Between the 17th and the 19th of September, elections take place in Russia for the eight convocation of the State Duma. However, in the Russian and Western public space there was basically no doubt about the outcome, there are no meaningful debates about political programs, candidates, and possible evolutions for the coming years.
Obviously, it is no surprise that the situation is as follows: the current elections are more of a rehearsal for the real election event, in 2024, which is expected to reveal the successor of Vladimir Putin and a new architecture of power.
But still the elections of September 17-19 are not without stakes. One of the stakes is organization. For a smooth transition / quiet system restructuring in 2024, the exercise of organization is necessary. The non-systemic opposition (along with NGOs) must be firmly controlled, including by exercising the legal harassment and blocking levers; the potential protest of the population must be known and tested (which is why possible isolated post-election protests will be sort of an opportunity for the authorities, or a social experiment rather than a concern); the political heavy-weights of the system must be tested in terms of electoral traction (see the case of Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who heads the list of the United Russia pro-presidential party).
It seems that the system has taken all the necessary precautions in order to make the elections go by without surprises, among the most recent being: 1. Roskomnadzor asked Apple and Google to delete from the smartphone app stores the smart voting application (Navalny’s) claiming that it interferes in the elections; 2. The Russian Ministry of Justice placed Golos (an independent organization with an important role in monitoring the electoral process) on the list of foreign agents, practically forcing it to cease its activity; 3. The banning of several undesirable characters for the system (Tahir Vakhitov, Pavel Grudinin – the politician who came in second in the 2018 presidential elections, now accused of having foreign assets).
Another stake is testing the socio-political election predictions. The Russian establishment does not expect a Central Asian victory-style in the Duma elections, nor does it intend to manipulate the election results rudimentarily. The ballot offers the possibility to evaluate the gap between the electoral predictions and the real results from the polls (not necessarily the public/ final ones), because this way political-technologists can calibrate sociological surveys that will be useful for 2024 (it is true, it can be argued that the current ballot is just a picture of the electoral preferences, but still – it is a relevant one).
The State Duma has 450 seats. Half of the members will be elected on party lists on the basis of proportional representation with a threshold of at least 5%, and half in uninominal constituencies in a first-past-the-post system. Some Russian experts expect United Russia to get between 40 and 45% on the list vote and somewhere between 186 and 198 seats in the uninominal vote, and will retain, albeit at the limit, a constitutional majority (at least 300 seats). Along with United Russia, the Communists, Liberal-Democrats and the political party A Just Russia-Patriots-For Truth could also join the Duma.
The result that United Russia will achieve will be a barometer for the system, but the relevant conclusions for 2024 will also be drawn by correlating how difficult it was to achieve the victory. Certainly Russian political-technologists will evaluate the results according to the profile of voters (for example, it is expected that the majority of voters will be made of citizens dependent on state favors, such as public servants), the degree of absenteeism, the political options of the younger generation (harder to control through propaganda), the efficiency of smart voting and the resources invested in order to ensure the victory of the United Russia (including for voting fraud).
The third stake is the ritual. For Russia, elections are a mark of democracy, but a democracy as Moscow understands it. Moreover, democracy is a defining trait for European states, and Russia has always wanted to be accepted as part of the European/ Western world, regardless of the fact that, for now, it is more politically profitable for Russia to claim that the West is Russophobic, and the conservative Russia is besieged by the decadent values of the West.
In order to understand the necessity of the ritual, it is useful to quote some of the assessments of one of the most powerful and intelligent (and probably one of the richest) creators of the current Russian political system, even if currently as he says, he’s in a period of pause awaiting for his role in a new metamorphosis of Russia. Vladislav Surkov (former adviser to Putin since Putin’s political dawns) claims that the state’s stability is more important than individual freedom, and Putin is the perfect arbiter between order and freedom. In all this philosophy of the contemporary Russian political system, elections are just means of letting some steam out, a distraction: in order not to revolt and to be easier to control, people need to believe that they can choose, which is why they are given this illusion.
Ukraine and the crisis in Afghanistan in the context of the elections
The crisis in Afghanistan overlapped with the electoral period in Russia. As expected, Russian propaganda has exploited the subject to its fullest: America’s failure, the failure to export democratic values, unipolarity gives rise to disasters, Russia respects the individuality of each state – these are just some of the messages promoted by the pro-Kremlin Russian news outlets.
Unlike the elections, the crisis in Afghanistan was much more present in the press and on television. Normally, in a Western state, an internal event of the magnitude of the legislative elections would have been on the front page in the entire press, regardless of other external developments. However, for the Russian media, the so-called US failure in Afghanistan was more publicized.
Indeed, it may be that you do not need to publicize something you already know how it will end – the election, being more profitable to invest in a story about the failure of your arch-rival.
But still … The so-called US failure in Afghanistan is about Russia’s domestic policy and much more helpful in the context of the elections than any direct propaganda about United Russia or Putin. First of all, it’s about a revenge of history. After the failure of the USSR in Afghanistan, the current American withdrawal and, especially, the speed with which the regime fell, proves, in Russian logic, that Russia has always been better than the US. USSR withdrew faster from Afghanistan, the pro-Russian regime resisted longer, ipso facto, the Russian leaders were always wiser.
Secondly, for Russia, Afghanistan is about Ukraine and the propaganda thesis that Americans are betraying their partners. In order to notice the insistence with which Russia warns Ukraine that it will have the fate of Afghanistan (if it continues to go in the direction of the US/ NATO) it is enough to look at the titles of the videos on the YouTube channel of one of the most efficient and well-versed Kremlin propagandists, Vladimir Soloviov.
And Ukraine is – through the historiographical reflex of Russian thought – part of the Russian world, so an internal problem. The warnings of the Russian propaganda are addressed to the Kiev leaders: they will share the fate of the pro-American Afghans who were in power in Kabul.
In fact, the crisis in Afghanistan strengthens Surkov’s theses on Russia’s sovereign democracy. The Russian state must not be weakened by an unfiltered import of Western values, and the elections must only validate a pre-existing vision of the path that Russia needs to follow. How much the electorate will agree with this vision, especially the young generation, remains to be seen after September 19, depending on the magnitude of the possible protests.