Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has taken a hit within the last year. From an 82 percent rating in April 2018, the figure now stands at 64 percent. Not disastrous, you might say – but it’s all relative.
The proximate cause of this fall is no secret: a set of unpopular changes to Russia’s pension system. Specifically, the ages at which men and women start receiving their pension will be raised – from 60 to 65, and 55 to 60, respectively.
Putin initially tried to keep a safe distance from this deeply unpopular change. He finally intervened publicly to amend the legislative initiative during its second reading on 26 September 2018 in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly (the national-level parliament) – revising down the retirement age for women from 63 to 60. This ‘softening’ did little, however, to dampen public anger, as seen in protest activity and sentiment.
This unpopular policy change also contributed to electoral upsets for the Kremlin in the 9 September 2018 regional elections. (For an early review of the results, see my post for this blog.) Of most concern to Russia’s political leadership were the victories for opposition-party candidates in three gubernatorial races. (See my discussion of this in another post for this blog.)
The Kremlin doesn’t like losing elections. But that’s no surprise: displeasure with losing is neither distinctive to modern-day Russia nor other polities, regardless of their democratic credentials. What is worthy of note, however, is the set of measures being implemented now to make sure – or, at least, increase the likelihood – that the Kremlin gets its way in the next set of regional elections that will take place on 8 September this year. (According to Russia’s Central Electoral Commission, this will involve more than 5,000 electoral campaigns in 82 federal subjects (regions), including 16 gubernatorial elections.)
The Kremlin is currently taking at least five steps to help make sure it gets its desired results in this next round of elections.
1. Allowing independent gubernatorial candidates
In many Russian regions, gubernatorial candidates are required to be ‘party candidates’ – that is, politicians cannot run as independents (unlike, it must be said, presidential candidates). The worry for Kremlin-backed figures, however, is that the party of choice – the ‘party of power’, United Russia – is currently toxic by association. In April 2018, approval for the party hovered at 50 percent; the figure now is around 32 percent. As with Putin’s approval rating, the reason for the fall is found in the pension reform. Now that the party brand is more a liability than a benefit, legislation in a number of regions is being changed to allow gubernatorial candidates to run as independents. Thus, for example, Aleksandr Beglov – Acting Governor of St Petersburg – introduced a bill to that effect on 20 November 2018; the initiative was approved by deputies of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly on 19 December.
2. Changing the electoral rules for regional assemblies
Many regions in Russia fill seats in their regional legislative assemblies using a mixed electoral system. Like elections to the national-level State Duma, half the seats are filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races, with the other half filled through party-list proportional representation. So, voters make two votes: one for a particular candidate and one for a particular party. A number of regions have approved, or are considering, changing the proportion of seats filled through ‘first-past-the-post’ races to 75 percent. The reason for the change is clear: campaigns focused on individuals rather than the party will help shift the focus away from the unpopular ‘party of power’. In addition, ‘administrative resources’ – the advantages held by being Kremlin-backed, such as favourable state media coverage – are more easily deployed in candidate-centred, rather than party-centred, races. Unsurprisingly, opposition party leaders are not keen on a change that will likely benefit United Russia.
3. Removing governors before the elections
The easiest way to win an election is to field a genuinely popular candidate. The Kremlin has, as a result, been polling citizens in the regions to gauge the popularity of incumbent governors. If there are doubts about these incumbents’ chances of winning, then they are replaced with an individual with better prospects. Thus, for example, Grigorii Poltavchenko – Governor of St Petersburg since 2011 – was replaced by Aleksandr Beglov in October 2018. This is a prime example of ‘sovereign democracy’: popular opinion still plays a role, but the Kremlin uses this information to try to avoid embarrassing electoral defeats, thus depriving Russians of the opportunity to ‘throw the rascals out’ at the ballot box themselves. (See this interview of Alexander Kynev by Maria Lipman for an excellent discussion of the recent reshuffling of governors.)
4. Carrying out an information campaign against opposition politicians
Getting elected is only one hurdle faced by opposition politicians. Once in office, they not only need to deal with local elites, but they also need to develop a working relationship with Moscow. Even if they do establish a pragmatic arrangement with the Presidential Administration, this doesn’t guarantee a quiet life. Take, for example, Sergei Levchenko – the Communist Party (KPRF) governor of Irkutsk Oblast’, elected in 2015. In September 2018, footage was uploaded on YouTube of the governor shooting a hibernating bear at point-blank range. The footage might be shocking, but the timing of its release is telling: although the hunt apparently took place in 2016, its upload to YouTube coincided with legislative elections to the Irkutsk regional assembly. Moreover, a criminal case was initiated on 29 December regarding ‘illegal hunting’ – something that might continue to dog Levchenko, in addition to more recent accusations of embezzling budget funds. The Irkutsk governor is up for re-election in 2020, so the point is not that the Kremlin is trying to frustrate an election campaign running up to 8 September. Rather, this case of ‘black PR’ appears part of a broader attempt to smear opposition politicians in general.
5. Blocking attempts to soften registration requirements for election candidates
A Presidential Administration working group – headed by First Deputy Chief of Staff, Sergei Kirienko – has been tasked with exploring ways to amend electoral legislation, including softening the ‘municipal filter’. Given the Kremlin’s desire not to see a re-run of opposition wins, however, these liberalisations are unlikely to be implemented, especially before the 8 September elections. Another sign that reform is unlikely comes in the planned rejection of a legislative initiative (introduced into the State Duma by senator Vladimir Lukin) to make passing the ‘municipal filter’ easier. Opponents of the change have branded it ‘populism’.
These five steps are some of the ways in which the electoral playing field is being tilted in the ruling elite’s favour, not to mention methods of outright electoral fraud. If the rules don’t suit, then just change the rules. This basic message is not new, but it’s worth emphasising that the long-term effects of this legal instability are unlikely to help the development of a rule-of-law state in Russia.
 The 2007 and 2011 State Duma elections did not use a mixed system, involving only party-list ballots.
 The ‘municipal filter’ requires politicians to collect a certain number of signatures from municipal deputies in order to register their electoral candidacies. Such ‘municipal filters’ did not prevent the candidacies of the opposition-party politicians who ended up winning gubernatorial elections in 2018, as the Kremlin – in another manifestation of ‘sovereign democracy’ – approved their participation as ‘technical’ candidates. Frustratingly for the Kremlin, however, they ended up proving more popular than anticipated, if only, or largely, through votes cast as protests, rather than cast as positive endorsements of opposition electoral platforms.