Team Navalny’s new ‘smart voting’ strategy gave a sense of novelty to this year’s Russian Duma elections. But the results have brought everyone sharply back to reality.
Team Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ strategy has failed. Although never intended to radically change the system, smart voting was at least expected to deprive United Russia of a relatively large number of seats in the Duma.
However, this did not happen. Despite the initially encouraging early exit polls, in which United Russia received only around 38% of the votes, the final results, notably after the count of contested electronic votes, saw the ruling party rise to a staggering 49,82%. United Russia thus secured 324 of the 450 Duma seats, just 19 fewer than in 2016, once again attaining a constitutional majority. It is hard to claim that what one of the most prominent members of Team Navalny, Vladimir Milov, presented as a “United Russia or not referendum” has been even slightly successful.
On the contrary, these elections have been rather encouraging for the government. They have shown the Kremlin that even with blatant and extensive electoral fraud, Team Navalny can no longer organise mass protests like those we saw last January. The number of alleged violations reported to the Russian electoral monitoring NGO Golos increased to over 5400 compared with the 3767 registered in the 2016 parliamentary elections. Despite the complaints, and even if alleged fraud has been documented by numerous online videos and mathematically proven, the reality is that electoral manipulation is simply not news for the ordinary Russians who have apathetically accepted the results, just as they have in the past (at least 40% of Russians think that last year’s constitutional referendum was also not fair).
Even the city of Moscow, where United Russia’s approval rating was only around 15%, has been rather silent. This is particularly striking as not even one of the numerous opposition candidates who ran in the local single-member electoral constituencies received a seat in the Duma—despite their frequently leading positions before the count of the electronic votes.
Having won all the Moscow seats in the parliament, the Kremlin has been able to grant them to highly symbolic men, such as Evgeny Popov, controversial host of the propaganda TV show “60 Minutes” (60 Minut) who earlier this month was exposed by Team Navalny’s latest YouTube investigation for owning $4 million-worth of real estate. Despite all this, only a meagre 200 Muscovites took to the streets on the day after the elections, gathering on Pushkin square under the initiative of the Communists. The general sense of resignation is great news for the Kremlin, showing that its repression has been effective and likely to work in the near future as well.
The Communists Will Concede
High hopes are now put on the Communist Party, seen as a potential new opponent to the Kremlin in light of the large number of votes it received (18,96% compared to 13,3% in 2016). The party mostly owes its electoral success to Navalny’s smart voting list, which called for votes for communist candidates in 137 of the country’s 225 single-member constituencies. Some now expect it to try to consolidate its new electorate and to fight for the stolen votes by openly challenging the Kremlin.
A new generation of radical communists who genuinely oppose the Kremlin may also be emerging within the party, including men such as Saratov’s Nikolay Bondarenko, a popular blogger and one of Russia’s most trusted politicians who has even declared that Navalny should be considered “a victim of political repression”. Another communist heavyweight is Pavel Grudinin, whose barring from running in the Duma elections is considered as evidence that the balance between the Kremlin and the Communist Party might be shifting.
However, the likelihood of the Communist Party engaging in open opposition to the system is unsurprisingly low. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has already called upon his fellow party members to “show maximum restraint in this hard time”. Even the first secretary of the Communist Party in Moscow Valery Rashkin, who in the past had declared that Navalny was jailed for “political reasons”, made very clear that he has “no obligations whatsoever” toward the Russian opposition leader. Furthermore, the fact that the current success of the Communist Party stems from the electorate’s ‘protest vote’ attitude, rather than a real ideological adherence, might make the party less responsive to the will of its new voters.
It is more likely that the Communist Party leadership will attempt to capitalise on the election results to extract concessions from the Kremlin. A hostile tone will be maintained in the coming weeks, with calls to take to the streets and refusals to recognise the results. In the meantime, the party will negotiate with the Kremlin and, likely in exchange for higher federal subsidies and seats on key Duma committees, will eventually fully reintegrate into the system (accepting the jailing of some of its most radical members along the way). This process already seems to have started: on 25 September, while Communist-Party-organised protests took place in Moscow and other cities, Zyuganov simultaneously met with Putin via videoconference.
A ‘Khodorkovsky Trap’?
With the Kremlin victorious and the Communist Party unlikely to represent a real threat, this month’s elections have marked the end of a process that began with the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. Since then, the space in which the opposition has been able to move has dramatically shrunk. Smart voting represented a last resort—a way for Team Navalny to show that despite the repression, the opposition could still have an impact on the country’s political life.
But with its failure, it is increasingly difficult for Team Navalny to stay relevant and keep people politically engaged. With their leader in jail and most of their members in exile, there is a high risk that Team Navalny could fall into a ‘Khodorkovsky trap’. Just like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Team Navalny in exile will probably limit itself to posting videos on issues that Russians are already familiar with, such as corruption or the unfairness of the electoral process. With nothing to offer but entertaining online content from abroad, Team Navalny might start to be perceived by Russians as distant lecturers with no actual capacity to influence the situation on the ground.
With a deteriorating economic situation and growing social discontent, it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin can quell dissent in the long term. But what the near future holds for Russia is much clearer. And it will probably resonate with Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s words on election night: “Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin, Victory!”
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).