As millions of Russians go to the polls for regional elections that wrap up on Sept. 10, there is little doubt that President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, will win the vast majority of contests. But the tightly controlled vote will still be interpreted as a test of confidence for the beleaguered strongman, who in late June survived the biggest challenge to his 23 years in power during the Wagner rebellion.
Pressure has been building up on the Kremlin since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has upended the Russian economy, not to mention causing the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers. U.S. officials have estimated that Russia’s military casualties are approaching 300,000. The war in Ukraine is also increasingly coming home to Russia, including Moscow, with at least 190 suspected drone attacks hitting the country and Russian-occupied Crimea.
In recent years, and especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country’s remaining opposition figures have largely been cowed, exiled, or jailed. Critical media have packed up or been shut down by the Kremlin, and human rights organizations have been disbanded.
There likely won’t be the surprises seen in the last round of local elections, in 2018, that saw United Russia lose four gubernatorial races. Even so, the vote remain an important moment for both Putin, who is hoping to shore up his legitimacy within Russia, and for Russia’s opposition, which is hoping to retain their last toeholds in Russian politics.
“The Kremlin is very worried about the outcome of these elections,” says Regina Smyth, a professor at Indiana University whose research focuses on Russia.
Below, what to know about the vote.
What’s at stake?
The elections will take place in about half of Russia, plus the four occupied Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia as well as Russian-annexed Crimea. Over 4,000 contests are being held for a range of positions including governors, mayors, and deputies to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.
Since Putin became President in 2000, he has increasingly stacked the electoral odds in his favor. Election rules have been changed. Increasingly stringent rules for registering candidates mean that many opposition figures are disqualified from even running for office. The opposition maintains that voter fraud is widespread. Freedom House downgraded Russia’s rating from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in 2004, a ranking the country has held continuously since then.
The Kremlin will be hoping that Russians who still have faith in the election will learn from the elections “that even when you give people a choice, Putin still wins,” says Smyth.
“Elections are very important for the regime’s legitimacy, but any scandals around it, and any thoughts that things are wrong harm this legitimacy,” says Stanislav Andreichuk, the co-chair of Golos, an independent Russian vote-monitoring organization that the Kremlin has designated as a “foreign agent." On Sept. 8, the first day of voting in Russia, Golos documented over 600 reports of voting irregularities, including vote buying, threats of violence, and blocking people from voting.
Don’t mention the war
While the invasion of Ukraine has dramatically reshaped Russia over the past 18 months, it has rarely been mentioned explicitly on the campaign trail. It is everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“The Kremlin’s party, United Russia, has advised its candidates to stop talking about the war," says Smyth. She notes that several Kremlin-backed candidates who have closely tied themselves to Russia’s war efforts have toned down their war rhetoric. For example, Vitaly Khotsenko, the former Prime Minister of the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk who is running as an incumbent for the governorship of Omsk, has largely exchanged extolling the war for talking about education and other local issues.
But experts say that when the war is inextricably tied to some of Russia’s biggest problems, it is hard to avoid altogether. According to Andras Toth-Czifra, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, veterans issues have been one of the few ways in which the war comes up explicitly.
“In a country where you cannot call a war a war, it’s difficult to talk about it in a political campaign,” says Toth-Czifra.
Andreichuk says that politicians who support the war have little to gain by talking about the country’s most divisive issue, while anti-war politicians must avoid voicing their opposition too obviously.
Russia’s opposition hopes to spoil the party
A few pockets of resistance may prevent Putin’s United Russia from winning a clean sweep in the elections.
The most competitive contest is likely to be for the governorship of Khakassia, a remote Siberian region known for its sweeping steppes and many lakes. Here, the incumbent Communist Party’s Valentin Konovalov may win reelection after his Kremlin-backed opponent, Sergei Sokol, dropped out of the race. Sokol announced on Telegram that he was too ill to stand. But Russia’s opposition largely believes he stood little chance against Konovalov. “He was scared to lose the campaign,” says Andreichuk.
This shows that there are “definite limits” to even the Kremlin’s power in Russia today, says Smyth, especially in regions such as Khakassia that have long been a site of protest.
Yabloko, a long-standing liberal opposition party, is running 216 candidates under the slogan “For Peace!” across a range of offices. Nikolay Rybakov, Yabloko’s chairman, said in a statement to TIME that, “There are several dozen parties in Russia that support the policies of President Putin. And there is only one party—Yabloko—which opposes his policies.” During this election cycle, Yabloko’s candidates have been threatened with violence, had their offices searched by the authorities, and had election materials seized.
Andreichuk, the co-chair of Golos, says that Yabloko candidates rarely go as far as criticizing Russia’s war effort directly to avoid running afoul of Russia’s laws about “discrediting” the military. Such statements would risk up to five years of imprisonment. But running on a pro-peace platform is “absolutely incredible for today’s Russia,” he says.
Russia’s opposition has encouraged independent-minded Russians to vote for any party but United Russia. Alena Popova, a Russian opposition politician in exile and currently a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center, says, “I refuse to use the word ‘election’ because we have a dictatorship.” Even so, she says it is crucial for Russians to vote: “Maybe in a few years we will have real elections, but we need to have this habit to vote."
Ukraine decries “sham elections” in occupied territories
The elections in the occupied areas of Ukraine and in Russian-annexed Crimea are taking place as many of Russia’s ordinary voting procedures have been suspended and the Kremlin’s candidates are running virtually unopposed. These areas remain the site of intense fighting as Ukraine seeks to break through Russia’s defenses.
The Ukrainian government and its Western allies have strongly denounced the elections as illegitimate. “Even Russia’s supporters understand that these are sham elections, and they will not be accepted by any democratic country,” says Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament.
Ukraine has used drones to drop leaflets over occupied towns telling people to refrain from voting. “The elections are held to prove to Russian people that Russia will not give up on these territories,” says Rudik, who is also leader of the political party Golos, which is unrelated to the election-monitoring group of the same name.
“People are forced to go to the voting booth, they are forced to vote, and no matter what happens Russia will still produce” an overwhelming victory for Putin, says Rudik. She has a simple message for Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories: “Do whatever is needed to save your life and those of your loved ones. Buy yourself time until the Ukrainian army comes and liberates you.”
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