Conventional wisdom on the Russian elections:
Positive interpretation: Russian elections give Russians more real ideological choice (conservative centrists, Communists, nationalists, liberals) than American ones (conservative neoliberals, liberal neoliberals).
Negative interpretation: Putin and the party of power are assured of winning through overwhelming administrative resources, state media, and a side of electoral fraud. The other parties coordinate their candidates and campaigns with the Presidential Administration. It’s a meaningless farce.
There are elements of truth to both (though as we’ll see they’re also both substantially wrong).
Still, there’s one general, undisputed point – United Russia, Putin, “The Kremlin” wins. It has done so uninterruptedly since 2000 (or since 1991 so far as the Presidency is concerned).
So what’s the point of voting?
Think of the Russian political system as a series of concentric circles.
Map of Metro 2033.
Polis = The Kremlin.
Difference from the book/video game: The Red Line commies and Fourth Reich nationalists share the circle line with Hanseatic League neolibs.
Political marginals (anarchists, Neo-Nazis, The Cult of the Great Worm, etc.) are all located beyond the circle line.
1. The Kremlin and its denizens are in the center (Putin, the silovarchs, the Ozera coop, etc., etc.), much like the medieval fortress is literally in the center of Moscow.
The majority of Russians are basically fine with this system. Its approval rate can be proxied by Putin’s approval rate, which has consistently ranged from 60%-80% during 2000-2017. Academic research shows that these ratings are perfectly “deep” and legitimate. It is periodically “validated” through Putin’s and United Russia’s electoral triumphs.
2. The systemic opposition is arraigned around the Kremlin, and is in turn split up into three segments – the Communists, the nationalists, and the liberals.
While the Communists and nationalists massively outnumber the liberals, the liberals have by far the greater mobilization potential on the streets, the most formidable human capital, and the most significant support from the West.
Relations with the center are civil. Some openly coordinate with the Kremlin, and are even induced into its halls, though rarely into the innermost sanctums (e.g. the nationalist Rogozin, most of the economic liberal bloc). Some oppose the Kremlin, but only from within the system, and tend to defer to it when it insists – this functionally describes all the current Duma parties. However, it is not inconceivable that they would grow buntive in a crisis situation – the closest example we have of this is during the 2011 opposition protests, when Fair Russia briefly showed tantalizing signs of having drifted towards “serious” opposition.
Why would you vote for any of them? Certainly not because they have any chances of winning.
However, the Kremlin is very much interested in remaining popular. They don’t pay any less attention to opinion polls than classical Western democracies, even if their goals are different (winning elections in the West; detecting simmering discontent in Russia and maximizing the Kremlin’s results in “validating” referendums, i.e. “elections”). To do this successfully, the Kremlin must not only maintain some minimal degree of competence at running the country, but it must also try to remain at the ideological center of the Russian belief space, so as not to allow too many dissatisfied voters to cluster at any particular ideological node. It does this by shifting policy towards that node.
Here is how this translates in practical Russian politics:
A vote for “The Kremlin”, i.e. Putin (/United Russia) = a vote of confidence in the regime.
Grudinin (/KPRF) = shift Left on economic policy and nationality policy.
Zhirinovsky (/LDPR) = shift Right on nationality policy.
Sobchak (/liberals) = shift Left on social policy and on nationality policy; shift Right on economic policy.
In some ways, the resulting equilibrium is remarkably democratic – a sort of “coherent extrapolated volition” of the distilled will of the Russian people (well, unless oligarch interests, institutional resistance, embedded ideological blinkers, etc. get in the way; in Russia as elsewhere, politics is the art of the possible).
The future’s bright, the future’s black and orange.
This explains the paradox of why I am likely to vote for Zhirinovsky in 2018, even though I consider Putin to be the objectively superior Russian ruler (considerable dissatisfaction with some of his policies regardless). The way I see it, I will merely be doing my very small part to help nudge Russia in the direction of the Russian National State, even though I have no great expectations that it will reach that destination under the Kremlin’s current occupants.
3. The outermost circle contains the political outcasts. This includes figures who are fundamentally opposed to the Kremlin, which doesn’t hesitate to return them the favor.
This includes the non-systemic liberal opposition, which is now completely dominated by Navalny; former doyens such as Khodorkovsky, Milov, Kasparov, etc., etc. have long faded into insignificance. It includes anti-Kremlin nationalists – pro-Ukrainian nationalists, Neo-Nazis, National Bolsheviks back when Eduard Limonov was still in the opposition. It includes genuinely revolutionary leftists such as Sergey Udaltsov/Left Front, and various anarchist groups such as Pussy Riot.
Do they act outside the system because there is no political space for them, or is there no political space for them because they act outside the system? I suppose this is a chicken and egg question.
They reject playing by the Kremlin’s rules, and just as the Kremlin doesn’t balk at operating in a “prerogative” fashion over and above the “constitutional” state**, so these marginal players assert the same privileges for themselves.
If they succeed, the resulting outcome will likely be termed a “color revolution.”
However, the very advantage of running a prerogative state in the first place is that it is not absolutely obligated to deal with these characters by the book.
For instance, by disallowing them from running in the elections on the basis of a fraud conviction marred by irregularities (not to mention dwarfed by the scale of the stealing going on every day in the Kremlin itself).
What do you, as a non-systemic oppositionist, do in this situation?
Color revolution isn’t a realistic choice – not when the Kremlin has an 80% approval rating and the support of all major institutions, including the siloviki.
You could also choose to support the “approved” politician whose values align most closely with your own. However, you don’t think she represents and articulates those values well, you think she is a puppet of a man whom you despite, and you firmly believe that you are the only person who can get the job done properly anyway.
Well, you call a boycott of the elections, and start planning on how to discredit them. As Navalny has just done.
I doubt this will be effective, at least in the short-term. Ordinary Russians don’t care – Kremlin approval is around 80%. The West no longer even pretends to respect Russian elections, but what can they do beyond what they are already doing? Turnout will be perhaps 5% points lower than it otherwise would be, and will hurt the liberals themselves more than anybody (Sobchak shares essentially the same electorate with Navalny, spurious claims that nationalists support him to any significant degree regardless). Hardly relevant for a political system where the average level of electoral fraud typically exceeds 5% points.
* I have yet to write in detail about Sobchak’s program, which was released a few days ago, but frankly, I’m not sure there’s any point. Main points: Major changes to the Constitution; gay marriage; marijuana legalization; a ban on justifying Stalin’s repressions; another referendum on the Crimea. Unelectable, of course. But if you want to nudge Russia in that general direction, no reason not to vote for her, unless you think Navalny’s strategy is better.
** To borrow some terms from Richard Sakwa’s “The Crisis of Russian Democracy.”