What was supposed to be a sleepy round of off-cycle regional elections on Sunday has turned into a referendum on President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party.
Kremlin-backed candidates for governor are vulnerable in several regions across the country as stagnant incomes and unpopular reforms fuel discontent, while elections for Moscow’s largely toothless city council have sparked Russia’s biggest protests since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
Russia’s tightly managed political life is showing strains in Putin’s 20th year at the pinnacle of power. In response, the Kremlin has tweaked its playbook, allowing former United Russia candidates to run as independents and slashing the number of presidential visits to regions with elections. At the same time, the authorities have cracked down hard on dissent, repeatedly detaining opposition leaders, breaking up peaceful demonstrations and serving up lengthy prison terms to a handful of protesters.
“The authorities still haven’t learned the necessary lesson yet from previous setbacks, that people are voting against them rather than against imperfect candidates,” said Nikolai Petrov, a fellow at London-based Chatham House think tank. “The overall social mood, just like in the last elections, remains unfavorable.”
As candidates try to disassociate themselves from the party of power, Putin has been staying away from regions with gubernatorial elections, according to a survey by Petersburg Politics. This year, he visited just 13% of the 15 regions that will hold such votes, compared with 80% in 2017.
That might not be enough. Kremlin-backed incumbents in the Altai Republic and Vologda Region are particularly vulnerable, while a handful of others may also have trouble avoiding a runoff as their popularity ratings wane, according to Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.
Voters ousted United Russia incumbents in three regions last year. In the politically important Primorye region in Russia’s Far East that includes the port of Vladivostok, Putin’s party only managed to retain the governor’s seat with a rerun election after mass falsifications in favor of the Kremlin’s original candidate were exposed.
Less than half of the population approves of the government’s work, while Putin’s personal rating took a hit after pension reforms last year and remains near its lowest since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster.
But some close to the Kremlin brush off the pressures.
“There’s been a decline in social welfare, which is a familiar position for the authorities, and they have accumulated experience over the past 20 years on how to act,” said Konstantin Kostin, a former Kremlin official who now heads a think tank that works with the government. “Therefore, there will be few or no unpleasant surprises on election day.”
Part of the strategy has been leaning hard on the opposition. More than a dozen opposition candidates were denied places on the ballot for Moscow city council elections, sparking this summer’s protests. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny said Thursday that his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has gained huge audiences for online reports alleging graft by high-ranking officials, was raided in what was a “common” occurrence for the fund. He’s one of several opposition politicians jailed this summer for calling on people to protest.
The authorities have also targeted rank-and-file protesters. A Moscow court on Thursday sentenced Konstantin Kotov, a 34-year old software engineer, to four years in prison for taking part in several unsanctioned protests.
Kotov is only the second person to be convicted for attending illegal protests, according to Human Rights Watch associate director Tanya Lokshina. Ildar Dadin, who was sentenced under the same law in 2015, was released after the Constitutional Court ruled protesting wasn’t a criminal offense unless it was a threat to society.
Amid the crackdown, Navalny has urged supporters to back his “smart voting” campaign, which encourages voters to back the candidate in each district who’s most likely to defeat the politician put forward by the Kremlin, regardless of political ideology.
For the Kremlin, “the risks are growing, due to a noticeable political awakening and the inability of the authorities to handle this revival in a civilized way,” said Moscow-based political scientist Valery Solovei.
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