In Russia, All Politics Is Local

Ahead of this weekend’s elections, the biggest threat to Putin is not a nationwide uprising—it is a series of smaller protests over deeply felt local concerns.

People carry a banner reading "Return Furgal for Us" during an unauthorized rally in support of governor Sergei Furgal in the Russian far eastern city of Khabarovsk on Aug. 8.
People carry a banner reading "Return Furgal for Us" during an unauthorized rally in support of governor Sergei Furgal in the Russian far eastern city of Khabarovsk on Aug. 8. Aleksandr Yanyshev/AFP/Getty Images

In a Washington Post op-ed last month, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition figure, wrote that ongoing protests in the country’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk showed that “Russian politics is becoming truly national.”

But there’s another way of looking at the same events. If anything, the protests show that Russian politics are becoming truly local, driven by long-standing anger over corrupt and feckless governance in a country the size of a continent, where loyalty to Moscow still trumps results for citizens. The politically motivated arrest of the Khabarovsk region’s governor, the poisoning of activist Alexei Navalny in the Siberian city of Tomsk during his investigation into corrupt local government officials, and a surge in regional and local electoral manipulation by the Kremlin’s allies suggest that President Vladimir Putin recognizes that the regions are spinning out of control. But the more the Kremlin tries to control them with brute force, the more dangerous every local loss becomes for Putin’s power.

The concerns of Russia’s citizens in the regions—long neglected—are providing ample space for the opposition to gain a foothold. Local elections slated for Sept. 13 will be a major test of the fragile dynamic Putin has created.

On July 9, Sergei Furgal, the locally popular “people’s governor” of the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk Krai, was arrested by the authorities on charges of involvement in a series of murders dating back to the mid-2000s. His arrest sparked an immediate backlash by the region’s outraged citizens. In his two years in power, Furgal had gained a strong following in the region, which lies along the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean, some 3,800 kilometers from Moscow. Particularly lauded were his efforts to address local issues, ranging from school lunches and housing to overfishing.

Even though Furgal had defeated a Kremlin-backed candidate in 2018, he was hardly a radical oppositionist: His party, the Liberal Democratic Party, is a member of the loyal opposition, content to sit in the national State Duma in Moscow and play the part of dissenters without actually challenging Putin’s rule. Furgal’s sin appeared to be acting as a “normal politician,” one who seeks to win reelection by implementing policies viewed positively by their constituents.

But in creating a constituency, Furgal undermined the public’s fealty to Putin and his allies; the governor’s competence laid bare the failures of the former Kremlin-aligned regional administration, subsequently bringing electoral losses to Putin’s allies in the regional assembly. He was likely removed to stop the effect from snowballing. His arrest in July sparked spontaneous protests in Khabarovsk that have now lasted for two months and spread throughout Russia’s vast territory, from Moscow to Vladivostok.

A primary driver of the unrest all over Russia is local dissatisfaction about local issues. True, Russians have been unhappy for years, but with the economy stagnant and the coronavirus pandemic grinding on, the discontent in the regions this time is a serious concern for the Kremlin.

As others have pointed out, the opposition has a number of paths to regional and municipal offices in the upcoming elections. The vote in the Irkutsk region is particularly worthy of attention given the December 2019 resignation of the Communist Party governor, Sergei Levchenko, under apparent pressure from the federal government. Moscow appointed as acting governor Igor Kobzev, a Kremlin loyalist with no ties to the region he governs. Since he assumed power, Kobzev has antagonized local elites and exacerbated the region’s budgetary problems. He now faces a difficult electoral battle against a serious Communist Party contender.

Electoral upsets are also possible in the gubernatorial elections in Komi and Arkhangelsk, two isolated regions with turbulent politics. Since 2018, residents from both regions have gone out and protested against Moscow’s plans to construct a landfill for the capital’s trash near the Shiyes railway station in the Arkhangelsk region. These protests have sparked a cross-coalitional movement that will likely prove a challenge for the Kremlin’s hold on the region’s leadership. Indeed, keeping control in Komi and Arkhangelsk will be additionally difficult given both of their pro-Kremlin governors resigned earlier this year because of failures in managing both the unrest and a local COVID-19 outbreak.

The Kremlin and its allies recognize the serious threat posed by growing resentment in Russia’s regions. Golos, Russia’s foremost independent election monitor, has noted some of the more obvious recent manipulations meant to maintain the Kremlin’s control, including adding unknown candidates and candidates with duplicate names to the ballot presumably to split and spoil the opposition vote; downplaying the brand of Putin’s United Russia party, which has seen its public support decline to around 32 percent; and the revival of the “municipal filter,” a purposefully convoluted nomination process created to screen serious opposition contenders off the ballot. For example, opposition candidate Oleg Mandrykin, who had gained the support of Arkhangelsk’s protest movement, was barred from the ballot by the regional election commission for allegedly failing to collect signatures in each and every municipality in the city.

Even at the city level, officials are employing a host of authoritarian methods to prevent the opposition from winning. For instance, in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, opposition candidates face violent attacks and death threats as well as more routine inconveniences, such as the removal of campaign banners from public spaces. The Kremlin is also taking advantage of the pandemic to deploy multiday voting, which makes fraud via ballot substitution easier, and was used during the constitutional referendum earlier this year.

In the face of the Kremlin’s machinations, Russia’s opposition is also innovating to secure a win (or, at the very least, a United Russia loss). Shortly before to his poisoning, Navalny was in Novosibirsk working on an investigation that called out local lawmakers’ corruption, urging local residents to “free the Siberian capital from the invaders”—that is, to vote for opposition candidates. Some of Navalny’s allies have even suggested, according to the Novaya Gazeta that he was poisoned to “get him out of the way during the upcoming local elections.”

The biggest threat from Navalny and his allies is the encouragement of “smart voting” in elections across the country, a coordinated voting strategy that identifies and informs the public of the candidate most likely to beat the pro-Kremlin option. The opposition coalition is also urging voters to cast their ballots on the final day of the election, in hopes of making it more difficult for their ballots to be swapped out by Putin’s operatives. In short, the opposition is using whatever strategies and resources it can muster to eke out successes in a deeply unfair electoral environment.

To be sure, despite its persistence and innovation, the opposition probably won’t win many majorities or more than a handful of governorships or city council seats. The Kremlin’s reach is long and secure. But the arrest of Furgal, the poisoning of Navalny, and the rise of local protests demonstrate the Kremlin’s focus on maintaining power over addressing local concerns.

And it is the Kremlin’s intense commitment to controlling local politics that makes the upcoming elections so important. So long as the Kremlin continues to prioritize the interest of Putin’s cronies over the well-being of Russia’s people, local problems will continue to be existential threats. And as more Russians connect the dots between local problems and the Kremlin’s heavy-handed politicking, the bigger the cracks in Putin’s base of support. It is in those breaks that the opposition can carve out political space.

Mike Smeltzer is the Research Analyst for Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance from Central Europe to Eurasia.

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