Russia in Review: Putin's Deepening Dictatorship
Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.
Author: Darina Regio
Key Takeaways: Russian President’s Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party retained its political dominance in Russia following local and regional elections on September 8, 2019. Western media is incorrectly framing the outcome of the election as a victory for the opposition and a blow to the Kremlin. United Russia won the vast majority of elections and lost seats in only two electoral districts. The opposition parties that gained seats at the expense of United Russia are predominantly members of the “systemic opposition” coopted by the Kremlin – the Russian Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia Party. The West should recognize that treating these elections as a true expression of the popular will in Russia simply reinforces a false narrative designed to mask the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party continues to maintain political dominance in Russia. Russia held local and regional elections on September 8, 2019. Journalists have lauded the election results as a victory for opponents of the Kremlin. Yet United Russia lost seats in only two electoral districts – Moscow and Khabarovsk Krai. The Kremlin employed multiple tactics to rig the election and ensure the victory of its preferred candidates, including vote buying, ballot-box stuffing, the relocation of polling stations, and voter fraud via deceased individuals. The Saint Petersburg Election Commission initially refused to finalize ballot counts in a move that the opposition labelled as “extra time” to fix the elections results. United Russia also ran party members as independent candidates in several regions to mask their affiliation.
The Kremlin proclaimed victory for United Russia and refused to acknowledge any election violations. United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak stated on September 9 that United Russia had won a majority in eleven of twelve regional legislatures. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov similarly stressed that the election results proved the political leadership of United Russia.
Putin will likely tighten the Kremlin’s control over the election process prior to the Russian Duma (Legislative) Elections in September 2021. The Kremlin will likely abolish direct voting for individual candidates at the regional level in order to counteract tactical voting by the opposition. Voters would instead be required to vote for a political bloc, granting an advantage (due to its name recognition and deep coffers) to United Russia. Opposition parties coopted by the Kremlin have also advocated for this change. The Kremlin will likely also employ a range of its other trusted tactics to fix the 2021 Russian Duma Elections.
The opposition’s attempt to undermine United Russia has empowered other political parties affiliated with the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny – a leading opposition figure – advocated for citizens to practice “smart voting” and cast their ballots for the candidates most likely to be elected after United Russia. His call mainly targeted voters in Moscow. The Moscow Administration had banned several independent opposition candidates, sparking violent protests over several weeks in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
The “smart voting” strategy granted the biggest gains in Moscow and Khabarovsk Krai to opposition parties with longstanding ties to the Kremlin. These parties include the Russian Communist Party (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and A Just Russia Party. These parties are led by associates of Putin who support his wider foreign policy strategy and political stances even if they disagree with specific domestic policies from the Kremlin. They are also outspoken critics of Navalny and his policy agenda to build ties with the West.
The West is erroneously focusing on the narrative that local elections weakened the Kremlin. Western media outlets have largely framed the outcome of the elections to Moscow City Hall as a win for opponents of Putin. This framing omits the overwhelming political dominance of United Russia in the other regional elections throughout Russia. Russia is not just Moscow City Hall. The Kremlin’s main military installations and economic drivers (i.e., oil and natural gas) are located well outside of Moscow. The Kremlin retains deep control over Russia and likely plans to further crack down on democratic and electoral institutions – a process it has already begun. Russia is not a true democracy. Putin sets the conditions of each election and retains control over every aspect of the process, ensuring that the outcome remains acceptable. Treating these elections as a true expression of the will of Russians simply reinforces another one of the false narratives designed to cloak the ever-strengthening dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.
 [“Elections in Russia: What Must Be Monitored on September 8, 2019 (Including the Moscow City Duma),”] Meduza, September 8, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/08/vybory-v-rossii-za-kotorymi-nuzhno-obyazatelno-sledit-8-sentyabrya-2019-goda-pomimo-mosgordumy-putevoditel-meduzy.
 Leonid Ragozin, “Putin’s Star Is Fading,” Politico, September 11, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/11/vladimir-putin-russia-moscow-city-council-vote-228065.
 [“United Russia Took St. Petersburg, Lost Moscow, Failed Khabarovsk,”] Svobodnaya Pressa, September 9, 2019, https://svpressa(.)ru/politic/article/243147/.
 [“Village Votes,”] Novaya Gazeta, September 10, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/09/10/81913-derevenskie-golosa; [“United Russia Became Opposition in Khabarovsk Krai,”] RBC, September 8, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/08/09/2019/5d7558099a7947dce36b1c0c; [“United Russia Party List, ‘Questionnaire List’, and a Thousand Rubles,”] Novaya Gazeta, September 10, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/09/10/81892-spryachte; [“Voter Turnout in Vladikavkaz Is 22.8%; Abuse Reported,”] Kavkaz Realii, September 8, 2019, https://www.kavkazr(.)com/a/30152920.html.
 [“In St. Petersburg, They Cannot Summarize the Results of the Election of Deputies; Oppositionists Report Mass Violations in Counting,”] Meduza, September 9, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/09/v-peterburge-ne-mogut-podvesti-itogi-vyborov-deputatov-oppozitsiya-zayavlyaet-o-podtasovkah.
 [“Moscow City Hall Elections: Which of the Self-Nominees Is Really Not Connected with the Government,”] Deutsche Welle, August 8, 2019, https://www.dw.com/ru/%D0%B2%D1%8B%D0%B1%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%8B-%D0%B2-%D0%BC%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%B3%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%B4%D1%83%D0%BC%D1%83-%D0%BA%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%B8%D0%B7-%D1%81%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%BE%D0%B2%D1%8B%D0%B4%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B6%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%86%D0%B5%D0%B2-%D0%B4%D0%B5%D0%B9%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%BD%D0%BE-%D0%BD%D0%B5-%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B0%D0%BD-%D1%81-%D0%B2%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C%D1%8E/a-50139274.
 [“Peskov Acknowledges the Election Results as Favorable for United Russia,”] NTV, September 9, 2019, https://www.ntv(.)ru/novosti/2231427/.
 [“Zhirinovsky Proposed to Participate in Elections Only Through Parliamentary Fractions,”] RIA, September 9, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190909/1558492433.html.
 [“Address on a Quiet Day,”] Navalny, September 7, 2019, https://navalny(.)com/p/6227/.
 [“Opposition Received Half the Seats in the Parliament, Leader of United Russia in Moscow Lost Results of the Moscow City Hall Election,”] Meduza, September 9, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/09/oppozitsiya-poluchila-polovinu-mest-v-parlamente-lider-edinoy-rossii-v-moskve-proigral.
 [“Zuganov Called Navalny ‘Young, But Sober, Yeltsin’,”] Radio Svoboda, March 24, 2017, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/28389101.html; [“Vladimir Zhirinovsky: ‘Falsification System Was Built Under Boris Yeltsin’,”] Ekspress Gazeta, September 10, 2019, https://www.eg(.)ru/politics/778073-vladimir-jirinovskiy-sistema-falsifikaciy-byla-postroena-borisom-elcinym-055705/.
 Andrew Osborn, “Russia Carries Out Mass Raids on Kremlin Critic Navalny’s Supporters,” Reuters, September 12, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-politics-opposition-idUSKCN1VX0M1.