Russian politics and Russian elections: Bad assumptions lead to bad predictions

July 28, 2022
Alexander Kynev
Political scientist
Russian politics has long been the subject of myths both abroad and inside Russia, write Alexander Kynev. These myths encompass almost everything: the structure of power, the stability of clans and elite groups, and parties and elections.
There are several reasons for the myths surrounding Russian politics. Firstly, simple answers to hard questions are sought. Simplification leads to distortions and self-deception. The second reason is political interests: some Russian politicians are interested in exaggerating certain problems, while others on the contrary exaggerate their own strengths and virtue.

Thirdly, emotions inevitably distort the picture, making things black and white. For example, concealed opposition is perceived as insufficient and equated with support.

Fourthly, the automatic application of the traditions of other countries’ political cultures onto Russia plays a part. This concerns both the forms of opposition (which in the current authoritarian context in Russia more often resembles sabotage than open protest) and methods, as well as the unwillingness to take into account the external political environment and personal risks for protesters.

“The myths are related to the gigantic size of the country and its internal diversity."
The situation across Russia’s regions is very diverse, which is why there is a great temptation to pass off this or that extreme case as the general norm – be it some authoritarian region of the North Caucasus or a protest-prone region in the Russian North. Public voices, including from the opposition, often know little about Russia’s regions and broadcast the myths of the Moscow crowd, which is only interested in scandalous and extreme cases.

Because of these factors, various myths arise. Let's look at some that are directly related to the elections coming up in September.
Counting votes at a polling station, 2013. Source: Wiki Commons
Myth #1: “There are no elections in Russia”

This assertion is not supported by the facts. No reasonable expert would argue that there isn’t falsification in Russian elections and that competition isn’t restricted. There are several methods to measure the scope of the falsification (see, for example, Sergei Shpilkin). But the presence of falsification doesn’t mean that everything is falsified, just like the restriction of competition doesn’t mean its complete absence. This is just the emotional exaggerations of maximalists. In reality, there are regions where massive falsification with peak turnout and votes for the party of power is a common phenomenon. They emerged approximately after 2003-04 – back in the 1990s, there was neither abnormally high turnout nor absolute dominance for one party in these regions.

There are regions with rather competitive elections and honest counting of votes, and there are swing regions that constantly migrate to one side or another, usually after the regional governor is changed.

Recall the election of two dozen Smart Voting candidates to the Moscow City Duma in 2019, the election of Sergei Furgal and Valentin Konovalov as governors of Khabarovsk and Khakassia regions, respectively, in 2018, and the election to the State Duma of 26 candidates without administrative resources from individual districts in September 2021.

There are several well-known attempts to identify "anomalous" regions (where turnout and the vote for the party of power or support for administratively supported candidates in districts are falsified).

Based on the officially reported super-high turnout and super-high vote for one party in 2016, 24 regions could be classified as “anomalous” and semi-anomalous. About 30 mln voters or 27.46% of the electorate lived in these regions, but due to the reported super-high turnout, they provided 38.04% of all ballots cast overall and 49.3% of all votes cast for United Russia in 2016.
“Thus, in reality the majority of voters in Russia live in competitive regions – it's just that the turnout there is lower than in anomalous regions."
Meanwhile, all government propaganda – and part of the "opposition" that actually plays along with it – is aimed at demoralizing voters and watering down turnout in the competitive regions. Voters are told that there are no elections in Russia and that there is no need to go to the polls until “ideal” elections magically appear. As a result, though turnout in protest-prone regions ticked up during the State Duma elections in 2021 (in Russia as a whole turnout rose from 47.88% in 2016 to 51.72% in 2021), the final victory of United Russia was still driven by falsification in “electoral sultanates.”

Importantly, the electoral situation across regions is fluid. There are regions that have been "anomalous" for 20 years, and there are those that become such and then change. For example, Amur Region showed anomalous results in 2007-08, when Nikolai Kolesov, a native of Tatarstan, was appointed governor there, but after his dismissal normal distributions of votes were again seen in the region.

Under Vyacheslav Gaiser, Komi Republic became an anomalous region, while following the arrests of Gaiser and other senior regional leaders (including the former chair of the Komi election commission, Elena Shabarshina) Komi returned to the ranks of protest-prone and “electorally normal” regions. Under Governor Vladimir Gruzdev, Tula became an anomalous regions, like Bryansk under Alexander Bogomaz.

Many regions have anomalous zones within them (e.g. Ussuriysk in Primorsky Krai and Oleninsky municipal area [now a municipal district] in Tver Region).

Based on the 2021 elections, dropping out of the anomalous ranks were Kalmykia (there was widespread protest voting against the backdrop of a conflict between regional head Batu Khasikov and local elites, with turnout dropping from 57% in 2016 to 50%), Crimea (turnout fell below the national average of 49.75%, while support for United Russia slid from 72.8% to 63.33%) and Chukotka (United Russia received 46.7%, which in no way can be considered an anomalous result).

Rostov and Voronezh regions are a similar case: even with the electronic voting within Rostov by DNR and LNR residents who had been given Russian passports, turnout came in below the national average at 48.8%, while in Voronezh turnout in 2021 was flat versus 2016 at 53.8%, only slightly higher than the 2021 national average. 

At the same time, Stavropol Krai again became anomalous in 2021 (with an anomalous rise in turnout from 42% to 67%), along with Volgograd Region (turnout jumped from 42% to 65%) and for the first time the Jewish Autonomous Region (turnout soared from 39.6% to 63%, while support for United Russia went from 45% to 56%).
“Twenty-two regions, making up 25.12% of the Russian electorate (27.4 mln people), had very anomalous results during the 2021 State Duma elections. They accounted for 34.1% of national turnout and their share among all votes cast for United Russia was 47%."
If Crimea and Voronezh Region are added to this list, these percentages rise to 28.18%, 37.33% and 50.70%, respectively. Thus, the share of anomalous and semi-anomalous regions in the total number of votes and their contribution to the overall result of United Russia remained basically stable.
State Duma building, 2017. Source: Wiki Commons
Myth #2: “There are no parties in Russia”

This is just as false as the claim that there are no elections in Russia. Sure, the parties are weak and dependent on the state, they are afraid of being banned, their leaders are often intimidated and corrupt, but such weakness is a temporary feature. Recall how the public upsurge of 2010-11 jolted the tolerated opposition into action, while the authorities needed extraordinary efforts (including the criminal prosecution of some deputies) to restore the outward loyalty of the so-called systemic parties.

The preservation of a weak, but still existent systemic opposition in Russia is extremely important for the foundation of the next political system once the current one collapses. No matter what one thinks about the systemic parties (they are made up of living people who are just as afraid of repression and pressure as ordinary, non-party people), they have a political infrastructure, including a network of cadres, regional and local organizations, and their own media and communication channels.

As history shows, in a time of change these resources are invaluable. Nothing comes out of nowhere. Any party always has a party or public prototype. Different people come to the parties who use them as a springboard for future careers.
“And since the number of parties is artificially limited, of course many join them not because of their views, but as a necessary intermediary for participating in politics."
Still, the very fact that a person with ambition doesn’t go where the power is but rather looks to some alternative entities is indicative.

Often in authoritarian regimes it is the systemic opposition or parts of it that become an incubator from which new political forces emerge after the collapse of the old system. For example, the Serbian Progressive Party, which has ruled Serbia since 2014, is nothing more than the more pragmatic and pro-European wing of the Serbian Radical Party, from which it spun off in 2008.

The Radicals provided typical systemic opposition during the time of Slobodan Milosevic. The Progressive Party was initially led by former Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, who was later replaced by the younger Aleksandar Vucic, the current president of Serbia. In East Germany, the first government after the end of the monopoly of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) was headed by representatives of the then-systemic opposition – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). On December 5, 1989, the CDU left the National Front and joined the Alliance for Germany, independently ran in the 1990 elections, received a majority (40.8% of the vote) and formed a coalition government headed by CDU chair Lothar de Maizière. There are many such examples.
Kremlin towers, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
Myth #3: Russian politics is about clans

The low level of competition in Russian politics, combined with media censorship, makes people gravitate even more to conspiracy theories that present everything as a struggle of certain powerful groups and clans that supposedly control the entire political life of the country. “Kremlin towers,” “Politburo 2.0” and other such formulaic constructions, as well as attempts to make all regional governors out to be "clients” of someone, are a familiar part of political analysis in relation to Russia.

In most cases it is the same exaggerations as the constructions of Sovietologists, who analyzed the influence of Politburo members based on where they were placed on top of the Mausoleum.
“In reality, the groups around the most influential figures are very narrow, while the bulk of officials represent careerists in Brownian motion."
Many are constantly hopping from agency to agency, from region to region. Does this mean that an official becomes the "guy" of each of his former superiors? Rather it merely shows that he is a pragmatic careerist.

For example, following this logic many considered Sakhalin Governor Alexander Khoroshavin Rosneft’s guy, as Sakhalin is the core region for the company and there were several former top Rosneft managers in his administration. But the arrest of Khoroshavin showed that in reality he was nobody's guy, just his own, and had overestimated his connections. Another example is Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov: he worked in the Perm Krai administration in 2000-09 and the Moscow city government in 2010-17 before becoming Perm governor in 2017-20. Whose guy is he – that of former Perm governor and now Deputy Prime Minister and presidential envoy Yuri Trutnev, the following head of Perm Oleg Chirkunov or Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin? In reality, Reshetnikov is just a technocrat official. Another story of self-centered careerism is Sobyanin himself.

Mikhail Evraev, the current governor of Yaroslavl, worked alongside Federal Antimonopoly Service head Igor Artemiev for many years, but then was deputy minister of regional development and later deputy minister of communications and mass media. Is he someone’s guy or his own? Even if it’s the former case – does that affect the decisions he is making now? There are deputy governors who have already worked in five or six regions. The technocracy of the elite doesn’t fit well with the ideas about clans and groups.

Russia is a complex country with a complex society and complex political processes. Simplification is convenient when there is no need to know the details. But decisions should never be made based on a simplified and primitive understanding. Real political analysis isn’t a rally, and thinking in patterns and slogans is not recommended.
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