A man looks on a screen showing polling stations at the headquarters of Russia's Central Election Commission this month in Moscow. Photo by Shamil Zhumatov via Globe Media/Reuters.

The election in Russia might have offered little or no choice, but still provided unique insights into the state of affairs at the Kremlin and gave a glimpse into the Russian future. From Novaya Gazeta.

The 2021 parliamentary election in Russia might have been rigged, had little or no choice, and took place in the atmosphere of worsening authoritarianism. Yet, it still offered unique insights into the state of internal affairs at the Kremlin and gave a glimpse into the Russian future. Here below are 10 key takeaways.

1. There’s no democratic voting in Russia. 

The process of democratic elections to Russia’s State Duma was dismantled in three different ways: prior, during, and after the elections. Before the elections, the Kremlin rolled out the laws restricting the rights of citizens to participate in politics if they support “extremists” – that is, if they support opposition such as poisoned dissident Alexei Navalny. During the elections, authorities severely limited the capacity for observers to do anything about suspected election violations. Lastly, after the post-election vote count, there seems to have been a massive rewriting of results and how they were gauged. Tampered electronic voting completely swung the election in favor of United Russia affiliates, and the remaining independent candidates in Moscow had their results flipped – but that process took several hours after the voting stations got closed.

2. The Kremlin aimed at securing another constitutional majority by dividing the protest vote and driving down the turnout. It was a success. 

The turnout was barely 40%. And key competitors of ruling United Russia were restricted before voting. Changing the voting rules (making it a three-day/electronic ballot) also helped.

3. Destroying the opposition election monitoring system is a sign of strengthening authoritarian tech. 

The SmartVoting debacle demonstrated the increased tech capabilities of the state to censor unwanted information on the internet. In doing so, Russian officials are no longer constrained by formalities of procedures or laws and act in a de facto designated state of emergency. The election marked the emergence of a successful Russian “sovereign internet” — analogous to the Chinese Great Internet Firewall. The new digital order symbolizes the new status of Russian authoritarianism, where refusal of political loyalty to the government in any form is considered an offense. While it is common to laugh derisively at the various blocks ordered by the Roskomnadzor communications regulator, they can be effective – an ordinary user may simply not figure out how to use multiple parts of the internet to circumvent official obstacles. Over the past 10 years, American IT giants have remained the leading institution of freedom of speech in Russia but now publishing information pertaining to Russia on foreign digital platforms amounts to “foreign interference” in the elections.

4. The election became a model of the Kremlin’s political mobilization. 

On 17 September, the electorate that depended financially on the government was pushed to the polling stations, with their appearance seen as a test of their loyalty. Despite a workday, queues of voters lined up in various precincts, contrary to the official version of the Central Election Commission that multi-day voting was necessary to ensure social distancing during the pandemic.

5. The resurgence of the Communist Party is a sign of desperation among Russian voters robbed of real choice. 

Many voted for the only “alternative” the Kremlin allows to strip the ruling party of as many parliament seats as possible. Thus, the second-largest party in the country, the Communist Party (CPRF), received additional votes compared to the 2016 elections (+6%). Today, the CPRF is an ultra-conservative, neo-Stalinist political project that supports President Putin’s foreign policy (including recognition of separatist Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine), but the party retains some independence when voting on social issues such as pension reform.

6. Lack of mass protests after a clearly fraudulent election shows that fear paralyzed Russian politics. 

Since the defeat of Navalny’s protest movement in 2020, the Kremlin has used electoral manipulation, eliminated opposition candidates, and created an illusion of “total support” for United Russia to foster political apathy in society.

7. Despite an enormous rigging effort, the ruling United Russia keeps bleeding votes. 

United Russia failed to reach the benchmark of the 2016 parliamentary election. Instead of 343 out of 450 seats, it is now set to secure 313. Since 2003 (except the 2011 elections), in each subsequent convocation of parliament, United Russia had received an increasing number of mandates. This is no longer true, and 2021 marks a turning point in the public attitude toward the Russian government – it is no longer liked, but it is still feared.

8. The New People phenomena. 

The fifth-largest party in the new Russian parliament has secured seats through a combination of Kremlin administrative support (the party had no difficulty registering candidates and campaigning), charismatic leader and businessman Alexey Nechaev, and voter pushback against the establishment parties. This is a Kremlin-friendly newcomer with a moderately democratic agenda close to the Russian middle class. Its relative success marks the growing public frustration with Russian establishment parties founded during the democratic era of 1993-2003. The future of New People is uncertain. If they dare to vote against the Kremlin, they might repeat the tragic fate of independent parliamentary members from the last parliament — squeezed out of the Duma (the lower house) and stripped of their immunity.

9. Opposition party Yabloko is done. 

It ran a disastrous campaign this year, alienating Navalny’s supporters. The coming electoral cycle may be the last for the party as a noticeable independent political force. The combination of anti-Kremlin rhetoric and a weakening electoral base is a weak basis for Yabloko’s movement through the unfolding political crisis. Still, keep an eye on the Yabloko’s rising star Lev Schlosberg — he might bring the party out of the walking dead zone.

10. The 15 million people who voted last year against Putin’s constitutional power grab were once again left unrepresented in parliament. 

This creates the institutional conditions for the expansion of the political crisis in Russia. Dissatisfaction will fester and manifest itself via xenophobia and violence, and certain groups of citizens will become radicalized.

Kirill Martynov is political editor at Novaya Gazeta, the Russian independent news outlet. Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange.