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21 September 2021

Depression without protest: the aftermath of Russia’s 2021 election

The introduction of mysterious online voting results is further undermining democratic freedoms.

By Felix Light

When polls closed on Sunday night (19 September), it fleetingly appeared as if United Russia – the Kremlin’s party of power, which has won every nationwide election it has ever entered – might be in for a tough time.

Early results from parts of the far east and Siberia showed United Russia falling behind a rejuvenated Communist Party. Meanwhile, in opposition-leaning Moscow, candidates endorsed by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s tactical voting system took early leads.

But when, after a mysterious 14-hour delay, the two million votes cast as part of an online voting trial scheme were added to those cast at traditional polling stations, the above results were turned upside down.

The trial, conducted only in Moscow and a handful of other regions, saw the capital return a clean sweep of pro-Kremlin candidates – even as United Russia continued to lose ground in traditionally pro-Putin areas of the country. Nationwide, the ruling party, which had been polling at under 30 per cent for months, wound up with half of all votes cast and a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

“I know that this result is impossible,” wrote Mikhail Lobanov, a Moscow State University maths professor and Communist Party candidate of his opposition-inclined district’s final tally. He had posted a large initial lead over state TV presenter Yevgeny Popov, but that melted away once the e-voting results turned the tables. “Electronic voting gave Popov a fake 20,000 margin.”

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It had been a muted campaign. The Kremlin, confident in its ability to get loyalist constituencies like pensioners and state sector workers to the polls, seemed at times to be actively discouraging anyone else from taking an interest in the election. On state TV, debates aired at 7.35am, and in-person campaigning vanished amid Covid restrictions. And with polls showing political apathy at a 17-year high on the eve of election day, the strategy seemed to have worked. 

Meanwhile, the opposition was in little condition to put up a fight, broken as it is by the repression and arrests that followed the winter protests against Navalny’s jailing, and disoriented by an unprecedented assault on independent media and civil society organisations – the bulk of which are now designated “foreign agents”. Even before Google and Apple wiped Navalny’s smart voting app from their platforms under threat of criminal prosecution, the utter failure of the Navalny protests sent anti-Kremlin Russians into a “state of political depression”, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told me.

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A few nights before polls opened, I witnessed this depression for myself at a rally for the leading opposition candidate in Moscow’s wealthy, anti-Kremlin centre. At the event, held in a quiet park just off the New Arbat shopping thoroughfare, both campaign staffers and empty chairs outnumbered actual voters, of whom there were no more than ten. The candidate – a burly, weather-beaten veteran of the Yeltsin-era Duma who would go on to receive an endorsement from Navalny – insisted on addressing the intimate gathering using a loudhailer. “I’m using this thing,” he said at one point, averting his eyes sheepishly, “just in case someone hears and decides to come over.” 

Nor was a sense of political inertia restricted to the opposition. Even among Putin loyalists, cynicism, apathy and the pervasive sense that elections are rigged had eaten away at United Russia’s support. Sergei Shpilkin, a physicist who has become a cult opposition hero for his dissections of Russian electoral fraud, has written that, absent falsification, national turnout might have been as low as 38 per cent, rather than the 52 per cent claimed by the electoral commission. According to Shpilkin, United Russia’s vote share may have been as low as 33 per cent, an unthinkable score for the party of power.

On the night after the election, a handful of defeated communist candidates, who had led in the polls until the online votes were added, gathered to “discuss the election results” in the pouring rain and unseasonable cold of Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a traditional protest venue. But one thing was clear: this was not the start of a new wave of protest.

Even as the gathered supporters shouted the name of Navalny, whose slogans are now regularly parroted by a Communist Party more militant than it has been in years, it was clear they were only blowing off steam. With at most 400 people having shown up, the police who had cordoned off the square didn’t even bother to disperse them, and the protest dwindled without incident.

Russia today is a very different country from the one it was in 2011, when falsification of that year’s Duma election sparked the biggest wave of protest since the end of the Soviet Union. A decade of emigration and repression have taken their toll, while the risks – legal and physical – of taking to the street are simply too high and the rewards too non-existent to tempt people out.

Even so, absence of widespread protest does not mean that the coast is entirely clear for the Kremlin. Throughout the campaign, it appeared again and again as though the government and its electorate were talking at cross-purposes to one another. 

When United Russia announced Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu – two of the only government officials apart from Vladimir Putin to enjoy genuine popular followings – as its lead candidates, it seemed a bid to reproduce the formula that had worked so well at the last Duma elections in 2016. United Russia would win another two-thirds majority, the theory went, on its record as the defender of national greatness and foreign policy success. In the event, however, many voters seemed concerned above all with sliding incomes, rising prices and the 2018 pension reform that saw United Russia’s polling halve overnight.

The opposition Communist Party took nearly 20 per cent of the 2021 vote nationwide (a result heavily concentrated in ordinarily pro-Putin regions where electronic voting had not yet been rolled out). That achievement indicates some Russians’ desire for a materially-focused political alternative, even if not to take to the streets in support of it.

This may have been their last chance to do so. Though Russian elections have rarely been entirely free or fair, they have never been entirely fake either. Online voting – which Russia’s electoral commission has said will be expanded on a nationwide basis in future – could jeopardise that, allowing the authorities to dump enormous troves of unverifiable, unauditable votes on elections that might otherwise go against the Kremlin.

Among Russia’s beleaguered opposition, licking their wounds from yet another loss, there is a broad worry that their time is up. “I think these are probably Russia’s last elections for the time being,” Kirill Goncharov, a liberal oppositionist soundly defeated in his Moscow district, told me before polls had even opened.

As Russia’s elections drift ever further into cyberspace, and away from actual voters, such fears may yet be proved right.

[See also: How I was expelled from Russia]