoriev, the candidate of the ruling party, because he was supported by a popular local businessman, Vladimir Fedorov, who was himself disqualified. In 2018, in an identical situation, Fedorov supported Sardana Avksentieva, an independent candidate who ended up winning. In short, the elections were a miniature exercise in “smart voting”, essentially the strategy promoted by Alexey Navalny’s team, which relies on disgruntled voters rallying behind one specific non-United Russia candidate to deny the ruling party an easy majority.

It is true that “smart voting” – whether it is Navalny or someone else promoting it – is informed by which party seems to be the second strongest in a constituency. In Yakutia, this could be the SR: in the 2016 Duma election the party’s candidate ended up winning the republic’s one single-member district (SMD). The caveat is that United Russia did not field its own candidate. Two years later, in the republic’s gubernatorial election where United Russia did have a candidate, the SR’s came third with less than 7 percent. In the mayoral election that Avksentieva won, the SR’s mayoral candidate finished fourth with slightly more than 7 percent.

It is debatable even whether the SR is the second strongest party in Yakutsk, let alone whether it could become that nationally. Strengthening the perception that there is a tight race for second, however, may help the authorities, because it makes smart voting more complicated. The perception that the Communists are Russia’s second party has benefited the party in recent years. And Mironov is likely happy to play his role, especially if it translates to more influence in the Duma or in certain regions. His hyperbolic statements will be quickly forgotten.

As will their promises, such as Mironov’s new hobby horse, an unconditional basic income. They are unlikely even to generate a serious discussion, given that it is universally understood that the SR is not running for office to then potentially govern (as Mark Galeotti also pointed out about the Liberal Democratic Party in a recent podcast). Systemic opposition parties have many functions, but governing is not one of them. Instead, they help to provide legitimacy for the system, and they can also serve as an avenue for regional elites to influence by providing a brand. Their leaders and politicians will, of course, be following their own interests, but hamstringed by these understandings.


The other telling example of what is life like for a politician in the “systemic opposition” was an interview, on Znak, with one of the Duma deputies of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Sergey Ivanov (who is of course different from the more famous Sergey Ivanov, a close Putin ally and erstwhile head of the Presidential Administration; there are a lot of Sergey Ivanovs in Russia.) Ivanov was interviewed because he criticized several recent repressive bills, e.g. further limits on the right to assembly or criminalizing insulting veterans, which were clearly triggered by the government’s ongoing crackdown on Navalny and his associates; and drew attention to irregularities in the work of the State Duma.

In the interview, Ivanov says that he does not think that the Navalny’s sentence for ostensibly insulting a veteran in one of his videos was fair because he “did not say that [the veteran] behaved like a pig at the front” or anything else about his wartime activities. However, even though he does not agree that anyone should be penalized for mere insults, he says still supported the bill in the final reading, because it contained passages that he agreed with. He says almost the exact same thing about a recent law that puts anything considered “educational activity” under state control, which his party first criticized and then supported. The interviewer presses on and asks Ivanov about the law granting lifetime immunity to former presidents. Ivanov first criticized this bill too, but instead of voting against it, he left the plenary hall. Here he says what is probably the most telling sentence of the whole interview:

“In our country it often happens that [deputies] do not vote on a bill, not because they leave the hall, but because it is scary to vote against the bill and it seems wrong to support it. Maybe in some cases I have done this too.”

Ivanov does not shy away from criticizing Irina Yarovaya, the author of the law in question (and several other repressive pieces of legislation), describing her essentially as a sellout, or even Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Duma who he says abuses parliamentary rules. He also openly says that one of the reasons why his party can never gather more than a certain number of votes is that elections in Russia are controlled by the authorities. He even admits that there are, de facto, different laws for the governing elite and everyone else.

But crucially, it seems that for Ivanov, this is something that cannot be changed. When the interviewer asks him if the party or its voters are satisfied by their predictably mediocre results, he dodges the question. When it comes to the crackdown on pro-Navalny protesters, Ivanov simply states that he thinks beating people up and arresting them is a bad idea because it will create animosity towards the authorities. When he is asked about protests in general, he says those are a way to air grievances, but not to change things, which can be done only through elections, yet he also admits that the Duma is completely controlled by the executive branch. When he is asked why he participates in what he admits is essentially a farce, his answer is: “to prevent an unworthy person from taking my place.” When he is asked what the difference is between United Russia and LDPR, he says “the leaders”.

Ivanov also criticized a recently adopted bill that requires candidates standing for office to publicly display their status as a “foreign agent”, including on their own campaign materials, but again, the criticism was strange and roundabout: “I’m telling you: this won’t help [the authorities]. In the Kursk Region we had a case where a person who had two convictions for kidnapping became a deputy. Such deputies are a dime a dozen. If a person has a good electoral program, people won’t care what kind of agent he is.”

Just like in the case of the repressive bills in the Duma, Ivanov could go as far as to disagree with a government proposal, but did not question the underlying narrative, namely that the “foreign agents” designated by the government were essentially criminals. Most systemic opposition deputies would not even go this far; but these are, more or less, the limits within which they all exist. 

Money and looks

The aggregate electoral rating of “systemic” parties has fluctuated between 49 and 59 percent since 2016, according to Levada Center surveys. The changes roughly move together with the proportion of those who assess the state of affairs in the country positively. Of course, it would be mistaken to say that these people are the same group; the drivers of expressed party preferences are much more complex. This year, for instance, their support seems to have grown even as people are growing more pessimistic about the state of the country.

All three systemic opposition parties rely heavily on the federal budget for their finances. In 2019 the 88 percent of the Communist Party’s income came from the budget; the proportion was more than 95 percent for the LDPR and 98 percent for the SR. These are lawful transfers that each party, which collected more than 3 percent of the vote in federal legislative and presidential elections has the right to receive; It could theoretically be supplemented with other sources of income, direct and lawful, e.g. donations, and indirect, e.g. access to positions that enable rent-seeking. But the Kremlin’s tight control of the electoral process means that it has a large degree of control over all of these different kinds of money flows.

And it is not too difficult to turn off the money tap. For example, the LDPR has recently been plagued by scandals in the Perm Territory and the Lipetsk Region when it emerged that the party likely traded mandates for money. The practice itself is far from unusual in Russia, but the scandal likely made prospective candidates and activists think twice about their future in the party.

When money from the budget dries up and the party cannot offer a credible path to public office for someone who can afford it, strange things can happen. Last month, for example, Oleg Postnikov, the head of the LDPR in Perm, a region that will hold regional and local elections (as well as Duma elections) in September, reportedly ran out of money and sponsors, and even had trouble maintaining the party’s office. In some cases, politicians leaving these parties simply end up in United Russia (this, of course, also works the other way around: in the Chelyabinsk region two United Russia deputies were considering running for office with the semi-systemic Yabloko, when it seemed like the ruling party would not support them.)

These problems plague the Communist Party as well: after last year’s regional elections, which saw five gubernatorial candidates supported by the party disqualified by electoral committees controlled by ruling party appointees, it is likely that the party is less of a hit among local stakeholders who just want a brand to run for office. But the communists – as evidenced by the party’s recent internal strife over Alexey Navalny – at least have a fairly strong regional and local network of activists, which neither the LDPR, nor the SR does. The LDPR is trying to make up for this by spending more money on ads and campaigns than any other opposition party (and, officially at least, even United Russia).

The SR would also be in dire need of such exposure – reportedly, merging the party with the firebrand nationalists of Prilepin (which apparently prompted Mironov to raise the spectre of a “gay battalion” set up by Ukraine to retake the Donbas) did not go smoothly and led to an exodus of activists – but has so far lacked the means or the ideas to do so. This could change as the election approaches and Kremlin-adjacent media and experts are publicly buying into Mironov’s claims that his party could in fact become the second strongest party in the country. EISI, a Kremlin think tank, estimated that SR could win in 10-12 single-mandate districts (SMD) in September, as opposed to 6-8 each for the LDPR and the Communist Party.

For comparison: in 2016 the SR’s candidate won seven SMDs, as many as the Communist Party, while the LDPR picked up five. The numbers are deceptive, however: the LDPR and the SR both only won districts where United Russia did not field a candidate, while Communists managed to come first in three districts where the governing party had a candidate.

Awkward conversations

These subtle differences from the Communists make the relationship of the LDPR and the SR with the non-systemic opposition and their initiatives especially awkward. In February, for instance, the Communist Party, beset with differences between the party’s leadership and activist base over cooperation with Navalny, nevertheless called for “constructive and sensible protests” for February 23; something that, for all of the carefully chosen jargon, sounded and looked like an opposition demonstration. The LDPR clearly went the other way, by calling for a “patriotic” demonstration while slamming Navalny. Some of the party’s candidates also openly disowned “smart voting”, even though the system requires a coalition of voters, not a coalition of politicians.

And it is not always about Navalny. Arguably, the same debate that emerged in the KPRF about cooperation with Navalny’s team this year is something that we had already seen in the LDPR following the arrest of Sergey Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk Territory, in July 2020. The party’s presidency quickly struck a deal with Putin and supported Mikhail Degtyarev, the region’s new governor instead of siding with protesters in Khabarovsk and standing up for Furgal. Then in November, half of the LDPR deputies who had taken the Khabarovsk city assembly by a landslide in 2019 quit the party, only to then clarify that they would still support the city administration led by the LDPR.

It is possible that these debates are going to emerge in the SR as well, if local elites seeking political representation start to feel like systemic opposition parties can provide a brand, at best, but no assurances from above and little legitimacy from below. Whatever Mironov says, the SR’s performance in the Yakutsk mayoral election obviously had more to do with how strong the local protest vote was, rather than with how strong the party is on a national scale. For Duma deputies this dilemma may be fairly easy to navigate (as Ivanov’s interview suggests), but in the regions the situation seems to be more complex. To support the party system as it exists right now the Kremlin will have to offer incentives both to regional elites and to voters to buy into it; and this is getting increasingly difficult.  

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