Russia’s Local Elections: Politics in Spite of Putin

Soviet leaders had a poor record of keeping their promises. Nikita Khrushchev’s pronouncement that Communism would be fully implemented by 1980, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s pledge to give every family its own apartment by 2000, only provided more fodder for political jokes. Dmitri Medvedev’s assertion, at a meeting with Western Kremlinologists in September 2009, that direct gubernatorial elections will not return “in a hundred years” was of the same order. The replacement of elected regional governors with Kremlin appointees—in a country whose Constitution still purports to be federal—was carried out by Vladimir Putin on the pretext of the “fight against terrorism” after the Beslan school siege in 2004, and was widely considered to be the last stroke in the construction of his authoritarian “power vertical.” In the final years of the Soviet Union, and during the short-lived democracy of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, it was the elected local leaders, with their own power base and legitimacy, who presented the most formidable challenge to the government in Moscow. By abolishing gubernatorial elections, Putin’s regime pursued two goals at once: imposing its top-down control over the country and eliminating the main source of potential opposition.

But Medvedev’s “hundred years” turned out to be shorter than anyone had anticipated. By December 2011, as tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Moscow in the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in two decades, the government was forced to retreat. The protests, which became known as the “Snow Revolution,” were triggered by widespread fraud in that month’s parliamentary elections, when some thirteen to fifteen million votes were reportedly “stolen” in favor of Putin’s United Russia party (its official result of forty-nine percent, though still embarrassing for a party of the self-proclaimed “national leader,” was much higher than the thirty to thirty-five percent estimated by independent observers).

The underlying cause of the protests was the “job swap” between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, announced to the public two months prior to the vote. The protesters were not backing any particular party or candidate, or even a particular political cause: their rallies, which brought together liberals, socialists, and nationalists, were about their dignity as citizens of their country. After a decade of Putin’s authoritarian consolidation, a very significant (and the most prominent) part of Russian society was no longer willing to tolerate the absence of a political voice. “We are not cattle” was one of the most popular slogans as some one hundred thousand demonstrators gathered on December 10th on Bolotnaya Square, across the river from the Kremlin walls, to demand free and fair elections, the legalization of opposition parties, and the release of political prisoners. Twelve days later, Medvedev announced a package of reforms that, although timid and half-hearted, represented the first political retreat by the regime in its more than a decade-long rule. The measures included a significant easing of the hurdles for establishing new political parties and gaining access to the ballot, as well as the reinstatement of direct popular elections for all of Russia’s eighty-three regional leaders.

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Between this announcement and the implementation of the law on June 1st, the Kremlin used the old rules to make twenty-two gubernatorial appointments. Not surprisingly, most of the appointments—which postponed elections in these regions by four or five years—were made in the areas where United Russia received its worst results in December’s parliamentary vote, and where pro-Kremlin candidates were thus most likely to lose. Among them were the Yaroslavl (twenty-nine percent), Moscow (thirty-three percent), Sverdlovsk (thirty-three percent), Kostroma (thirty-four percent), and Leningrad (thirty-four percent) regions. As a result of this flurry of last-minute appointments, the number of gubernatorial polls that will be held this year—on October 14th—has been reduced from ten to five. More significantly, with amendments introduced by pro-regime deputies, the law established a so-called “municipal filter,” which mandates that before being permitted to run in the general election, gubernatorial candidates will have to collect signatures from between five and ten percent of municipal mayors and legislators (the exact figure to be determined by each region), with the signatories only allowed to back one candidate. Considering that municipal assemblies, outside of large urban areas, are almost always rubber-stamp entities, and that local legislators are subject to heavy administrative and financial pressure from the executive, this requirement gives Moscow ample opportunity to keep “unwanted” candidates off the ballot. Predictably, in devising electoral rules, the majority of United Russia–controlled regional legislatures have opted for the higher end of the threshold, as well as for a ban on independent candidates—another decision that the new federal law leaves to individual regions.

Yet the efforts to perpetuate the status quo are largely missing the point. The principal change that occurred in Russia in the last several months was not in the institutional structures, but in the attitudes of its citizens. Parliamentary elections in 2011 were no more flawed than in 2007, while the Putin-Medvedev castling last September was no more an act of contempt for the voters than Putin’s appointment of Medvedev as a placeholder four years earlier. What was different in 2011 was the public reaction. Russia, it seems, has reached the point dreaded by all authoritarian regimes, at which indifference gives way to indignation—at least on the part of the most economically and intellectually active citizens. (A survey conducted by the independent Levada polling center showed that two-thirds of the December protesters were university-educated and financially comfortable; the majority were under the age of forty). Even if Putin survives in power for a few more years, he can no longer count on the political impunity that for over a decade allowed him to silence independent media, falsify elections, and imprison opponents. As a result, the assessment of potential public reaction will have to become a factor in the Kremlin’s decisionmaking.


The restored gubernatorial elections may become an early test of this changed political environment. Far from ensuring predetermined results, the disqualification of popular local contenders may trigger renewed public protests, this time not just in large cities but across the country—the ultimate nightmare scenario for the authorities. With such a possibility, allowing opponents on the ballot may seem like a “lesser evil.”

The experience of recent months has shown what an organized and determined opposition can achieve even within the tightly controlled and manipulated electoral system of Putin’s Russia. In the March elections in Moscow, opponents of the regime captured thirty percent of the seats on the city’s municipal assemblies—up from ten percent four years earlier. Outside the capital, in the town of Chernogolovka, opposition mayoral candidate Vladimir Razumov, a professor of physics, beat the United Russia nominee by forty-seven percent to ten (a further twenty-two percent of voters backed an independent local businessman). In the mayoral election in Togliatti—the heart of Russia’s automotive industry on the Volga River—liberal legislator Sergei Andreev defeated Police General Alexander Shakhov, the nominee of Putin’s party, by fifty-seven percent to forty.

Russia’s opposition, it seems, is not only learning how to get votes, but also how to defend them—which is at least as important in a system not known for honest counting. Although the authorities continue with the customary “vote-getting” tricks (such as putting administrative pressure on state employees and falsifying final protocols), the resurgence of Russia’s civil society, the increased efforts by independent poll monitoring groups, and the growth of online social media (the Internet is now available to nearly half of all Russians, and to seventy percent of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg) have become an important counterbalance. The biggest humiliation for United Russia came in April in the city of Yaroslavl, where Yevgeny Urlashov, backed by a wide array of opposition groups—from the liberal Yabloko to the social democratic A Just Russia—trounced incumbent mayor Yakov Yakushev by seventy percent to twenty-eight.

“What happened in Yaroslavl . . . was not a victory for a strong opposition candidate, but a defeat for the candidate of the Kremlin,” observed Nikolay Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. With the return of gubernatorial polls, this pattern may be repeated across the country. A study conducted by the Moscow-based journal Political Technologies suggested that nearly two dozen incumbent governors have “close to zero” chances of being elected. For seven years, regional leaders depended on the Kremlin’s disposition. All “campaigning” was done in the halls of power in Moscow. With the return of direct elections, many of the Kremlin-installed bosses are at an obvious loss.

Indeed, of the eighty-three incumbent regional leaders, only nineteen have undergone the trials of getting to the ballot box. One of them is Sergei Sobyanin, the current (appointed) mayor of Moscow, who in 2001 was elected governor of Siberia’s Tyumen region, thirteen hundred miles east of the capital. Whatever Sobyanin’s electoral prowess in his former power base, Moscow does not look promising. Even by the “official” count of the March 4th presidential election, an overall majority of Muscovites who turned up at the polls voted against Vladimir Putin (as did most voters in Kaliningrad, Vladivostok, Omsk, and other large cities). According to Mikhail Dmitriev, the president of the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank set up by Putin’s associates to draft the agenda for his first presidency, “it is almost impossible to elect a mayor [in Moscow] who would be loyal to the Kremlin.”

Winning the mayoralty of the nation’s capital—not only a powerful position in its own right, but also an obvious stepping-stone to the presidency—would be a real coup for Putin’s opponents. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, now one of the leaders of the pro-democracy opposition, has said that the 2015 mayoral vote in Moscow will be “a turning point.” Nor is the anti-Kremlin wave likely to be limited to the capital. Stanislav Belkovsky, a well-connected political strategist, predicted that opposition heavyweights Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov would “easily” win the governorships respectively of Nizhny Novgorod (where Nemtsov was governor from 1991 to 1997) and the Altai Region (which Ryzhkov represented in Parliament from 1999 to 2007). Meanwhile, Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran pro-democracy leader and the founder of the Yabloko party, has indicated an interest in running for governor of St. Petersburg, another city with strong liberal traditions. Perhaps more importantly, after a decade of strict Kremlin safeguards against the emergence of potential challengers, the reinstated regional elections may produce a new generation of leaders—politicians who are as yet unheard of on the national stage, but who may soon become the faces of Russia’s post-Putin establishment.


Something similar has happened before. In the accepted narrative of Russia’s 1989–1991 democratic revolution, the March 1989 elections of people’s deputies of the USSR—the country’s first competitive poll since 1917—are viewed as a milestone on the path to political freedom. Indeed, they were. But this was not how they were viewed at the time. In an interview in February 1989, Boris Yeltsin, a candidate for people’s deputy in Moscow and the soon-to-be leader of Russia’s democratic opposition, described the elections as “only half a step towards democratization—if not less.” To begin with, seven hundred and fifty of two thousand two hundred and fifty deputies were not elected at all, but instead appointed by “social organizations,” including the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its various de facto affiliates, such as the Leninist Union of Communist Youth and the Committee of Soviet Women. Of the fifteen hundred districts that elected deputies by direct popular vote, three hundred and ninety-nine had one candidate per seat—just as in the old-style Soviet rubber-stamp “elections.” The rest of the districts did have competition, but it was by no means unhindered. In order to get on the ballot, a candidate had to pass through the filter (or, as widely called at the time, the “sieve”) of the “district electoral assembly”—a meeting of the pre-selected “representatives of workers’ collectives” who had to approve the candidates before voters would get that chance. The “assemblies” were carefully choreographed by party apparatchiks. Those “sifted” out at the preliminary stage, to name a few, included Boris Nemtsov (a rising star in the ecological movement), Sergei Baburin (a prominent nationalist politician), and Pyotr Filippov (a liberal economist and co-founder of the Leningrad Popular Front). But at many district assemblies, the Communist bureaucracy’s scripts were disrupted by a new and still-unusual element: public pressure. Inside and outside the meeting halls, vocal supporters of pro-democracy candidates made their views known. After hours of candidates’ speeches, arguments, and grueling question-and-answer sessions, even the pre-selected participants were often convinced to vote contrary to the party’s wishes. In Moscow, the district assembly was instructed to nominate cosmonaut Georgy Grechko and automobile plant director Yevgeny Brakov. After Grechko withdrew in favor of Yeltsin, the assembly voted to allow the name of the country’s leading political rebel to be placed on the ballot. In the general election on March 26th, Yeltsin defeated the Communist Brakov by eighty-nine percent to seven.

The 1989 elections in themselves did not (and could not) challenge the system: the Communists predictably retained an overwhelming majority in the legislature, and full control of the state apparatus. The pro-democracy Inter-Regional Group—the Soviet Union’s first legal parliamentary opposition—never comprised more than twelve percent of the deputies. But the very emergence of new political leaders—Yuri Ryzhov, Galina Starovoitova, Yuri Afanasyev, Anatoly Sobchak, Gavriil Popov, and others—who owed their rise not to the party, but to the voters, was already a game-changer. Perhaps the strongest psychological blow to the Soviet system was the fact that thirty-eight first secretaries of the local and regional committees of the Communist Party—“the Kremlin’s unchallenged potentates,” in the words of Russia scholar Leon Aron—were defeated at the polls. In his biography of Boris Yeltsin, Aron recalled a telling episode. “In the daring Lenkom, one of the trendiest Moscow theatres . . . actor Oleg Yankovskiy descended to the hall during a play and recited in a stirring baritone the names of regions and cities whose First Secretaries had been defeated on 26 March: Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, Lvov, Volgograd, Chernigov, Gomel, Alma-Ata, Frunze, Kiev, Samarkand.”

As events took a turn unforeseen by the Communist authorities and hundreds of thousands of people at rallies and marches around the country demanded political freedom and an end to one-party rule, Russia’s emerging anti-Communist opposition used the official electoral mechanisms—imperfect, filtered, still Soviet in structure—to attain the much-needed democratic legitimacy. Yesterday’s street activists were transformed into elected public officials. When the moment of decision came, in August 1991, the confrontation was not between the “opposition” and the “government,” but between the legitimate, democratically chosen representatives of the nation, and the self-appointed leaders of an unaccountable and outdated regime.

With the political stagnation of the past decade decisively over, middle-class demands for accountability and democratic reforms are likely to grow stronger in the coming years. A July poll by the Levada Center showed that forty-­two percent of Russia’s population supports the aims of the “Snow Revolution.” Urban protesters may soon be joined by residents of the provinces unhappy at their increasingly uncertain economic and social prospects. With capital flight nearly tripling in 2011 from a year before, and with the Russian government now needing a $120-per-barrel oil price simply to balance its budget (compared to $27 in 2004), analysts are widely predicting a fiscal crisis. The increased political instability may necessitate national elections much sooner than those currently scheduled for 2016 (for Parliament) and 2018 (for president). As a growing number of Russians begin to view the Kremlin’s inhabitants as usurpers, the vacuum of legitimacy must, as it was two decades ago, be filled by the popularly elected local leaders. This, indeed, is the country’s best hope of completing its post-Putin transition without succumbing to new revolutionary upheavals.

Vladimir V. Kara-Murza is the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma, a member of the federal council of the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party, and was previously an opposition candidate for the Russian Parliament. He blogs weekly for World Affairs.

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