The conquest of Ukrainian territories, which in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea relaunched the popularity of Vladimir Putin, is no longer the electoral wild card of yesteryear. Russia elected regional governors and deputies over the weekend. In dozens of regions and municipalities, members of the ruling United Russia party faced growing competition from the country's so-called "systemic opposition," as the popularity of the "party of power" appears increasingly uncertain. Despite everything, the campaign has ended without serious setbacks for the Kremlin and dissidents, outlawed, have had no options to condition the agenda.
The governors, and also the powerful position of mayor of Moscow, were settled in a total of 21 regions and demarcations of Russia, also in the occupied territories. These first elections after the shock of February 2022 come as the country remains stuck in the 19th month of its war against Ukraine, a campaign that was initially sold to the Russian public as a quick and successful "special military operation."
A week ago, the polls opened in the Russian-controlled areas of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The same people who signed the annexation with Putin have applied there. The opposition is merely nominal. The US has said that these votes in occupied territories are not legitimate.
The tolerated opposition supports Putin's war in Ukraine and does not question the cleanliness of the system. Campaign messages have glossed over the cost of the Ukraine conflict and instead praised the help the government has provided to soldiers' families.
In some regions they have voted for several days, which, according to critics, makes it difficult for observers to monitor the entire process. Also raising questions was the online voting system that opposition activists say was used to attribute votes to United Russia in the 2021 elections to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
In some places, raffles were held among those who agreed to participate in the online vote: "I got 1,000 rubles in toy store vouchers, when I went to redeem them I met acquaintances who had also received, it turns out that almost everyone I knew who had voted online had been lucky," explains Serguei, who works as a technician in a company in Moscow. "It is not the first time that we vote online, I know that more votes always arrive for the Government that way, because some officials are forced to vote at work or even asked for their password and username." In his case, he has opted for an opposition party, "although I have nothing against the current mayor of Moscow, the city has received a lot of money from the Government and that has benefited us."
In Moscow, the candidate for reelection was Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of the ruling United Russia party. 10 years ago his rival was Alexei Navalny, who surprised everyone by coming second with 27% of the votes. Today, Navalny is in jail, like all the dissident leaders who did not escape in time. From there he asked a few days ago to vote for "anyone" who could remove Putin's party from power in every corner of the country.
They have been relatively easy elections for the Kremlin, which is already beginning to prepare Putin's 'enthronement' in the presidential elections scheduled for March. The previous call was made under somewhat more adverse conditions: in 2018, an increase in the state retirement age proved more unpopular than expected, causing the ruling United Russia party to lose four gubernatorial elections.
Just in case, the United Russia party has been distancing itself from narratives related to the war in Ukraine in its campaign. Government party candidates had initially been instructed to focus their campaign messages on the "heroism of Russian soldiers" fighting in Ukraine, a Russian government official told The Moscow Times on condition of anonymity. The slogan at the last minute has been to downplay the issue of war. Especially since even the warring side is in turmoil following the June revolt of Wagner Group mercenary leader Evgeny Prigozhin, along with criticism of the war in Ukraine, even from pro-war bloggers who were normally seen as supporters of the Government.
The invasion of Ukraine, unlike 2014, is no longer an elixir for popularity. State Duma deputy Sergei Sokol, a member of United Russia who claims to have served in Ukraine, has experienced it himself. Despite the support of the Kremlin and his theoretical status as a war veteran, Sokol, who was challenging the communist governor Valentin Konovalov for the Presidency of the Siberian republic of Khakassia, failed to obtain good numbers in the polls. He withdrew from the election a little over a week ago, citing health problems.
In a July report, the Golos entity (which oversees the cleanliness of the elections and has been identified as a foreign agent) compared the atmosphere surrounding the elections to "martial law" and said that the authorities had "officially recognized their will to ignore their own constitutional norms". Golos said he had already received nearly 600 reports of rape as of Friday afternoon. Threats of violence, vote buying and bans on voting are among the most common complaints.
Other cases of reported fraud include ballot stuffing and so-called "carousel voting," when a voter casts multiple votes traveling between different polling stations.
The war has conditioned the voting in some areas near the front. In part of the southwestern region of Belgorod, which has suffered repeated cross-border bombings attributed to Ukraine, voting in two local assemblies was postponed due to a state of emergency in force in 15 localities, Reuters reported. At the Gelendzhik polling station (southern Russia), an observer and a member of the electoral commission were summoned to the military registration and enlistment office