The 225 meanings of legitimacy

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.

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Primary rehearsal

The governing United Russia party held its “primaries” (irritatingly “translated” to Russian as праймериз) in the last week of May. The votes were totaled and a party congress will, on June 19, approve a list of candidates for the September Duma elections (and other votes to be held on the same day). It is worth taking a closer look at the primaries, because behind the façade of utter dullness, they offer a glimpse into tactics and techniques that could and probably will be used in the Duma election as well.

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Merge, subordinate, centralize

Last year’s constitutional reform created the concept of federal territories, a new type of administrative division, and seemed to integrate municipalities into the system of administrative power. 2020 also brought the issue of regional mergers back onto the political agenda. These three main reform directions seem to reflect, reinforce, and potentially codify existing trends in Russia’s domestic politics that are mostly motivated by political and security interests and have little to do with fostering efficiency or economic development.

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The regional races

It is likely that Vladimir Putin’s address to the National Assembly also closed the spring “gubernatoropad” the season of the “falling of governors”, that is, the dismissal of regional leaders before regional elections. We can thus take a look at the lay of the land before regional elections that will take place, along with the Duma election, on September 19.

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On restructuring and reconstruction

Vladimir Putin’s proposals to restructure the debt of Russian regions will likely provide regions with some much-needed fiscal relief in an election year. Putin expects governors to come up with ideas, spend on them and take responsibility for their implementation. But don’t get too excited: the federal government will remain in charge and the proposals foresee no major structural change, be it political or economic. Indeed, debt relief is likely to remain uneven, and without significant investment growth, Putin’s proposals will just kick the can further down the road, while leading to further fiscal and political centralization.

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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.

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Not up to data

The Russian authorities have shifted gears in their attempt to control information flows in the country, but this does not only concern data leaks and information published by investigative outlets. Two recent stories serve as reminders that the authorities are increasingly unwilling to publicize or tolerate unflattering data on the state of the country. This endangers policymaking and usually does not even work.

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