Russian liberals are celebrating the relative success of the Communist Party and other Kremlin-friendly quasi-opposition parties in the elections to the Moscow city council on Sunday as an almost revolutionary breakthrough — but it takes some unpacking to explain why. Candidates from these parties gained around 20 out of 45 seats in the council; meanwhile the ruling United Russia party, which supports Russian President Vladimir Putin, only just retained a majority, losing about 13 seats in the city council (from the current 38 down to just 25).
But the Communists & co would be fooling themselves if they credited this victory to themselves. The real winner is Smart Voting — an electoral strategy promoted by the indisputable leader of the Russian liberal opposition, Alexei Navalny. Smart Voting essentially asked voters in the Moscow election to back anyone who might be able to defeat a United Russia candidate. The strategy was based on the fact that United Russia candidates tend to win elections with just 30-35% of the votes, while the majority of votes are scattered among candidates.
Smart Voting helped draw away from pro-government parties toward the Communist Party and others who don’t make up the traditional liberal opposition. (Such parties are still largely aligned with the government.) But the Smart Voting strategy wouldn’t have been necessary, had the candidates nominated by Team Navalny and its liberal allies been allowed to run against Kremlin candidates. Earlier this summer, these opposition figures overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles designed to prevent anyone unapproved by the Kremlin from participating in the election. But electoral commissions managed to find just enough highly dubious technical “errors” (as simple as avenue abbreviated to Ave.) in the lists of voter signatures collected in their support to disqualify them at the last stage of registration. At least some of these candidates would have easily crushed Kremlin nominees, according to polls.
The Kremlin’s stubborn refusal to let its opponents run even in a local election sparked a major wave of protests in the Russian capital, which continued almost every weekend throughout July and August and resulted in brutal clampdowns, mass arrests (over a thousand people in a single day, on two occasions) and surreal charges brought against some of the participants. One of them faced a prison sentence for throwing a paper cup at the police, though he was eventually released. But in the end, Smart Voting helped the activists win a small victory — by showing that Putin can be undermined. “We can say clearly that in Moscow this result is a triumph for Smart Voting,” Navalny reportedly said, as the results were released.
To understand how we got here, it helps to look at the past. This summer’s events often felt like a remake of Bolotnaya Square protests of 2011 and 2012. Also sparked by a rigged election, that wave of unrest precipitated a dramatic political cycle which saw Putin embark on military expeditions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as meddle in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
While the Soviet Union was — at least in theory — a dictatorship of the proletariat, Putin’s Russia is truly a spin doctor dictatorship. Having grown out of the weak democracy of the 1990s, this increasingly authoritarian regime is obsessed with propping up a genuinely high popularity rating of its leader, thus ensuring the regime’s perceived legitimacy. This is achieved by the means of the latest political technology imported from the West as well as incessant propaganda, which has infinitely more in common with Fox News infotainment than Soviet TV.
For Putin to maintain his grip on power, ensuring the loyalty of business and security elites, his popularity ratings must be exceptionally high. Back in 2012, they were sliding. But the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine helped Putin to outsource his domestic conflict to a neighboring country by showing Russians what might happen to them if they chose to rebel. For the next six years, grotesquely exaggerated or outright fake horror stories from Ukraine formed the bulk of Russian television news, contrasting sharply with highly glossed over domestic stories.
When Putin annexed Crimea on the grounds of protecting the peninsula’s Russian-speaking majority from Ukrainian nationalists (pictured as bloodthirsty neo-nazis by Russian TV), his ratings soared to a whopping 89%. The annexation demoralized and split the opposition, giving Putin a much needed breather.
The logic of that drastic move triggered a dramatic chain of events. To ensure returning Crimea to Ukraine was off the table, the Kremlin fomented a conflict in the eastern region of Donbas. To shift the West’s focus from Ukraine and create additional leverage on the U.S. and its allies, Moscow successfully intervened in Syria, rescuing Assad’s regime from downfall. And to deter the U.S. from meddling in Russian internal politics the way it did in Ukraine — at least from Kremlin’s point of view — it attempted to attack the U.S. electoral system, achieving perhaps a more dramatic result than it ever envisaged.
All of that was supposed to showcase Russia’s newly acquired assertiveness and vigor, to its own citizens more than anyone else. It worked that way for some years. But today Putin is back to square one. His popularity ratings are down to the levels they were in 2011, while the capital is once again engulfed in mass protests. Except this time they are manned by a much younger crowd, many of whom remember nothing before Putin’s Russia, and led by an entirely organic opposition which — thanks to Putin’s own draconian legislation on “foreign agents” — is reliant neither on Western funding nor endorsement.
In fact, it is even worse for the Kremlin than 2011, when the liberals made up little more than a dissenting minority. A Levada Center poll published on Aug/ 6 showed that a relative majority of Muscovites supported the protests (37% in favor, versus 27% against). A nationwide poll released by the Levada Center on Sept. 3 showed that a majority of Russians (58%) don’t believe the government propaganda line about Moscow protests being fomented by the West. A relative majority of Russians also say that the clampdown on the protests was exceedingly heavy-handed (41% versus 32%).
The trajectory of public opinion quite clearly points towards Putin’s eventual decline. His main problem is there is no second Crimea in sight. No other foreign policy adventure can consolidate Russians in the same way as this chunk of subtropical paradise which has a clear pro-Russian majority and which evoked a major sense of historical injustice ever since the collapse of the USSR. People are now squarely focused on stagnating economy, rampant corruption, and Russia’s international isolation. And soon, more and more will set their sights on the figure of the lame duck leader who will face fierce resistance should he decide to somehow prolong his stay in the Kremlin when his final constitutional term runs out in 2024.