Two automated ballot boxes stuffed with ballots in a polling place 862.

Two automated ballot boxes stuffed with ballots in a polling place 862.

Election United Russia’s Hollow Victory? Managing Outcomes and Retaining the Status Quo in the 2021 Duma Elections

The 2021 Duma Elections have confirmed the Kremlin’s increased reliance on repression and manipulation to obtain the desired results. The 2021 elections show the top-down management of Russia’s electoral authoritarianism to be efficient. With electoral outcomes comprehensively managed, Russia’s political system has never before so closely resembled that of Belarus.

Published on on October 4, 2021

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This September’s State Duma elections have hardly produced any surprises. United Russia (UR) have won their predicted majority of 343 seats (49.82%), systemic opposition have made noises but had little impact, the population is generally disengaged, and no unrest or scandals have emerged to seriously complicate the situation. 2021 stands out for the unprecedented repression of anti-regime opposition and the exclusion of almost all vocal critical Duma candidates from running. The 2021 elections show the top-down management of Russia’s electoral authoritarianism to be efficient, assisted by the three-day elections, which severely complicate electoral observation, and the controversial use of electronic voting, which delivered a suspiciously high proportion of UR votes in erratic bursts.[1] With electoral outcomes comprehensively managed, Russia’s political system has never before so closely resembled that of Belarus.[2]


While expert opinion is divided on the question of whether the Putin system is going through a planned transformation in 2020-21[3], elections have become even more deeply securitised in Russia. Measures taken to in 2021 appear defensive and reflect the Kremlin’s sense of embattlement, as well as the need to prepare for the 2024 Presidential elections, which will be the year of obnulenia, Putin’s resetting of presidential terms. UR’s results contradict sociological polling, which shows falling ratings. The gap between actual political preferences in the population and their representation in parliament has only widened. Yet, the increased reliance on manipulation and repression to retain the status quo, rather than good campaigning, policies or genuine popularity, will surely come with a cost for the Kremlin, such winning short-term stability at the cost of longer-term legitimacy.


Other than United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) emerged as the other winner. CPRF benefited not only from the liquidation of the anti-systemic opposition but also from Navalny’s “Smart Voting” system, an online strategy to promote specific candidates running against UR in each electoral district. A central issue in Russian politics will now be the extent to which (if at all) the CPRF heeds radical voices in its own ranks and make a nuisance of themselves in the new Duma or, as has been the pattern in previous years, makes symbolic noises but generally falls into line with Kremlin requirements to reap the material rewards of cooperation.

The context 2018-2021: Constitutional amendments and a changing political climate

The period from the Presidential Elections of 2018 to the Duma Elections has not been easy for the Kremlin. The poorly-judged pension reform of 2018 started a decline in ratings.[4] While lots of noises were made about National Projects and modernization, economic conditions did not improve. Grand plans for 2020 to reboot legitimacy by combining the 75th anniversary of victory in WWII with constitutional reforms were hugely disputed by Covid-19. Having secured constitutional amendments and the propaganda triumph of the Sputnik-V vaccine, the Kremlin lost control of the political agenda with the dramatic return of Aleksey Navalny to Russia, who in moving from political emigration to political imprisonment, set the tone for 2021.


Turning the screws: dismantling “undesirable organizations” and “extremists”, identifying “foreign agents”


Even before Navalny’s return to Russia in January 2021, the Duma had approved a series of new laws in December 2020 that further reduced freedom of assembly, speech, and association.[5] After the protests associated with Navalny’s arrest, not only did his close associates face legal sanctions, but his organization Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) was declared “extremist”, placed on the same list as Islamic State, skinhead groups and religious cults. FBK saw its 37 regional offices closed and its members faced up to 10 years imprisonment. As a result of a law passed May 2021,[6], any person found to be merely associated with those declared extremist could be barred from electoral politics for five years.


By June 2021 it was estimated by election monitoring NGO Golos that 8% of Russia’s electorate had been barred from standing for office.[7] On the 9th of June a law was passed banning the financing and participation in of “undesirable organizations”[8], soon used to liquidate Khodorkovsky’s “Open Russia” and arrest its former head Andrei Pivovarov (officially arrested for a re-post on Facebook). Furthermore, the pressure on independent media was ramped up. Other than a series of arrests and fines to individual journalists from July 2020 onwards,[9] Proekt, the Insider and Komanda 29, renowned for investigative journalism, were declared “undesirable organizations”. The Law on Foreign Agents, passed in 2017 but sharpened with amendments in Feb 2021, was applied to Meduza and TV channel Dozhd’, known for their refusal to avoid sensitive topics. As foreign agents, they are now obligated to announce their status before each broadcast or article and produce regular accounting reports to the Ministry of Justice, as if they were a semi-criminal organisation.[10] Indeed, this appears to be the point: to tar all oppositional media as tainted and funded by hostile foreign powers.


Overall, in 2021 the anti-systemic opposition was dismantled in advance of the Duma Elections. Some, like Oleg Stepanov, Navalny’s former Moscow coordinator, were arrested as part of the repression of those involved in 2021 protests, the so-called “sanitary case”.[11] Others, like prominent Moscow opposition politician Ilya Yashin, were barred from running in the Duma Elections due to mere association with FBK.[12] Others, like Navalny’s close collator Lyubov Sobol’ and co-creator of the Party of Change Dmitri Gudkov, elected for political emigration. “Oppositional’ organisations and media outlets have been disbanded, hampered or targeted for future measures. Sociologist Grigory Yudin has argued this brings Russia closer to a monarchy: opposition must be loyal to the King and cannot advocate his removal from the throne; ex-senator Konstantin Dobrynin pointed out now all members of the Duma – be they communist, nationalist or liberals – must accept the basic values and ideological stances of the 4th July Constitutional Amendments as the price of admission to politics.[13]

Rigging the deck: preparing a super-majority in advance

The Central Election Commission

In this new configuration, the key aim for the Kremlin in the Duma Elections is less to mobilise or win over supporters into the pro-regime camp but more to retain the status quo by disbanding serious opposition forces, excluding “unreliable’ or “dangerous” candidates from running. With this approach opposition-minded voters, presented with the apparent impossibility of change, are likely to be discouraged from voting or protesting after the elections.  One of the central instruments for managing the Duma Elections was the Central Electoral Commission (TsIK) headed by Ella Panfilova. In 2021 Panfilova continued the work of the commission over the last fifteen years, during which time it has excluded over 100,000 mainly oppositional and independent candidates.[14] On the federal level 290 candidates were excluded in 2021. If we discount the 211 voluntarily withdrawals, there were 79 forced exclusions. Of this number, 27 were removed due to association with extremist organisations, leaving 52 that were excluded for a variety of reasons such as dual nationality, foreign assets or incorrectly filled forms.[15] One of the most prominent expulsions and an early signal of the non-competitive nature of the Duma Elections, was Pavel Grudinin, the so-called “red oligarch’ and one of the most popular faces of the Communist Party, expelled after a complaint from his ex-wife on his foreign capital holdings.


Other than controlling the list of accepted candidates, TsIK also was concerned with ensuring the turnout for the election did not fall below the 2016 level (48%). With sociological polling suggesting low UR ratings and limited numbers preparing to vote, this was a challenge.[16] The foreign election observers brought in mainly held pro-Russia stances[17]; the OBSE did not send its observers after refusing the TsIK”s terms.[18] Meanwhile live open-access video transmissions of election booths were ruled out after Panfilova claimed it would be too expensive given the three-day election format.[19] Allowing votes to be cast over three straight days makes it much easier to conceal falsifications; the introduction of electronic voting in seven regions also contributed to wider capacity for electoral manipulation and the process of “encouraging” state-employed workers (budzhetniki) to vote for UR.[20] Electronic voting created the biggest scandal in Moscow where UR ratings in Moscow were particularly poor, falling from 25% to 15% over the last two years.[21] Initial ordinary paper voting reflected this, with 8 out of 15 Moscow Okrugi heading, via Smart Voting, out of UR’s hands.[22] After the sudden addition of electronic votes, this all changed and UR were victorious across the Moscow electoral map. The irregular way electronic votes appeared and the sudden late “decision” of over 300,000 Muscovites to change their electronic votes to UR, suggest electronic voting is an innovate new means of fabricating votes.[23] All in all, these measures surely helped achieve a turnout of 52% for the 2021 elections.

United Russia: the performance of electoral politics in conditions of assured victory

The spectacle of UR, virtually guaranteed a super majority in advance, posturing as a political party campaigning for victory, no longer raises eyebrows. Perhaps what was most interesting about UR’s campaigning in 2021 is just how little light has been shed on two key questions: who is in the lead to take over after Putin and what can UR do to improve Russia’s situation? On July 19th the federal list of UR was announced, revealing the top five figures to be used as figure heads of the campaign. Missing were Dmitri Medvedev (the party head) and Mikhail Mishustin (standing Prime Minister), with centre stage given to ministerial old loyalists Sergei Lavrov and Sergei Shoigu. There were also three fresh faces: the symbol of Russia’s fight with covid-19 Dr. Denis Protsenko, charity fund leader Elena Smeleva and children’s ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova.[24] After the elections only Kuznetsova entered the State Duma while Lavrov and Shoigu returned to ministerial work after a brief holiday of UR campaigning. In all this, the question of who is in pole position behind Putin remains a mystery.[25] Instead, the UR Party Conference and Primaries were more about applauding Putin and making copious references to him in one’s speeches.


UR’s political programme, which was named “the people”s programme”[26], contained a large amount of populism: promises of increased pensions, benefits for veterans and investment promises. This message was spread by the five UR party list who travelled the country and by many of Russia’s governors, who supported UR’s campaigning.[27] Yet, instead of passing these laws after the election, Putin himself approved them early, allowing people to receive the money even before casting their vote. As Andrey Pertsev has noted, UR’s election campaign focused more on previous achievements and generous handouts than issuing any fresh ideas or promises.[28] At a meeting with UR representatives in August 22nd, the President added news on extra one-off payments to pensioners and military personnel and announced a new huge development plan led by Shoigu for Siberia.[29] The message was clear: vote for UR and Putin, receive the benefits of a state that cares for its people and is ready to invest resources. Watching the campaign speeches of Lavrov and Shoigu, patriotic messages are spoken from the heart in a calm and peaceful manner; the UR voter is not only lured with cash payments but also by the sweet tune of experienced, reliable politicians ready to work “for the good of the country”.[30]

The other parties: the same old faces, new spoilers and the uncertain potential of the Communist Party

What of the other parties operating in the Duma Elections? The three parties that were already represented in the State Duma other than UR (the Communist Party, LDPR and A Fair Russia) are often viewed as systemic opposition that help the Kremlin imitate democracy and debate while binding left-wing and conservative voters to a pro-regime orientation. The removal of non-systemic, anti-regime organisations and changes to the political climate in 2021 has clearly had an effect on the fortunes of these parties. LDPR produced an unremarkable campaign, notable for being listed as a close second to UR in its huge campaign funds[31] – likely evidence of the financial co-opting of the party. Meanwhile, party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky supporting forced vaccinations and condemned the Communists for lacking loyalty to the new constitution.[32] It was no surprise to see LDPR lose around half its seats (19) in 2021 compared to 2016. On the patriotic right, the main development was the merging of Sergei Mironov’s “A Fair Russia” with Zakhar Prelepin’s “For Truth” party. Their strategy to boost their share and form a coalition with the Communist Party[33] was not particularly successful; they won only four additional seats in the new Duma.


One notable outcome of the 2021 elections was the breakthrough of a new party into the State Duma, appropriately named New People, winning 13 seats. Party founder and leader Alexei Nechaev is a businessman and ranked the third highest income of all the registered Duma candidates in 2021. It is hard not to categorise this as a “spoiler” party. Its rapid rise would have been a virtual impossibility without approval from the Kremlin, who apparently see no threat in its manifesto to increase salaries, carry out fiscal decentralisation and humanise the legal system.[34] New People, created around the same time as a range of new parties prior to the 2020 regional elections, won high scores in protest-orientated regions such as Irkutsk, Yakutia and Sakhalin.[35] In this context one function of New People for the Kremlin’s plans is to draw votes away from its main contender, the Communist Party (CPRF).


Long the second largest party in Russia with an impressive nation-wide structure, the CPRF is the most protest-orientated of systemic opposition parties with the most serious potential to disrupt the Kremlin’s plans for the Duma Elections. As before, however, serious divisions in the party remained visible between the federal level, more loyal to the Kremlin and the regional leaders, which show more appetite for radical oppositional activity. While party leader Gennady Zyuganov offers a strong critique of United Russia and decried the failures of the last Duma term (2016-2020)[36], he clearly knows where to draw the line. In a TV interview for TV Channel Dozhd’ in July he refused to comment on a number of issues, showing his essential conformity with Kremlin ideological red lines.[37] Meanwhile, further down the party hierarchy, there appears to be more anti-regime sentiment and genuine oppositional energy. In June the First Secretary of CPRF Moscow City Council, Valery Rashkin led protests against forced vaccination, which were broken up when a CPRF speaker called to use Navalny’s “Smart Voting” platform.[38] Similar anti-COVID protests occurred throughout the country. As August protests against the removal of Pavel Grudinin were coordinated by the Party federal leadership, it was no surprise to see them conducted in a far more orderly and reserved fashion.


Outside of Moscow, there appears to be even more radicalisation in the party’s periphery. In February CPRU’s Penza branch led protests entitled “For a Russia without Palaces and Oligarchs” with regional party head Alexander Smirnov holding a banner reading “the best constitutional amendment would be Putin’s firing!” Smirnov was given 7-days administrative arrest.[39] Around the same time, the more high-profile Saratov Oblast’ Duma Deputy Nikolay Bonderenko, who has around 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, was detained after joining protests over Navalny’s arrest. In contrast to Smirnov, he was reportedly released after a call from Zyuganov in which threatened a CPRU nation-wide protest if Bonderenko was not released.[40]


The stand-out moment of Bondarenko’s pre-election activities in 2021 was in 24th July when he teased TsIK Chair Ella Panfilova “It’s my first time at a TsIK meeting and this is a disgrace to the whole country. You are wrecking democracy and elections. Are you proud of your work? (…). Panfilova, clearly losing her cool, responded “Yes I am! I have no private life, I am falling apart here hearing from all sides demagogy and lies. I’m proud to be trying to prevent the collapse of the country’. Bondarenko pushed further: “What stability? We are dying out and mired in poverty!” It was surely no coincidence that, after releasing this video, Bondarenko was called into a police station and informed he was being investigated for political extremism on the grounds of a post made ten years ago.[41]


This division between radicalism in the rank-and-file and moderation in the leadership was on show in the aftermath of the Duma Elections when, as predicted by polling, the CPRU increased their seats from 13% to almost the 20% mark.[42] While on 24th September Rashkin was back on the streets leading protests against electoral fraud and demanding electronic voting be discounted from the vote totals, Zyuganov was in a meeting with Putin, having already called on members of his party the day before to show “maximum restraint in these hard times”.[43] It remains to be seen how growing radicalism in conditions of economic hardship and falling UR ratings will effect CPRU party stability and whether Zyuganov, together with the state security organs, can successfully manage powerful anti-regime sentiment from the lower ranks.


The 2021 Duma Elections have confirmed the Kremlin’s increased reliance on repression and manipulation to obtain the desired results. Such an approach not only costs more money but wins less legitimacy and sends a signal of regime weakness and fear. In its obsession to deliver a pliant, submissive Duma, the Kremlin is wedded to old narratives of fighting the West and securing stability. Yet, the struggle to secure the status quo occurs at a time when the vital signs of regime stability look worse: economic stagnation continues, poverty grows, Putin’s charisma fades and the gap between state propaganda and on-the-ground reality widens. The few fresh faces brought into Russian politics in these Duma elections are unlikely to challenge the accepted norms and rules of an ageing Soviet-formed elite or adequately respond to discontent in the population. Perhaps the best news for the Kremlin is the increased price of oil, which increases the likelihood that social and economic populism will be a new direction in legitimation strategies.


With civil society demoralized and anti-systemic opposition liquidated, it has been left to the Communist Party to lead street protests. Over the coming weeks, we should expect to see evidence of multi-level manipulation and fabrication of voting totals, as well as revelations of irregularities in electronic voting. Deep alienation from politics and falling UR ratings recorded in polling data are not reflected in the Duma election results. Neither the increased share of CPRU seats in the Duma, nor the appearance of “New People”, can be expected to enliven the legislature or make it a centre of genuine debate where key government-supported initiatives could actually be defeated.


In that sense, the Duma Elections confirm the pattern of 2020-21, whereby Russia moves deeper into its political winter, micro-managing electoral outcomes, reducing political pluralism and edging closer to a more closed authoritarian system. And yet, while digital spaces remain relatively free and the Communist Party is vocal and protesting, there is still some chance of unforeseen surprises, especially if the status quo, so comfortable for those at the top of Russia’s political system, becomes increasingly intolerable for increasing numbers of the rest.













































  • by Matthew Blackburn

    Researcher at the Institute of Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University. He completed his doctoral thesis on nationalist discourses and the imagined nation in Post-Soviet Russia at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on political legitimation, memory politics, nationalism and identity politics in the Post-Soviet space. His recent publications include ‘Mainstream Russian Nationalism and the “State-Civilization-Identity”’ (Nationalities papers) and ‘Political Legitimacy in Contemporary Russia’ (Russian Politics) (2020).

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