Expert Survey: Will the Outcome of Russia’s Elections Impact Its Foreign Policy? [With Andrei Kolesnikov, Tatyana Stanovaya, Angela Stent, Denis Volkov]

Russian State Duma Building file photo

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Sept. 24, 2021)

The ruling United Russia party retained a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, following elections that have been criticized as neither free nor fair by Russia’s opposition and the West. United Russia came away with 50% of the vote that took place Sept. 17-19, winning 324 seats in the lower chamber, which is 19 seats less than in the previous Duma elections, but sufficient to pass any bills, including amendments to the constitution. The so-called systemic opposition parties, whose participation in the elections the Kremlin condones, trailed far behind: the Communist Party won 57 seats, while A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia secured 27 and 21 seats, respectively. Other parties collectively won 21 seats. Opposition leaders denounced the results as blatantly falsified, with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny accusing the Kremlin of stealing the elections and a group of Russian parliamentary candidates calling for rallies to protest what they saw as fraudulent results. Sergei Shpilkin, a well-known Russian analyst of election fraud, estimates that actual support for United Russia was about 33%, not 50%, while Alexei Kouprianov, a big data analyst, estimates that real support for the party was around 30%. The U.S. State Department criticized the crackdown on Kremlin critics leading up to the vote, saying it kept Russian citizens from being able to exercise their civil rights, while the U.K. called the elections a “serious step back for democratic freedoms.” In spite of all this criticism, the reality is that it is highly unlikely the results of the recent elections will be revised, given the authoritarian nature of Russia’s ruling system. Therefore, it is worth asking whether the Russian elections even matter to any of Russia’s interlocutors on the international scene and if yes, then how and why. We’ve asked four experts to give their takes on the key outcome of the elections and the impact on Russia’s foreign policy, particularly toward the U.S. and the West.1

1. What are your key takeaways from the outcome of the latest elections to Russia’s State Duma?

Andrei Kolesnikov

Senior Fellow and Chair, Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

The victory of United Russia is entirely predictable. The organizers even overdid it: instead of a 45-45 scheme (45% turnout, 45% United Russia result), they got 50–50. Above all, administrative coercion for social groups dependent on the state and direct social payments have worked.

The Communist Party performed successfully. Not at the expense of the Smart Vote. Smart Voting is for single-mandate constituencies, not party lists. It would have been even more successful with Pavel Grudinin [of the Communist Party], who was expelled from the election. I can’t call it a left turn. But there is obvious dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, which manifests itself in this kind of voting.

The New People (Novye Lyudi) Party is an answer to the demand of the advanced urban classes for change, but within the system and not radical. A precise marketing hit—with strong support from the Kremlin—in a group which is alien to both [opposition politician Alexei] Navalny and the old democratic party Yabloko, which has completely failed, including because of [Yabloko founder Grigory] Yavlinsky’s conflict with Navalny.

Electronic voting, which was tested with the prospect of 2024 in mind due to manipulation, has undermined the credibility of the election. E-voting is not for the young and advanced, but for supporters of the government. Smart Voting, which was supposed to demonstrate the weakness of the government, lost out to e-voting. And it [Smart Voting] has already demonstrated its weakness. In addition, it has contributed to the division and polarization of the democratic electorate.

Tatiana Stanovaya

Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center; Founder and CEO, R.Politik

The Kremlin turned the “elections” into an “administrated” and highly controlled process that drastically decreased the risks of unpredictable outcomes. The authorities have retained control under the State Duma but politically weakened United Russia as its results are not convincing for elites. Plus, the domestic policy overseers introduced a new political party, New People, which is a pretense to reconsider the party system in the future. The Communist Party becomes the main opposition, which requires the Kremlin deliberate a new tactic to curb it.

Angela Stent

Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University

The key takeaways from the Duma elections are that the Kremlin successfully stage-managed the entire  process so that it was able to emerge with a super-majority for United Russia designed to bolster the legitimacy of the Putin regime. It was able to do this by outlawing non-systemic opposition groups, and intimidating, jailing or forcing into exile critics of the regime. The message to the Russian population is clear—there is no place in today’s Russia for those who do not support the regime. If you don’t like it, you can leave or you could go to prison. This sets the stage for the 2024 presidential election when Putin will have wide leeway to decide whether and how to run again—or to pick a successor.

Denis Volkov

Director, Levada Center

The United Russia party managed to keep a constitutional majority in the State Duma in spite of declining support over recent years. This was achieved by mobilizing the supporters of the “party of power” (state employees or “byudzhetniki,” pensioners, bureaucracy, siloviki) and by demoralizing the critics, many of whom did not participate in the elections and did not influence the results. Many didn’t come to polling stations exactly because they felt that nothing can be changed and their voice does not matter. But in spite of such pessimism and obstacles to opposition parties posed by the authorities, the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo materialized in the increased numbers of votes cast for the Communist Party and the newly established “New People” party, which entered parliament as a 5th party.

Smart Voting, a tactical voting strategy advertised by Alexei Navalny’s team to consolidate the votes of those who oppose United Russia, also became an issue during the electoral campaign. Though it is hard to assess whether it had influenced the results of the elections, it definitely captured the imagination of the democratically-minded Russian public and the authorities. It helped to keep interest in Navalny despite his imprisonment. It is worth mentioning that in their efforts to neutralize Smart Voting, Russian authorities managed to come to terms with American big tech, as Google and Apple removed the Smart Voting app from their virtual stores.

2. Do you think the outcome will have any significant impact on Russia’s foreign policy? Why or why not?

Andrei Kolesnikov

Senior Fellow and Chair, Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

Russia has no foreign policy as a clearly articulated strategy (and the foreign ministry has long acted as a press office for the “siloviki”). It is reactive (acting in an action-reaction system) and aims at further irrational self-isolation. The Duma elections do not affect this vector, rather they simply confirm it and are within it.

Tatiana Stanovaya

Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center; Founder and CEO, R.Politik

Several points: (a) The elections create more grounds to raise the issues of “foreign interference” into Russian internal affairs. New criminal cases; more pressure on the media and, importantly, on foreign IT platforms. That may lead to growing tension with Western countries. (b) The campaign has weakened the stance of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He has become politically more vulnerable with growing chances to leave his post (maybe not today though). (c) Despite changes in the State Duma, the lower chamber will remain one of the most important advocates of hawkish approaches to foreign policy.

Angela Stent

Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University

These elections will have minimal impact on Russian foreign policy because they have reinforced the political status quo. They will enable the Kremlin to continue its current policies, namely strong ties with China, a largely adversarial relationship with the West and a range of ties with the rest of the world. There is no incentive after these elections to pursue more cooperative policies on Ukraine, Syria or any other major points of contention.

Denis Volkov

Director, Levada Center

There has been no real independence of the Russian legislature from the executive branch of government since the end of the 1990s. By retaining the constitutional majority of the United Russia party in the State Duma, the Kremlin secured its grip over parliament for another five years. In these circumstances, the parliamentary elections can hardly make any changes to Russian foreign policy. The status quo will remain, and the Kremlin will be able to pursue its goals on the international arena unchecked by any parliamentary oversight.

3. Generally speaking, in what ways/how much do parliamentary elections in Russia matter to the U.S./the West?

Andrei Kolesnikov

Senior Fellow and Chair, Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program, Carnegie Moscow Center

Cultivating images of enemies represented by the West and an internal fifth column, the fight against so-called foreign agents and undesirable organizations will continue. The fight against foreign influence, along with the Kremlin’s historical policy of describing Russia’s entire history as a defense against the West, is at the heart of current ideology and propaganda. This, of course, is accompanied by repression of dissenters and buying the loyalty of the population.

Tatiana Stanovaya

Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Moscow Center; Founder and CEO, R.Politik

(a) The campaign highlights a new generation of politicians, who, even if they were not allowed to run, can take over and become mainstream politicians in the future. (b) The elections also deliver rich sociological data on the people’s mood from one region to another (mostly regional campaigns). (c) The campaign detects internal splits (see my latest article on Carnegie.ru) within the ruling elite over the problem of how to deal with the ruling party, United Russia. Thus the campaign helps us to better understand the nature of decision making in the Russian leadership. (d) The campaign brings out the vulnerabilities of Putin’s “vertical” (see the conflict between St. Petersburg and the federal election commissions).

Angela Stent

Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Parliamentary elections in Russia matter to the West inasmuch as they are a barometer of the degree of political competition and or repression inside Russia. Beginning with Alexei Navalny’s arrest in January and continuing with the outlawing of his and other opposition groups, the designation of “foreign agent” to a range of non-official groups and outright interference in individual races (for instance the three “Boris Vishnevskys” in St, Petersburg), the Kremlin has also sent a clear message to the West: our elections are none of your business.

Denis Volkov

Director, Levada Center

It seems that the U.S. and Europe do not show much interest in parliamentary elections in Russia, not considering routine diplomatic inquiries, purely academic observations and rather ritualistic denunciations of the non-democratic character of Russian elections. Though Russian officials like to speculate about Western involvement in Russian elections, there the West can hardly influence much in Russia.

Footnotes

  1. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

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