Amidst an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent, a crisis of legitimacy haunts the Duma elections that will take place in seven weeks. But what does this actually mean? I argue that Russia in 2021 is not Belarus in 2020, but uncertainty about what is political and the structure of the election allow the Russian opposition to think globally and act locally.
That legitimacy is an important ingredient of the Kremlin’s electoral strategy is not a novelty. Even before Russia’s last Duma election in 2016, at the height of the “Crimean consensus” and in a year that delivered serious blows to Russia’s foreign adversaries, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg wrote that “this time, the Kremlin needs a parliament, which is more than just a rubber stamp. It needs a Duma which is seen by the people to be a legitimate institution.” In the end, that election took place virtually without a campaign, United Russia scored a constitutional supermajority with barely half of the vote – according to the official tally –, which in 2020 rubber stamped Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform, and barely anyone batted an eye.
Five years later, the situation is radically different: the Crimean consensus evaporated as real incomes kept falling, Vladimir Putin’s trust rating nosedived, so did United Russia’s electoral rating, regions became emerging protest hotspots, Alexey Navalny’s movement and a series of excellent investigative media outlets rose and were bludgeoned to smithereens by an ever more paranoid state, the authorities rewrote the constitution and spectacularly mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic. Has the question of legitimacy become more relevant?
Procedures and outputs
What do we even have in mind when we say “legitimacy” in this context?
For a political system, legitimacy can stem from the widespread acceptance of the key institutions and procedures underpinning it as well as from the outputs it produces. Usually both come into play. For instance, trust in an electoral procedure or trust in a legislature would give us a hint of how strong the system’s procedural legitimacy is, while answers to the question of whether things are going in the right direction in a country would give use a hint about its output legitimacy. In Russia, Levada Center measures both.
Trust in the Duma, as measured by Levada, was one of the lowest among state institutions in late 2020 at only 29 percent. The Duma’s approval rating was a little higher – between 30 and 40 percent for most of the past term – but altogether lower than the approval of the government, regional governors of the president. But this is not news: these ratings had been low even before 2020/21, unsurprisingly, given that Russians are constantly treated to stories of remote and self-serving deputies, farcical debates and votes and a “mad printer” eagerly fulfilling the government’s wishes (even if research has shown that the situation is more complex). Low turnout in elections does not necessarily signal low legitimacy – disinterest can be rooted in a number of different things, including boredom and demotivation – but conscious mass abstention may also signal that many voters find the election pointless and illegitimate.
Putin’s steadily falling trust rating is another – perhaps somewhat better – proxy to measure procedural legitimacy. The president’s ability of making other officials carry out certain decisions is an important “institution” of the system (and has been showcased live on TV countless times). True, as Tatiana Stanovaya suggested, Putin has consciously started to recalibrate his role, drawing the legitimacy of his office from his historical achievements rather than from his role in day-to-day politics. Over the past year prime minister Mikhail Mishustin has gradually taken over some of Putin’s traditional duties: in recent months he has been criss-crossing the country, visiting governors and doling out government funds e.g. to invest in health care, essentially helping to prop up local leaders, something that had traditionally been Putin’s task. Mishustin’s deputies now oversee development projects in federal districts. There is a clear desire to construct a technocratic understanding of political legitimacy – “we have to run the country because we are competent” – evident in the showcasing of reasonably popular technocrats, from Denis Protsenko, a hospital director and United Russia headliner whom Putin consulted on health care reform, to the 26 winners of the “Leaders of Russia” public service competition who will run on the ruling party’s ticket.
(It might seem odd that a government is trying to campaign by looking competent in the middle of a grossly mismanaged pandemic and on the verge of a serious consumer debt crisis, but one of the things that most Russians seem to agree on, according to surveys, is that they want a more effective state; the other point of convergence, social justice, the government is neither willing, nor able to offer – thus this remains the job of the systemic opposition.)
But even if separating Putin’s legitimacy from the government’s is at all possible, it will not be a quick and straightforward switch, and thus it is unlikely that the president could look at the Duma election as a matter completely separate from himself. The question is how dangerous the legitimacy crisis is for the system, on top of which he is sitting.
An adequate legitimacy of output is when the system produces outcomes that a critical number of people can accept to live with. This has been an important element in Russia’s electoral autocracy, which has allowed the authorities to engineer and often rig elections and get away with it. But this too, has changed. The percentage of those who think that things are going in a wrong direction went from the low 20s and 30s to the mid-40s between 2015/16 and now. Another similar figure is of the percentage of those who expect protests in the country (rather than the proportion of people who say they would participate in protests, which many may be afraid to say), which has grown overall for the past three years and was in the mid-40s in January this year (before falling to around 30, a figure still higher than at any point between 2012 and 2017).
Alternatives and fora
Of course, low legitimacy of either kind does not necessarily mean that a political system is in serious trouble (otherwise democracies with low trust in their key institutions would collapse much more often than they actually do). For that to happen, a psychological barrier needs to be crossed: there has to be a clear alternative to the status quo; and a critical number of people need to have the sense that most of them would support changes. This seems to be what happened in Belarus in 2020, as the democratic opposition united behind one candidate and the mismanaged pandemic gave people both a sense of urgency and the social networks to talk and organize. The Russian authorities are visibly concerned about this possibility, but at a macro level, in spite of Putin’s falling trust ratings, in spite of low levels of trust and interest in the Duma, in spite of United Russia’s dismal electoral rating, neither of these conditions is met. At micro levels, however, the situation is different. And this is the main takeaway from the past five years.
Smart voting is dangerous because it offers voters both a clear alternative and a way to communicate with each other, and it does so at a micro-level. No wonder that in recent months the authorities have focused their attacks on the infrastructure that makes information sharing and organizing possible.
A legislative election is thus risky because it allows the opposition to challenge the legitimacy of the whole system locally. The authorities have a large toolbox at their disposal to ensure that only the “right people” turn out to vote and that their votes benefit the ruling party disproportionately. But some of these tools can backfire and others have limited use. Demotivating voters worked in the 2016 Duma elections, but it backfired in the 2019 Moscow municipal council election where enough opposition voters turned out to seriously challenge the majority of United Russia in the council. Allowing new, tame opposition parties to take part in the campaign may make the election look more genuine, but every new party that crosses the threshold takes mandates away from United Russia. Turning out close to 100% of voters with a close to 100% vote for United Russia in so-called “electoral sultanates” (as North Caucasian republics and certain Middle-Volga republics are called) can help, but there is little left to gain in these regions. Adding Donbas residents who gained Russian citizenship to voter rolls can add 500-600,000 votes, but in the grand scheme of things, this is not a lot. A promising tactic seems to be online voting, which will be a possibility in six regions (Kursk, Murmansk, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov, Yaroslavl, Moscow) plus the occupied Sevastopol: experience from United Russia’s primaries suggests that this way the authorities can put additional pressure on state employees to sign up and vote.
But anything beyond this is getting close to rigging and thus risks delegitimizing the vote. Three-day voting, ostensibly introduced due to the pandemic, allowed large-scale fraud in regional elections last year. Making it more difficult for independent observers to be present in polling stations or making camera feeds from polling stations inaccessible to the public are similar tactics. There is ample evidence suggesting that electoral commissions controlled by the ruling party with few or no observers present provide results much more favourable to United Russia than others, and while camera feeds did not prevent fraud, they nonetheless exposed some of the most blatant examples of it.
An elect few
Blatant electoral rigging that the authorities get away with can demoralize and demobilize opposition supporters. But for similar reasons, once the core strategy of the authorities relies on intimidation and a narrative of competence and control, any weakness or mistake can become disproportionately risky.
In this case even a handful of independent candidates may become an unbearable risk, because they get access to a pulpit, to data; voters’ expectations are projected onto them and members of the elite that are concerned about their survival once all other sources of legitimacy are exhausted may take a fancy to them. In recent years the authorities have forced even systemic opposition politicians who drew their legitimacy from grassroots electoral support, to resign or to accept a position that is either less public or depends on the goodwill of the Kremlin. Sergey Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk Territory, was arrested and jailed. Other opposition governors who defeated United Russia incumbents in 2018 – Vladimir Sipyagin in the Vladimir Region and Valentin Konovalov in Khakassia – were attacked and may be compelled to accept positions in the legislature. Sardana Avksentieva, the former mayor of Yakutsk, resigned two and a half years into her term and ended up supporting United Russia’s candidate. There are still (systemic) opposition governors in Russia – but their legitimacy must come from above for them to be tolerated.
Thus it seems logical that, with its national network destroyed, its allies barred from running and with resources as scarce as they are, Navalny’s campaign is focusing on a couple of key races. One of these will take place in the Saratov Region where Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin – on whom Team Navalny recently released an investigative report – is running in single-mandate district (SMD) nr. 163. Even though Nikolay Bondarenko, a key member of the Communist Party with a sizeable following on social media is running in a different Saratov district – nr. 165 – the race is obviously between the two politicians (provided that the authorities let Bondarenko run, which is far from certain). Navalny’s team has also recently released an unflattering report on Yevgeny Popov, a media personality who is running for office with United Russia in Moscow’s SMD nr. 197, another district where, if “smart voting” worked, the opposition may have a chance to upset the governing party.
There are a number of other such districts. In five – nr. 198, 200 and 205, all in Moscow, and in nr. 177 (Tambov) and in nr. 1 (Adygeia) – United Russia did not field a candidate, in part to avoid an embarrassing upset, in part to offer districts to other government-friendly candidates. But the ruling party cannot afford to do this in a large number of districts (in 2016, it did not have candidates in 18 districts, mostly in a bid to “gift” SMDs to systemic opposition parties).
In SMD nr. 198, apart from Galina Khovanskaya – a Fair Russia politician who seems to be the main systemic candidate – Marina Litvinovich, a human rights activist is also running. But there are several more activists, typically supported by the liberal Yabloko party, who are running for office in districts where United Russia also has a candidate. The 7×7 news site recently profiled some of them, including: Oleg Mandrykin and Alexander Kozenkov, two former activists of the successful regional movement against the Shiyes landfill are running in the Arkhangelsk Region (Kozenkov is running against Duma deputy Elena Vtorygina who herself was a supporter of the landfill); former policeman Sergey Rimsky in the Ivanovo Region, who was fired after posting a video in support of Navalny; or Oleg Pogozhikh, a pro bono lawyer in Kursk. Or take Roman Yuneman, running in SMD nr. 210 with a new brand of nationalism independent from the ruling party, or Anastasia Udaltsova, the wife of Sergey Udaltsov, a former left-wing protest leader, who is trying to run in SMD nr. 201 (but was detained last week).
Local conservationist, ecological and other small-scale protest movements and independent candidates represent a dilemma for the Kremlin. There is evidence to suggest that in the past these movements were tolerated because they were not explicitly “political”. Indeed, if and when their demands were fulfilled, they could even be useful for the Kremlin as props in the theatre of Putin solving problems. But in recent years the situation has changed. The line of what counts as “political” – and thus as a threat – has shifted, as reflected, for instance, in the revisions of Russia’s security strategy or the hardened approach towards local activists. This, one could say, is another kind of legitimacy deficit, when the security elite deems the participation of non-systemic or semi-systemic opposition candidates increasingly illegitimate. But the lines are blurry, and as candidates from the non-systemic opposition – who are clearly and officially politicians – are barred from running, these largely independent movements and candidates are becoming obvious choices for disgruntled voters to rally behind and project expectations on.
Thus, letting local activists without a national political agenda run in single-member districts may strengthen the popular legitimacy of the vote in certain districts but it also carries risks. What happens if they win or do well? How can the authorities co-opt them and how costly will this be for a government that so highly values centralized control over resources? Most importantly, as several independent candidates have pointed out to 7×7, they do it because being members of a legislative body gives them opportunity to talk to the media, influence or block legislation as well as access to data – an increasingly scarce good in today’s Russia. These are all opportunities that opposition deputies elected to the Moscow City Council as well as city councils in Tomsk and Novosibirsk in 2019 and 2020 used to further their agenda and strengthen their positions. If, however, they are disbarred from running (or even jailed) for fear of their becoming more explicitly political, then the state will be forced to improve its capacities to recognize and deal with the problematic issues that presently these movements champion and signal to them.
The above are all potential small-scale legitimacy crises and it is going to be local forces – electoral authorities and election observers, local officials concerned about their own legitimacy and local social networks – that ultimately decide where they end up.