Written by Volodymyr Solovian, HWAG/UCMC Senior Analyst
Local elections were held in Russia during the first ten days of September (the so-called “Single Election Day 2023”). The Russian Federation’s regional and municipal elections this year included over 4,000 campaigns, with approximately 34,000 elected positions “played out.” Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia, have received new “deputies” to local “parliaments” and city “councils.” Only by-elections to the Russian Federation’s State Duma were held in Crimea.
At first glance, the question arises: is it really possible to discuss elections in a reality in which almost all citizens’ rights are restricted, public actions are prohibited, and military censorship is implemented?
However, for the purposes of this article, we will disregard the procedural peculiarities of the Russian elections as well as the issue of democratic compliance. In fact, even under the rough veil of totalitarianism, electoral processes reveal trends in government policy and public sentiment that propaganda carefully conceals.
As a result, analyzing the candidates’ campaign materials is a source of information about the Russian people’s true attitude towards the most pressing political issue – the war.
On the other hand, the current Russian local elections are noteworthy because they serve as a dress rehearsal for the main event – Putin’s re-election in the spring of 2024. As a result, the election campaign this year is a regional calibration of the main narratives and deception tools that will soon provide a picture of the leader’s popular support.
Of course, Ukraine’s attention is most closely focused on “voting” in occupied territories, as even phoney elections are a tool for institutionalizing the annexations carried out by Moscow last September. Recording the electoral activities of Russians and their henchmen is critical in light of the aggressor country’s responsibility and the direct perpetrators of numerous crimes.
HWAG proposes to look behind the scenes of the Russian local election campaign to discover what the language of political campaigning is all about in the realities of Putinism.
Landscapes for parties
Local elections in the Russian Federation, including occupied territories, followed the dominant leader model. The United Russia (UR) is in charge of this role. Under the Kremlin’s watchful eye, other parliamentary parties (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Just Russia – Patriots – For Truth (SRZP), and New People (NL)) are scraping crumbs from the far corners of the Russian electoral field. Russian political party slogans and programmes are sterile in matters sensitive to the authorities and carefully combed to fit the “general line.”
Despite the failures on the military and foreign policy fronts, the Kremlin finds the average temperature in the chamber to be comfortable. The main pro-Putin party’s nominees received an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats and other elected positions. Candidates for United Russia positioned themselves within the formula of “the president’s team,” appealing to the image of a national leader whose personal rating is two dozen points higher than the party’s.
Traditionally, the Communist Party of Russia has based its campaign on social issues. The Russian communists’ campaign materials are extremely banal and lack creativity in terms of political PR.
The LDPR’s “highlight” is the exploitation of Zhirinovsky’s image (both through absurd slogans like “to double the population of Russia” and by flirting with modern trends like the late party leader being recently “reincarnated” in a digital format).
On the other side of the systemic “opposition” were the “New People,” who ran for office with the radical (especially by today’s Russian standards) slogan “Change horses, no crossing.” However, the political force’s functionality is rather limited in reality – to bring people of liberal views to the polls, who for some reason continue to participate in the serfs’ theatre under the satirical sign “elections in Russia.”
Local elections with a war theme
The dominance of the local agenda is the most notable feature of local elections. The topic of war is virtually absent from candidate videos, posters, billboards, and other campaign materials. It is worth noting that the main slogans of local election campaigns were trivialised: “Development for the Moscow Region”, “A decent life for every resident”, “On the same wavelength as the people”, “Only forward”, “We are together”. “What is said is done”, “People are our main value”….
According to Russian political technologists, the candidates’ campaigns’ stylistic and content “have been mixed up to the point where even a specialist cannot distinguish between them.”
When compared to last year’s local elections, the neutered swastika of racism, the Latin letter “Z,” appeared much less frequently in the campaigns. It is commonly found at the municipal level in the slogans “For….. (something nice for the voter)”.
There were few candidates from the so-called “SMO” (Special Military Operation) for significant positions such as the head of a region or the administrative center of a federal subject.n the election of the head of the Republic of Khakassia, a candidate from the United Russia party, who fought for six months on the territory of Ukraine, lost in the polls to the incumbent head of the region from the Communist Party.
Another case in point is Vitaly Khotsenko, a favorite in the Omsk region governor’s race who was appointed by Putin to lead the “government” of “DPR” militants in June 2022. Throughout the campaign, the official made little mention of his recent experience in Donetsk.
The only political force that continues to promote pacifist agendas is the Yabloko party. Some of the party’s municipal candidates use “extremist” slogans such as “I am for peace,” “For peace and freedom,” and “Everyone understands everything.”
A single “excess” of political disagreement by ordinary citizens was also recorded during the voting. Voters at polling station 1246 in Atamanovo (Kemerovo region) wrote on ballots, “Return the mobilised, if your word means something”, “Bring our guys home”, and “Return the mobilised”.
What is the status of voting in the occupied territories?
The incorporation of occupied Ukrainian territories into the Russian power vertical is the main feature of the current election campaign. The Kremlin had to rewrite its own legislation in order to hold the so-called “elections” in the regions that comprise the Russian military contingent’s rear. The hooking of the State Duma, however, will not change the obvious fact that Moscow and its collaborators are endangering the residents of Ukraine’s occupied territories.
Similarly to the results of the Russian presidential election in Crimea in 2018, the results of the ruling party’s representatives in the “new territories” are interpreted as direct evidence of Putin’s personal support. The image of a “plebiscite” in occupied Ukraine is used in propaganda to demonstrate the “national happiness” of ex-Ukrainians liberated from “Banderite oppression.” As a result, Kremlin political strategists concentrated their efforts on ensuring the necessary level of popular “approval” of the United Russia in the regions of Donbas, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson.
The visual component of the election campaign in Ukraine’s occupied territories is based on the reproduction of messages from last year’s fake “referendums”: “Russia is the future!”, “We are together with Russia”, “We are one people”, “We are returning home”, “With Russia forever”, and so on. Parties and candidates repeated slogans about “restoring Donbas,” “eliminating Ukrainian threats,” and “returning to peaceful life,” which merged into a single stream of aggressive racist propaganda.
“Russian occupation administrations are forcing Ukrainian citizens – residents of temporarily occupied territories – to vote.” In an appeal to the international community, the Balkan-Ukrainian Cooperation Network stated, “They use blackmail, intimidation, forced passportization, and the replacement of Ukrainian identification documents with Russian counterparts.”
In addition to traditional electoral technologies such as humanitarian aid distribution and citizen meetings, the occupiers actively involved youth organizations in campaigning activities.
Of course, there’s the typical for Russian pseudo-referendums “voting” at gunpoint.
Another distinguishing feature of the local “elections” in the “new territories” was the participation in the campaign of former militant leaders.
As a result, the focus of campaigning in occupied territories and Russian regions differs significantly. Candidates in Russia did not go beyond municipal issues, while in annexed areas, the election campaign frequently resembled anti-Ukrainian hysteria.
The role of Ukrainian drones in the Moscow mayoral election
The election of the Russian capital’s leader is important for several reasons.
For starters, Moscow’s population is currently an almost untapped mobilization reserve for the Russian army. In the midst of rumors of a new wave of mobilization, during which the Russian General Staff intends to recruit 250 to 400 thousand people, the election process in the aggressor country’s capital should be viewed through the lens of developing information support for the Russian army’s recruitment campaign.
Second, as Russian history demonstrates, events in the capital have always shaped national or imperial policy. In the current circumstances, we can hardly expect open protest, but Muscovites’ mobilization could serve as a catalyst for anti-war processes.
Given the significance of socio-political stability in the “capital city,” the Kremlin began planning ahead of time for the re-election of the current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin. In congratulating Moscow on City Day last September, Putin expressed confidence that the capital’s residents would “appreciate the effective work of the current mayor” in the elections.
Given the abrasive political environment, Moscow’s mayor election has become routine. As a result, the only memorable aspect of the campaign was a series of attacks by Ukrainian drones on facilities in and around Moscow. Sobyanin, the Kremlin’s favorite, chose to reassure voters – city officials did their best to minimize the information impact of enemy drones invading the capital’s airspace.
The UDF’s unmanned “SMO” provided other mayoral candidates with a long-awaited opportunity to stand out against the backdrop of templated election campaigns. Dmitry Gusev, a candidate for the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRZP), has begun preparing “Moscow People’s Militias,” and has called for the development of a warning system in the event of a drone attack, as well as tighter control over information on air defense. According to New People candidate Davankov, “by the end of the election, half of the road and street cameras, as well as two-thirds of the Moscow Ring Road cameras, should be re-equipped and sent to the sky.”
A practise run for Putin’s re-election
For years, Russian television has persuaded viewers that there is no alternative to Putin’s regime. As a result, Kremlin technologists faced the problem of losing voter interest in a show where all the scenarios were pre-written during previous election campaigns.
Electronic voting was the “invention” that allowed them to inflate turnout despite voter apathy. According to the Russian Central Election Commission, over 3 million people participated in remote electronic voting, with another 200,000 expressing a desire to vote via the Mobile Voter app. Given that Russia’s presidential elections are scheduled for next spring, the Single Election Day 2023 will serve as a testing ground for electronic voting technologies. It should be noted that the fate of the online ballot cannot be tracked or recounted in the event of fraud. As a result, the Kremlin wields a magical wand, with which the system can easily draw Putin the desired result.
Furthermore, during the current elections, the technology of extraterritorial voting (polling stations outside the Russian Federation’s territory) was tested. Formally, this was done to help refugees from occupied territories who had settled in various parts of Russia. At the same time, there are virtually no opportunities for public control at such polling stations, which will be useful to the Kremlin during the presidential election in the spring of 2024.
To summarize, the following points should be made:
A focus on local issues is usually a distinguishing feature of municipal elections. The current situation, however, is unique. The war has become the most vexing source of public discontent in Russia. As a result, the fact that candidates avoid discussing war and confrontation with the West during the 2023 local elections is a telling symptom. An examination of campaign materials reveals that there is no active demand for military paraphernalia and rhetoric among Russian voters. This reflects ordinary Russians’ fatigue with the constant war propaganda broadcast by the state media. This trend runs counter to the Kremlin’s official sociology, which claims universal support for the “military operation.” On the eve of a new wave of mobilization, this is a wake-up call for the Kremlin.
The occupied territories’ election campaign followed a fundamentally different model, namely a referendum in support of Russia’s president. As a result, the government’s campaign in these areas alternates between traditional methods of bribing voters with a variety of minor social benefits and outright anti-Ukraine propaganda. In this way, the Kremlin is exploiting a modern feature of Western democracy to feed its medieval appetite for conquest.
According to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, Russia’s presidential election is “not really a democracy, but an expensive bureaucracy.” The Kremlin has turned the elections into a tragicomic farce by destroying any internal political competition. However, the universal mode of operation of totalitarian regimes is strict adherence to procedures that maintain the supreme ruler’s image of legitimacy.
As a result, the prospect of Putin’s re-election in the face of an unsuccessful and exhausting war makes the ruling apparatus nervous. To justify the continuation of the war, the Russian leader requires not just an absolute majority, but a dominant majority (which is why Peskov mentioned 90% of the votes). As a result, even when there are no other options, the system continues to devise new ways of falsifying the required result.