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Russia’s latest elections weren’t about Putin, or were they?

Putin in July 2019 (photo: Kremlin)

Last Sunday, more than five thousand elections were held at different levels across 85 regions in Russia. 13 regions elected deputies to their regional parliaments. In 16 constituent entities governors were elected. 22 regional capitals saw the composition of their city parliaments renewed. In addition, city and town mayor elections as well as by-elections to the State Duma took place. So what does it all have to do with Putin? It wasn’t a presidential election. But as is often the case with Eastern Europe, the situation has more to it than it seems at the first glance, writes Vladimir Majakov for the FR.

In the 1990’s, political analysts and journalists would willingly speculate on the weaknesses of the governance system in Russia. They would seek explanation anywhere, from its centuries-long Asian underdevelopment, Genghis Khan, tsarism and communism to the Russians’ innate inclination for authoritarianism and oppression of themselves and neighboring peoples. But they would forget that, throughout the centuries, the Russians had been inherently good at resisting various forms of both external and internal oppression and establishing a democratic order, albeit after their own fashion, different from its Greek original. The nomads of the steppes were banished, the tsar was overthrown by the revolutionaries, and communism was smashed by the tide of a new generation of people seeking new freedoms and modern rights.

For over a quarter of a century now, the Russians have been voting and voted for under the same legal procedures as the rest of Europe, involving international observers and extremely heated election campaigns. The only difference is—just a reminder—that the voting covers a half of the Eurasian continent and a ninth of the entire Earth’s land. However, these elections of impressive scale (it should be understood that everything in Russia is impressive in scale: territory, people, history, and even time) have turned into a vote on a single issue. What we saw was in fact a referendum. It is a distinctive feature of Russian political culture that any election becomes a vote of confidence in the incumbent head of state. And Putin has won again.

Indeed, the United Russia ruling party has preserved the majority of seats in the legislative bodies in 11 out of 12 constituent entities. Furthermore, the policy of refreshing the ranks of governors and promoting young professionals launched in 2017–2018 has proved effective. All candidates for governors with whom Putin had met before the elections easily had their credibility confirmed as early as the first round of the elections, with no second rounds needed.

In this election cycle, all eyes were on the elections to the Moscow City Duma—that is, the Moscow parliament. This time no other campaign in any other Russian region gave rise to such overwhelming emotions and high passions. One of the reasons was blogger Alexey Navalny, who once again called on his supporters and discontented citizens in general to join the protest campaign and engage in chaotic voting. All of this at their disposal, the opposition still did not get close to winning even a half of vacant seats in the Moscow parliament—in other words, modern political techniques borrowed by the regime opponents abroad failed them yet again.

The municipal authorities—the closest of all to the people—are always the most accurate reflection of the public attitudes towards what’s going on in the country. That being the case, it appears that the Russian society is by and large content. In this sense, these elections demonstrate the flexibility and stability of the political system. This is a factor that cannot be ignored when engaging in a dialogue with the establishment of Russia, whose leadership is seen in the West as some kind of a villainous mythological figure.

So, a logical question arises: does Russia need to upgrade its democratic processes? Obviously, yes, just as any other country does—there can be no picture-perfect examples here. The Moscow elections, including the accompanying youth rallies, are yet another good illustration thereof. This is, however, not about giving special rights to the opposition in the person of Navalny or some other younger political figures but more about changing the existing system of reaching out to the electorate and pivoting towards a long-term constructive strategy—a strategy which the Kremlin actually has while its protesting opponents apparently don’t. Hence the results indicating as much support for Vladimir Putin as can be demonstrated under democratic procedures.