Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean directs the Russia/Eurasia Center of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). She specializes in Russian domestic and foreign policy.
On the weekend of September 9 and 10, local elections are taking place in Russia to renew regional assemblies and municipal councils, as well as Moscow town hall. For the first time, the Ukrainian territories annexed to Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson are associated with the vote of their aggressor neighbor.
LE FIGARO.- What are the issues and the credibility of these elections?
Tatiana KASTOUEVA-JEAN.- For several years, it has been difficult to speak in Russia of free and fair elections. Even independent observation of elections is no longer really possible: as evidenced by the arrest in August of a personality like Grigori Melkoniants, co-president of the “Golos” association, labeled a “foreign agent” for two years. The international validation of the elections no longer counts in the eyes of the Russian authorities, at odds with the West. However, the Kremlin still needs to hold the elections to show that there is a “normal political process” under the conditions of the “special military operation” and that the authorities enjoy the full support of the population. These elections are the last before the presidential elections of 2024, so it is also an opportunity to prepare for the future by consolidating loyalties. What are the predominant campaign themes ahead of the election?
Contrary to intentions expressed before the elections, there are few veterans among the election candidates. Furthermore, regional and municipal elections are traditionally more focused on economic and social issues. The war in Ukraine is not very present in these elections, except through the social aid to combatants and their families, which various parties and candidates boast about. In the countryside, the emphasis is on social justice, purchasing power, local projects rather than on major political or geopolitical issues.
This addresses Russians' concerns: according to the latest Levada Center survey, rising prices worry more than half, while the restriction of civil rights and democratic freedoms comes in last place, cited by 3% of respondents. The only exception, the liberal party Yabloko, authorized to participate, positions itself in favor of peace, but they have very few candidates in a few large cities, which are subject to pressure and intimidation as Grigori Yavlinsky, the party leader. This is the first time that the occupied territories of four Ukrainian regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson), where the war is raging, will participate in an election with Russia. What will be the consequences for them?
The elections are taking place in the four Ukrainian regions that Russia illegally annexed last year, where it still does not control the entire territory and where it has declared martial law. No legal conditions are therefore met for organizing the elections there, including from the point of view of Russian legislation, not to mention the fact that a large part of the population has fled these war-torn territories. Obviously, these elections will not be recognized internationally (except probably by Belarus or Syria). But the Kremlin hastens to impose its law there for reasons that are both symbolic and political (to mark belonging to Russia, to affirm the irreversible nature of the annexations) and practical (to Russify on all levels, to have executives on whom the federal center can rely on to carry out its policies). This is the politics of fait accompli.
In the annexed territories, but also in Russia, should we expect massive fraud and manipulation of results? What about low participation?
Election day tampering is just the tip of the iceberg. The dice are rigged before the game begins: a set of mechanisms has been honed for years to eliminate all political competition, eliminate undesirable candidates in advance and obtain the necessary result by making gross fraud on the big day less essential. Even if the poll workers in the polling stations resort to it out of overzealousness and fear of being sanctioned if they do not achieve the set objectives. As for participation rates, the authorities are seeking to increase it among the loyal electorate and reduce that of potentially more protesting populations. This is why the campaigns are often dull, but civil servants and employees of public companies, dependent on the State, are mobilized to vote. Opponent Navalny called on the Russian population to vote for “any candidate” except those in power. Can we imagine a protest movement through the ballot box?
The opposition has very few options to act. Call for a boycott? If the protesting electorate voted with their feet, this would play into the hands of the authorities and would make people lose all habit of political action. For several years, Navalny's teams have implemented the "smart voting" system, asking people to vote for any candidate other than that of the ruling party, sometimes by suggesting concrete names. Other opponents propose damaging the ballot paper by checking, for example, two boxes. The third call for avoiding electronic voting, which is easy to falsify as we saw in Moscow in September 2021. These strategies will not change the results of the vote, except to mark the disagreement with a small protest political action.
I do not see any protest movements coming during these elections and even no electoral surprises like we saw in some large cities before the start of the war. Opposition leaders are in prison or in exile, their voices are barely heard, the risks of all kinds of repression are high, war imposes loyalty. Furthermore, the very name of Navalny is fading from people's minds: in February 2022, 14% did not know his name, 23% will be unaware of it in 2023. The mayor of Moscow must also be elected on this occasion. Navalny specifically considers this election to be "distorted" and "meaningless." For what ?
The elections in Moscow, the capital which concentrates the urban population, educated and more protesting than the country's average, have political importance for all of Russia. In 2013, Navalny was able to participate in the elections as the main rival of Mayor Sobyanin (still in office, editor's note), and he obtained 27%, a high score considering the fact that he did not have access to federal television channels to campaign. Sobyanin is rather well received by Muscovites: in addition to constantly improving the comfort of the capital's residents, Sobyanin managed to avoid pro-war rhetoric. In autumn 2022, he even ended the partial mobilization campaign earlier than in the rest of the country. He has at his disposal all the administrative resources, public money and local media and will undoubtedly be comfortably re-elected.
The other candidates – including the grandson of Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party – do not even hide the fact that they are participating in this electoral race to make themselves known and increase their political capital more than in the hope of winning. According to Navalny, Sobyanin is just a front of the same corrupt and rigged system. Façade whose more attractive aspect would be a dangerous illusion that can mislead on the real absence of freedoms and political alternatives.