Dispatch

The Kremlin’s Don’t-Get-Out-the-Vote Campaign

Russia isn’t cracking heads ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary vote—just boring people away from the polls.

By , a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union.
A man walks past a United Russia party campaign poster in Moscow.
With Russian elections looming, a man walks past a United Russia party campaign poster reading "Together with the country, together with Moscow, together with the United Russia" in Moscow on Sept. 9. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

MOSCOW—Russia this weekend kicks off elections for parliament and legislative bodies nationwide, the capstone to a season of political crackdowns and punitive legislation that have drastically narrowed the space for opposition and left the country careening toward full-blown authoritarianism.

But voters are hardly clamoring to cast ballots in a vote that occurs only once every five years—and that some believe may soon be a relic of the past. Instead, signs of the coming election are so scant the authorities seem to be doing their utmost to ensure it passes unnoticed. Amid stagnating real wages and plunging popular support for the ruling party, United Russia, they are betting on strong turnout from a select contingent of society: members of the military and law enforcement, retirees who watch government-controlled TV, and the vast population of state workers invested in a continuation of the status quo. Everyone else, the message goes, can stay home.

“They’re ‘drying’ the turnout. If you make the elections boring, and limit discussion, people will think there is no agenda and nothing to decide, and their vote won’t change anything,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “And this is very convenient for the Kremlin.”

MOSCOW—Russia this weekend kicks off elections for parliament and legislative bodies nationwide, the capstone to a season of political crackdowns and punitive legislation that have drastically narrowed the space for opposition and left the country careening toward full-blown authoritarianism.

But voters are hardly clamoring to cast ballots in a vote that occurs only once every five years—and that some believe may soon be a relic of the past. Instead, signs of the coming election are so scant the authorities seem to be doing their utmost to ensure it passes unnoticed. Amid stagnating real wages and plunging popular support for the ruling party, United Russia, they are betting on strong turnout from a select contingent of society: members of the military and law enforcement, retirees who watch government-controlled TV, and the vast population of state workers invested in a continuation of the status quo. Everyone else, the message goes, can stay home.

“They’re ‘drying’ the turnout. If you make the elections boring, and limit discussion, people will think there is no agenda and nothing to decide, and their vote won’t change anything,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “And this is very convenient for the Kremlin.”

It also belies a dangerous trend. Russians’ distrust toward their leaders and institutions has spiked, accelerating social changes years in the making. There’s anger over corruption, to which the Kremlin has largely closed its eyes in exchange for loyalty from officials. Unemployment and paltry state support for millions whose livelihoods were ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic crisis fueled a nationwide protest wave in January. But, for now at least, apathy and disillusionment appear to be the go-to response.

Russia is hardly known for nail-biter elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has criticized successive elections held since Vladimir Putin first became president in 2000, and political competition is severely limited. This year, the OSCE chose not to even send a delegation, citing Russia’s decision to drastically limit the delegation’s size due to the ongoing pandemic.

But elections have traditionally been key for Russia to maintain at least an external facade of pluralism and democracy. And it is that facade that is now essentially being shattered. 

In June 2020, a dubious referendum promoted personally by Putin reset his presidential term limits and paved the way for him to potentially rule through 2036. Two months later, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok during a trip to Siberia. After months recovering from its effects in Germany, he returned and was immediately jailed in Russia. From behind bars, he called on Russians to rise up against their government.

The rallies that followed precipitated a sweeping crackdown on opposition that led to the decimation of the political network that Navalny had spent years nurturing and expanding throughout the country. Dozens of prominent activists, including every one of his top aides, fled Russia. Leading investigative journalism outlets have been branded “foreign agents,” punished for exposing state corruption. Proekt, among the hardest-hitting, was banned outright.

Against this backdrop, the Kremlin looked to the upcoming election as a test of the Potemkin democracy it has built and defended over the past two decades. In 2011, parliamentary elections marred by widespread evidence of fraud sparked huge anti-government protests in Moscow. In Russia’s close ally Belarus, a rigged vote last summer brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets and came close to toppling the ex-Soviet state’s dictator of over 25 years, Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Putin’s spin doctors worked painstakingly in recent months to eliminate the conditions for a repeat of either. Electronic voting was introduced and spread out over three days, making the election harder to monitor; debates on state TV were shunted to nighttime slots; state workers were lavished with payouts to win their support; and opposition politicians who hadn’t fled were summarily barred from contesting the upcoming vote, with officials citing their affiliation to Navalny’s movement and other groups recently designated as enemies of the state. 

“What happened in Belarus definitely turbocharged the Kremlin’s approach. It demonstrated the risks of wholesale rigging,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “It’s about getting a certain amount of targeted repression in before the election so that hopefully you have to do the least amount necessary of actually falsifying the count.”

That wave of repression has helped purge the electoral field of Kremlin opponents and silence the Navalny campaigners whose grassroots activism was starting to bear fruit. But the problem is that the government’s target audience—the sizable demographic that is loyal to the Kremlin or economically dependent on it—feels so disenchanted that it has lost interest in politics, too. To selectively raise turnout, the authorities have looked further afield, including to the Moscow-backed states of eastern Ukraine. The so-called passportization campaign in areas occupied by pro-Russian separatists has yielded some 600,000 new citizens and sparked angry protests from Kyiv. United Russia leader Andrei Turchak has visited those territories twice to court the newly eligible voters, and the separatist authorities have chartered more than 800 buses and 12 trains to shuttle them to Russia’s Rostov region, where extra polling stations will open to process the extra votes.

All of this has done little to salvage the dismal ratings of Putin’s party. But rather than root-and-branch reform, the Kremlin has opted for cosmetic changes. Weary Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was roped in as a new face of United Russia, plastered over billboards in the provinces. So was Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, who is often viewed as a possible successor to Putin.

Some vocal Putin critics nevertheless slipped through the net. In the Krasnodar region of south Russia, longtime activist Andrei Pivovarov was permitted to run despite languishing in a local jail cell since he was yanked off a Warsaw-bound flight in May and arrested for his involvement with Open Russia, an activist group funded by the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In one St. Petersburg district, aspiring lawmaker Boris Vishnevsky found himself campaigning in a hall of mirrors. His two rivals—one an official linked to United Russia, the other a used car salesman—both changed their names to Boris Vishnevsky and even photoshopped their official headshots in a bid to siphon votes away from the inveterate Kremlin critic.

“No one has seen or heard them since they made their candidacies public,” Vishnevsky said. “Their goal is not to meet voters or distribute leaflets. Their singular goal is for voters to confuse me with one of them.”

Ultimately, Galeotti said, it’s not the brutal crackdown and the consecutive waves of arrest that will safeguard an election victory for the Kremlin. It’s the gradual but overwhelming control it has seized over the narrative through which Russians see both their leaders and the activists who oppose them. And if all goes smoothly for the Kremlin, the voters with informed opinions about what’s unfolding will throw up their hands and stay home.

“What the Kremlin has demonstrated again is that its real skill is not about deploying the National Guard” to quash protests, Galeotti said. “Its real skill is managing to shape the terms of the national debate, and giving this sense that change is either impossible or unwelcome. That, really, is its most significant triumph.”

Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and RFE/RL.

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