In a post for this blog on 12 September, I provided an early review of the 9 September regional elections in Russia. This was a real mix of races, including ballots for regional legislatures, by-elections for the State Duma, and contests for regional heads. The last set of elections – for regional executives – has proved the most interesting, as no candidate secured more than 50 percent of votes in four of the first-round gubernatorial races, forcing run-off votes. What has happened since – and what can this tell us about politics in general at the start of Putin’s fourth presidential term?
Of the four interesting gubernatorial races, opposition-party governors have already been elected in two regions. The second-round gubernatorial vote took place in Vladimir Oblast’ – a region to the east of Moscow – on 23 September. The sitting, Kremlin-backed governor, Svetlana Orlova (United Russia), lost to Vladimir Sipyagin – a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – who secured 57 percent of the vote. Similarly, an LDPR candidate, Sergei Furgal, beat the United Russia incumbent, Vyacheslav Shport, in the second-round vote in Khabarovsk Krai – a region in Russia’s far east – on 23 September, with 70 percent of the vote. Commentators have wondered whether this might be a moment when merely nominal opposition actors become real critics of the Kremlin, emboldened by electoral successes.
We should bear three things in mind when making sense of these opposition wins. Firstly, these losses for the Kremlin come in the context of the decision to implement a deeply unpopular pension reform – a policy change that has resulted in a sharp drop in support for United Russia. Rather than a positive vote for LDPR or KPRF (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), therefore, many Russians were using their votes in the 9 September elections (and subsequent ballots) to protest against this particular policy. Secondly, even though members of nominally opposition parties have become regional heads, that certainly does not mean that they will be combative with Moscow and Kremlin-backed actors. It has been reported, for instance, that Sergei Furgal has suspended his membership of LDPR in order to appease, and work with, members of the regional elite. Thirdly, and relatedly, these are not the first opposition governors in Russia. In Irkutsk Oblast’, for example, a KPRF politician – Sergei Levchenko – has been regional head since 2015. And LDPR’s Aleksei Ostrovskii has been the head of Smolensk Oblast’ since 2012. We should not, therefore, lose perspective on these opposition wins, regardless of whether they were a surprise for the Kremlin.
Two other regions have unfinished gubernatorial races. In Khakassia – a region relatively near Russia’s borders with Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia – the second-round vote was scheduled to take place on 23 September. However, the incumbent governor – Viktor Zimin (United Russia) – withdrew his candidacy on 21 September, meaning that the ballot had to be postponed. In the run-up to the new voting date of 7 October, the “Just Russia” party candidate, Andrei Filyagin, also withdrew his candidacy, resulting in another postponement. The “Party of Growth” candidate, Aleksandr Myakhar, also withdrew on 15 October. The second-round vote is now scheduled for 11 November, with only one candidate, KPRF’s Valentin Konovalov, who secured 45 percent of votes in the first round on 9 September. One obvious explanation for the multiple postponements is that the authorities want to do all they can to frustrate another opposition-party victory – an explanation that fits with attempts to disqualify Konovalov from the race. Konovalov has a chance to win, but there have been further recent attempts to block his pathway to power.
The final gubernatorial vote is scheduled to take place in Primorsky Krai – a region in the far east – on 16 December. In the first-round vote on 9 September, the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Andrew Tarasenko, won 47 percent of the vote, with the KPRF candidate, Andrei Ishchenko, achieving 25 percent. In the second-round vote on 16 September, Ishchenko looked certain to win. However, a dramatic surge for Tarasenko during counting of the final votes resulted both in his provisional victory and accusations of vote rigging. Indeed, these electoral fraud allegations resulted in the official invalidation of the voting results – something that deprived Tarasenko victory, but that has been challenged by Ishchenko in the courts, as he sees himself as the rightful winner. In light of this voting scandal, Tarasenko resigned and was replaced by Oleg Kozhemyako – until then head of Sakhalin Oblast’ – who will run as an independent in the 16 December ballot (although United Russia has declared its support for his candidacy).
The picture in Primorsky Krai has become even more complicated. On Saturday 3 November, the Primorsky regional KPRF branch voted not to field Andrei Ishchenko as its candidate in the December election. There are a number of reasons why this decision might have been taken. One possible consideration relates to reports of Kozhemyako’s rising popularity – something (if true) that will have been supported by the activities of Kremlin-funded political technologists dispatched to the region. Ishchenko’s withdrawal is, therefore, a pre-emptive move in anticipation of expected electoral defeat. Another possible reason relates to doubts about whether Ishchenko could clear the ‘municipal filter’ – a mechanism whereby electoral candidacy is only possible with the support of a specified number of municipal deputies. In practice, this provides a way for the authorities to block particular politicians from participating in elections. Indeed, there were reports that some municipal deputies in Primorsky Krai had complained of pressure not to vote for Ishchenko’s candidacy. The withdrawal decision might also signal the KPRF’s reluctance to incur the costs of opposing the Kremlin too publicly and meaningfully. As a member of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, the KPRF elite has to find the right balance between Kremlin loyalty and maintaining the semblance of an opposition political stance. It could be that the campaign leading up to the 16 December vote – never mind the prospect of an Ishchenko victory – upset that balance too much for comfort.
Not the end for Putin
Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term began six months ago, and should run until 2024. Do these regional election results constitute flashes of democracy in Russian politics – or signs that the Putin regime is in crisis?
No. But the electoral setbacks were not welcome for Putin’s team. A number of United Russia officials were fired following the regional race setbacks. This has been followed by moves to strengthen the party’s capacity in Russia’s regions. The reason is obvious: the Kremlin is keen not to see a repeat of the regional election surprises in 2019. It has been reported that the Kremlin has already begun evaluating the electoral appeal of governors up for re-election next year. Those who do not make the cut will be replaced with acting governors that the Kremlin thinks have better prospects of winning. This means that the Kremlin will reduce the likelihood of embarrassing electoral defeats, as well as giving incumbency advantage to more popular candidates. There is also a debate about whether to amend electoral legislation – a popular battleground for elements of the elite with differing views on how managed Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ should be.
Overall, then, the Kremlin was taken by surprise by opposition-party wins, but it is not in panic. Putin’s approval rating certainly took a significant hit as a result of the unpopular pension reform, but the numbers have stopped falling. Now, the task for ‘Team Putin’ is to adjust to the new normal – and to do what it can to prevent further opposition electoral gains. As the early anger resulting from pension reform has subsided, the protest-vote potential relating to this particular policy has certainly declined. But the regional election results will strengthen the position of those arguing for tighter, not looser, control of electoral campaigns – in the short-run, at least. In the longer term, this management might come into closer conflict with the rising importance placed by Russian citizens on democracy and human rights.