The Russian elections and hidden regionalist politics

Alexei Navalny in prison, 2021 (Photo: www.instagram.com/navalny)

Alexei Navalny in prison, 2021 (Photo: www.instagram.com/navalny) 

Russia

Article by: Vadim Shtepa, The Jamestown Foundation
Edited by: A. N.

Russians are scheduled to vote on September 19. They will be deciding electoral races not only to the State Duma (lower chamber of the national parliament) but also to 39 regional legislative assemblies, that is, in almost half of the federation’s subjects. In a genuine federation, regional elections might be considered the main event of this day. But in de facto centralized Russia, no real federative diversity can be expected from these contests, which is why voters do not attach much importance to their outcome. The regional parliaments in Russia are empowered to decide almost nothing—unlike the German Landtags or the legislatures of the American states. Russian regional parliaments usually have only 30–40 deputies, who lack the opportunity to pass any significant laws that differ from those in the other regions, since the legislative system in Russia is unified.

The 20-year-old ban on regional-level political parties, put in place when President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2001, actually turned Russian regions into political “clones” of one another (Region.Expert, September 3). Today, local civil communities in Russia’s 85 federative subjects (this includes the illegally occupied Republic of Crimea and Federal City of Sevastopol belonging to Ukraine) can try to express their interests only through federal-level parties; but these attempts are often unsuccessful because each of these parties is controlled from Moscow and pursues a centralizing policy.

Nevertheless, regionalism sometimes “sprouts” even in those parties whose opposition to the Kremlin is highly doubtful. The most illustrative example was the mass protests of 2020 in Khabarovsk (in the Russian Far East). Demonstrations erupted following the arrest of the freely elected governor from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), local native Sergei Furgal, who defeated Putin’s United Russia party appointee. Protesters took to the streets carrying flags of Khabarovsk Krai—an unprecedented sight in today’s Russia.

Since then, however, the Kremlin apparently learned lessons from that incident. Anton Furgal, the son of the former governor, tried to run for the State Duma elections this year. Yet despite enjoying support from the local population, the electoral commission did not allow him to register, under several dubious pretexts, including the “incorrect filling of signature lists” (Sibir.Realii, August 13).

Some regional branches of federal parties differ significantly from their Moscow leadership. An illustrative example is the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in the Komi Republic, Oleg Mikhailov, who two years ago said that Moscow was pursuing a “colonial policy” toward the regions (Region.Expert, January 14, 2019). Mikhailov was one of the leading members of the protest movement against the construction of a giant landfill in the Russian High North to receive Moscow’s surplus garbage. The Moscow leadership of the CPRF notably did not support him in those protests at that time, since it adheres to an imperial-centralist ideology. However, today, he heads the local list of the CPRF in the elections to the State Duma. Probably, Gennady Zyuganov and other central leaders of the CPRF understand that without the help of notable activists like Mikhailov, the Communists might lose all popularity in the region.

As for the opposition movement of Alexei Navalny, it is presently largely defeated: he himself is in prison, and his regional headquarters have been declared “extremist organizations,” making it impossible for them to participate in the elections. Even those politicians who were not members of Navalny’s movement, but simply participated in rallies for his release, are blocked from the elections. This happened, for instance, in Novgorod Oblast (7×7-journal.ru, August 28).

In neighboring Pskov Oblast, the prominent politician Lev Shlosberg was also removed from the elections, both to the State Duma and to the Pskov regional parliament, and for the same reason: “for supporting Navalny.” Such an accusation seems farcical—Schlosberg is a member of the Yabloko party and, thus, a political opponent of Navalny’s movement (Svoboda.org, August 26).

But perhaps the greatest absurdity was the authorities’ demand that YouTube block the recording of the pre-election debates, where one of the participants openly demanded the release of Alexei Navalny. YouTube obeyed this requirement, fearing that it might become banned from the territory of Russia. Thus, even the mention of Navalny’s name was barred in the Russian information space (Svoboda.org, September 7).

This demand for freedom for Navalny was expressed by the leader of the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice (PFJ), Maxim Shevchenko. This new faction sometimes makes liberal statements to boost its popularity, but it remains quite safe from coming under threat of removal from the elections, since its platform is actually quite close to that of the ruling United Russia. In August, in the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan, Shevchenko participated in a roundtable on the topic of federalism. His party is trying to win over public figures in the non-Russian republics to its side, but the PFJ’s particular interpretation of federalism effectively excludes any treaty relations between the regions. Shevchenko states that the main principle of the federation is a ban on withdrawal from it (Business-gazeta.ru, August 30).

In early 2021, a group of politicians and public figures from various regions tried to register the Federative Party, which declared in favor of the principles of inter-regional treaties and of political decentralization in Russia (Svoboda.org, May 7). They hoped to take part in the Duma elections. However, their party was not allowed to register, and its leader, a deputy from Lipetsk, Oleg Khomutinnikov, was forced to leave Russia under threat of criminal prosecution.

In the run-up to this year’s Russian elections, there has been a “cleansing” of the political space from all candidates still declaring any oppositional views to the Kremlin. Therefore, the idea of ​​boycotting the elections is becoming more and more popular among part of the electorate. But on the other hand, many candidates in the regions are trying to look as loyal as possible so that they are not removed from the elections; and if they manage to win, some of them may gradually begin to pursue an independent policy. Indeed, before the 2018 elections, the aforementioned Sergei Furgal did not call himself an oppositionist; yet after he won, he began to actively defend the interests of his region, and his popularity quickly exceeded Putin’s. It is quite possible that such a situation could again be repeated—perhaps in multiple instances—after these elections.

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Edited by: A. N.

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