The four voids in Russia after February 24, 2022
March 10, 2023
  • Alexander Kynev

    Political scientist

Alexander Kynev writes about the changes that have taken place in the Russian political landscape since the “special military operation” started a year ago: local politics has been put on the back burner, parties are on the decline, civil society is in shambles and opposition media is trying to reach Russians while in exile.
During the first year of the “special military operation” (SVO), the news out of Russia consisted mainly of reports on the course of the conflict and the introduction of sanctions. Based on this news flow, it was impossible to understand what was happening inside Russia besides the SVO.

The truth is that everyone was shocked by February 24, and the tough reaction of the state to attempts at resistance then created even greater urgency to lie low or flee.

In the public space, only the voices of loyalists were heard, which created the illusion that there was no one else in Russia except them. Of course, that is not the case. People are rational and have opted for a safer strategy: flight, silence, quiet sabotage. Russia lived in 2000-10 better than it ever had in its history, and many people – especially bureaucrats (in terms of income and social status, the Russian middle class largely consists of officials) – are afraid of losing what is still left of their former life.

All potential organizers or coordinators of mass protests (elites, public organizations, parties, media) either have been crushed or are in a state of frustration. However, during 2022 and early 2023, as the dust of the new reality settles, a diversity of views and positions have become visible in the resulting vacuum. It is important to understand this diversity, even if, at least for now, it does not pose a threat to the regime.

Void 1: The regime

In discussions about Russia and the Russian elite, one often comes across the phrases “party for war” and “party for peace.” In 2022-23, the “party for war” has been in plain sight (spokespeople of security institutions, military observers and propagandists, some patriotic parliamentarians), and though we do not see any public traces of the “party for peace,” it seems to still exist. There are people who keep silent and people who are ardently supportive, often more radical than the Kremlin’s official position. Among the latter are Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and Security Council Deputy Secretary Dmitri Medvedev. There are very few members of the political elite who have chosen to leave its ranks. Among the prominent officials, it was only Anatoly Chubais, who had served as a special representative of the president, and Alexei Kudrin, who resigned as head of the Accounts Chamber, though both tried to do it as discreetly as possible.

National politics has been put on the back burner. Mayoral elections in Tomsk and Novosibirsk – cities known for their political activity and even independence – were cancelled almost casually.

The number of major personnel shakeups has fallen sharply. The system works to minimize risks – better to have a proven guy, even if he is bad. For the past year, only five governors were replaced. For comparison: 20 governors were replaced in 2017 and 18 in both 2010 and 2018.

Although the September 2022 elections went as planned, this did not change the overall situation, and national politics remains on the margins. The mass silence of the political elite is wrong to regard as unconditional support. The basis of the Russian bureaucratic elite is careerism and technocracy. Tellingly, the behavior of governors changed little over the last year.
"Most regional leaders do not show demonstrative enthusiasm."
Communist Party supporters rally in Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square. Source: VK
An obvious exception is the leadership of Chechnya, as well as the heads of the regions bordering Ukraine (Mikhail Razvozzhaev of Sevastopol, Roman Starovoit of Kursk Region, Vyacheslav Gladkov of Belgorod Region), where the SVO has directly impacted life.

A second group of “enthusiasts” is made up of governors who are very insecure about their political position and evidently trying to fend off general dissatisfaction with their leadership by demonstrating uber-loyalty. Take Vladimir Uyba, the head of Komi, who took to a stage in Luhansk Region in a uniform with a Z sewn on and sang a song for local children alongside musicians. Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov bought merchandise with the letter Z and offered to open “Z-Radio;” Kemerovo Region head Sergei Tsivilev renamed the region KuZbass. The strategy they have chosen seems to be to avoid discussion of the SVO and to demonstrate that normal life continues. Russian regions are to sponsor the rebuilding of parts of Eastern Ukrainian cities and districts, a “federal burden” placed on the regions by the Kremlin.

The leaders of the most protest-prone cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, Sergei Sobyanin and Alexander Beglov, are rather trying to distance themselves from the SVO. There have been almost no mass Z campaigns in either city. At the end of June, Beglov warned officials against antagonizing the liberal population of St Petersburg with SVO symbols. Notably, the Z emblem was practically absent at the St Petersburg Scarlet Sails celebration.

Approximately the same tactic was chosen by regional heads who were up for reelection in September 2022 (Pavel Malkov in Ryazan, Yevgeny Kuyvashev in Sverdlovsk, Alexander Brechalov in Udmurtia, Vladimir Mazur in Tomsk, Alexander Sokolov in Kirov, Artur Parfenchikov in Karelia).

Journalists from 7x7, having studied the social media accounts of regional heads, found that at least 11 governors chose not to actively speak out about the SVO. The same is true about the “partial mobilization:” bucking the general trend, 10 regional heads did not publicly declare their support for the SVO in the media, Telegram channels, VK pages or even regional online communities. Technically, they headed up the mobilization commissions in their regions, but the press services provided comments on the mobilization for them.

Toward the end of the year, a “discussion” began in the political elite, though not between the “party for war” and the “party for peace,” but rather between different wings of the “party for war” – between the leadership of the SVO at the Ministry of Defense and Wagner private army chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
"The technocratic and personalistic nature of the Russian regime means that the bureaucratic machine will officially support any course the federal government takes, be it more aggressive or less, as long as there are salaries, status and the threat of losing them."
At this point, you will not find protest here.

Void 2: Parties

The special operation has brought on a crisis with the so-called “systemic opposition parties” (the KPRF, A Just Russia, LDPR, New People): on the one hand, supporting the SVO risks losing votes since a considerable part of their electorate is opposed to the conflict, but criticizing the SVO, on the other hand, is impossible due to the political risks. As a result, at the federal level, party representatives speak out in support of the SVO, while at the local level they try to talk only about local problems or not make public statements at all. Recall that Russian parties are institutionally highly dependent on the state, with most of their funding coming from the state budget.

The KPRF has taken the biggest hit for actively supporting the SVO, as previously opponents of Kremlin policy had flocked to the party. Over the past few years, it represented a symbiosis of the most diverse opposition: from Stalinists to local civic activists (even those with a liberal past). This was simultaneously beneficial (it boosted votes) and dangerous (it irritated the regime), but overall it was in line with the interests of the different groups within the party, which competed with each other.

The special operation seems to have triggered a conflict between the KPRF’s conservative leadership, which publicly appeals to Soviet values and aggressive patriotism, and the younger generation in the party, who are more modern and pro-European. Against this backdrop, purges began to distance the party from more opposition-minded members and situational allies, even leading to expulsions from the party. However, this means the departure of a significant part of the party’s electorate (in Primorsky Krai, Moscow, etc.). Other parties are facing similar problems, albeit on a smaller scale, having seen an influx of candidates due to the lack of other opportunities to participate in politics. For example, Yekaterinburg City Duma Deputy Alexei Kholodarev, who criticized the SVO, was expelled from A Just Russia.

For the KPRF, the crisis within the systemic opposition has meant a loss of voters, with SVO supporters going over to the side of the regime, i.e. United Russia, while SVO opponents either did not go to the polls at all last time or left for other parties with less extreme, militaristic rhetoric.

The New People party ran a positive campaign that emphasized “small deeds.” Meanwhile, the Party of Pensioners remains attractive to some voters (given the low turnout, the role of pensioners is much higher), and even A Just Russia primarily ran campaigns focused on broad social issues.

Without Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR has simply become a “franchise” that, backed by local money, can accommodate any views: usually it is purely local campaigns without any hint of revanchism or foreign policy at all.

By September 2022, the KPRF had lost the comfortable second place spot that it had gained a year before, expanding its lead ahead of all other parties. Essentially, it is a return to the party’s position in 2016-17, meaning that the entire electoral “bonus” it had gotten thanks to its active criticism of the 2018 pension reform was lost. The current retreat of the KPRF, of course, does not signal its collapse, and it remains the No 2 party in the country; however, the considerable decline in its performance at the ballot box means that local activism now has little in common with the KPRF’s federal-level political games.
"Voters are concerned first and foremost with national, not foreign, policy, and they expect parties and candidates to emphasize social justice and solve local problems."
The LDPR actively supports the public movement Sh'yem za nashikh ("Sewing for Our Guys"). Source: VK
Opposition-minded voters could be galvanized by readiness to occupy this niche and help citizens to solve problems created by the state.

During the SVO, we have seen the leadership of some minority, opposition parties forsake an independent agenda and even their own political agency. For example, the leader of A Just Russia, Sergei Mironov, speaking in the Duma on May 17, 2022, suggested cancelling elections altogether: “We should all be as one, but what will happen during elections? We will have to fight with each other. In this hall, we all support the president, the special military operation, but during elections we will have to talk about disagreements.”

In a February 2023 speech in the Duma, the new leader of the LDPR, Leonid Slutsky, called on all political parties, against the backdrop of the new challenges, to unite behind the so-called Shoulder to Shoulder movement: “We need to muffle our opposition and stand shoulder to shoulder in support of the president, in support of the country…” He wrote a similar post in his Telegram channel: “until the SVO is completed, there can be only one party for all of us – the party of Victory.”

Meanwhile, the authorities continue to reduce the proportion of party list seats in regional parliaments, thereby weakening all parties as such. Whereas before it was mainly in opposition-prone regions where this tactic was used, from 2022 the share of deputies elected by party list will be reduced even in regions where the parties of the parliamentary systemic opposition fully support both the SVO and the foreign policy of the regime broadly. For example, in Udmurtia, the party-list share was reduced to a third (20 out of 60 deputies), in Krasnodar Region to 25 out of 70 deputies, in Saratov Region to 10 out of 40, and in Sakhalin Region to 10 out of 28. The authorities acted even more resolutely in terms of city council elections: on September 11, 2022, party lists were completely canceled in Gorno-Altaisk, Vladivostok, Omsk, Tver and Yaroslavl. This process is still ongoing ahead of the 2023 elections: the number of party-list seats in elections to local legislatures has been reduced in Yaroslavl, Smolensk and other regions.

Amid the socio-political degradation and the demoralization of local protest forces, the decline in the role of parties in politics looks set to continue, which, in turn, will further reduce real turnout in elections and increase the power of the “administrative resource.” A revival in party activity, or the emergence of new parties, can only occur if the general trend changes and a new politicization emerges.

Void 3: Society

Within society, mass frustration is right on the surface. Almost all Russian branches of international organizations and foundations have ceased their activities, many NGOs have closed or transferred some of their activities abroad, and a large number of leaders and activists of public organizations have emigrated. The NGOs that still operate try not to attract too much attention. With rare exceptions, it has become impossible to hold open public events (patriotically themed events are, of course, fine). Existing problems with financing and crowdfunding were seriously worsened by the poorly thought-out exit of foreign payment systems from Russia. The disappearance of Civil Forum, organized by Alexei Kudrin and the Committee for Civic Initiatives for almost 10 years, went almost unnoticed.

Void 4: Media

The situation with media is essentially the same as with civil society: almost all independent and opposition media have either closed or emigrated and moved completely online. The emigration of media has drastically reduced their engagement with local issues, with the inevitable detachment from the local reality growing. Internet blocks, combined with the closure of information resources (for example, Echo of Moscow), have drastically reduced their audience. There is a feeling that the main audience of the media in exile is now not the average Russian, but the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Israel and elsewhere.
"Overall, the departure from Russia helped opposition media to survive physically, but their presence in the Russian information space has dwindled."
This is clear from the almost complete lack of resonance of their content at the regional and local levels.

The radicalization of content – in particular, overdone emphasis by the emigrant media on pro-Ukraine and anti-Russia positions – leaves almost entirely vacant the niche for independent media that can speak to ordinary citizens. The result is that in the information space, there is the dominant official discourse, the inevitably marginalized ultra-opposition and almost nothing between. Without talking to the average man in an understandable and respectful way, an alternative discourse in Russia cannot get off the ground, whether it is about the SVO or the situation in the country overall.
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