Although they have gotten little attention in the Western press, the regional elections taking place throughout Russia on October 14 may be Vladimir Putin’s greatest test since his return to the presidency last spring. With voters in seventy-three of Russia’s eighty-three regions going to the polls less than a year after the Kremlin faced allegations of widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, the looming question for Putin is whether he can ensure a favorable outcome without overt manipulation. For the opposition, a primary concern is whether their candidates will even be on the ballot.
There are at least a few hopeful cases. Take the mayoral race in Khimki, a city of around 200,000 just north of Moscow. It has attracted particular attention because of a spirited campaign by environmental activist Evgeniya Chirikova, who is running as an independent. Chirikova, an attractive, thirty-five-year-old mother of two, rose to national prominence a few years ago when she took on Russian authorities in a battle to stop the construction of a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg that would destroy parts of the Khimki Forest. She placed third in a previous mayoral election in 2009, but now she is backed by political activists, cultural figures, and human rights defenders from all over Russia—including the famed blogger Alexei Navalny.
But despite all the publicity, Chirikova is confronting a large challenge because her main rival, interim mayor Oleg Shakhov—although until recently little known in Khimki—has the firm backing of the Kremlin elite. Indeed, thanks to new measures designed to make it difficult for opposition candidates to compete fairly for elections, the Kremlin’s favored candidates are likely winners in the overwhelming majority of races. (Putin, meanwhile, has also not hesitated to ban USAID, which helped fund the independent election monitor Golos. Golos still plans to have observers at polling places on October 14, but USAID’s departure was clearly a blow.)
The new measures are particularly ominous because election reforms introduced after last year’s protests—the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union—were supposed to bring greater democracy to the election process. In particular, requirements for registering political parties were eased: parties need to produce only 500 names instead of the 40,000 required in the past. More importantly, a new law restored the direct election of regional governors, which Putin had scrapped in 2004 in favor of having governors appointed by the president.
But the looser registration rules resulted in a flood of new parties that have little in the way of concrete platforms. These parties have sponsored obscure candidates with no obvious qualifications—so-called spoilers—whose sole purpose is apparently to take away votes from the candidates of legitimate opposition parties.
Meanwhile, the new law on elections for governors has introduced a requirement for getting on the ballot—something called the “municipal filter”—that is profoundly anti-democratic. In order to stand for election, candidates must submit the signatures of up to 10 percent of municipal legislators, most of whom are heavily influenced by the authorities in Moscow. This has prevented serious opposition candidates from running in the five scheduled gubernatorial races—in the regions of Belgorod, Amur, Novgorod, Bryansk, and Ryazan—where the favored candidates represent the Kremlin-sponsored United Russia Party.
In the Ryazan region (where United Russia got less than 40 percent of the votes in the December Duma elections) the nominee from the liberal party Yabloko, Roman Sivtsev, could not get enough signatures for a place on the ballot because the acting governor, Oleg Kovalev, had signed up well over a thousand legislators, many more than were needed, and legislators can only support one candidate. In another case, a promising, seemingly independent candidate, Oleg Morozov, managed to get on the ballot in Ryazan, but was apparently pressured by Moscow into dropping out of the race. This leaves only one real challenger to Kovalev, sixty-five-year-old Communist Vladimir Fedotkin.
The only real possibility for a gubernatorial upset is in Bryansk, where last Friday a court banned the governor, Nikolai Denin, a member of United Russia, from the ballot because of falsified signatures. Denin has appealed the decision to the Russian Supreme Court, however, and could well see a ruling in his favor. In any case, the Kremlin replaced numerous governors by appointment before June 1, when the new election law went into force; these appointees will not face elections until their terms expire in four to five years.
The legislative races offer a slightly different picture. Although United Russia candidates (or spoilers running either as independents or for unviable parties) predominate, challengers to the Kremlin have emerged on ballots. In Saratov, where forty-five seats are being contested for the regional Duma, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a democratic oppositionist and a leader of the RPR-Parnas Party, is running, along with prominent businessman Arkady Evstaf’ev, from the same party. (Ryzhkov is campaigning simultaneously for a seat on the municipal legislature in the city of Barnaul, in southwestern Siberia.) RPR-Parnas, which is led by Ryzhkov, along with outspoken Putin critics Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Vladimir Milov, managed to get officially registered as a party only this past summer. The upcoming elections will be its first test at the ballot box.
There is also a greater likelihood of upsets for the Kremlin in mayoral races. In March and April of this year, several oppositionists gained surprise victories against pro-Moscow candidates for mayor. Among them was Yevgeniy Urlashov, who trounced the incumbent mayor of the city of Iaroslavl by getting 70 percent of the vote.
In Khimki, meanwhile, the outcome seems to be in doubt. Although voters in general sympathize with the initiative to save Khimki Forest, Evgeniya Chirikova’s support has been diluted by a significant number of “spoiler” candidates, including Oleg Mitvol, of the so-called Green Alliance Party. A poll conducted by Ekho Moskvy Radio in early September found that Chirikova was favored by 32 percent of voters, with only 14 percent supporting Shakhov. But a more recent poll by the respected Levada Center showed Shakhov with 44 percent of the vote and Chirikova in third place with only 11 percent (after Mitvol with 12 percent). Clearly, Shakhov’s incumbency and his ability to use all the state’s resources, particularly the media, to promote his candidacy have paid off. But as one Chirikova campaigner pointed out: “Many voters make their decisions in the last week, or even at the polling places.”
That nationally prominent democratic oppositionists put great store in the Khimki and other local elections suggests a broadening strategy on their part. Instead of emphasizing street protests in Moscow and other large cities, they are embracing grass-roots politics. As political expert and historian Vladimir Kara Murza put it:
It is, indeed, unwise to underestimate the importance of the localities. The peaceful dismantling of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime began with his opponents’ victories in the 1996 municipal elections and the ensuing protests against attempted fraud. Four years later, the Serbian opposition achieved full victory.
As part of a plan to gain public legitimacy and consolidate the protest movement, opposition leaders have scheduled the direct election on the Internet of a so-called Coordinating Council on October 21. They see this online election as a parallel to the local and regional elections and hope that anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 voters will participate. For its supporters, the council is supposed to be a way to narrow the gap between those running the opposition movement and the millions of citizens who are dissatisfied with the Putin regime because of rampant official corruption, deteriorating living standards, and declines in education and healthcare, as well as with the Kremlin’s dominance of the political process.
But prominent democrats, including Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, fear the Coordinating Council will cause a split in the ranks of protestors. As Ryzhkov expressed it:
Instead of discussing what is important, it is being proposed to discuss who is important. And, as we know from Russia’s history, when this question begins to be asked, everything collapses.
Although concerns were raised at the time, many observers of the March presidential contest concluded that, unlike in the December Duma elections, there was not large-scale fraud. However, a new study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, using a statistical model that looks for areas of unusually high turnout, suggests there may in fact have been widespread manipulation of votes. This calls into question Putin’s alleged majority—and makes it harder to discount the possibility that the Kremlin might interfere at the polls again in the future.
Whatever the outcome of the October 14 elections, dissatisfaction with the Putin regime seems likely to grow. In a Levada poll conducted in August, only 37 percent expressed confidence in the president, and only 41 percent felt the country was moving in the right direction. Paradoxically, those same respondents gave Putin an approval rating of 63 percent. But as Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Center explained this is because, for the moment, people see no alternative: “Putin’s popularity shouldn’t be seen as a rating that compares him to others, because there are no others.” This situation may change, especially if more people like Evgeniya Chirikova, whose program now embraces a range of democratic demands, emerge on the scene. As Chirikova and her followers say to their audiences: “We all live in Khimki.”