12.09.22 Analytics

"The SMO is yours, but the problems it creates are ours"

Alexander Kynev
Expert on regional politics
Despite the regime’s numerous attempts to establish control, regional elections in Russia remain a battleground of competition, where national political parties assume the role of franchises and disguise the bizarre standoffs going on behind the scenes between local clientele, elite groups and activist projects. This type of political culture prefers sabotage over protest, and its loyalty to the regime is both conditional and pragmatic. As a result, the Kremlin keeps failing in its attempts to build a “vertical” pyramid of power in regional politics. One of the most important outcomes of the current campaign was the Communists' slide in the elections due to the leadership’s blatant support for the so-called special military operation. To add to this, the party tried to get rid of disloyal and independent activists who had previously brought it additional votes, says Russia’s political scientist and expert on regional politics Alexander Kynev.

The logic of regional elections: clientele, franchises and conditional loyalty

Unfulfilled expectations that both the public and various experts have in regards to Russia’s political processes can be explained by misconceptions about Russian society itself, and this year’s regional elections are no exception to that rule. There is a tendency to underestimate Russia’s heterogeneity. It is from here that incorrect expectations regarding the emergence/disappearance and absence of resistance stem. Both the totality of the regime and level of loyalty to it among citizens are misunderstood and overestimated. The heterogeneity of local elites and unique features of protest in Russian political culture are also misunderstood.  

Conformism, as well as the phenomena of mobilising businesses lie at the heart of electoral success in Russia, as opposed to the personal ratings of official representatives (although, of course, a popular official always contributes to votes) or support for any type of ideology. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone in United Russia who can explain the party’s ideology. The government enjoys support among citizens because it exercises power and also pays money, in one way or another, to officials, state employees, the military, pensioners etc. Orders from above are another avenue of support for the ruling party; from bosses, for example, if a certain organisation will benefit directly from an election’s results. 

This explains why United Russia, the "party of power", does not present itself as a rigid ideological structure, but rather as a loose conglomerate of supporters from various organisations and clientele. Its election lists are headed by big bosses such as governors, mayors, and the president, all of whom act as symbols of power and its administrative vertical. An abundance of educational, healthcare, social services and large industrial enterprise heads can be seen in United Russia’s lists of supporters. This is an example of "corporate representation", and a mechanism to ensure that workers can be coerced into voting. "Dependent" voters as a category hasn’t disappeared anywhere. Their numbers are limited, but these groups are easily mobilised. The lower the turnout, the higher their role. 

Electoral failures of the "party of power" occur for two reasons. The first is due to decreasing levels of conformity, which happens when certain groups stop receiving sufficient payment in exchange for their loyalty. An example of this can be found in the pension reform of 2018 or monetization in 2004-2005. The second reason is when officials are stripped of their symbolic status. This happens when their power and authority are called into question. This happened in 2011 when the last cohort of publicly-elected governors was fired. It also happened before the 2021 elections, when there was a sharp increase of governors being shifted around (between 2017-2021), which in turn created a sense of growing "depersonalisation" of the role. 

This system can be classified as follows: citizens are loyal to the government, but certainly don’t support it. As soon as thoughts such as "the king is fake" and "there isn’t any money left" start creeping in, everything collapses. The authorities have temporary and opportunistic allies; an all-Russian swamp of the "best of the best". But if the "king" changes, his horde of supporters rush to the new one. Of course, the new King must swiftly re-route the channels of patronage and "royalty fees". This explains why regions who enthusiastically championed the CPSU/CPRF in the early 1990s (the conservative south, the agrarian periphery and national regions) became the backbone of Putin and United Russia’s support base.

Cities in Russia prone to protesting can intervene in this process, but are usually demoralised, fragmented (because cities are traditionally a zone of individualism and mutual criticism) and lack recognizable leaders. Although they outnumber the aforementioned regions, they usually don’t go to the polls.   

In such a vast country, conformism and weakness of vertical power mean that there can not be any absolute control. Nobody has the means to constantly monitor such a large number of territories with tens of thousands of candidates, and even more so, no one is able to pull their strings. Even within one large region, administrations often don’t understand what is happening on the outskirts and can’t do much about it. The system is able to crush familiar evil, but it certainly can’t monitor new and as of yet unknown entities. 

Political parties present as a conditionally controlled opposition, just as the electorate is conditionally loyal. There is no love or loyalty in their relationship with authorities. They’re not puppets, of course, but they are easily intimidated, ready to negotiate and coordinate what needs to be coordinated. At the same time, they are completely independent and selfish. As soon as the power coming from top weakens, they become unmanageable. They control their assets even worse than the authorities control theirs. If the assets of the ruling party financially and organisationally depend on it, then oppositional candidates often have to pay to be nominated. Sometimes the party itself persuades the asset to run because of a deficit. In regional and local elections, the campaign of any opposition party is a franchise, where a regional or local elite group or individual politician runs for election under the federal brand.

As a result, we get a very heterogeneous environment, which is built into a framework imposed from above. Conformists pretend to be part of the party in power, everyone else joins parties admitted to the elections, the choice of which depends on personal circumstances. Part of society (most commonly "idealist-nihilists", who don’t trust any parties) participates in this process as "free" electrons, or "independent candidates".

Return of the Mummy: Metamorphoses of the Regional Competition

The 2022 election campaign, extreme in nature because of the SPO, was at first a shock for its potential participants. There was confusion about what was happening, personal and business prospects were hazy and there was no funding. Instead, new bans were introduced and independent media — traditionally the main platform for campaigns — was shut down. It was impossible to campaign publicly. The processes of nomination, submission of documents for registration and registration itself were subdued. Parties campaigned within their closed networks, and outsiders weren’t aware of them at all. The authorities removed the “familiar” evil from elections, as seen in the case of the Communist Party in Vladivostok, which was ousted due to its success in 2021 (see "the case of Artem Samsonov", whose supporters were excluded from the CPRF). The authorities also blocked well-known Moscow municipal deputies from running, citing the use of extremist symbols and accusing candidates of spreading "fake information about the armed forces". Other people were registered, but those who became too popular began to be removed through courts at the end of August.

The campaign was invisible in June-July, but began to show signs of life in August. The crackdown didn’t happen, the elections were getting closer and independent media sites started cropping up from abroad. People were talking publicly again. As it turned out, removing “familiar” evil doesn’t equal getting rid of your opponents. Russia once again turned out to be too big and too varied; as soon as the competition is removed from one end, it seeps out of the other, especially when people’s living standards begin to drop. 

The new governor gets rid of people from United Russia in North Ossetia, but they pop up in opposition lists from other parties (A Just Russia, Dela Party). A Just Russia loses its sponsors in Kirov to LDPR. Former Yabloko members and ex-independents from various Moscow regions turn up in New People. The unpopular governor Limarenko, instead of the popular mayor Nadsadin, heads United Russia’s race in Sakhalin, and in response a group of city deputies end up in New People as well. Another unpopular governor provokes a protest campaign in Udmurtia. In Vladivostok, a lot of candidates end up being uncontrollable simply because the CPRF cannot survive without any assets. In Moscow, instead of various liberal groups, such as those who were present at the 2017 municipal elections (Kats and Gudkov’s team, Yabloko, Yashin’s team, Galyamina’s team, etc.), new groups appear: either independent patriots ("Society. The Future"by Yuneman — Makhnitsky), or the New Left ("Nomination" by Lobanov — Zamyatin). There are also groups such as "Yakubovich’s team", and others. 

Candidates from United Russia and those loyal to the authorities (although in reality these candidates come from local communities and elite groups) campaign without mentioning the SMO and strictly in line with local problems and agendas. "The SMO is yours, but the problems it creates are ours". Society continues trying to survive, carefully pretending to be loyal to the imposed rules and symbolic constraints of the ruling party, parading these values out in front of the "center", but refusing to embed them with any sort of meaning.

This opportunism, of course, is not enough to change the situation in the country, or enough to change the federal government. But it is a stark reminder that Russia is not a graveyard by any means. Life goes on, as does resistance to pressure from above. There are two parallel agendas at work: on one side we have the government and its state media, and on the other side we have the rest of the country. People are pragmatic, and it’s safer to adapt to your bosses whims and engage in sabotage rather than to openly clash with the regime. But once the pressure eases, things can change quickly and unexpectedly. No one will need the SPO or United Russia. It was all a game after all. 

The CPRF and the SMO: a fiasco of revanchism

The real victims of the campaign turned out to be those who sincerely supported the SMO, as seen in the realisation of the CPRF’s old conservative leaderships’ long-standing plans. The SMO began with the Duma approving the CPRF’s project to recognise the independence of the LPR/DPR. But the events in Ukraine turned out to be a severe crisis for the CPRF. In recent years, the CPRF had expanded into a broad coalition, ranging from Stalinists and religious fanatics to local civil activists, as well as libertarians and former supporters of Alexei Navalny. Allying with the CPRF gave them a chance to be registered, and its status as the second most popular party meant that their chances of being elected also increased. It was the party’s non-leftist allies that had provided it with significant voting gains in recent years. The situation proved beneficial for the party (as it was provided with additional votes) and also dangerous, as it annoyed the authorities. It also corresponded to the interests of various groups within the party that were competing with each other. 

However, external and internal pressure on the party increased sharply during the SMO. The conflict between the conservative federal leadership of the CPRF and the more oppositional young grassroots activists, who often opposed Russia’s military actions, became more prominent. So the purges began; people were expelled from the party for having "an incorrect position on the SMO", others were moved to remote positions (Vladivostok, Moscow, etc.). As a result of the party distancing itself from its rebellious members, as well as from its supporters and opportunistic allies, the CPRF were poised to lose a lot of votes. And this is exactly what happened. The party had polled in second place by a large margin in the September 2021 elections. That second place evaporated. The CPRF fell in popularity, placing lower than local LDPR businessmen in the elections in Kursk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, below the Liberal Democratic Party and A Just Russia in Kirov (where New People, who were conducting a sterile "positive" campaign almost overtook it). According to preliminary data, in North Ossetia the CPRF failed to gain even 5% of votes. In the end it was saved and ended up with 12% because of the need to take votes from the local opposition running for A Just Russia. In places where the CPRF still holds on to second place, there has been a sharp decrease in popularity compared to September 2021, with other parties biting at its heels.
Where did the votes of the Communist Party go? Supporters of the SMO voted for the party in power. When the state pursues a policy of retaliation, supporters of retaliation will inevitably be in the ruling party (two parties of retaliation cannot co-exist). Oppositional voters disillusioned with the CPRU joined other opposition parties: the positive New People, the Party of Pensioners (because of the low turnout, the role of pensioners was much greater), A Just Russia (its campaigns focus on social issues and not all voters know about Prilepin) and even the Liberal Democratic Party (without Zhirinovsky, the party has been reduced to a franchise which can be filled with any content for money). Ideology, left or right, has nothing to do with it at all — in the regions, the voter looks at personalities, general anti-ratings and reputation. Ideology became the downfall of those who stood by it.

Russia is alive. The patient is alive, resisting. It's just that every country is different. Those who wanted Chinese-inspired reforms in 1990 were told that it was impossible, because Russians are not Chinese. Now is the time, evidently, to explain to those who want "protests like in France" (or Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, etc.) that it simply won’t happen. Because this is Russia: a huge, diverse, poorly coordinated country; clumsy as a result, conformist, always preferring sabotage to public protest. And the majority were always resisting and will continue to do so as best they can. But they’ll do it in their parallel universe, one which doesn’t involve the government.