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Russians tune out Vladimir Putin

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Despite the best efforts of performers, costumed mascots, and caterers outside polling stations, the turnout for the recent regional elections in Russia, particularly in Moscow, was low. The result was far from electoral defeat for President Vladimir Putin and his team. After all, the challengers allowed to run and win are themselves a key feature of the political system put in place over two decades. Nevertheless, the main election result is that Russians are starting to tune out Putin and his message.

The genius of his “managed democracy” was to update for the modern era the likely apocryphal saying of Joseph Stalin on elections that “it is not who votes that counts, but who counts the vote.” Plenty of ballot stuffing continues to take place in Russia during each election. Simply search “Russia ballot box stuffing” on YouTube if you need convincing.

But Putin realized early on that the typical 98 percent election margins of the Soviet era made those leaders a laughing stock abroad and at home. His system, by contrast, is predicated on controlling the candidates allowed to run and on ensuring that a “systemic opposition” would be on the ballot to receive protest votes. Naturally, those systemic opposition candidates would go along with the party in power once in office.

The current party in power, United Russia, is a shell of its former self. All incumbents in the recent Moscow elections from United Russia chose to run as independents rather than with the United Russia label, but the party will only control 25 seats of 50 seats. The systemic opposition parties picked up seats, as the true opposition candidates were barred from voting, a move that triggered large peaceful protests in Moscow over the summer that were met with a violent crackdown by police and prison sentences for select demonstrators. The United Russia setback was not contained to Moscow. The Liberal Democratic Party easily defeated United Russia in Khabarovsk in the far east to bolster its position there.

This might seem like mission accomplished for a managed democracy. United Russia had setbacks, but the systemic opposition served its purpose in swallowing the protest vote. The Moscow Times reports that “acting or incumbent governors in 15 regions and Saint Petersburg received between 56 percent and nearly 90 percent of the votes, with almost all the ballots counted.” Power has not shifted, and the state prevented the true opposition from running and winning a seat.

The reality is not so simple. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, long barred from running himself or placing other candidates on the ballot, came up with a novel tactic. Rather than call for a boycott of the elections, his team built a “smart voting” website and informational campaign asking citizens to choose the candidate in each race most likely to oust a United Russia candidate. Therefore, the results in Moscow are less about an upsurge of support for, say, Communist Party candidates than a clever tactic to help oust as many United Russia incumbents as possible.

The issue is not that the opposition outflanked the state in one election to little practical effect. More serious is the failure of the incumbent system to attract passionate support. Emblematic is the case of the popular Russian rapper Timati, who released a music video for his song “Moscow” that praised the mayor and trashed the protesters. It featured beautiful drone footage of the modern city skyline and landmarks. It also featured a record of nearly 1.5 million dislikes on YouTube before it was deleted.

As it turns out, Putin is a victim of his own success. He and his team sought to build a system that would consolidate control over the entire country and instill in Russian voters a sense of apathy about the possibility of change and cynicism about politics. Russian voters now have both apathy and cynicism in abundance. In years past, this would not have posed a challenge for the authorities. They could count on the opposition to exhaust themselves fighting the bureaucracy and each other.

That script flipped this summer with the “smart voting” campaign. The political energy and passion now resides in the opposition. Navalny spent years revealing corruption with clever videos featuring drone footage of clandestine castles and coastal estates owned by the elite. Clearly, his drones have defeated those of Timati. The state will keep up the pressure. Police forces are raiding the foundation offices of Navalny across the country. But it is uncertain how or whether Putin will get his voters to tune back in after working so hard to convince them to tune out of politics.

Joseph Dresen is a senior program associate with the Kennan Institute for Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Tags Election Government International Moscow Politics Russia Vladimir Putin

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