January 2021 has been a momentous period for politics in Russia: as poisoning victim and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny (Rossiya Budushchego, RB-*) returned from Germany, he was met with an arrest warrant executed before he had even collected his luggage. This sparked off weeks of protest over his arrest, the revelations he made about ‘Putin’s Palace’ on the Black Sea, and more generally discontent with the Putinite Regime. All of this in a major election year for the country: for in September the Russian people will elect a new Duma—the country’s national parliament. In light of these events, it is worth examining how Russians view their own political institutions, elections, and the value of their vote.
The improper practices of Russian elections might seem glaringly obvious to those observing their politics, but for those that live in Russia, under the ‘informational autocracy’ of the oligarch-owned media system, things aren’t always as clear. Outsiders often ignore how the Russian people view their state institutions in favour of highlighting the authoritarian policy of the current Russian government. However, public support, or lack thereof, is not just important from the point of view of the observer, but also for the Kremlin itself.
Nowhere is this better shown than in a Levada Centre survey on what voters thought of last September’s local elections that took place in around a third of the Federal Subjects (regions) of the Russian Federation. Levada is a company that is the only major independent pollster in the country. Often used by academics for their work, their data is perceived to be some of the only unfiltered expressions of Russian opinion available on a large scale. As a result of this independence, it has even been targeted by the Kremlin in the past under its ‘Foreign Agent’ laws. Despite this, for the Russian government these kind of surveys are important indicators of how policy is perceived by the public, and in a way act as a mechanism for the continued rule of the United Russia Party (Yedinaya Rossiya, YeR~EPP|ECR|ID) to right itself. So, let us look into what the Russians think of their own elections using the example of recent local elections.
First of all we have two simple setting questions, used by pollsters for the purposes of making later questions more precise: did you have a local election, and did you vote (and if so when?). 57% identified they had an election, 29% that they did not, and 14% struggled to recall. The rise from nine percentage points in the previous year to 14% not being able to state if there were local elections could lend an eye towards apathy around local government; indeed turnout for Russian elections has been down in recent years, with the lowest turnout in this set of local elections being in Smolensk Oblast, at 30%. As a result of this, the state has been trying to implement new policies to encourage voting.
The next question was: ‘Did you vote? And if so, on what day?’ Russia, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, introduced a new three-day voting system to lower crowding at polling stations. There are some, such as the opposition Communist Party (Kommunisticheskaya Partiya Rossiyskoy Federatsii, KPRF~GUE/NGL), who argue the policy was also introduced to encourage higher turnout, and thus give any results more validity in the eyes of the people. While again we see mass apathy, 56% stating they did not vote, we also see that of those that did vote, 72% did it on the scheduled election day of the 13th of September and 28% voted on the two days beforehand.
The three-day system may have been effective in preventing an undue rise in COVID-19 cases but its use as a means to raise turnout appears to have been rather ineffective. As a result, various opposition leaders, including the Communist Party’s leader Gennady Zyuganov, have called for it to be abolished once the epidemic in Russia is over, citing it as an attempt by YeR to gerrymander voting results by pulling in usual non-voters, who vote overwhelmingly for United Russia. It is worth noting, however, that the measure is reasonably popular, with 65% supporting the policy. As Russia’s Duma elections are scheduled to fall in September of this year, this three-day voting system could have a major impact on the results if people use it to vote in larger numbers than we have seen here: this being an increase in turnout that conventionally favours the governing United Russia.
Continued legitimacy—at a cost
Next come the two major questions; ‘Do you think the elections were fair?’ and “Are you satisfied by the results?”. On the propriety of the vote, some 49% viewed it as legitimate, down from 53% in 2019. Conversely, 37% did not view the election as ‘clean’, up from 35% last year. While this shows a modest shift by the Russian people towards questioning the legitimacy of their ballot, it still holds that the majority believe Russia is a fair democracy. Often overlooked by outside observers, this highlights the misperceptions foreigners have of the Russian people and why Putin has remained in power for two decades.
Regarding the results, 33% say they are at least partially satisfied with the results, 28% that they are not, and another 29% showing indifference. This continues the trend of apathy in Russian politics. Compared to the degree of trust in the system, we see that a significant proportion of the population do not really care much about electoral results. A strange disconnect, but one that also explains the need for the Russian government to try to enact policies to drive up turnout: for such apathy can easily turn into anti-government sentiment under the wrong conditions. The Kremlin has no issue having Russians buy into institutions as functional, yet it finds problems having people buy into the concept of legitimate & justified political rule resulting from them. For Vladimir Putin, after 20 years in power, it is a hard circle to square.
Finally, we come onto a rather novel approach to viewing Russian politics: the view of the Russian people towards various prominent individuals within the body politic. In this specific case, we see how Russian voters would react to an endorsement of a local candidate by the President Vladimir Putin and opposition activist Aleksey Navalny (bearing in mind this survey was conducted before the recent protests over his rearrest). An endorsement from Putin appears to carry little weight, with 68% saying their attitude would not change, and only 17% saying it would improve and 10% saying it would worsen. Much the same goes for Navalny, although the reaction to his endorsement is slightly more negative: 23% say it would worsen their opinion, 11% improve, and 61% it would not matter. It appears that even major figures have little impact on local politics in Russia, perhaps showing the divide between the relatively popular national government and the growingly unpopular regional governments of the United Russia party.
As always, polling in Russia should be taken with a pinch of salt: Russia is an ‘informational autocracy’, where news and media is heavily regulated informally by the governing regime. Yet this set of data gives us an interesting insight into how the Russian people view their own democracy, a viewpoint often disregarded when talking about the country.