Analysis

High stakes and low energy as Russia goes to the polls

  • Russia
  • Political and Economic Risk Consulting

High stakes and low energy as Russia goes to the polls


Russia will hold parliamentary elections on 17-19 September. We explain why the polls are important and the likely political and security developments around the vote. We also look ahead at Russia’s political trajectory in the next three-to-four years and the impact on the technology sector in particular.

  • While the newly elected parliament alone will have little impact on Russia’s political trajectory, the polls will serve as a vote of confidence in President Vladimir Putin’s administration ahead of an expected presidential bid in 2024.
  • Major protests during this election cycle are unlikely, reflecting unprecedented state pressure on an already weakened, marginalised opposition and independent media outlets.
  • This pressure alongside the relative popularity of Putin’s United Russia (UR) party will ensure that UR retains its majority, paving the way for Putin to prepare for the 2024 elections.
  • Increasing state control of online content as part of the campaign to eliminate opposition activity will pose significant reputational and operational risks to international, and especially Western, technology companies.

Low-profile campaign...

Over three days in September, Russia will elect national legislators to the State Duma (lower house of parliament), as well as to 39 regional parliaments and nine regional governments. Putin’s UR has dominated the State Duma since at least 2003, leaving little to no space for other parties to shape policymaking. Russia observers will know that State Duma elections in 2011 triggered unusual political protests over concerns about electoral irregularities and a lack of transparency. While there were no significant protests around the 2016 Duma election, in the wake of a steady decline in UR’s approval ratings since 2016, the trend for protests around elections spread to local polls. In the run-up to local elections in September 2019, hundreds of people rallied nearly every Sunday in the capital Moscow to demand that independent candidates be allowed to contest the elections. More recently, the unusually widespread and large protests that rocked most regions in January-February in support of key oppositionist Alexei Navalny also hinted at another electoral cycle that was likely to feature anti-government protests.

And yet, with less than a week to go before the high stakes Duma elections, if it weren’t for the colourful candidate posters and flyers, one could easily forget that UR is about to compete to retain its parliamentary majority, or that in many regions early in 2021 there were significant protests against rampant corruption and Navalny’s arrest.

…but key vote

A lot is at stake for the current government in these elections, and in the long run. While parliament is of secondary importance to the presidency with power highly concentrated in Putin’s office, a UR victory would be seen as a vote of continued confidence in Putin’s government and set the stage for Putin’s likely electoral bid in 2024. Crucially, another majority for UR, together with a weak result for the opposition, would allow the government to push back against any criticism about Putin’s extended rule..

Super majority, and more

Putin’s party does not just hold a super majority in the State Duma – it has the support of the other three parties in the lower house, the Communist Party (KPRF), Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and A Just Russia. These parties – known as a so-called systemic opposition – rarely go against UR’s line and are effectively under the government’s control. They do not support Navalny and believe his ideas are too radical.

However, UR’s popularity ratings have been steadily declining since the last State Duma polls in 2016, largely on the back of an unpopular pension reform, declining living standards and the 2020 recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The party’s ratings have dropped from 41% in 2016 to 28.3% in August. Over the same period, the KPRF’s ratings have more than doubled, to 17% in August from 7%. The government’s concern about retaining its majority is illustrated by the fact that the election authorities, which are not independent from the central government, during this election cycle have disqualified several popular KPRF candidates who are capable of challenging UR candidates.

Expanding crackdown

How have the authorities gone about ensuring they secure another majority? In Moscow, the traditional epicentre of electoral protests, there have been few signs of the opposition preparing for the polls since at least March. Opposition activity is currently limited to calls from exiled and imprisoned organisers to vote against pro-government candidates. Some candidates not backed by the government are using their authorised meetings with the electorate as their only opportunity to criticise new restrictions on political competition and independent media. Meanwhile, for those seeking to express public discontent with the authorities, in recent months less visible, single person pickets have replaced larger rallies.

This situation has resulted from the government’s expanding crackdown on the opposition, on the right to protest, and on independent media. And while in previous years the government appeared to care about maintaining a semblance of free and fair elections, it is now increasingly willing to explicitly shut down independent media outlets and to launch legal proceedings against oppositionists who are already weakened and marginalised after years of state propaganda and efforts to make them irrelevant. After Navalny’s sentencing to more than two years in jail on questionable charges in early 2021, the authorities in Moscow alone have convicted and sentenced more than 6,000 participants in pro-Navalny rallies for joining the unauthorised protests, according to rights group OVD-info.

The authorities in June also formally outlawed Navalny’s regional network of political organisers and investigative researchers by labelling them as “extremist” and banned anyone affiliated with them from standing in Russian elections. Such affiliation has so far applied to anyone who has donated money to his network, participated in his rallies, or even expressed support on social media for him and his anti-corruption and anti-government activity. According to election watchdog Golos, the extremist designation will deprive approximately 8% of Russians of the right to stand as a candidate in elections. The designation led dozens of Navalny’s allies to flee the country, and the election authorities to disqualify some of the key candidates of the Yabloko party – the only one of the 15 parties participating in the polls that is not aligned with the government.

The designation has also had a chilling effect on Navalny’s sympathisers, of which there weren’t many to begin with. According to a credible poll by the independent Levada Center, only 14% of Russians in June approved of Navalny’s work, down from 20% in September 2020. Now, anyone with links to Navalny and his network can face criminal prosecution. To make the ramifications of affiliation with Navalny clear, OVD-Info has reported that the authorities in August visited more than 1,400 people in at least 11 regions who had shown support for Navalny to question their relationship with the “extremist” network.

No surprises

These tactics will almost certainly ensure another UR majority in the elections, with systemic or non-genuine opposition parties taking the few remaining seats. Although UR’s ratings are falling, more Russians (27%) would vote for it than for another party, according to a Levada Center poll. The population’s growing political apathy and disinclination to vote have and will likely continue to play well for the government.

There will be no independent international election observers, but we anticipate widespread allegations of election manipulation by local rights groups, which have criticised the three-day voting period as a state tactic to “facilitate fraud”. The threat of sporadic anti-government protests will persist, particularly during and shortly after the polls. The government’s unprecedented campaign of weakening and side-lining opposition activity throughout 2021 will have its intended effect, and these protests are likely to remain small and are unlikely to significantly undermine political stability.

However, in the next two years deteriorating living standards and rising food prices will likely continue to fuel public discontent with the government despite the harsh state response to protest activity. A poll in September by the Levada Center showed that low-income households are among those who are most likely to attend protests in the country.

Likewise, while Putin’s government after these elections is likely to cement its position ahead of Putin’s run in the far more consequential presidential elections in 2024, it will become increasingly difficult for it to use a veneer of sovereign democracy, a term coined by the government to describe Russia’s political system, both domestically and internationally. As the crackdown broadens, Putin’s ratings, which have remained somewhat stable in the past two years, will likely take a hit as well. These elections will not be a flashpoint for these deeper popular grievances to come to the fore, but they will not eliminate them.

Technology companies under pressure

With UR’s victory all but certain and a low prospect of any major unrest, the implications of these polls for the general business environment are minor. The operating and security environments are likely to remain largely unchanged during and following the polls. However, the government’s efforts to constrain political dialogue and participation are having direct implications for international technology companies operating in the country. Since January, the authorities have requested that social media companies delete online calls for protests on the grounds that such content ostensibly urges minors to participate in unsanctioned protests. Several companies have been fined for failure to take down such content.

The government’s attempts to erase Navalny’s presence on social media channels and online application stores are another case in point. Navalny’s team since September 2019 has used a system called Smart Voting to defeat UR candidates in local elections by telling voters which non-UR candidates would be most likely to beat UR candidates. The goal was to gradually erode UR’s majority in the Duma. The strategy had limited success in local polls in 2019 and 2020, when UR lost one-third of its seats in the Moscow city council to alternative candidates backed by Navalny’s team. Navalny’s allies had hoped that UR’s declining ratings and broader discontent with the government – especially over surging food prices – would translate into more votes for alternative candidates, and in August launched the Navalny app to connect voters to alternative candidates. However, the state media watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked 49 websites affiliated with the oppositionist in July, and even ordered Twitter to block an account belonging to Navalny’s ally and potential candidate Lyubov Sobol. The watchdog in September said that Google and Apple’s refusal to remove Navalny’s app prior to the elections constituted interference in Russia’s domestic affairs and threatened to impose hefty fines.

As the government clears the political field of credible competition, its desire to control online content will raise reputational and operational risks for technology companies, especially if they are Western based. The absence of a legal entity in Russia will no longer protect such companies, as they will be required to set up a local branch in Russia or a Russian legal entity from January 2022. The Russian experiment with sovereign democracy will continue alongside its development of the “sovereign internet” – a set of amendments allowing the government to eventually cut off the Russian segment of the internet from the rest of the web in the event of an emergency – posing further challenges to the companies’ operations in Russia.

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