Russians Don’t Like the Kremlin’s Election Interference Either

In one gubernatorial race, a scandal might be a sign of Putin’s decline.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waits to greet the South Korean prime minister ahead of their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 12. (Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin waits to greet the South Korean prime minister ahead of their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 12. (Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images)

Election results in Russia are rarely surprising—the candidate who has the backing of President Vladimir Putin generally wins.

But a gubernatorial runoff in the country’s Far East has captured the attention of Russians for its unexpected turns, including an astonishing surge by the opposition candidate from the Communist Party and now a possible annulment of the results.

In the Russian media, the election is being described as one of the country’s most scandalous in years. Its results suggest that Putin—his popularity already in decline over a pension reform plan—might be losing some of his political muscle across the country.

“At a minimum, it is a wake-up call and, at maximum, a genuine shock to the political system,” said William Pomeranz, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

Putin’s preferred candidate, Andrei Tarasenko, won the first round of the gubernatorial race this month in the Primorye region—which includes Vladivostok—with nearly 47 percent of the vote. His rival from the Communist Party, Andrei Ishchenko, received about 25 percent.

But since neither candidate crossed the 50 percent threshold, a second round was called for a week later. In the interim, Tarasenko picked up an endorsement from Putin himself while the Russian president was visiting Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum.

When the residents of the region went back to the ballot booths on Sept. 16, the gap between the two candidates narrowed significantly—the endorsement notwithstanding. When 95 percent of the votes were counted, Ishchenko held a nearly 6 percent lead over Tarasenko.

“Putin’s support has ceased to be a magic wand,” said Vitaly Kovin of Golos, an independent Russian election monitoring group.

In a last-minute turnaround, Tarasenko—Putin’s candidate—pulled ahead and went on to win the election by a 1 percent margin. But Golos said massive falsifications had taken place.

“The result was really unexpected for everyone. Otherwise the falsifications would not have been so crude and last minute,” Kovin said.

On Wednesday, Ella Pamfilova, the chair of Russia’s Central Election Commission, recommended that the results be annulled and a new round of voting be held. The regional election commission, which makes the final decision, is expected to adopt Pamfilova’s recommendations.

If that’s the case, it would be the first time since 1996 that a runoff vote has been annulled, according to Russian media reports.

In the meantime, each side has accused the other of cheating. Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, said he had documentary evidence of fraud and called for a national protest.

Accusations of election irregularities are not unusual in Russia. But this incident comes at an especially sensitive time in the country’s politics. Approval ratings for both Putin and the government have fallen sharply since June, when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 60 for women.

The widely unpopular proposals were seen as undermining the social contract that has come to define Putin’s years in power: moderate stability and prosperity in exchange for acceptance of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

The pension reform prompted protests across the country. This month, authorities arrested more than 800 people protesting on election day in towns and cities throughout Russia.

Voters took their frustrations out at the polls, and although Kremlin-aligned candidates won most of the available seats, there were some notable setbacks.

Gubernatorial runoff votes are still to be held in three other regions, and these will now be closely watched.

“If it happens in one region, it’s not a big deal at all. But if it happens in four regions, what does Putin do?” said Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute. “Do these elections symbolize the fact that politics is returning?”

Nikolai Mironov, the head of the Russia-based Center for Economic and Political Reforms, said a nascent opposition is developing in the Russian regions.

“The regions of Russia are beginning to move towards a bipartisanship or even possibly a multiparty system,” Mironov said.

“I think that the result of all this will be political reforms,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack