Stable and healthy have never really been words that are associated with Russian politics. It was thus no great surprise when the results of the September 17 to September 19 Russian general election left United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party, with a two-thirds majority in the Russian State Duma, the federation’s lower legislative chamber. Putin has been in power since before the onset of the twenty-first century and has recently poisoned and subsequently arrested his primary opposition, Alexei Navalny. In light of such political strong-arming, that United Russia claimed some sort of majority in the Duma was all but inevitable. However, as mountains of fraud allegations pile up against United Russia and the Kremlin, the results of the 2021 Russian general elections leave Putin’s power more in question than it has ever been in the last two decades.
Social media in Russia holds very little regard for Putin and his government. As the election came to its predictable close, videos of ballot stuffing and people being physically ripped from voting booths circulated like wildfire. This backlash echoed the widespread protesting after Navalny’s arrest: organized online and tired of never having known a different government, thousands of young people flocked to the streets in the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many were arrested and beaten. Videos of governmental crackdown served only to invigorate more protesting, showing the signs of a government in peril.
As a rule, one can take very little stock in the published results of Russian elections. In many ways, though, Putin’s most effective tactic has been in preventing any candidate arising that could even pretend to challenge him. There was no opposition to Putin—until the arrival of Alexei Navalny and his grassroots movement to expose corruption in the Russian government. Once again, Putin did his best to suppress this movement, labelling Navalny’s organization as “extremist” and outlawing any of Navalny’s allies from running or even campaigning in the elections. But Putin turned to more outlandish tactics as well. New for the 2021 elections came a Kremlin-controlled online voting platform which would frequently “crash” and “malfunction,” preventing people from voting. For those who could afford to wait at a ballot box or employees of companies like VTB Bank—which required its employees to vote online—their votes were invalidated. Though the Russian interior ministry denies detecting any trace of interference, Russian analyst Sergei Shpilkin predicts that only around 33 percent of the voters in the electorate actually voted for United Russia candidates, where polls say that 50 percent of the votes went to the party. This would seem to be bad news for Putin, who has always relied on having no discernable opposition rather than directly fixing election results.
Navalny’s continuing role as a symbol for the resistance is a persistent thorn in Putin’s side. Instead of being dead, which is the fate that likely awaited him after he was poisoned twice with the nerve agent Novichok by Kremlin agents, Navalny continues to exert influence from behind the bars of his jail cell. On the day of his politically-motivated arrest, Navalny and his collaborators released a damning investigative report about the multi-billion dollar compound Putin had built with taxpayer dollars on the Black Sea. During the elections, Navalny pushed an initiative called “Smart Voting” which would encourage voters to vote for whoever would be the most likely option to beat United Russia. Predictably, Smart Voting was quickly shut down by the Kremlin.
Because of Navalny’s imprisonment, the only official primary opponent to the Putin administration was the Communist Party, which came in second in the general election with 19 percent of the votes, a six percent improvement over the party’s performance in 2016. In the wake of the election, the Communist Party quickly mobilized to contest the election results, filing multiple lawsuits against the Russian government on accusations of fraud and staging protests against Kremlin interference. Retribution from the Kremlin was swift: many high-profile communist leaders have since been jailed for their roles in protests, and busses of riot police have been circulating around Moscow and other large cities, seeking to prevent the chaotic rioting which followed in the aftermath of last year’s Belarussian elections.
Still, Putin’s grip looks tenuous at best—at least relative to the ironclad hand with which he has ruled for so long. For the first time, a near majority of Russian youths responded in polls that the country was going in the wrong direction, and only a quarter of Russians trust Putin according to various reports. Without a solidified opposition and in the face of such rampant fraud, it will be hard to mobilize against the Kremlin, but Russia’s longest-serving dictator since Stalin is beginning to feel the pressure.
By: Sebastian Lemberger